Prematurely and exaggeratedly highlighted by the regime and 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.
1- To begin, not all Salafis are alike; the concept covers a gamut ranging from mainstream to extreme.
2- 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 neighbors.
3- 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 believed themselves both isolated and abandoned, such assets made an immediate, tangible difference. Little wonder that, by January 2012, Salafism was slowly 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.
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