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Tentative Jihad: Syria’s Fundamentalist Opposition
Tentative Jihad: Syria’s Fundamentalist Opposition
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
After Ten Years of War, Conflict Still Paralyses Syria
After Ten Years of War, Conflict Still Paralyses Syria
Report 131 / Middle East & North Africa

Tentative Jihad: Syria’s Fundamentalist Opposition

The presence of Salafi groups among Syria’s armed opposition is an irrefutable, damaging yet not necessarily irreversible trend. Breaking this cycle will require the opposition to curb their influence, members of the international community to coordinate their policies and a perilous military stalemate to transition to a political solution.

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Executive Summary

Prematurely and exaggeratedly highlighted by the regime, belatedly and reluctantly acknowledged by the opposition, the presence of a powerful Salafi strand among Syria’s rebels has become irrefutable. That is worrisome, but forms only part of a complex picture. To begin, not all Salafis are alike; the concept covers a gamut ranging from mainstream to extreme. Secondly, present-day Syria offers Salafis hospitable terrain – violence and sectarianism; disenchantment with the West, secular leaders and pragmatic Islamic figures; as well as access to Gulf Arab funding and jihadi military knowhow – but also adverse conditions, including a moderate Islamic tradition, pluralistic confessional make-up, and widespread fear of the kind of sectarian civil war that engulfed two neighbours. Thirdly, failure of the armed push this past summer caused a backlash against Salafi groups that grabbed headlines during the fighting.

This is not to dismiss the Salafis’ weight. The opposition has a responsibility: to curb their influence, stem the slide toward ever-more radical and confessional discourse and halt brutal tactics. So too do members of the international community, quick to fault the opposition for fragmentation and radical drift that their own divisions, dysfunctionality and powerlessness have done much to foster. For as long as different countries sponsor distinct armed groups, a bidding war will ensue, and any hope of coordinating the rebels, disciplining them and restraining their most extremist members will be in vain. The issue, in other words, is not so much whether to arm them – and, if so, with what – but rather to rationalise and coordinate the support provided to the opposition in order to make more likely the emergence of a more coherent, structured, representative and thus effective interlocutor in what, sooner or later, must be a negotiated outcome. Even those who side with the regime would stand to benefit from that development, if they wish to see today’s devastating military stalemate evolve toward a political solution.

From day one, the question of Salafism within opposition ranks has been more of a political football than a subject of serious conversation. Assad backers played it up, convinced they could frighten both the country’s own non-Islamists and minorities as well as the West, still traumatised by its misadventure in Iraq. Regime detractors played it down, intent on preserving the image of a pristine uprising; people sympathetic to their cause, whether in the media or elsewhere, likewise were reluctant to delve too deeply into the issue, anxious about playing into regime hands. The net result has been more fog than light.

That is unfortunate, and not because Salafism necessarily is a central, dominant or even lasting feature of the Syrian landscape. But because it undoubtedly is present, almost certainly has been growing, clearly is divisive and strongly affects dynamics on the ground: it has an impact on who is willing to fund opposition groups, on popular attitudes, on the narrative the regime is able to expound and on relations among armed factions. This report, based both on field work in Syria and systematic analysis of the armed groups’ own communications, seeks to clarify the origins, growth and impact of the opposition’s fundamentalist threads.

Far from being rigid or monolithic, Syrian Salafism is eclectic and fluid. While all Salafists in theory apply literalist interpretations of scripture based on the example set by the Prophet and his companions, some have only a superficial understanding, lacking any genuine ideological vision; others seek to replace the secular regime with an Islamist form of governance; while a third tendency embraces the concept of global jihad advocated by al-Qaeda. The degree of intolerance toward members of other faiths likewise varies widely. The Iraqi precedent underscores how much these distinctions matter and how, for example, local objectives of mainstream insurgent groups, including those with Salafi tendencies, can be threatened by global ambitions of Salafi-jihadis.

Nor is it always straightforward to distinguish Salafis from non-Salafis: in some cases, adoption of Salafi nomenclature, rhetoric and symbols reflects a sincere commitment to religious ideals; in others, it expresses an essentially pragmatic attempt to curry favour with wealthy, conservative Gulf-based donors. Most armed groups have yet to develop a firm ideology or leadership structure; membership fluctuates, with fighters shifting from one faction to another based on availability of funds, access to weapons, personal relationships – in other words, based on factors having little if anything to do with belief.

Of course, there is no denying the striking inroads made by Salafism – at first, a marginal tendency at best – since the onset of the protest movement. There also is little dispute about reasons behind this growth. Conditions were favourable: the uprising was rooted in a social category readymade for Salafi preachers, the poor rural underclass that, over years, migrated to rough, impersonal urban settings far removed from its traditional support networks. And conditions ripened: as violence escalated, hopes for a quick resolution receded, and alternative tendencies (proponents of dialogue; peaceful demonstrators; the exiled leadership; more moderate Islamists) proved their limitations, many naturally flocked to Salafist alternatives. The West’s initial reluctance to act – and enduring reluctance to act decisively – coupled with early willingness of private, wealthy, and for the most part religiously conservative Gulf Arabs to provide funds, bolstered both the Salafis’ coffers and their narrative, in which Europe and the U.S. figure as passive accomplices in the regime’s crimes.

More broadly, Salafism offered answers that others could not. These include a straightforward, accessible form of legitimacy and sense of purpose at a time of substantial suffering and confusion; a simple, expedient way to define the enemy as a non-Muslim, apostate regime; as well as access to funding and weapons. Too, Salafists benefited from the experience its militants had accumulated on other battlegrounds; they volunteered to fight, thereby sharing their knowledge with inexperienced domestic armed groups. At a time when such groups struggled to survive against a powerful, ruthless foe and believe themselves both isolated and abandoned, such assets made an immediate, tangible difference. Little wonder that, by January 2012, Salafism slowly was becoming more conspicuous on the opposition scene.

The regime cannot escape its share of blame. For years, Salafis were among those who claimed that mainstream Sunnis faced a serious threat from Iran and its Shiite allies, a category in which they included Alawites. Through increasing reliance on the most loyal, Alawite-dominated elements of its security forces to suppress a predominantly Sunni uprising, and because it received support mainly from its two Shiite partners (Iran and Hizbollah), the regime ultimately corroborated this sectarian storyline: many opponents equated the struggle against Assad with a jihad against the occupier.

Yet, it would be wrong to conclude that, for Salafis, the coast is clear. Syria boasts a history of moderate Islamic practice and has long prided itself on peaceful, cross-con­fes­sional coexistence. Its citizens have seen, first-hand, the calamitous repercussions of sectarian strife as civil war destroyed two of its neighbours, first Lebanon, later Iraq. Key figures of the uprising as well as its popular base often espouse antithetical ideology and goals. Large-scale attacks against regime forces in July and August 2012, during which Salafi groups assumed a highly visible role, ended in failure, deflating some of the pre-existing faith. And the opposition is well aware of pitfalls: the rise of Salafism essentially validates the regime’s thesis and thus helps justify its repression; worries actual and potential foreign backers; and, while rallying some Syrians, jihadi volunteers and outside Islamist sponsors to the cause, simultaneously undercuts the opposition’s broader appeal and enhances the regime’s ability to mobilise its own social base and allies.

All this places Salafis in the uncomfortable position of bolstering, by their behaviour and rhetoric, a central argument of the regime they seek to oust. And it explains why the mainstream opposition has launched several campaigns – unsuccessful to date – to unify rebel ranks, strengthen their overall effectiveness and contain or at least channel more radical outlooks.

Many myths surround Syria’s Salafis. They are not an expression of society’s authentic, truer identity; they are not merely a by-product of regime machinations; and they are not simply the result of growing Gulf Arab influence. Rather, they should be understood as one of the conflict’s numerous outgrowths and, not least, part of the profound identity crisis it has produced. In many ways, it is the mirror image of the simultaneous cult of violence and ruling-family worship that, to a striking degree, has emerged among Alawites. In both cases, the rise of more extremist, militant, quasi-millenarist worldviews is not deniable, but nor is it necessarily irreversible. Salafism, both cause and symptom of the opposition’s current shortcomings, is – like so much else in Syria – the expression of a bloody political and military stalemate that, for now, appears to have no way back, and no way out.

Damascus, Brussels, 12 October 2012

In this file photo released by Syria's opposition-run Aleppo Media Centre (AMC) on 19 February 2013, Syrians inspect destruction following an apparent surface-to-surface missile strike on the northern Syrian city of Aleppo. ALEPPO MEDIA CENTRE / AFP

After Ten Years of War, Conflict Still Paralyses Syria

15 March marks the Syrian uprising’s tenth anniversary. In this Q&A, Crisis Group’s Syria expert Dareen Khalifa says that with a political solution out of reach, consolidating the existing ceasefires and alleviating human suffering is the best possible way forward for now.

What does the conflict in Syria look like on the ground?

The sides to the conflict are locked in an uneasy standoff that has brought the country a measure of calm, but fighting could rapidly reignite and trigger international instability. The turning point in the past year came when a Russian-Turkish ceasefire announced on 5 March 2020 halted a year-long Syrian regime onslaught on Idlib in the north west. This paused most fighting on the war’s last active front. Turkey expanded its military presence in Idlib, securing the truce. Thus, the area became the latest example of de facto ceasefires around the country.

But the possibility of renewed hostilities is real. The status quo is fragile and the parties to the ceasefires breach them on a daily basis. The Idlib ceasefire left unresolved core disagreements on the area’s future and that of the rebels, including Idlib’s dominant group, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a former al-Qaeda affiliate that is UN-sanctioned and considered a terrorist organisation by Russia and others. The March 2020 agreement between Russia and Turkey calls on both sides to “eliminate all terrorist groups in Syria as designated by [the UN Security Council]”. Moscow, which wants regime control over Idlib restored, has cited HTS’s UN designation when supporting regime attacks on the area, and has indicated that the ceasefire is a temporary arrangement. In the north east, a small U.S. military presence provides the only buffer between the local population and renewed active conflict: Turkey is adamantly opposed to local rule by the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Kurdish paramilitary group that leads the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).  While the U.S. has not acted on statements during the Trump administration that it will withdraw its troops from Syria, this may not be enough to prevent Ankara from launching a new offensive against the YPG.

Has Bashar al-Assad effectively won the war?

Assad is still in power and Syrian rebels are now confined to pockets of northern Syria.

Over half the population has been displaced with no prospects for return in the foreseeable future.

In reality, though, the conflict has no winners. Syria has been torn apart. Over half the population has been displaced with no prospects for return in the foreseeable future, while the UN stopped counting casualties five years ago, when already more than 400,000 people had reportedly been killed. The humanitarian situation is dire, with an estimated eleven million people inside the country in need of assistance; the World Food Program has warned of a growing threat of famine.

The Assad government controls some 70 per cent of the country, including its major cities, and has the support of Russia and Iran. But it has lost control over large swathes of territory in the north that contain most of the country’s natural resources. The government is a pariah in the West, has few friends in the Middle East, and is still battling a dangerous Islamic State (ISIS) insurgency in the centre of the country.

Assad’s goal of retaking all of Syria appears far-fetched. The country is currently divided into four distinct zones of influence, each backed or protected by a foreign power. Russia and Iran stand behind Assad, while U.S. and Turkish troops hold positions in various parts of the north.  Assad is effectively running up against strong foreign opponents who, at least thus far, have suggested they are invested in stopping any further military advance.

Ten years of war and Western sanctions have also severely depleted the Syrian government’s revenues and devastated the economy. Some of the biggest blows came between 2012 and 2014, when the regime lost access to most of the country’s natural and agricultural resources, in particular oil, gas and wheat, which are produced in the north east, now controlled by the SDF. As a result of the war, more than a third of Syria’s infrastructure has been destroyed or damaged. Both the regime and its Russian allies obliterated entire urban centres as part of a war strategy to violently subdue opposition-held areas. The U.S.-backed campaign against ISIS likewise decimated towns and villages, including the city of Raqqa. At the end of 2017, reconstruction costs reached an estimated $250 billion. Few countries appear willing or able to invest significantly in reconstruction; European governments that could are withholding support until and unless there is a genuine political transition.

Ten years on, what is driving the regime, the U.S., Russia, Iran, Turkey and Israel today?

The Assad government aims to restore its control over all of Syria, but without sufficient military support it is forced to pursue the more limited goal of tightening its grip on rapidly shrinking resources still within its reach. It typically does so by extorting money from businessmen, monopolising dollar transactions, appropriating land and providing a legal avenue for purchasing an exemption from military service, among other methods.

The Assad government aims to restore its control over all of Syria, but without sufficient military support it is forced to pursue the more limited goal of tightening its grip on rapidly shrinking resources still within its reach.

For Russia, Syria remains one of the few global theatres where Western states actively seek its cooperation, making the conflict central to its pursuit of a multipolar geopolitical order in which it can be a key player. Russia has achieved its main near-term political and military objectives in Syria, including preventing the collapse of an important regional partner. For Iran, Syria is a centrepiece of its regional strategy as a territorial link to its most important non-state ally, Hizbollah in neighbouring Lebanon, and a potential launching pad against Israel, which it portrays as deterrence.

For the U.S., remaining in Syria denies these three adversaries significant strategic gains, allows Washington to protect its local allies while fighting ISIS remnants in north east Syria, and would be a key component of any strategy to negotiate a better situation for the population in SDF-controlled areas.

For its part, Turkey sees the situations in north west and north east Syria as distinct security threats. With nearly four million Syrian refugees already in Turkey and popular resentment rising, Ankara wants to prevent further regime advances in Idlib that could send many thousands of new refugees into Turkey and for now appears determined to do so. In north east Syria, Turkey sees the YPG, the SDF’s backbone, as an integral part of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged insurgency in south east Turkey since 1984, a conflict in which over 40,000 people have been killed.

And finally, Israel has carried out hundreds of strikes against suspected Iran-linked targets in Syria with the goal of curtailing Tehran’s ability to use Syria as a transit and production zone for advanced weapons, such as guided missiles, for use by Hizbollah. It will continue to do so as long as it sees this threat.

Is the U.S. still a key player in Syria?

The U.S. is far from the most important player in Syria. That said, it maintains some influence through its military presence in north east Syria, its ability to impose additional sanctions on the regime or remove existing ones, and its de facto control, along with European allies, over any potential significant flow of reconstruction funds.

While this influence is insufficient to elicit a change in leadership in Damascus, or alter the balance of power significantly, the U.S. role in north east Syria has been crucial to preventing a violent free-for-all that could involve the regime, the Russian military, pro-Iran militias, the SDF and Turkey, and by keeping a lid on ISIS’s ability to return.

Are sanctions an effective tool to achieve Western objectives in Syria?

Western governments imposed sanctions on Syria to force the regime to change its behaviour, especially to halt attacks on civilians. To date, these sanctions have not achieved this goal. Additional sanctions in and of themselves are unlikely to fare better.

Some close observers point to an uptick of anti-government demonstrations in loyalist areas as a sign that the economic crisis may destabilise Assad’s rule. This seems unlikely. While sanctions may cause an increase in popular discontent by hastening an economic meltdown, today’s power dynamics do not allow for a popular uprising or insurgency that would threaten the regime in any major way. While Western states insist on a meaningful change in the regime’s behaviour toward its own population as a condition for lifting sanctions, they dropped their insistence that Assad must go many years ago. (They still refer to UN Security Council Resolution 2254 of 2015, which stipulates the goal of establishing “an inclusive transitional governing body with full executive powers” when mentioning conditions for lifting sanctions, though few people believe regime change is in any way realistic and Russian officials also often cite that resolution.)

Sanctions and other measures that are meant to penalise repressive rulers usually wind up hurting ordinary people the most.

Sanctions and other measures that are meant to penalise repressive rulers usually wind up hurting ordinary people the most. Western states should be more specific regarding what types of behavioural change they expect from Damascus and how to measure this, and indicate how they will reciprocate if the regime complies. Apart from this, it is vital to avert a further collapse of living conditions inside Syria or in neighbouring countries. Western governments should therefore consider increasing aid provided to the suffering population where possible, and continue to clearly communicate and implement humanitarian exemptions to economic and financial sanctions. 

What could a political resolution to the overall war look like?

Steps toward a nationwide negotiated solution to the conflict, such as the UN-sponsored constitutional committee discussions in Geneva, have yielded few results and are unlikely to achieve more in the near future. Russia and Western countries have divergent approaches to the process. Moscow sees the committee’s establishment in and of itself as a substantive concession from Damascus, for which the latter should be rewarded, for example in the form of increased Western assistance to areas under government control, enhanced Western reconstruction support or a lifting of sanctions. From their side, the UN, U.S. and other Western actors have welcomed the committee’s work only as a gate-opener to the implementation of the other elements that Resolution 2254 lays out toward a political transition, including a nationwide ceasefire.

For as long as the political deadlock continues and a comprehensive settlement remains out of reach, the best way forward may be to consolidate the ceasefires and, more generally, the status quo, and use the opportunity to help alleviate the human tragedy that is continuing to unfold. Over time this may help pave the way for more substantive political talks over Syria’s future.