by Oren Dorell, USA TODAY
Syrian opposition members generally want a democratic government that protects the rights of minorities, though many also want a Constitution based on Islam, according to a recent survey.
Their aspirations are important because the Obama administration has said it is refraining from arming the opposition, which has been pummeled by Syrian security forces for 18 months now, in part out of fear of igniting sectarian violence and that weapons would reach Islamist radicals who would threaten allies in the region.
The survey by the International Republican Institute, which trains democracy activists around the world, found high support for a government that "respectfully acknowledges religion," and treats all religions equally. The second most popular model of choice, however, was for a Constitution "based on Islam."
"Most of the opposition is Sunni Muslims and they are democratically minded, but they want a government based on some kind of Islamic law or that follows Islamic guidelines," says Elizabeth O'Bagy, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War who helped provide the survey writers find contacts in the opposition movement.
The survey was conducted with help from Pechter Polls of Princeton, N.J., which used personal networks of opposition members to reach 1,168 participants via the Internet, including 315 opposition members in Syria between June 1 and July 2. It was released Friday.
Respondents were asked to rank their support, on a scale of one to seven, of various statements about a future Syrian government.
A government styled on that of France, the USA and Turkey received the highest marks. A government styled on Iran or Iraq received the lowest marks.
They tended to agree that government should protect minorities, even members of Assad's Alawite sect, atheists and apostates.
They agreed that the government and constitution should mention religion but otherwise be secular. And they also agreed, though not as much, with the statement that the constitution should be "based on Islam."
O'Bagy says the findings confirm her own research. Many Syrian opposition members she has spoken to compared what they want to the USA. "People here are religious, and yes we have a secular Constitution and government," she says. "But a lot of decisions that are made are based on religious beliefs."
While that view is shared by the majority, religious extremists known as Salafis, who seek to rule according to an ultra-conservative version of Islam, are a small minority in the opposition that is growing in number and influence, says O'Bagy, who published her own report titled Jihad in Syria last week. They're growing because of the rising desperation and violence inflicted by the regime of Syrian president Bashar Assad, and because they're funded by Persian Gulf Arab nations, she says.
Amnesty International said last week that as Syrian security forces are forced to withdraw from villagesthey have adopted a pattern of indiscriminate artillery attacks on civilian targets, and that close to 200 non-combatants are dying each day.
O'Bagy estimates that Salafi Jihadis number from 800 to 1,000 among up to 60,000 armed fighters. The majority of the fighters are what she calls religious nationalists "fighting for democracy and nationalist principles but (for whom) religion plays a large role," she says. Islamists akin to the Muslim Brotherhood, who want to achieve a religious state through democratic means, represent 20,000 to 30,000 fighters, "a significant portion of the opposition but still not a majority," she says.
While the USA has declined to supply weapons to moderates at war with the Assad regime, money for arms has been flowing from other countries, such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait, which tend to support hardcore Islamists, and Turkey, which supports the Muslim Brotherhood, O'Bagy says.
"More extremist elements are beginning to gain increasing popular support,"O'Bagy says. "The situation is getting so desperate. They may gain a foothold in the Syrian opposition to influence the outcome, or at the very least threaten the future stability of a post-Assad future."
The United States should deliver "a much larger engagement to compete with this extremist power that is coming about as the situation becomes more desperate," she says.
Edgar Vasquez, a spokesman for the State Department's Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, says the rebels don't need more guns. Instead, the State Department is focused on helping unarmed elements in the opposition develop a plan for how to rule once Assad is gone.
Syrian rebels, led by the Free Syrian Army, have liberated large portions of the country's north, they've seized checkpoints on the border with Turkey and Iraq, and they have turned the tide on the Assad regime with the weapons they already have, Vasquez says.
"The opposition has done pretty well for themselves in the past few months," he says. "They've fought (regime forces) to a stalemate in Aleppo, and in Damascus the opposition has been able to bring the fight to Assad's doorstep."
But he agrees that extremists are a concern.
"That's why our principal focus has been to encourage the opposition to come up with a transition plan," Vasquez says. "That's something those elements within Syria are working on within Syria -- with a cross section of Kurds, Sunnis and Alawites -- to agree on a plan to lay the way forward. There's no question that (Assad) will be gone."