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.
Tentative Jihad: Syria’s Fundamentalist Opposition, the latest report from the International Crisis Group, examines reasons behind the emergence of a strong Salafi strand within the opposition. Drawing extensively on interviews and on the armed groups’ own public discourse, the report explores the place of Salafism within the militant spectrum and distinguishes the most extreme Salafi-jihadi elements from their mainstream counterparts. Given a fragile and ailing society, an increasingly vicious and destructive stalemate and a delicate strategic environment, a more nuanced understanding of the armed opposition is critical.
There is no denying the inroads made by Salafism since the onset of the protest movement. Conditions were favourable. The uprising was rooted in a social category readymade for Salafi preachers: the poor rural underclass that migrated to impersonal urban settings far removed from traditional support networks. As violence mounted, hopes for a quick resolution faded and alternatives on offer – peaceful demonstration, the exiled leadership, moderate Islamists, Western intervention – proved ineffective or illusory, many naturally flocked to Salafism.
“Salafism offered critical assets: a compelling narrative and sense of purpose, funds and ammunition from sympathetic Gulf Arabs, fighters and the know-how of jihadis who fought on other battle-grounds”, says Peter Harling, Crisis Group’s Project Director for Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. “But if Salafism grew out of one impasse, it has led into another. It gained prominence at a time when the rest of the armed opposition was stuck in a military stalemate, yet it has further polarised society and, by heightening the sectarian character of the conflict, reinforced arguments of those it purports to fight”.
But Salafi dominance of the opposition field is not pre-ordained. The country has a history of moderate Islamic practice and long prided itself on peaceful, cross-confessional coexistence. Its citizens have seen, first-hand, the calamitous repercussions of sectarian strife as civil war ravaged two of its neighbours, first Lebanon, later Iraq. Finally, many in the opposition realise that Salafism undercuts its appeal, frightens Syria’s minority groups and worries actual and potential foreign backers.
The opposition has a responsibility: stem the slide toward ever-more radical and confessional dis-course 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 and powerlessness have done much to foster. As long as different countries sponsor distinct armed groups, a bidding war will ensue, and any hope of coordinating the rebels and restraining their most extremist members will be in vain.
“Much of the debate has focused on whether to arm the opposition – and, if so, by whom and with what, but that’s not the main issue”, says Robert Malley, Crisis Group’s Middle East and North Africa Program Director. “It is, rather, to rationalise and coordinate support to the opposition and help the emergence of a more structured, representative and effective interlocutor in what, sooner or later, must be a negotiated outcome. Even those who side with the regime stand to benefit, if they wish to see today’s devastating military stalemate evolve toward a political solution”.