Syrian Rebels, Secular And Islamist,
Both Claim The Future

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.


And I'm Renée Montagne. In Syria's Islamists have grown in influence as the rebellion grinds on against the Assad regime. These Islamists have proven to be effective on the battlefield - well armed and well funded - but more Syrians are now asking about their political ideas and what those ideas might mean for the country's future. NPR's Deborah Amos reports from Gaziantep on Turkey's border with Syria.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: This confrontation, caught on video, between liberal protestors and Islamists, set off a heated online debate in Syria. These weekly demonstrations have become a battle of symbols. Most carry the green, red and white revolution flag adopted in the early days of the revolt. But these days, a black banner is also waved at Friday demonstrations. It represents Salafis who embrace an ultra conservative brand of Islam that is new in Syria. The chants and counter chants in the large town of Saraqeb are telling.


UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (chanting in foreign language)

AMOS: The liberals shout for unity, freedom, and a civil state - democracy is what they say they want.


UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (chanting in foreign language)

AMOS: Islamists turn up the volume with calls for religious rule. An Islamic state is what they demand. More than 40,000 viewers downloaded this street debate. Secular activists, especially in Damascus, raised this question on Facebook: Are the Salafis hijacking the revolt? In some parts of Syria, they are, says Andrew Tabler at the Washington Institute for Near East Studies, as Salafis move to the mainstream of the revolution.

ANDREW TABLER: The role of Salafis, in general, publicly, has skyrocketed. They have a donor base, they are organized and they're able to carve out a niche in parts of Syria.

AMOS: Their funding comes from private sources in the Arabian Peninsula. Moderate rebel groups, who hoped the West would back them, haven't gotten nearly the same support, says Tabler.

TABLER: The Salafis stepped in to fill the gap, they did, and they are simply making advances and capturing weapon stocks. People like what those groups are doing, they are pushing Assad back. And nothing sells like success.

AMOS: That success has prompted other Syrian groups to debate Salafis directly. This meeting in a hotel in southern Turkey was the first of its kind. On one side of the table, a Salafist leader who came from inside Syria. On the other side, a group of Syrian Christians; that included a female activist, a respected political writer, and a priest.

FATHER SPIRIDON TANOUS: My name is Father Spiridon Tanous, we are Orthodox. Of course, my origin is Syrian.

AMOS: Father Tanous explained he wanted a dialogue between Muslims who say they want an Islamic state, and Christians who insist that democracy is the only system that guarantees the rights of minorities in Syria.

TANOUS: It's not easy discussion, not easy discussion.

AMOS: Did you expect it would be? This is the first time you've ever met.

TANOUS: Yeah, this is first time. Of course, personally, I don't accept to see my country as an Islamic country, because it's not like that. But we have to discuss. You cannot say no and just leave. No, because they are Syrian also.

AMOS: Getting to know each other was positive, said Michel Kilo, a veteran dissident, a Syrian Christian. It's my duty to talk to them, he added. The difference in age was striking. Kilo is part of an older generation that long opposed the Assad regime. These young Salafis have been empowered by the war, he, said, and insist on an Islamic state.

MICHEL KILO: (through translator) They did not put beautiful words or package things for us. They said their opinion with clarity and honesty. Even though they know their opinions will not please us, they spoke with honesty.

AMOS: Kilo spoke honestly, too. The majority of Syrians want democracy - elections, he told them - to decide what Syria will become. Deborah Amos, NPR News, Gaziantep.

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