Western promises to send aid to Syria’s rebels seem to have come to little as Prime Minister David Cameron said in an interview on Sunday that Britain was not planning any arms shipments. Sources in Washington have also confirmed that there are no concrete plans to supply weapons to the rebels.
The main reason given for the reluctance to send weapons is the fact that many of the rebel groups are radical Islamist groups, many of them aligned with al-Qaeda, and there is a concern that the arms could be used to shore up an Islamist regime or used against Israel and other Western targets.
In the absence of aid, the influence of the Free Syrian Army continues to decline. Also on the wane is one of the largest Islamist groupings, the Nusra Front, which has split into rival factions after a disagreement over its allegiance to its al-Qaeda leadership in Iraq.
Now, a younger and apparently better organised movement has come to the fore. Ahrar al-Sham — the Islamic Movement of the Free Men of the Levant — was set up less than two years ago, but by most assessments, it is now one of the largest rebel groups with over 10,000 fighters. It is officially led by Syrians but it is financed and supplied by Gulf states, via Turkey.
While Islamist, Ahrar al-Sham, does not publicly support world jihad and co-operates regularly with the FSA and other secular movements. It has also helped rescue Western journalists in Syria and refrained from suicide bombings. It has stated that its goals are to establish an Islamic state and fight attempts by Iran-backed Shias to dominate the region. It has not been designated a terror group by the UK and the US.
Fighters of Ahrar al-Sham sport Salafist beards but many are relatively Westernised, coming from wealthy families in the Gulf. One, who was recently seen shopping in the Turkish town of Antakya, said in excellent English that “We are religious but not radical and we will co-operate with anyone who will fight to liberate the Syrian people from Assad and Iran.”