Opposition leader vows to curb extremists’ influence

Opposition leader vows to curb extremists’ influence

The head of Syria’s new provisional government pledged Sept. 15 to curb the influence of al-Qaeda militants that he said have exploited the opposition’s inability to fill a vacuum left by the collapse of President Bashar al-Assad’s authority in much of the country.

In his first interview since being chosen by the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) last weekend to head a 13-member Cabinet, moderate Islamist Ahmad Touma told Reuters the opposition had to confront al-Qaeda’s ideology by emphasizing that democracy did not contradict Islam and deny the group popularity by restoring public services in rebel-held areas.

“In addition to the destruction, killing and displacement that the regime subjected its citizens to, the populace is now suffering from the militants’ behavior,” Touma said.

“The Syrian people pursued a very basic quest for freedom [rather than] a harsher despotic regime.”

Touma, a former political prisoner who advocated tolerance in a long political career, is the most senior opposition figure to take on al-Qaeda publicly. However, he faces the daunting task of establishing a central administration in rebel-held areas, where hundreds of brigades without a unified command threaten to wreak havoc and disciplined al-Qaeda fighters have a significant presence.

Ideological challange

A dentist by profession, Touma was imprisoned from 2007 to 2010 along with 11 prominent opposition members who had demanded al-Assad embark on democratic change in the country.

Touma said the opposition faced the “ideological challenge” of convincing many who joined al-Qaeda to leave the group.

“If they refuse, then we will look for all ways to guarantee the public’s security, livelihood and chance for a dignified standard of living,” Touma said, adding that many of al-Qaeda affiliates’ ranks in Syria did not have a deep attachment to the group, only becoming members due to al-Qaeda’s provision of weapons to fight al-Assad’s forces and assistance they have given to local communities by way of bread and basic staples.

Hardliners half of rebels: Report

“They became susceptible to the idea that religion cannot reign unless there is a religious state. This is not what Islam says,” Touma said.

A recent study says jihadists and members of hardline Islamist groups make up almost half of the forces fighting against al-Assad.

An analysis conducted on the matter by defense consultancy IHS Jane’s, due to be published in full later this week, puts the number of rebel forces at around 100,000, British daily The Telegraph reported.

But these fighters have divided into as many as 1,000 bands since the violence erupted two years ago, the study concluded.

Of the rebel forces, IHS Jane’s estimates that around 10,000 are jihadists fighting for groups linked to al-Qaeda and another 30,000 to 35,000 are hardline Islamists who differ from jihadists in that they are concentrated only on the Syrian conflict, and not on the global Islamist fight. The study is based on interviews with militants and on intelligence estimates.