Syria’s Salafist Legacy
The history of Salafist identity in Syria is one that stretches back hundreds of years. Lawrence of Arabia remarked on the presence and the ‘forcible piousness’ of Wahhabis at the turn of the century, while organizing the Arab Revolt in 1916. Ironically, he would then lead many Wahhabis who supported this cause to the gates of Damascus in 1918. Yet, it was the Syrian Islamist Uprising from 1976-1982 that would provide the Assad regime the historical evidence and the fearful imagery of Salafists that would be used to fan the flames of fear in 2012.
Led by the Salafist Muslim Brotherhood of Syria, a revolt began in 1979 against then Hafiz al-Assad (Bashar al-Assad’s father) and his secular Ba’athist party. This was quickly framed by the regime as one that pit radical Jihadist groups seeking to undo the state in favour of an Islamic run state, and a secular state that was a bulwark against that very radicalization. As the uprising dragged on, the scale to destruction escalated, the regime responded with brutality and atrocities were well documented.
“We are prepared to massacre a thousand men a day to rid this city [Aleppo] of the Muslim Brotherhood vermin” cried Assad regime General Shafiq Fayadh in the later stages of the uprising by a regime commander prior to the suppression of Islamists in Aleppo. The escalation of the conflict came to a head in the 1982 Hama Massacre, where the regime crushed the final vestiges of the Islamist uprising.
In the years that followed, the Assad regime sought to eradicate any Islamist tendencies through brutal repression and fiery speeches denouncing the Salafists as worthy of death. The Syrian population grew to associate the ruin brought upon them from the six years of fighting with the Salafist ideology and implementation of Islamism, an association that was not far from reality, yet responsibility for the Islamic Uprising from 1976-1982 was internationally credited to both the Muslim Brotherhood and the Assad Regime.
The legacy of the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist Jihadism would come to prominence in 2011, when the Syrian Uprising began in February of that year. Emboldened by the successful uprisings across the Arab world, Syrians across ethnic and cultural lines saw an opportunity to do the same with their own regime, whom many saw as one that denied their humanity. The spectre of Islamism was one far from the minds of the those who took to the streets in February and March. Talk of democracy and reform dominated the early protests, where Islamists and jihad were brushed off with a naive disregard for history. The hope of a new era of democracy and political reform not seen in the country since 2001 was strengthened by claims that the regime had tortured children and opposition members. Soon, calls from the International Community would condemn the regime’s response to these peaceful calls for reform, and as the regime escalated their violence against the protestors so too rose popular support for the opposition. While on the outside the regime seemed to be crumbling, the Assad regime had an unwitting ally in a latent ideology that it would soon use against that opposition with devastating effects.
The fears of what a Muslim Brotherhood agenda operating in Syria could mean, was shared by many peoples across sectarian lines since the Hama Massacre. Salafists were treated with even greater suspicion across the country since the 2005 Salafist-led insurgency in Iraq. To the average Syrian, Salafist identity would soon become synonymous with jihad and sectarian violence. The Iraq Jihad Insurgency from 2005-2010 was seen as a blessing in disguise for the Assad regime; behind the scenes, the Syria government indirectly facilitated Salafist Jihadists to enter Iraq to pursue their goals, and rid Syria of its homegrown Jihadists. Subsequently, following the success of the 2007 “Awakening” campaign in Iraq, Syria received a flood of the very same Salafist Jihadists it had earlier indirectly facilitate their departure from Syria attempting to flee Iraq into Syria and the US Armed Forces retribution. However, they would find themselves thrown in jails on their arrival back into Syria. By 2011, the brutal Syrian regime-controlled prisons were overrun with Salafist Jihadists, armed both with the ideology and desire to enact retribution on the Syrian Regime if ever given the opportunity.