* Foreign fighters draw respect and fear among Syrians
* Jihadists ready to fight even rebels to achieve caliphate
* Radicals impose tough discipline unlike some FSA units
* Some Syrians seem prepared to accept gruesome retribution
By Yara Bayoumy
ALEPPO, Syria, Jan 11 Huddled around a fire in a
bombed-out building in Aleppo, foreign jihadists say they are
fighting for a radical Islamic state in Syria - whether local
rebels trying to topple President Bashar al-Assad like it or
Among their fellow revolutionaries and civilians, these
foreigners draw both respect for their iron discipline and fear
that if Assad falls, they may turn on former allies to complete
the struggle for an Islamic caliphate.
One Turkish fighter in the devastated Aleppo district of
Karm al-Jabal expressed an unbending determination to achieve a
state under Sharia Islamic law that worries many Syrians, the
West and even regional backers of the anti-Assad rebellion.
"Syria...will be an Islamic and Sharia state and we will not
accept anything else. Democracy and secularism are completely
rejected," said the fighter, who called himself Khattab.
Sporting a shaggy beard and with an AK-47 slung over his
shoulder, he warned anyone who might stand in the way. "We will
fight them, even if they are among the revolutionaries or anyone
else," said Khattab, who left his job as a driver to fight for
two years in Afghanistan before moving to Syria six months ago.
A member of the Jundollah rebel unit, Khattab has little
knowledge of Arabic - he spoke in the rubble-strewn building
through a Syrian translator - and refused to be filmed or
photographed for fear of being identified back in Turkey.
The government of Turkey is itself Islamist but strongly
opposes the radical ideology of Khattab and the militants who
are rising among the rebel groups fighting Assad in a conflict
that has claimed at least 60,000 lives.
The United States designated al-Qaeda's affiliate in Syria,
al-Nusra Front, as a terrorist organisation in December after it
claimed responsibility for bombings in Damascus and Aleppo.
However, many rebels and Aleppo residents say fear of the
jihadists is overblown. The West is exploiting it to justify not
sending desperately-needed arms to the rebels, they say,
prolonging Assad's hold on power.
In Aleppo, Syria's biggest city, the radicals' influence is
obvious. Many rebels drive through the shattered streets in cars
emblazoned with black Islamist flags carrying religious slogans.
Accounts differ on how much radical groups coordinate with
units of the mainstream rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA). Many
rebels praise the skills of the jihadists - often honed in
Afghanistan or Iraq - sa y ing they are among the bravest fighters
although they tend to be reclusive.
Some, however, are new recruits in the holy war in a country
they call Al-Sham, recalling a greater Syria established after
the Muslim conquest over 1,300 years ago.
One such is Abu al-Harith, a stocky, fair, 27-year-old from
Azerbaijan who spoke at a rebel base in Karm al-Jabal, a
district so damaged it seems to have suffered an earthquake.
"This is my first time to embark on a Jihad because ...
there was no one worse than Bashar. Even Stalin was merciful
compared with him," s a id the young man, who wore a ski mask and
had a black badge bearing an Islamic religious slogan sewn onto
his green fatigues.
FIGHTING THE FSA
Nevertheless, there is concern about the post-Assad vision
of these foreign radicals - whose numbers are difficult to
assess - and whose rejection of a future democratic state may
sit uneasily with many Syrians fighting authoritarian rule.
Some jihadists distrust the Free Syrian Army, an army in
name only composed of mostly local Sunni Muslim fighters and
army defectors. Likewise they see little difference between the
West and regional Islamic countries which back the FSA.
" All this talk about freedom, democracy and the secular
state and a state of open freedoms like America and the European
system - Islamists do not care about this talk at all," said
25-year-old Abu Muawiyah, a skinny fighter who said he was from
the Aleppo countryside and translated for the foreigners.
"There are some fighting factions like the Free Syrian Army,
who have links to other countries like Turkey, Saudi Arabia and
Qatar and these countries have links with the controlling pole,
which is the United States," he said. "America is against
anything Islamic. That is obvious to everyone."
Not all foreign fighters have a radical vision, and they are
welcomed heartily by Syrian fighters. Abu Ahmed al-Libi, who
fought to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, said he came to
Syria with a band of 15 Libyans eight months ago.
A large man who had an easy camaraderie with Syrian fighters
in his unit, he shook hands with a female reporter - a rarity
among even mainstream Islamist groups in Syria. Libi said he had
trained 40 Syrians in Libya before bringing them over, and
estimated the number of Libyan fighters in Syria at about 200.
DIFFERENT IDEOLOGY, SAME GOALS
While Washington has recognised the rebels' National
Coalition as the sole representative of Syria, its designation
of al-Nusra Front as a terrorist organisation h a s angered many
rebel leaders. They say the group, whether it espouses extremist
ideology or not, is fighting the same enemy as they are.
Al-Nusra Front has a reputation for being extremely
disciplined, and it is hard to find many people who will
criticise it. Abu Abdo, a fighter on one of the many frontlines
in Aleppo, said he had tried to join the group but was rejected
because he was a smoker.
Colonel Abduljabbar Oqaidi, who heads the military
revolutionary council in Aleppo province, defended al-Nusra
Front. "We may differ with them on their thought," he told
Reuters recently, but he rejected Washington's designation.
"They're fierce and loyal ... And at the end of the day
they're fighting the regime with us. And we have not seen their
extremism, they have not done anything that proves they are
terrorists," he said. "Anyone fighting the regime is a mujahid
and a revolutionary and we kiss their forehead," said Oqaidi,
adding that their numbers were not more than 500 in Aleppo.
By contrast, support for the Free Syrian Army has eroded
among some Aleppians due to some cases of looting.
"The cleanest unit on the ground, with no corruption within
its ranks, is the al-Nusra Front. The group now has a popular
base. Maybe their ideology is distant from the people's but they
started liking al-Nusra front because they are just," said Abu
Ahmed, who leads an Aleppo unit of the large al-Tawheed brigade.
"The fear surrounding the Nusra Front is down to
intimidation by the media," he said. "My ideology is not the
same as the Nusra Front but I have to say what I've experienced
Fears of internecine conflict remain. A commander of
al-Farouq Brigades, one of Syria's largest rebel groups, was
shot dead on Wednesday in what rebel sources said may have been
in revenge for the killing of an al-Nusra Front leader.
Some rebels see a more ominous future. "We're scared that
after the fall of the regime, they will try to impose their
views on the Syrian people. Their goal is for Syria to be an
Islamic state and the Free Syrian Army is the opposite of that,"
said a 24-year-old rebel fighter in trainers and tracksuit pants
who goes by the name Saqr Idlib.
Walking through a destroyed part of the al-Sukkari district
in Aleppo, the fighter puffed worriedly on a cigarette: "We're
scared there'll be problems by al-Nusra Front and other groups
like them after the fall of the regime."
By contrast, Abu Ahmed said he had no fear of a future
conflict and his wife - who wears a headscarf but does not cover
her face - chimed in: "Al-Nusra Front's ideology is Islamic and
at the end of the day, we are Muslims."
While Syria's uprising has been led by Sunnis, minority
Christians and members of Assad's Alawite sect - an offshoot of
Shi'ite Islam - had nothing to worry about, said Adnan Abu Raad
as he watched gravediggers shovel dirt in the town of Azaz near
the Turkish border.
"Any boy, child or women will say we want an Islamic state
only. And there is no difference between Sunni, Christian or
Alawite. Just peace and security for all," Abu Raad said.
At least some people in Aleppo seem willing to tolerate even
gruesome retribution by the jihadists. "Yes, they have the sword
and beheading, but only for those people who deserve it," said
Hadi, a bearded rebel who spoke in the corridor of a bombed-out
building that served as a gateway to a frontline.