Armed Syrian opposition forces seeking to topple the regime of President Bashar Assad is an amalgamation of forces. While the Free Syrian Army (FSA) may possibly be its largest component, it also includes groups described as jihadist.
One such jihadist group, Jabhat al-Nusra li ahl al-Sham (JAN), attracts more attention today than any other after it was linked to al-Qaeda, because it appears to be implementing the latter's agenda in Syria.
JAN's ranks are not numerous compared to other opposition factions and the FSA, as they range between 1,000 and 5,000 fighters - according to a recent study by the Quilliam Foundation, a counter-extremism think tank. But though their numbers are relatively small, JAN fighters are apparently trying to win the hearts of the population in areas under opposition control in northern Syria.
In addition to refraining from theft (with the exception of "spoils" they seize from the regime), JAN has announced it is distributing relief assistance to the needy in areas devastated by the fighting. This indicates JAN's desire to co-opt ordinary citizens into its ranks, a lesson perhaps learned from the fate al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) suffered as a result of its violent offences against citizens in past years.
But the organisation's attempts to gain favour with "needy" citizens cannot hide the fact that its methodology and agenda appear to differ greatly from those of many other Syrian opposition factions. Furthermore, its vision for the future of Syria does not seem to be compatible with the vision of the other regime opponents, nor with that of broad segments of the country's population.
JAN's method of fighting the regime, for example, clearly differs from the methods of the rest of the opposition, because it involves suicide attacks, including booby-trapping cars and trucks driven by individuals willing to blow themselves up among elements of the security forces.
Even when regime forces are the intended target, suicide bombings kill many ordinary citizens. It must be noted that when JAN began carrying out these kinds of bombings in early 2012, many opposition fighters rushed to distance themselves from the group, especially as it was clear many civilians were being killed in the bombings.
Clearly, the war JAN is waging against the regime stems from ideological motives, which are not necessarily the same motives that drove most opposition groups to participate in peaceful protests against the Assad regime before turning to armed action. JAN publicly proclaims that the purpose of its war is to defend "Sunnis" against what it describes as the "Nusairi" Alawite regime, which it aims to overthrow so it can establish an Islamic caliphate.
JAN announced last March it carried out attacks on security headquarters in "revenge" for the regime's abuse of Sunnis, saying in a statement titled "[Answering] shelling with blasts": "We say to him stop your massacres of the Sunnis, otherwise you bear the sin of the Nusairis (Alawites), and what's [coming to you] next shall be worse and more bitter, God willing."
In January 2012, JAN leader Abu Mohammed al-Joulani, who nicknamed himself "the conqueror", said JAN had come "to restore the authority of God to his land and avenge violated honour" when he formally announced the formation of the organisation.
While all opposition groups share the desire to topple the regime, many were not driven to action by the Syrian president's sectarian affiliation but rather the desire to replace a dictatorial regime with a democratic one that grants them long-denied rights and freedoms.
And while a considerable segment of the opposition may be hoping that an Islamic-oriented government is established on the ruins of the former regime, the difference between these groups and JAN is that the latter seeks to forcibly "impose" its vision of an Islamist state on Syria. Other opposition groups, including Islamists, say they want to bring about such a state in consultation with the people, who would have the final say through the ballot box.
Recent JAN threats to kill Alawite soldiers may be another point of difference between this group and the rest of the opposition, which seeks to reassure Alawites, encouraging them to abandon both the regime and their fear of what could befall them in the event of its collapse.
Perhaps these differences in methodology and ideology between JAN and the rest of the Syrian opposition were the reasons that propelled researchers at the Quilliam Foundation, namely former Libyan jihadist Noman Benotman and researcher Roisin Blake, to warn that should Assad fall, JAN would attack the other opposition immediately or "occupy strategic places to negotiate their own ends".
"[JAN] overestimated the religious loyalty of the Syrian people, just as AQI did in the 2000s," the two researchers wrote in a recently-published study. "Syrian culture is not naturally conducive to Islamist governance, given the religious pluralism and history of relative religious freedom and tolerance" in the Levant.
JAN "overestimated the level of popular support for them in Syria", they said. "They see themselves as representatives of Syria's Sunni population, which is a dangerous falsehood. Even amongst the rebels, only a minority shares their ideology and goals, with many others, tens of thousands of activists, calling for a democratic system of government rather than an Islamist state."