The threat of extreme Islamists certainly is dire and real. While it is absurd to say they're "as bad as Assad" - even after the Latakia massacre, their atrocities are episodic, not a constant horror - they're bad enough. What's exaggerated is their prospects. They will never rule Syria and they will never establish enclaves in Syria. Extreme or extremely conservative Islam may conceivably come to dominate Syria, but that's a very different sort of danger, and cause only for a very different sort of concern.
There is no chance at all that extremists could prevail over their opponents. For this to happen, of course, Assad would have to fall. Their opponents would then be not just the more moderate Syrian revolutionaries, but every power, great and small, with an interest in the region. Russia and China would be on the same side as the secularist and moderate revolutionaries. So would all Kurdish factions. Jordan, the Gulf States and Israel would be united in their determination to eradicate the radical Islamist spectre. So would Turkey, now with a much freer hand, because the substantial pro-Assad opposition would now be on-side. So would the West. So would Hezbollah and the Maronites, all but choking off any support from within Lebanon. The extremists' only source of supply would be within Western Iraq. Iran, having lost its Syrian ally and no longer capable of maintaining Hezbollah as a militarily robust proxy, would focus on strengthening the Iraqi government, its sole remaining foothold in the Arab world. In short, the extremists would not only be isolated, but surrounded by forces determined to crush them, with the enthusiastic support of both the West and the East. The idea that the extremists could, in these circumstances, hold territory, is a non-starter.
What goes for taking over the country also goes for establishing enclaves. Bear in mind that all the great powers are incurably panicked about Al Qaeda, and that any very conservative or radical Islamic faction, whatever the realities, will be targeted as a result: the great powers will put pressure on or encourage the regional powers to act. And of course there will be no shortage of moderate or secularist forces in Syria for them to support.
This is not to say that small underground forces can't cause a lot of harm and disruption even against such odds. But here the domestic situation makes such outcomes unlikely. The most extreme of the extremists are to a large extent foreign fighters, some very foreign indeed. These extremist groups don't have the deeper nationalist and anti-government roots of the Al Qaeda-linked forces in Iraq. Moreover, in Iraq there is only one significant group of extremist Sunni radicals, Al-Qaeda in Iraq. In Syria, the extremist forces are fragmented into dozens and dozens of groups whose alliances, even whose existence, constantly changes. Odd how analysts never tire of pointing to the disunity of the FSA as a fatal weakness, but seem to think the proliferation of extremist groups is a sign of strength.
Even the long-term cohesion within these groups is very much open to question. The experts and several on-the-scene journalists report that many of these factions' members joined up only because they were looking for the best way to fight Assad. Many are very young, perhaps like this fighter:
Chava, like any sixteen-year-old, is habitually antagonizing, talking about how much he loves his gun, how much he loves fighting, how much he loves Islam, how he likes Bin Laden (but also George W. Bush).Chava and more mature or maturely pious fighters may be reluctant, post-Assad, to kill fellow rebels, many of them Sunni Muslims. There are no certainties here, but there is also no reason to expect strong resistance from a hard core of Syrian extremists, rather than a nucleus dominated by easily identified and isolated foreigners.
Does this mean that the threat of extreme Islamism can be discounted? Not at all. What seems all but certain, however, is that the stature of this threat will not depend on its military strength. It will depend on its powers of persuasion, on its political and social strength. The extreme Islamists will have this sort of strength for three reasons. First, it appears that quite a few Syrians in fact adhere to a very conservative version of Islam, and might be receptive to the idea of a very strict Islamist régime, particularly given the shameful record of secularism in the region. Second, like it or not, the extreme Islamist combattants are, for the most part, heroes. They fight bravely and effectively and have saved far more innocent lives than they have taken. Their martyrs often sacrificed their lives when no one else could or did stand up to Assad's onslaughts. This won't be forgotten. Third, extreme Islamist groups, despite their repressive bent, often do much good in the areas the control, restoring basic services and supplying both public order and the necessities of life. In this respect they resemble the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, who became powerful partly by helping those in need.
The hard-earned political prestige of the extremists might well bring them not only local but also national power, control over Syrians' lives - at least if these extremists renounce violence. Such a future would of course be a nightmare for many Syrian activists and the negation of what they've been fighting for. But the greatest long-term danger is that this peaceful, political threat be ignored, or worse, confounded with the exaggerated but much more dramatic military threat. That might lead to the kind of repression that usually proves counterproductive, as when Egyptian secularists ran to the military instead of doing the hard ground-level organizing and service work that made their rivals strong. I hope that doesn't happen in Syria.