On September 27th, 2013, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) stormed and desecrated the Church of the Lady of Annunciation and the Armenian Catholic Church of Martyrs in al–Raqqah city. This action –which was denounced by many inside and outside Syria– was preceded by fierce clashes between the aforementioned group and the rebel Northern Storm Brigade (which is labeled as secular). These tensions have directed the spotlight at the issue of polarization in the liberated areas among Islamic extremists, on the one hand, and Islamic moderates and secularists the other. This phenomenon has fueled a debate about the future of such organizations, their effect on the revolution, and the future face of Syria. This study attempts to provide an analysis of the current situation remedies for many of the concerns relating to this issue, and to provide a vision about the practical steps that should be taken to solve the issue.
Legitimate Concerns or Exaggerated Fears?
On March 15th, 2011, peaceful demonstrators marched on the streets of Syria, signalling the start of the Syrian Revolution. These demonstrations managed to remain peaceful for many months despite the use of live ammunition against the demonstrators, which caused thousands of deaths. The first turn towards militarization was taken when Lieutenant Colonel Hussain Harmoush defected and established the Free Generals Movement on June 9th, 2011. It was only until January 24th, 2012 that The Nusra Front, under the leadership of Abu Mumhammad al-Jolani, published its first statement (roughly half a year after the beginning of military action). The Nusra Front was the first group to be labeled as “extremist” and was later listed by the US as a terrorist organization. On April 9th, 2013, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced the establishment of the “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria”. The Nusra Front denied its involvement in the newly formed group and confirmed its pledge of allegiance to Ayman Alzawhiri. It is important to note that the majority of “ISIL” operatives are not Syrian, as opposed to the Nusra Front which is mainly comprised of Syrian individuals. These groups are mainly present in areas that are not under regime control.
The Nusra Front initially gained a very high reputation for its effective and disciplined fighters, as well as its charity and humanitarian activities. As for the ISIS –which split from the Nusra Front after Baghdadi’s announcement– it suffered from much criticism in the media after it arrested its critics, forcefully enforced its laws, and assassinated rebel leaders such as “Abu Basir” (an Islamic rebel leader in the north). According to the residents of Alraqqah and Idlib, these action have resulted in a sharp decline in support for ISIL.
Regardless of the ideology or visions of the aforementioned groups, about of how the state should look like, the main problem is in the fact that they believe in using force and weapons as a means to make their vision a reality. Such groups consider ballot boxes and the rule of the people as a form of infidelity. Thus, they label anyone who believes in or accepts democracy as an infidel.
These groups –due to their ideology– lack the ability to accept differences and believe that they represent the entire Muslim population. Consequently they believe that all Muslims must join them. This sparked among Syrians fears that Syria will transform into a theocratic state ruled by one ideology with the use of force. Many also fear that Syria will turn into a number of small states and emirates in which survival is for the fittest and where no language prevails over the language of violence. In addition, there are differences within the Islamic groups themselves (moderate and extremist) as to how the future state should look like. This may fuel strife in Syria like what happened in Afghanistan and Somalia. If this happens, it will hinder reconstruction and development and will suck the already–limited resources of Syria (both human and natural). This effect will not be confined to the borders of Syria and will spill over to the surrounding regions.
Islamic Organizations in Syria and their Future
All Islamic political movements, as well as the Islamic brigades in Syria, adopt Islam as a methodology and aspire to establish an “Islamic State”. However, the approach of each group differs in proportion to the difference in the school of thought followed by each group. In addition, these movements have different definitions for what “Islamic State” really means and have different understandings of the role of Islam in the state.
(A) Many of the Islamic movements believe in democracy as a means to bring the rule of the majority. Thus, they believe that da’wah, or preaching, is the best means to create that majority. Such movements prefer the approach of spreading Islam in the community peacefully in order to establish their Muslim State through the ballot box. Democracy is also adopted as a means to establish a modern state that utilizes the achievements of intellectual human progress and modern civilization in order to build the state’s institutions (that look and function like any institution in a modern state) while maintaing Islam as a political reference. The Turkish and Malaysian models are seen as inspiring models from which lessons can be drawn.
(B) Furthermore, there are groups that believe in imposing Islam by force of the state. The belief is accompanied by the idea of “one–time democracy”, meaning that they wish to be voted into power through the ballot boxes and then start “Islamizing” society starting from the top of the pyramid. To such groups, Islam cannot spread without the power of the state and a strong leadership that can spearhead the Islamic project. In other words, establishing the “Islamic State” is only a means in order to spread Islam in society. This is contrary to the previously mentioned school of thought which believes that the “Islamic State” is a result of the spreading of Islam in society (and not the other way around). This philosophical difference accompanied by a difference in practices as well. One the most famous groups that adopt this school of thought is “Hizbul Tahrir” or “Al Tahrir Party” and other such groups in Northern Africa.
(C) There are several movements that refuse democracy completely claiming that Islam has its own separate model with its own institutions. One of the most prominent groups that hold this belief is the Salafi movement. Most groups of this kind see that there must be a return to the old Islamic model that was in place during the “Islamic Golden Age” (800’s–1200’s) and that this model must be implemented today. Consequently, these groups refuse any new ideas that do not have roots in the “Islamic Golden Age”. However, like any other group, there is a degree of heterogeneity in thought; the two main Salafi ideological currents are:
1– Traditional Salfism: The government of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is considered to be the main advocate and sponsor of this type of Salafism worldwide as it prohibits rebellion against the ruler and any form of revolution. This may explain the delay in the participation of Salafis in the Syrian Revolution. Originally, though, politics and issues of government were not the focus of this school of thought up until the Arab Spring. In the Syrian case, brigades that fall under this school of thought have shown a high level of flexibility relative to similar groups outside Syria. These groups have also proved their ability in drawing other Islamic brigades closer together and bringing them into agreement (i.e the creation of Jaysh Al–Islam). The followers of traditional Salafism have suffered from oppression under the Assad regime and were also disliked by most Islamic schools of thought in Syria. They have a strong presence in Subrubs of Damascus. The first organized gruop of this group was “Liwaa Al Islam”.
2– Salafi Jihadists: This school of thought believes in “Jihad” and war against the West and infidelity as a main pathway to build the Islamic State. Qaeda is considered to be the main backer of this ideology which is known for its extreme simplicity and clarity. This simplicity in defining Islam and infidelity has made the ideology digestible by many people who do not have a deep or “educated” understanding of Islam. The “ISIS” organization is considered as the main representative of this ideology in Syria.
It is important to note that there is a strong difference between the Salafi Jihadists (C–2) and the Islamic ideology that believes in the imposition of Islam through the power of the state (B). Although both believe in the Islamic State as a means to spread Islam in society, the movements described in (B) are political movements and use political tools (such as political parties). On the other hand, the organizations in (C–2) are religious organizations that only entered the political field in order to establish a state with specific qualities.
Another important note is that there is no clear line that separates the two Salafi currents, thus creating a grey area. Many of Syria’s armed groups fall under this area. These groups refuse democracy as a methodology but do not have an extremely narrow understanding of Islam and do not accuse all those who oppose them as infidels (Best Example: Ahrar Al Sham). Additionally, these groups do not define themselves based on their animosity towards the West. The most of Islamic groups in north of Syria (Idleb and Dair Zoor) belong to this grey area.
The Future of Salafi Jihadism in Syria
Although Salafi organizations do not believe in democracy, the followers of traditional Salafism have expressed a high level of pragmatism that has allowed them to form alliances and cooperative relationships with a number of Islamic and non–Islamic organizations. Many members of these organizations actually took part in the creation of the Syrian National Council, and later, the Syrian Coalition. This raises hopes for a possible dialogue with these groups after the fall of the regime and leads us to put aside many of the fears we had (at least in the short term). It is possible that these groups will be incorporated into the political process through the building of alliances and agreements. This can be seen in the Egyptian case where the Salafi movement took part in the democratic political process after the revolution.
The challenge in the Syrian situation in this context lies in determining how to deal with the brigades that adopts Jihadist Salafism as its source.
The vast majority of the Free Syrian Army’s brigades, the humanitarian, political commissions and the local councils are accused of being corrupt. They also suffer from the lack of the simplest administrative elements, and that, under the absence of government control, results in a chaotic situation which allowed organizations that are extremists to grow. It also results in the growth of organized crime gangs and the promotion of mafia–like relationships between team members.
Areas of war and conflict where the control of the government is absent are considered as attractive places for people who are oriented towards Jihadist Salafism because practicing “Jihad” becomes easier which is the most important activity to build the Islamic state according to their view. Another important note is the conversion of Jihad into a goal that is pursued by these groups. The existence of such ideas is related to:
1) Absence of government.
2) The decrease of education levels and the instability of low–income people.
3) The spread of armed conflicts.
This explains the spread of that sort of organizations in Afghanistan and Pakistan or even in Sinai, where government control is weak and education levels are low, as well as Somalia and many African countries. Whereas there was a very limited presence for these organizations in Palestine, although it is the land of Jihad according to all Islamic schools and Lebanon despite the civil war that lasted for a long period. The Syrian environment can be classified as less fertile for these kinds of organizations compared to Palestine and Lebanon since Syria has a high percentage of degree holders and a generally acceptable education level. The demographic composition of the Syrian people makes Sunni Muslims the big majority (about 70%). The conservative mainstream constitutes a considerable percentage, and Salafists are part of them generally. Jihadist Salfis lack the cultural and social acceptance which makes them a limited minority. Around 72% of the labor force in Syria works in the private sector and invests in entrepreneurship whose persistence requires stability. In addition, the religiosity model in Syria is the furthest from extremism compared to the most other Arabic countries. The decrease in the number of women who wear Niqab in Syria compared to Yemen and Egypt can be used as an example.
❏ In case Assad’s regime falls in a way that allows the war to be ended or leads to a decrease violence levels in a way that allows the return of the normal civil life, we believe that the society and the environment in Syria do not provide the suitable climate for these kinds of ideas and organizations.
❏ These organizations’ inability to grow and advance in stable society is in proportion to their simplistic message. Growth and persistence in civilized societies require a great deal of understanding and co–existence and that does not fit with these organizations’ world view. This prompts the followers of such groups to either adopt a more moderate view in order to blend into the society and practice a normal life or to leave in order to look for new battle fields where they can practice Jihad. These organizations cannot maintain a permanent authority in case war ends since that would require oppressive practices which the society would not accept after revolution. This behavior have been seen in Bosnien and Egypt.
❏ These organizations suffer from internal and external disputes because of the very narrow interpretation of holy texts. This is evident in the split between the Nusra Front and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and the recent defects from ISIL that call themselves “Almuhajiroon”, as announced on 03. Sep. 2013 in youtube. Therefore, in the case of cessation of aggressive actions, these disputes will become more common in a way that seriously threatens such organizations which will cause them to blend in with other organizations or probably leave and look for new fields of Jihad.
It should be marked, as well, that the violence and extremism of state operated by Assad regime is one of the main causes that generates a similar counter–violence on the other side. The massacres, which have been doing by regime, strength the desire for revenge and convert many to radicalism. Ending the war in Syria would weaken causes of extremism and violence among those organisations and their allies.
According to the above mentioned analysis we can conclude that such organizations do not constitute any strategic threat for the future of Syria after the fall of the regime. There might be some combats against such organizations in the future, but generally it cannot exist for long. Still, wise people and those who have influence on the Syrian situation today have to take many measures that will stop these organizations from being a strategic threat for Syria’s future, and that’s what will be discussed in the next point.
It is still important to point out that the length of the war in Syria and its extension for many years could lead to radical changes in the demographic composition of Syria and consequently lead to the change of the social, cultural, and economic composition of Syria in a way that can be completely different from what the situation was prior to the revolution. This will create new standards and basis that are different from the basis of this analysis.
Recommendations and Practical Solutions:
We will view many recommendations that can contribute to weaken extremism and build the foundations for a more healthy work environment in Syria.
● Shedding the light on negative actions through the delimitation of terms and systematic classification:
The descriptions of radicalism and extremism and terrorism are being used as general terms. It’s an urgent necessity to provide clear definitions for radicalism and extremism, in a way that helps to make realistic classification based on clear criteria and real events. Such classification will help to form Collective consciousness against the extreme practices and terrorism, no matter what are the sources or ideology of it, and will give the opportunity to try terrorists according to laws based on specific criteria, And it will make an end to the disrupting Generalizations being used abruptly in media, and will help prevent accusing others of extremism and terrorism as a way to take advantage or in competitions among politicians and political parties. We can’t build a front of moderates against the front of extremists without having clear classifying criteria accepted from society in general.
Still, the challenge in this case lies in determining the responsible party that can strictly define extremism and put standards for it. The challenge also lies in the party that will use these standards and criteria to issue periodic bulletins determining what are the organizations that are accused of extremism and terrorism according to these standards. Those periodic bulletins will not be limited to Jihadist Salafi organizations, but it must also contain all the deviant actions regardless of its ideology. Any step of that kind would create a situation where the society will stand together against extremism and terrorism regardless of its source or ideology. It also will put an end to the generalizations that are used randomly in the media and will constitute an obstacle against accusations of extremism and terrorism that are used in partisan and political competitions.
● Work to change the environment that incubates extremism:
Any step towards decreasing chaos and increasing stability in the areas out of regime hands is naturally a step towards decreasing the ability of hardline ideologies to thrive and grow. There must be a superior authority in the liberated areas that sets the legal and judicial references and re–establishes the foundation of local governance. The weakness of the Syrian Coalition does not help in organizing and stabilizing the liberated areas and this has ultimately lead to the creation of an environment in which extremism can thrive. The Coalition must remedy its points of weakness by building bridges with those working on the ground in order organize everyday affairs in the liberated areas gradually.
● Countering extremist ideologies:
Civil societies and organizations can (or should) cooperate with Muslim scholars that are known to be moderate in order to systematically raise awareness and promote a true understanding of Islam as a religion of guidance rather than a religion of violence. There must also be projects that raise awareness about modern political systems and the role of Islam in politics (the Turkish may be useful in this context). Due to its centralized network of donations and support, the Coalition most probably serves as the best sponsor for such projects. In addition, Islamic organizations across the Muslim world can help with such projects by promoting and preaching its moderate understanding of Islam. Islamic thinkers and theologians must be encouraged to renew and improve their discourse as to emphasize what can be learned from the progress achieved in the administration of human societies, public institutions, and issues of public affairs. The presence of a political system that is in harmony with the (moderate) Islamic ideology will most certainly weaken extremist ideologies and their appeal.
● Countering through containment:
There may be a need to contain some hardline groups by forging agreements with them. The forging of agreements does not occur between friends only, but also occurs between rivals in order to minimize public harm. In order to execute such a thing, the political leadership must have a clear vision as to how to deal with this issue and the possible solutions. Depending on what serves the public good, there may be a resort to incorporation through dialogue and understanding. It is very possible that the followers of extremist groups will be polarized to the moderate side when they see the political leadership dealing with them in a positive manner.
Many hardline groups are accused of being a product and agent of the regime, which have not been proved yet. This does not mean, however, that these groups are immune to infiltration by the regime and individual criminals who see religiosity and military power as an easy way to authority. This may explain many of the kidnappings and assaults which have no relation to religion in any way, shape, or form. In any case, the main disagreement with these groups lies in the issue of the future political system, the state, and the means of governance. Using military power against such groups could shift the battle from a political/ideological one to an existential war which would lead to two war fronts and an increase in sympathy and polarization towards hardline groups.
The best way to deal with extremist groups is to strengthen civil groups and societies and promote stability while also establishing civil, legal, and judicial references. In addition, there must be a specialized committee that works on defining and delimiting many of the controversial terms. The brigades can then be categorized based on these agreed–upon definitions. The dispute with the extremist groups is an ideological one that must be remedied through ideological, political, and awareness projects while also engaging in dialogue with those groups. Any military action against these groups will aggravate the issue and will distract from the real war with the regime, which does not serve Syrian interests.
There are two remaining things that must be noted:
Many of the current fighters in Syria (regardless of ideology) have picked up arms as a form of self-defence. This was not a voluntary act as much as it was an act of desperation with the absence of any alternative. The prolonging of the conflict will have an effect on those individuals who were originally civilians. Many of these individuals will suffer from an identity crisis and will have a hard time re–entering civil society after the conflict ends. In order for the current fighters to return back to their previous occupations, there must be projects that aim to rehabilitate and re–train them. This challenge is no less important than the challenged posed by hardline ideologies. There is a dire need for research that analyzes this issue and provides solutions as the problem can be tackled starting from today.
All that has been mentioned in this paper regarding the challenge of extremism and other problems in Syria need a sponsoring leadership. Despite the Coalition’s weakness and inability to lead, it can still have a role to play in building a team of strategic planners who are expected define and delimit terms and lay down a general plan to tackle the problems that are and will be faced Syria. On this basis, executive programs can be initiated. The absence of such efforts will only bring chaos to the liberated areas and will strengthen the regime’s argument that it is the only guarantee for stability.
If western countries want to help Syrians through their crisis, they should support the stability of civil society in Syria and help by establishing the decentralised local governments rules. If they want to combat and curb violence and extremism, more help to reduce violence should be provided, along with more effort to end the Assad’s war on Syrian people.