Mohammed Sensawi, a rebel fighter in the Syrian border town of Bab al-Hawa, said: “You see, I have a beard but no moustache. That is normal — I am a Salafi.”
Nearby are a group of Islamist fighters who were among those who wrested control of the Bab al-Hawa crossing between Syria and Turkey from forces loyal to embattled President Bashar al-Assad.
Bab al-Hawa, “Gate of the Wind” in Arabic, is now regularly bombarded by Syrian army tanks nestled kilometres (miles) away, behind a rocky hill.
At the crossing, the black flag synonymous with Islamist movements fluttered aloft. Around 15 armed men, mostly Syrian, were sleeping or toying with their Kalashnikovs as Sensawi spoke.
“We will establish an Islamic state as far as Lebanon, where they have whores and casinos,” declared Sensawi, a former swimming coach and acupuncturist who took up arms in Damascus during the uprising against Assad’s regime now nearly 17 months old..
He railed against the West and Iran, as well as the Syrian army.
“When we prevail, it will be an eye for an eye,” said Sensawi, as he lay on a mattress.
“Those who surrender will be pardoned; the others will be killed.”
Sensawi and others like him claim to belong to different battalions grouped under a unified command that occasionally fights alongside the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the main rebel movement comprised of army deserters and civilians.
Inside the Bab al-Hawa border post, broken whisky bottles lie on the floor near the Duty Free section. On a nearby wall, someone has painted “Islam is the solution.”
Former dentist Mohammed Firas is now leader of the National Consultative Council, an umbrella organisation of Islamist groups in Syria that claimes it could count 10,000 fighters among its ranks.
He dismissed the importance of the FSA, describing it as “one group among others” and said simply: “We will see after the fall of the regime who is the most powerful, and who can govern the country.”
“We do not represent Al-Qaeda in Syria,” he continued.
“We have conducted operations in Idlib, Homs, Hama, Aleppo and Damascus. Our goal is to spread our way of life, and to fight the army.”
For several weeks, Western media reports have remarked upon the apparently increasing numbers of Islamist fighters among the ranks of rebels, but foreign fighters thus far appear to be few, and most armed groups seem to be largely free of Islamists.
And while flags flown by some of the armed groups in the area appear similar to ones used by Al-Qaeda, they do not mean that the militant group’s vision of Islam is the dominant ideology of the rebellion.
There is also fierce rivalry between forces loyal to the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists. On Wednesday and Thursday, Salafist fighters — furious that they had not received weapons from the Brotherhood-controlled Tawhid Brigade — withdrew from fighting in Aleppo to Syria’s north, AFP learned from fighters.
At Anadan, west of Aleppo, General Abdul Nasser Firzat, a general who deserted the army, insisted that he was against Islamists, “for reasons of tolerance, and I do not want to see the Islamists confiscate the revolution.”
Near Aleppo, in villages surrounding the city close to the border with Turkey, there are also signs of Islamist support, but by no means sufficient to suggest its dominance in the uprising.
“Of 4,000 to 5,000 rebel fighters in Aleppo, some 50 to 100 are fighters with a radical Islamist agenda,” said the FSA’s Military Council chief in Aleppo, Colonel Abdel Jabbar al-Oqaidi.
“They are not representative, and they have no social base.”
Others largely agree.
“You have a gradient going from mainstream armed opposition to hardcore jihadi groups who use Al-Qaeda-like symbols and rhetoric,” said Peter Harling, an analyst at the International Crisis Group.
“Jihadi groups have acquired more space and visibility as the regime’s hold over the country has been challenged in recent weeks … yet they remain a very secondary player on a military level.”
Abdul Qader Mohammed, a doctor in the city of Hama, accused Assad’s regime of largely organising the radical groups, telling AFP via Skype: “Since the beginning of the uprising, the regime has pushed to convince the world that … it was an insurgency by armed terrorists with an Islamist agenda.”
“While there was no such thing in the beginning, they’ve made sure that such groups exist by now,” he added.
Groups such as Al-Nusra or Jundallah, previously unseen in Syria, have appeared in the country since the uprising began.
According to Hassan Abu Haniyeh, an expert on Islamist groups based in Amman, “from 2003 to 2006, most of the jihadists travelling to Iraq to fight the US went in through Syria.”
“But now all the conditions for Al-Qaeda and other Salafists or jihadists to take root are there,” said Abu Haniyeh. “The regime has lost control of parts of the country, and Al-Qaeda happens when the state fails.”