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Tentative Jihad: Syria’s Fundamentalist Opposition
Tentative Jihad: Syria’s Fundamentalist Opposition
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Investing Diplomatically in Syria's Idlib
Investing Diplomatically in Syria's Idlib
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

Investing Diplomatically in Syria's Idlib

The Sochi agreement between Russia and Turkey succeeded in averting a Syrian regime offensive in Idlib. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2018 annual early-warning update for European policy makers, Crisis Group urges the EU and its member states to continue to provide diplomatic support for Turkey and engage directly with Russia to prevent an attack that would likely have catastrophic humanitarian consequences.

This commentary is part of our Watch List 2018 – Third Update.

The 17 September Sochi agreement between Russia and Turkey forestalled the Syrian regime’s imminent attack on rebel-held Idlib governorate and surrounding areas in Syria’s north west. The agreement established a 20km buffer zone between rebels and the regime along Idlib’s borders, which was to be emptied of heavy weapons by 10 October. By late October, the agreement’s implementation appeared to be in progress: heavy arms were no longer visible, though it remained unclear if they had been removed. In any event, Russia expressed satisfaction with Turkey’s efforts to demilitarise the zone.

The agreement succeeded in averting – for now – a battle that the UN warned could trigger the worst humanitarian catastrophe of the 21st century. But while Idlib’s fate remains uncertain, European partners must work to support Turkish efforts to implement the deal’s conditions and sustain a political process while bolstering preparations for managing the humanitarian fallout in the event of an attack, the threat of which remains real.

The EU and its member states should consider the following steps:

  • Keep backing the agreement, both publicly and in direct contacts with Russia. Europeans should emphasise that an all-out assault on Idlib and a humanitarian disaster there would substantially impair their future cooperation with Russia on Syria, and thus prevent Russia from achieving its political objective – not just the regime’s survival but a settlement that leads to a degree of regime rehabilitation.
     
  • Engage prudently with Russia. The EU should be open to discussing avenues of cooperation with Moscow on Syria, both independently and in support of Turkish initiatives such as its 27 October quartet summit alongside France, Germany and Russia. At the same time it should resist Moscow’s efforts to accelerate the provision of European reconstruction assistance in the absence of any political progress.
     
  • Press Russia to continue to show flexibility with Turkey as it proceeds with implementing the commitment it made in Sochi in September. Europeans should continue to vocally support Turkey and, if necessary, condition future cooperation with Russia on such Russian flexibility.
     
  • Encourage Turkey to continue its own humanitarian preparations in the event of an attack on Idlib, including planning, building aid infrastructure, and pre-positioning assistance; and materially support Turkey in these efforts.
     
  • Urge Turkey to coordinate its humanitarian response with international allies. Europeans should ask Turkey to share more information, specifically about its security operations in Idlib that restrict humanitarian access. If the Syrian regime attacks Idlib, Turkey’s allies will be more effective partners if they have jointly planned and prepared.
     
  • Urge Turkey to allow humanitarian action in Turkish-controlled Aleppo independent of Turkish state and para-state bodies. Turkey may be uncomfortable with allowing autonomous relief actors into an area it is keen to keep under control, but otherwise Europeans and others cannot support its aid efforts.
Europeans should continue to vocally support Turkey as it implements Sochi’s provisions.

Sochi’s Origins and Stakes

Several factors enabled the Sochi agreement, notably Turkey’s strong indications it would resist an Idlib offensive – including its decision to send considerable addi-tional weapons to Syrian rebels in Idlib – and U.S. pressure. Arguably most im-portant was Ankara signalling to Moscow that an offensive would end Turkish-Russian cooperation on a political settlement. As one of the guarantors (together with Russia and Iran) of the Astana process, Turkey remains central to Russia’s ef-forts to find a political resolution to Syria’s war. Russia needs Turkish buy-in if it hopes to crown its military success with some international re-legitimisation of the Syrian regime and secure outside funds for the country’s reconstruction. 

Along with the U.S., EU member states provided important diplomatic backing to Turkey in support of an Idlib deal. Emphatic public European opposition to an assault and energetic, direct diplomacy with Russia by EU member states con-vinced Moscow that an all-out attack would seriously damage cooperation on Syria. Europeans should continue to vocally support Turkey as it implements Sochi’s pro-visions and, through direct channels with Russia, stress that a humanitarian disas-ter that displaces more refugees (and some militants) into Turkey and Europe di-rectly prejudices European interests. EU member states should make clear that an attack on Idlib would poison further cooperation and cripple Syria’s political pro-cess, on which major reconstruction funds depend. 

The Potential Humanitarian Catastrophe 

The priority for Europeans and others must be preventing an attack on Idlib, as the humanitarian impact would outstrip even the best-planned and well-resourced re-sponse. But the EU should also anticipate the worst case scenario, namely the So-chi deal’s collapse and an ensuing regime offensive. The EU needs to ensure it is prepared to the extent possible, helping humanitarian partners plan and pre-position supplies and funding the humanitarian response. 

Turkey has been undertaking emergency preparations, though it has not always publicised them for fear of undermining good faith efforts at de-escalation. Yet its limited communication prevents donors and their international NGO partners from effectively coordinating and planning their contribution to a relief effort. Turkey has also restricted independent access for international organisations to the parts of Aleppo governorate it controls. Humanitarian capacity is already stretched in these areas, which are the likeliest destination for Idlib’s residents if they have to flee.

Europeans must continue to appeal to Turkey to share information on their ef-forts in Idlib in order for other donors and humanitarians to appropriately plan. And the EU needs to push Turkey to allow independent humanitarian action inside Turkish-controlled Aleppo, where, if Idlib is attacked, Turkey will be unable to sin-glehandedly meet vulnerable Syrians’ urgent needs.