(RNS) Members of the Syrian opposition 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, in part out of fear of igniting sectarian violence. There's also fear 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 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 the survey writers find contacts in the opposition movement.
The survey, released Sept. 21, 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 from June 1 to July 2.
Respondents were asked to rank their support, on a scale of 1 to 7, of various statements about a future Syrian government. A government styled on that of France, the United States 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 President Bashar Assad's Alawite sect, atheists and apostates.
They agreed that the government and constitution should mention religion but otherwise be secular. They also agreed, though not as much, with the statement that the constitution should be "based on Islam."
O'Bagy said many Syrian opposition members she has spoken to compared what they want to the United States.
"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."
Though 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, said O'Bagy.
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 said.
Meanwhile, 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 said.
(Oren Dorell writes for USA Today.)