Syria's Monster of Fear, Part 1

Roots of the Syrian Civil War

Syria sits at a crossroads of the Levant, where a myriad of ideological and political groups vies for power, land and a sense of identity. Following the start of the ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings in 2010, Syria would soon find itself in an escalating conflict built around those concepts that would result in the most catastrophic loss of life of all the revolutions.

While one of the last Arab states to undergo a popular uprising, the Syrian iteration of the Arab Spring movement, that started in Daraa in March 2011, seemed to follow the narrative of the other Arab states that had undergone popular uprisings in the preceding months. Citizens rallied around public outcry to authoritarianism, street protests were held, regimes responded with brutal suppression, opposition groups were formed, outside aid was sought, and in some cases dictators overthrown. The peaceful transition of power in Tunisia, to the violent toll of Libya, saw the uprisings take many forms, yet all saw the fall of despots.  In early 2011, the Syrian regime under the rule of President Bashar al-Assad sought to steer clear of a repeating course events that had led to the fall of Ben Ali’s Tunisia, Mubarak’s Egypt, and Ghaddafi’s Libya.    

As Assad’s firm, initial statements on stability and reform quickly turned to a brutal application of force, the regime used a tactic that would prove to be the hallmark of the Syrian Civil War; the coercive use of non-negotiable identities to both justify its actions and regain popular support. Of these identities the most influential; violent Salafist Islamism was an identity that transcended state borders, and in some cases sought to undo those very boundaries as part of a holy struggle that would engulf the region by 2014.  This identity proved to be both a driving force in the direction of the Syrian Civil War, and a tool to be wielded by those within the Assad regime who sought to capitalize on the instability that the identity brought. Once mocked by Syrians at the beginning of the uprising, the omnipresent threat of ‘Salafist terrorists’ were made manifest by early 2013 and Assad’s self-fulfilling prophecy complete. The Syrian uprisings can credit much of its failure to the Assad regime’s manipulation of the non-negotiable identity of Salafist Jihadists, between 2011 and 2012.



The terms Islamist, Jihadist, and Salafist are all terms that are frequently used but require definition. Islamists are of a political identity that seeks to impose a version of Islam over a population or government. This can take many forms, and has ranged from pacifist movements to those violent ones that have recently risen to prominence. While the boundaries of where one’s desire for change and the means in which they do so can be sometimes blurred, the unifying factor of Islamism is a desire for political change in an Islamic fashion. Salafism is an even more disputed term, as they are sometimes indistinguishably referred to as Wahhabism; the nuance between the two terms is one of debate between Islamic scholars and political scientists.  The tenants of Salafism come from a belief and identity that Islam is meant to be practiced in a very conservative and traditional way, where the word of the Quran and the lifestyle of Muslims living at the time of the Prophet Mohammed were to be preserved in absolution.  Wahhabism comes from the belief system from an 18th century Salafist reformist Muhammad ibn Abd- al Wahhab who desired an aggressive application of Salafist ideology across the Muslim world. In this paper, the term Salafist will be used to describe both this conservative Islamic belief system and its more modern counterpart of Wahhabism.

At the core of the term Jihad is the concept of a fighting a struggle, one divided into a ‘greater’ which includes moral and ethical internal struggles, and the ‘lesser’ in which these struggles took the form of externalities like war. A Jihadist does not necessarily imply violence, however many of groups we see today have adopted a very militant form of religiously dictated violence where the term Jihad is invoked by many who act in the name Islam. When the term Jihadist is used in conjunction with Islamist, it presupposes that a ‘struggle’ is necessary to effecting change that brings about Islamic rule of law.  Jihadists are unified by their fanatical conviction of universal acceptance of violent tactics to achieve their goals. This Jihadist ideology not only makes this violence a prerequisite in achieving goals, but one that is a religious duty akin to praying.  One can be an Islamist and a Salafist without resorting to violence, but for simplicity, this paper will refer to Salafist Jihadists to describe a specific brand of Islamic motivated violent armed groups seeking to overthrow the regime and impose Islamic Law.   The two most prominent Salafist Jihadist groups currently in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra (renamed Jabhat Fateh al-Sham in July 2016) and the Islamic State, have been very explicate in their beliefs and makes no attempt to hide its motivations. Islamic State publications Dabiq and Rumiyah make it very clear on the aims of the group and the role their identity has to play, including: the desire for the return of an ‘Islamic Golden Age’, hate for the infidel, justification of violence, and most importantly the role of the Salafist identity in their past, present, and future ambitions.

Salafist Jihadist groups have found a fertile breeding ground in the recent uprisings in the Middle East as the opportunity uniquely presented itself to both express their identity and to pursue both religious and political goals with weakened states. Prior to the Syrian uprising, each of the other Arab states undergoing revolutions had a substantial Salafist Islamist presence and in some cases this identity led successful political movements.  The weakness of the state, as well as a disenfranchised and often desperate population, allowed for this particular ideology to gain an easy and organic foothold. Where Salafist Jihadists differ is in the unshakable belief that their actions are not only just and God-given, but that act of carrying out these goals violently are vital to the process, and give this brand of Islamism a malicious presence.  In the Syrian context, Salafist Islamism would pursue drastic social, religious and political change that had not been seen at that scale in the Arab Spring. This aggressive acceleration of Salafism has widespread implications that is compounded by the fanatical and uncompromising conviction of those who adhere to these beliefs and the fertile historical sectarian grounds that Syria presented. This identity would form the bedrock that the Assad regimes strategy would use to its advantage.  

About the Author

Gavin Bryan John is a freelance photojournalist and documentary photographer. He is currently pursuing a degree in Middle Eastern studies at the University of Calgary, and has a Journalism diploma with a major in Photojournalism.