KHAN SHEIKHOUN, Syria — They are doctors, they are teachers. They are students and the unemployed. They are farmers and pharmacists.
The armed rebellion that has plunged Syria into what one U.N. official has called a civil war has been cast by the Syrian government as led by Islamic extremists, and the lack of a clear understanding of who the rebels are has been cited by Western governments as one reason not to arm them.
But a month of traveling with the rebels in northern and central Syria reveals that the armed opposition here is based as much on geography and ethnicity as religion. Some of the rebels are pious, but many more are not.
“They are poor people who have been harmed by the government,” said Abu Hamza, the leader of a group of fighters in this battered city on the highway between the central city of Hama and the northern city of Idlib. “Most of them are not extremists.”
Syria’s strong central government has for decades brutally repressed dissent to its one-party rule. Since the time of Hafez Assad, the father and predecessor of Bashar Assad, the current president, the upper echelons of the country’s government and military have been dominated by Alawites, a Shiite Muslim sect that makes up about 10 percent of the population in a country where 70 percent of the people are Sunni Muslim Arabs.
The pro-democracy demonstrations that swept the country in March 2011 included a cross section of sects and ethnicities, but the armed rebels are Sunni to a man. Despite claims to the contrary, the only non-Sunni member of any rebel group met by a reporter who’s traveled regularly inside Syria since February and spent the last four weeks with the rebels in their northern and central enclaves was a Druze man who’d been captured during a battle near Homs and had been allowed to join the rebels.
Also untrue are widespread suggestions that the armed opposition draws its strength from the defections of soldiers dismayed at being ordered to shoot peaceful demonstrators. While defected soldiers are among the rebels, who operate under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army, most fighters were civilians when they volunteered to fight the Assad government.
“We have big families, and when someone see his brother or his cousin put in jail or shot, then he joins the revolution, too,” said Ziad, a pharmacist from Baba Amr, the neighborhood in the city of Homs that has become a symbol of the rebellion. “In Homs, we are all extended families.” Like many of the rebels, Ziad asked not to be identified because he fears reprisals against his family.
Mousab al Hamadee is an example of the complexity of the rebel cause. A spokesman for the Local Coordinating Committee in Qaalat al Mudiq, a rural rebel stronghold north of Hama, near the city that earned fame 30 years ago as the place where Hafez Assad killed 20,000 or more in crushing a rebellion, he moves easily among the rebels, even those who are deeply religious.
Yet he is a self-described atheist. The rebels, he noted, are his friends from school, and many are his cousins. Family and place are more important than piousness, he said.
The vast majority of the rebels are young men who were still in primary school when Bashar Assad came to power after his father died 12 years ago.
At a small rebel safe house near the Lebanese border with Syria in April, the feeling was more that of a fraternity or a dorm than a place of war, as the young men inside battled each other in games of “Street Fighter.” The guns that lay nearby seemed an afterthought.
There are without doubt devout Muslims among the rebels, and there are men who do not pray at all. There are groups organized by the Syrian wing of the Muslim Brotherhood and groups from the conservative Salafi movement of Islam, who say they would eventually like to see a state in Syria that draws heavily upon Islamic ideology for its governance.
When the call to prayer was heard in a village in the Hama countryside, some rebels heeded it, but most did not.
The Sunni rebels have made overtures to other religious groups to join their struggle, with little success. The Syrian National Council, the rebels’ nominal leadership in exile, has been criticized as being dominated by Sunnis and particularly the Muslim Brotherhood.
Christians make up about 10 percent of Syria’s population. While they have participated in the demonstrations against Assad, they have preferred to flee rather than take up arms.
Abu Hamza, a Salafi, says that there are Christians among the Syrian National Council that he favors to lead the opposition, naming specifically George Sabra, an oft-quoted council spokesman who is also touted as a future head of the opposition.
“We are not takfiris,” Abu Hamza said, referring to extremist Sunnis who view Shiite Muslims as heretics. Takfiri groups helped plunge Iraq, a majority Shiite country dominated by a Sunni minority, into civil war after the United States military toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.
“This is not Iraq,” Abu Hamza said.
But the recent bombing of Sayyed Al Zeinab, a Shiite shrine near Damascus, has frightening overtones of the violence that shook Iraq. In 2006, the bombing of the Imam al Askari Shrine in Samarra, a Shiite shrine in a Sunni majority area, unleashed a wave of violence in Iraq that only burned itself out when the majority Shiites essentially had cleansed Sunnis from much of Baghdad.
The rebels themselves disagree about what will happen when – not if – Assad is deposed. There are rebels who are bent on vengeance. Often, asking a question about Syria’s future or who the rebels themselves are in front of a group of them is enough to start an argument.
“The day the regime falls, we will go back to our universities,” one young man said.
But others expect more fighting.
“When Assad falls, then the revolution will really begin,” said a Syrian man who has lived in the U.S. for years but returned to Syria to help organize the rebels. In his 50s, the man said he had been moved by seeing a younger generation so willing to sacrifice. He asked not to be identified by name.
“They are doing what we couldn’t,” he said.
There are those among them who swear the rebels will march on Jerusalem after Damascus falls, and many more who profess a Syria at peace with Israel is the only option.
“The regime in Israel cares more about human rights than the regime in Syria,” is another notion voiced by many of the rebels.
Some do not think much about politics or religion at all.
“I want to go to the United States,” said Mahmoud, a rebel who spent many evenings musing over his ex-girlfriend on Facebook. She was a Christian woman who had fled from Homs to Egypt after being wounded by shelling. Mahmoud himself had fled his village of Kafr Nbouda in April after it had been occupied by the Syrian military. He said his comrades were camped in a nearby town, waiting for the moment they might go back.