Jihad in Syria

Executive Summary

  • This report examines the presence of jihadist groups within Syria, explains where various Syrian rebel groups and foreign elements operating in Syria fall along the spectrum of religious ideology, and considers their aggregate effect upon the Islamification of the Syrian opposition.  
  • The Syrian conflict began as a secular revolt against autocracy. Yet as the conflict protracts, a radical Islamist dynamic has emerged within the opposition.  There is a small but growing jihadist presence inside Syria, and this presence within the opposition galvanizes Assad’s support base and complicates U.S. involvement in the conflict.
  • Internally, Assad has used the threat of jihadists within the opposition to build support for the regime among the Alawite and Christian communities.  It has also served to discourage middle and upper class Sunnis from joining the opposition.  Externally, Russian and Iranian leadership have consistently pointed to the presence of radical Islamists as a critical rationale for their support of the Assad regime.
  • Compared to uprisings in Libya, Egypt and Tunisia, the opposition in Syria faces a much greater threat of jihadist infiltration.  Many jihadi elements now operating in Syria are already familiar with the terrain, having been sponsored by the Assad regime for over three decades.  These jihadi elements turned against their former regime allies in 2011 and are now cooperating with local jihadists.
  • Moderate political Islam is not incompatible with democratic governance. However, ultraconservative Sunni Islamists, known as Salafists, envision a new world order modeled on early Islam that poses a significant threat to both democracy and the notion of statehood. Salafi-jihadists are those who commit to violent means to bring about the Salafi vision.
  • It is difficult to distinguish between moderate Islamists and Salafi-jihadists in the context of the Syrian civil war. Assad’s security solution transformed the largely peaceful uprising into an open civil war, and now even political Islamists and Syrian nationalists are engaged in violent means.  Additionally, the mainstream use of jihadi iconography by non-Salafist rebel groups distorts perceptions about their ideologies and end-goals.  It is significant to draw the distinction in order to understand which Islamist opposition groups are willing to work within a state system.
  • The vast majority of Syrians opposing the regime are local revolutionaries still fighting against autocracy; while they are not Islamists, in the sense that their political visions do not depend upon Islamic principles, they espouse varying degrees of personal religious fervor. There are also moderate Islamists operating within the Syrian opposition, including those who comprise rebel groups like Suquor al-Sham and the Umma Brigade, who are typified by a commitment to political Islam that is compatible with democracy.
  • On the more extreme end of the spectrum are groups like Ahrar al-Sham, which is comprised of conservative Islamist, and often Salafist, member units. Ahrar al-Sham’s leadership espouses a political  Islamist ideology, though it is clear that the group has attracted more radical and extreme elements of the opposition including many Salafi-jihadists. The brigade also has notable ties to Syria’s indigenous jihadist organization, Jabhat Nusra.  
  • Al-Qaeda’s direct involvement in Syria has been exaggerated in the media. However, small al-Qaeda affiliated networks are operating in the country, including elements of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abdullah Azzam Brigades, Fatah al-Islam and Jordanian Salafi-jihadists. Rather than sending large numbers of operatives, these networks are providing operational support, including trainers and bomb makers, in order to capitalize on the instability in Syria and expand their influence in the region.
  • Jabhat Nusra, Syria’s homegrown Salafi-jihadist group, has important links to al-Qaeda affiliates and demonstrates a higher level of effectiveness than many other rebel groups.  Jabhat Nusra has demonstrated sensitivity to popular perception and they are gaining support within Syria. The emergence of indigenous Salafi-jihadist groups such as Jabhat Nusra is far more dangerous to the long-term stability of the Syrian state than foreign jihadist groups because it represents a metamorphosis of a Salafi-jihadist ideology into a domestic platform that is able to achieve popular resonance.
  • The U.S. cannot afford to support groups that will endanger Syria’s future stability.  However, if the U.S. chooses to limit its contact with Islamist groups altogether, it may alienate a majority of the opposition.  Identifying the end goals of opposition groups will be the key to determining whether their visions for Syrian governance are compatible with U.S. interests.
  • The U.S. Government has cited concern over arming jihadists as a reason for limiting support to the Syrian opposition.  However, U.S. allies are already providing material support to the Syrian opposition, and competing sources of funding threaten Syria’s future stability by enhancing the influence of more radical elements. The confluence of jihadist interest with that of the Gulf states raises the possibility that these states may leverage jihadists for their own strategic purposes, while simultaneously limiting Western influence.
  • In order to counter this effect, the U.S. should seek to channel this support in a way that bolsters responsible groups and players while ensuring that Salafi-jihadist organizations such as Jabhat Nusra are unable to hijack the opposition movement. If the U.S. hopes to counter this threat and stem the growing popularity of more radical groups, it must clearly identify secular and moderate Islamist opposition groups and encourage the international community to focus resources in support of those groups alone.  Such focused support would increase the influence of moderate opposition groups and undercut the appeal of Salafism in Syria.