Descent into Civil War and the Corruption of the Opposition
From the start of the 2011 Syrian uprising, the Assad regime sought to delegitimize the opposition as the historical enemy of the Syrian State; Salafist Islamists. Assad used not only Syria’s own history with that group, but the evidence easily seen across the Middle East that wherever the presence of Salafist groups operated, calamity followed. The International Community viewed these groups as the antithesis for peace and stability, and states from Russia to the United States all considered Salafists as the ‘archetypal terrorist’ and one that would be combated wherever they operated. The predictability in which Salafist groups would behave was well documented by 2011, and one that the Syrian regime would seek to use to fracture this fledgling opposition that was still trying to find its direction.
In 2011 the Assad regime was also struggling to find their direction to effectively counter a popular ideology run by the desire for reform and democracy. The answer would lie not in force of arms, but in the minds of men languishing in regime prisons. In a quiet shift of strategy, the regime would make a risky move and let loose ideological enemies of the state in the hopes that they would behave exactly as their identity dictated. By October 2011, the Assad regime had released over 1,500 jailed opposition members from its prisons across the country, many of them being the Salafists Islamists jailed in the previous decade. These Salafists would go on to join opposition forces against the regime as predicted, and the calculated radicalization of the opposition had begun in earnest. By 2014, the leadership of every Salafist group from Jabhat al-Nursa, the Islamic State, Ahrar al-Sham, and Jayesh al Islam all contained men let loose by the Assad regime.
Prior to the release of the Salafists, opposition groups floundered in attempts to form a unified front against the regime. Disagreements on political direction, military operations, and organizational structure, plagued the Free Syrian Army (FSA) opposition. It was the arrival of the Islamists that would mark a period of focus that was initially welcomed by many within the FSA. Where the FSA was made up of mostly civilian soldiers, the Islamists brought with them a level of experience and discipline that was sorely needed. One FSA fighter would remark that before the Islamists came, we (FSA) still wore sandals to battle. Footwear aside, one of the greatest weapons the Islamists brought was their conviction. They brought with them an unshakable identity, and one that welcomed battle. As the regime escalated their violence against the FSA, so did the religiousness and conviction of the Islamists and their new FSA allies. The positive feedback loop of brutality was brought on by a sense of identity that not only embraced violence but perpetuated it. Emboldened by a gradual acceptance of Salafist on the battlefield, radical mosques soon became public supports of this ideology. By February 2012, the first of the calls to Jihad were made by the leader of Al-Qaeda and marked a shift towards a religious war against the Assad regime. Salafist groups like Ahrar al-Sham, and the Army of Islam initially sought to placate the fears of the population that Salafist groups would only bring sectarian violence by denouncing terrorism. Yet the more radical of their brethren soon dominated the battlefield in efficiency and brutality.
By late 2012, the radicalization of the opposition was complete, the risky calculation of the Assad regime’s release of Salafist prisoners had paid off. Salafist identity had indeed proved to be as predictable as it was effective. The very justification that Assad had presented to the country had proved correct in his self-fulfilling prophecy. Jihadist groups that would soon make the Hama Massacre pale in comparison to the carnage they would unleash, justified an ever-increasing sectarian war. By the time the secular opposition realized the folly in fostering a Salafist Identity within its ranks, it was already too late; the betrayal was complete when the Islamists took take the power advantage in Syria, forcing the West to abandon its attempts to support the uprising, and the US turned to backing Kurdish Nationalists in the countries North East.
“We had faith that Syrian society would never accept their rule. Now we can see this was a mistake,” lamented an opposition member in 2013.
Capitalizing on the fears of the Alawite, Christian, and Druze minorities of being ‘surrounded by a sea of Sunnis’, the regime proved it’s justification of it’s brutality. This would draw many of these populations back into the fold of the regime, as memories of the Hama Massacre were invoked when given the choice between Salafists or the Regime. The manufactured fear of the Salafist identity caused minority groups to fight together against the Salafists, as siding with the regime would be the lesser evil that minority groups felt forced to choose between.