Is the Salafist Threat In Syria Just a Convenient Illusion?

Article Summary
Are the Salfists a real threat, or is the Syrian regime simply using the extremist group to de-legitimize the revolution and scare the public, asks Hazim al-Amin. Syria used the Salafists to counter the US in Iraq only to later dispense of them, and now, like many before it, it is paying the price.

The recent blasts in Damascus have awoken the Salafist issue in Syria. More accurately, they helped to solidify the regime's version of the ongoing protest movement that began over 15 months ago. According to the official version of the story, Syria was immune to the "Salafist invasion" prior to the protest movement because of the Baa'th Party’s protection and its grand mission to "confront" the enemy. The regime believes that only a few tensions existed in what was otherwise a coherent, unified society mainly concerned with the bigger picture. As soon as security forces targeted Deraa during initial protests, which led to an eruption of demonstrations, the Salafist specter was awoken once again.  According to the Baa'thists, the "armed gangs" are the most significant players in the revolution and their aim is to emulate what happened in Iraq [after the US invasion].

In reality, many different factors led to the outburst of the revolution. Exaggerating the Salafist threat has been one of the approaches adopted by the regime, but its use of this tactic has since been exposed. Even though Syria is incapable of publishing documented news reports, this should no longer be a problem given that the Salafist phenomenon will be revealed in front of the the now-present UN observers. Most of what the observers see ultimately will demonstrate how the regime was responsible for creating and exaggerating this phenomenon. The regime is also containing its language over this phenomenon to the Syrian framework. This may lead one to believe that the Syrian Salafists are not linked to the regional Salafist jihadist network.

First of all, it is a well-known fact that the "Syrian Salafist" network  was nurtured during its time as part of the "Iraqi resistance." At this point, Salafism was viewed as a form of "resistance," not terrorism, despite the fact that these groups were responsible for killing civilians in Iraq prior to the arrival of US troops.

Back then, the Salafists resided in Syrian cities. They welcomed volunteers, and established relationships with the local residents. The jihadists then married the sisters of their Syrian intermediaries and used their mosques to propagate their call.

During this time, the Syrian regime was focused on Iraq. Even though it had a few other concerns to deal with, the regime chose to prioritize developments in Iraq as its primary mission. Then, once the regime was unable to continue to control the Salafists it formerly supported, it decided to kill them. There are many similar cases of this.

It is important to base our interpretations of the recent blasts that took place in Syria on this type of analysis. It is also important to note that many countries before Syria exploited Salafist groups at one point, only to eventually pay the price.

Pakistan harbored Salafist groups during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, as well as during the period of Taliban rule. However, this resulted in the spread of terrorism into Pakistan from Afghanistan.

Yemen can also be used as an example. Former President Ali Abdallah Saleh recruited jihadists from Afghanistan to fight within his ranks during the 1994 war against Southern Yemen. The jihadist Salafists chose to remain in Yemen and have been a thorn in the side of the authorities ever since.

It is worth noting that both the Pakistani and Yemeni models resemble the current Syrian model. They are similar not only because of the surrounding circumstances, but also because these governments continue, much like the Syrian regime, to exploit the Salafist threat in order to shield themselves.

Facts emerged after Pakistan's Pervez Musharraf resigned as president of Pakistan and after Saleh was toppled in Yemen, proving that the threat posed by Al-Qaeda was fabricated by these rulers to intimidate the public. The official security service agencies played a role in fabricating this illusion.

The Syrian crisis has also unveiled another issue regarding the Salafists. Many of those who are taking part in the uprising were released by the regime as part of the general amnesty issued by President Bashar al-Assad on the first day of the revolution.

The amnesty that included "Islamists," according to the official statement issued back then, chiefly benefited hundreds of Syrian Salafists detained by the authorities during the Iraq War. They were detained after they formed organizations which were eventually rendered useless due to the "end of jihad in Iraq" and the closing of the borders with Iraq.

This fact has been confirmed by a number of individuals, whose names were revealed among those killed in the Damascus countryside and in Idlib.

There is no doubt that those prisoners were specifically released to undermine the revolution. This tactic directly resulted in the creation of “emirates” in regions where the revolution is taking place. This is reminiscent of what Saleh attempted to do when his army retreated from Zinjibar — it paved the way for Al-Qaeda militants to take control of the town during the very first months of the Yemeni revolution.

However, the absence of non-Syrian elements, according to the Salafists, does not support the Syrian regime’s narrative. On the contrary, it weakens it. Al-Qaeda has been known to always involve outside elements in its activities. So far, we have not witnessed the presence of non-Syrian elements in Syria, and attempts to fabricate their existence have otherwise failed.

There are only two factors that will strengthen the revolution in Syria and discredit the Salafist threat that is being exploited by the regime. First of all, it is obvious that the countries that played critical roles in Al-Qaeda infiltrating Iraq are not the same countries neighboring Syria. The Syrian regime itself was at the forefront of Salafist infiltration into Iraq. Syria’s border with Jordan is firmly closed and the border with Turkey falls under the Muslim Brotherhood’s jurisdiction, not that of the Salafists. And in Lebanon, Salafism is still powerless, although it may not remain so for long if local authorities there empower it in the same manner as the Syrian regime.

Of course this does not mean that there are no cracks through which Salafist jihadists can infiltrate Syria. But this infiltration can only happen with the support of the regime in Damascus.

The second factor that rules out the possibility of the Salafist presence in Syria is the critical situation in which Al-Qaeda, the parent organization of the Salafist jihadists, currently finds itself. Anybody who reads some of Al-Qaeda’s recently published documents — i.e. the letter Bin Laden wrote prior to his assassination — will realize that the late Bin Laden had been reduced to a mere adviser when it came to terrorism. Thanks to the Arab revolutions, he did not have the ability or the power to actually manage this savage business. 

Found in: us invasion of iraq, baa’th party, us, syrian crisis, syrian, salafists, islamists, al-qaeda

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