The Rise of Jihad in Syria's Four Year War

Briefing Note

The Rise of Jihad in Syria's Four Year War

13 Mar 2015

Four years into the Syrian conflict, the religious and sectarian tones continue to rise. This briefing note looks at how the growth of jihad explains the motivations and justifications of its protagonists.

Four years into the Syria conflict, simple narratives have unraveled, further complicating any substantial international engagement with the country. It no longer represents a binary conflict, with the two major forces (ISIS and the regime) in most cases not seeing each other as priority targets. The rapid rise of ISIS in Syria and Iraq is now seen by most as posing a greater threat to the West than Assad's regime, the initial catalyst for opposition.

Meanwhile, recent interviews with the BBC and Foreign Affairs seem to represent an active attempt by Assad to present himself to the West as the lesser of two evils, by acting as a bulwark against extremism (a net that has been cast very wide in a conflict with very few truly 'secular' actors). The self-presentation has been consistent throughout the conflict, even at the time when salafi-jihadi groups were an insignificant part of the opposition.

Trends of increasing internationalisation and religionisation of the conflict are in large part down to the shifting ideological centre of gravity of many of the key actors on the ground. Three aspects of the conflict's development help to explain its current dynamics:

The Assad Regime

The Syria conflict began through violent opposition to the autocratic Assad government, and this has continued to be a significant driver for violence. However, there was a gradual shift in the dominant rhetoric away from toppling a brutal dictator towards removing a Shia (and specifically Alawi) tyrant, a narrative aided by the involvement of the Lebanese Hizbullah militia in propping up the regime. This narrative was both symptomatic of the growth of sectarianism in the conflict and simultaneously spurred it on, but was highly significant in internationalising the struggle.

Since early in the conflict, Assad used the threat of jihadism to build support among many religious minorities in Syria, including Christians, and Druze, perpetuating the narrative of an exclusively Sunni rebellion against the regime. The seeds of this narrative of sectarian divide run deep, and can be found rooted in the infamous Hama Massacre in 1982 where tens of thousands of citizens were killed by Syrian armed forces putting down a Muslim Brotherhood uprising, effectively ending a five-year campaign by Sunni rebel groups against the government.

The False Secular/Religious Dichotomy

The increasing 'religionisation' of the war in Syria has had a profound effect on conflict dynamics on the ground and has posed serious questions for international involvement. However a false dichotomy has been drawn between the original secular revolt, and the recent rise of influence in jihadi groups. Even at the beginning of the conflict in 2011, when the conflict was being seen by many through the lens of 'secular' rebellion, rhetoric was framed around political jihad, whilst rebels who were killed were referred to as martyrs.

There has been a campaign by both regime and jihadi forces against moderates.

International concerns about radical Islamist pockets in the opposition, including Islamist brigades in the Free Syrian Army, have been overtaken by the huge growth of jihadism in the Syrian war, which began as a small and concentrated force, but has now become the main vehicle for opposition (alongside the largely localised Kurdish resistance). Even before the rise of groups such as ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, the use of jihadi symbols, including the black flag commonly associated with al-Qaeda, was prevalent as a banner for expressing opposition to the regime.

Jihadi groups used this sort of sentiment to blur the lines between the Islamist-nationalist opposition and the international salafi-jihadism they represent. This allowed them to to consolidate their rapid gains in eastern Syria throughout 2013 and 2014. The decline of the influence of rebels aligned with the Free Syrian Army across the country is partly due to a concerted campaign by both the regime and jihadis against moderate groups (the 'grayzone' as ISIS describe it in their propaganda), in an attempt to cultivate an 'us or them' narrative useful for both groups in garnering support, including from overseas.

The Role and Motivations of Foreign Fighters

Over 20,000 foreign fighters have now travelled to the Syria/Iraq conflict, the vast majority of whom are in Syria, overtaking in four years the total number of fighters who travelled to the Afghanistan conflict throughout the 1980s. 

Many who first travelled to Syria from abroad had a largely humanitarian agenda, driving ambulances and running clinics in the name of protecting Muslims from a repressive regime that Western governments were applying little pressure to. Some remained to join militias fighting the regime, but remained focused on liberation.

Foreign fighters are shifting away from local and towards global aims.

However, this local focus has shifted for an increasing number of fighters towards international goals. This reflects a parallel trend in motivations often cited for jihad, moving away from a concern for the existential threat to Syria's Sunnis, towards a focus on fighting against the West, and establishing an Islamic utopia. Foreign jihadis tend also to have a more global ideology, and are less embedded in the local focuses of rebel groups. ISIS, already operating in both Iraq and Syria, played into this agenda by laying claim to 'provinces' in Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Afghanistan and most recently Nigeria, in the name of its global caliphate.

Foreign fighters have often had trouble garnering local support because of their largely radical agenda, and disregard for the concerns of the local populace. Because of this, they largely operate as a state within a state in Syria, seen through the example of the Khorasan Group, an elite al-Qaeda cabal with a 'far-enemy' focus, embedded within the more integrated and localised Jabhat al-Nusra.

The jihadisation of the conflict has muddled any coherent response from international actors looking for a smooth end to the crisis engulfing the country. In a war increasingly characterised by fragmentation and sectarianism, salafi-jihadi groups have thrived on the chaos prompted by the withdrawal of the regime into its heartlands. By accomplishing what few jihadi groups had previously achieved, controlling and governing territory, ISIS in particular has been able to consolidate their domestic support by framing their enemy within apocalyptic terms, thus making their pernicious ideology an even more difficult one to dislodge.


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