Principal The Syrian Jihad: Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and the Evolution of an Insurgency

The Syrian Jihad: Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and the Evolution of an Insurgency

The eruption of the anti-Assad revolution in Syria has had many unintended consequences, among which is the opportunity it offered Sunni jihadists to establish a foothold in the heart of the Middle East. That Syria's ongoing civil war is so brutal and protracted has only compounded the situation, as have developments in Iraq and Lebanon. Ranging across the battlefields and international borders have been dozens of jihadi Islamist fighting groups, of which some coalesced into significant factions such as Jabhat al Nusra and the Islamic State.

This book assesses and explains the emergence since 2011 of Sunni jihadist organizations in Syria's fledgling insurgency, charts their evolution and situates them within the global Islamist project. Unprecedented numbers of foreign fighters have joined such groups, who will almost certainly continue to host them. Thus, external factors in their emergence are scrutinized, including the strategic and tactical lessons learned from other jihadist conflict zones and the complex interplay between Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State and how it has influenced the jihadist sphere in Syria. Tensions between and conflict within such groups also feature in this indispensable volume.
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THE SYRIAN JIHAD

CHARLES R. LISTER

The Syrian Jihad
Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and the
Evolution of an Insurgency

A

A
Oxford University Press is a department of the
University of Oxford. It furthers the University’s objective
of excellence in research, scholarship, and education
by publishing worldwide.
Oxfordâ•… New York
Aucklandâ•… Cape Townâ•… Dar es Salaamâ•… Hong Kongâ•… Karachi
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New Delhiâ•…Shanghaiâ•…Taipeiâ•…Toronto
With offices in
Argentinaâ•…Austriaâ•…Brazilâ•…Chileâ•…Czech Republicâ•…Franceâ•…Greece
Guatemalaâ•…Hungaryâ•…Italyâ•…Japanâ•…Polandâ•…Portugalâ•…Singapore
South Koreaâ•…Switzerlandâ•…Thailandâ•…Turkeyâ•…Ukraineâ•…Vietnam
Oxford is a registered trade mark of Oxford University Press
in the UK and certain other countries.
Published in the United States of America by
Oxford University Press
198 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 10016
Copyright © Charles R. Lister 2015
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced,
stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means,
without the prior permission in writing of Oxford University Press,
or as expressly permitted by law, by license, or under terms agreed with
the appropriate reproduction rights organization. Inquiries concerning
reproduction outside the scope of the above should be sent to the
Rights Department, Oxford University Press, at the address above.
You must not circulate this work in any other form
and you must impose this same condition on any acquirer.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available
Charles R. Lister.
The Syrian Jihad: Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and the Evolution of an Insurgency.
ISBN: 9780190462475

CONTENTS

Acknowledgements
Preface

ix
xi

Introduction

1
PART I
SETTING THE SCENE

╇ 1.╇Breaking Down the Barriers: Protest
╇2.╇Underlying Instability
╇ 3.╇ Syria’s Flirtation with Jihadism

11
19
31

PART II
FIRST ON THE SCENE

╇ 4.╇ March–December 2011: Jabhat Al-Nusra Forms
╇;  5.╇ January–August 2012: Jabhat Al-Nusra Emerges
╇ 6.╇ September 2012–March 2013: Jabhat Al-Nusra Rises

51
63
83

PART III
MAKING A SCENE

╇ 7.╇ April–June 2013: The Islamic State Joins the Conflict
╇ 8.╇ July–December 2013: Rising Tensions
╇ 9.╇ January–April 2014: Turning Against the Islamic State

119
151
185

PART IV
CALIPHATES, EMIRATES AND DIVERGENCE

10.╇ May–August 2014: Declaring a Caliphate
v

221

CONTENTS

11.╇
12.╇
13.╇
14.╇

The Islamic State
September–December 2014: Strikes and Divisions
January–June 2015: Tipping the Scales
The Syrian Jihad

Notes
Bibliography
Index

vi

261
279
319
369
395
431
455

T U R K E Y

Gaziantep

Al-Raqqah
Aleppo

Idlib

Latakia

Tartus

Sinjar

Al-Hasakah

Al-Raqqa

Tal Afar

0

Mosul

Hama

Tartus

Homs

Ninawa

Sulaimaniyah
Kirkuk

Deir ez Zour

Hama

N

S Y R I A

Salah ad Din

Homs

NO

Kirkuk

Tikrit

I RA N

Diyala

Samarra

Baqubah

DAMASCUS
Deraa

Al-Sulaimaniyah

Baiji

Deir
ez Zour

BA

LE
Quneitra

100

km

Irbil

Idlib

Tripoli
BEIRUT

Al-Hasakah

Aleppo

Latakia

Irbil

Tel Abyad

Bab Al Salameh

Bab
al-Hawa

N

Dohuk

Qamishli
Al-Yaroubiya
Ras al-Ayn

Kobane

Jarablus

Al-Anbar

Ramadi

Fallujah

Rif Dimashq

BAGHDAD

Wasit

Al-Suwayda

I R A Q

Deraa

Karbala

Babil

Karbala
West
Bank

Najaf

Al-Qadisiyah

Maysan

ISR

AEL

Dhi Qar
Al-Najaf

Nasiriyah

J O R D A N
S A U D I

A R A B I A

Basrah

Al-Muthanna

Al-Basrah

K U WAIT
© S.Ballard (2015)

© S Ballard (2015)

T U R K E Y

Gaziantep
Jarablus

Ras al-Ayn

Al-Yaroubiya

ta

y

Kilis

Qamishli

Kobane

H

Afrin

a

Tel Abyad

Manbij

Azaz

Al-Hasakah

Al-Bab

Reyhanli
Aleppo
Idlib

Idlib

Raqqah

Al e ppo

R
iv

Qardaha

er

Hama

Tartus

Deir ez Zour

Ham a

Al-Mayadin

D e ir ez Zo u r

Tartus

Homs
Al-Qusayr

Palmyra

Al-Bukamal
Al-Qaim

Laboue

B

A

N

O

N

Tripoli

LE

p
es

Latakia

Eu

at

Al-Tabqah

Marat al-Numan

hr

Latakia

I R A Q

Al-H a s a k a h

Al - Raqqah

Hom s

Baalbek

BEIRUT
Sidon

I R A Q

DAMASCUS
Quneitra
Lake
Tiberius

Ri f D i m ashq

D e r aa
Al-Suwayda

Deraa

Al-Suwayda
N

J O R D A N
AMMAN

0

75

km

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

This book is the result of over four years of research and personal experience
of what must be one of the most tragic and deadly revolutions and civil conflicts in modern history. Knowing Syria personally, and having walked its
streets, met and got to know its people, and fallen for its natural and architectural beauty and social vibrancy, the violence, hatred and destruction that has
swept the country since 2011 is simply heartbreaking. The exponential growth
of jihadist militancy is a major source of concern and will continue to be for
many years to come. Its emergence, expansion and consolidation is therefore
a subject that must be better understood.
â•… Firstly, I’m grateful to the Brookings Doha Center for having hosted me as
a roving Visiting Fellow since December 2013. A special thanks in this case
must go to Salman Shaikh, for having taken me on and provided me with the
intellectual space and scholarly independence that has allowed me to gain so
much insight on Syria in recent years. The centre’s broader research and
administrative staff have also been a great support.
â•… My position in the Brookings Doha Center also opened the door to my
assuming a senior role within what has come to be a highly regarded Track II
Syria process, funded by five Western governments. Within this endeavour,
I’m particularly grateful for having had the chance to manage nearly two years
of face-to-face engagement with the leaderships of over 100 of Syria’s most
powerful armed opposition groups around Syria’s borders. The insight gleaned
from this work and the experience of having got to know nearly all of the most
pivotal actors involved in Syria’s conflict has been invaluable in constructing
the core content of this book. With this Track II process now under the tutelage of The Shaikh Group, this experience looks set to continue, and again,
I’m thankful to Salman Shaikh for entrusting me with this.
ix

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

â•… More broadly, I must also thank the hugely impressive network of Middle
East, security, intelligence and terrorism scholars at The Brookings Institution,
with whom I’ve shared many interesting engagements on Syria. These include
William McCants, Shadi Hamid, Bruce Riedel, Kenneth Pollack, Tamara
Wittes, Daniel Byman, Michael O’Hanlon and J.M. Berger. I’d also like to
express my thanks to senior Brookings Institution staff like Martin Indyk and
Bruce Jones for having supported my work and role within such an impressive
organisation as Brookings.
â•… This book has also inevitably been influenced by the excellent work and
research done by other Middle East and Syria specialists, including Robert
Ford, Noah Bonsey, Aron Lund, Emile Hokayem, Maxwell Martin, Thomas
Pierret, Aaron Stein, Sam Heller, Hassan Hassan, Andrew Tabler, Faysal Itani,
Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, Michael Weiss, Aaron Zelin, Charlie Winter,
Thomas Hegghammer, Peter Neumann, Shiraz Maher, Raffaello Pantucci and
Clint Watts. There are many more that could also be named, including countless eminently qualified journalists whose fearless and professional work over
recent years continues to inform the general public of the Syrian situation. I’m
also grateful to the many senior government officials involved in working on
Syria who I have got to know personally—from those in the West, including
from the United Kingdom, the United States, France, Norway, Sweden,
Denmark, Switzerland, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Belgium; to those
across the Middle East.
â•… I also want to thank the academic peer reviewers responsible for taking the
time to read through the manuscript and to have offered their valuable comments. Moreover, I am incredibly grateful to Hurst Publishers and Michael
Dwyer for entrusting me with such a considerable piece of work. Despite the
book focusing on such a dynamic and constantly changing subject, Hurst’s
staff and editor Mary Starkey were unfailingly quick, efficient and flexible in
turning the manuscript into something publishable. I thank them all.
â•… And finally, I must acknowledge how thankful I am to my whole extended
family for their continued support, and especially to my extraordinary wife
Jessica, for her love and patience throughout my endless periods of research
and travel.

x

PREFACE

In the future, historians will look back on 2011 as having been a truly remarkable year for the Middle East and North Africa. In what is still heralded as the
Arab Spring, ordinary citizens of Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Yemen took to the
streets and confronted their corrupt and dictatorial leaders, sparking profound social and political change. Long-held institutional norms of keeping
political dissent, and often frustration, within the confines of one’s own home
were shattered.
â•… Although the Assad regime had clearly demonstrated in previous years its
lack of interest in—or outright refusal to—reform in order to bring Syria into
a new era, many still thought the country would escape the Arab Spring
unscathed. However, when small protests began erupting in early 2011, Syrian
security forces were unforgiving. Many ordinary Syrians who had taken to the
streets in support of political freedom and self-representation, or in protest
against the detention and torture of children in the southern city of Deraa,
were threatened, arrested, and attacked with teargas and live ammunition. A
total refusal by both local and national government to allow for open dissent
directly encouraged the escalation of protest and the birth of a revolution.
â•… In its early stages the Syrian revolution mobilised around issues of liberty,
freedom, anti-corruption and democratic governance. The protests themselves were peaceful, with husbands, wives, children and grandparents all
contributing towards a mass movement for positive change. However, a concerted security campaign aimed at suppressing this expanding revolution not
only consolidated opposition to the Assad regime, but encouraged the mobilisation of local self-protection militias, which by the summer of 2011 had
given rise to the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and a fledgling anti-government
insurgency.
xi

PREFACE

â•… Well over four years later, Syria has become home to the largest, most complex and arguably the most powerful collection of Sunni jihadist movements
in modern history. By September 2015, at least 30,000 foreign fighters,
including as many as 6,000 from Europe,1 had travelled into Syria to fight
jihad—on a scale totally unprecedented for many decades. But it has not only
been men who have travelled to join the Syrian Jihad. Several thousand
women and children have also left for Syria, primarily to join what they perceive to be a fledgling ‘Islamic state’.
â•… Syria’s unique status in Islamic prophecies relating to its central role as
the source of battles that will precede the end of the world has been a major
attraction for jihadist recruits from over 100 countries. The presence of wellestablished jihadist facilitation networks in Syria prior to the revolution, as
well as the country’s proximity to other jihadist hotspots in Iraq and Lebanon,
have also contributed towards its newfound status as the centre of international jihad.
â•… Several terrorist attacks and plots have since been both planned and
inspired by Syria-based jihadists, whose hostility to the Western world was
brought out into the open by US-led airstrikes in the country that began in
late 2014. Those bombing raids had two principal targets: the so-called
Islamic State (IS) and members of al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra (the
Support Front)—two jihadist movements which, despite once being organisationally linked, effectively declared war on each other in 2014. While IS had
established a self-proclaimed caliphate stretching across parts of Syria and Iraq
in mid-2014 and had called for and received pledges of allegiance from small
jihadist groups and individuals around the world, the latter appeared to be
evolving from being a pragmatic and widely popular Syrian jihadist movement
into an organisation with a more overt desire to one day impose its Islamic
rule in other parts of Syria, with or without the support of other factions.
â•… This book is exclusively focused on one component of the Syria-based
insurgency: the role played by Sunni jihadists and their Syrian Salafist allies.
There are of course also Shia jihadists playing an equally significant role in
the conflict, on the side of the regime and Bashar al-Assad. The interplay and
interdependence of both these components will be scrutinised, as will the
role of international state and sub-state actors on both sides of the conflict.
However, the overarching focus of this book is to provide a detailed account
of how the Syrian Jihad emerged, grew and has evolved throughout several
years of brutal conflict. It will therefore follow a chronological format, beginning with early chapters detailing the initially peaceful stages of the revolu€

xii

PREFACE

tion in early 2011; the socio-economic and socio-political underlying factors
behind both the revolution and its susceptibility to jihadism; and an investigation of the Assad regime’s dangerous flirtation with jihadist militancy
that both directly and indirectly facilitated its emergence in the early days of
the revolution.
â•… This book is also driven and motivated by over four years of personal experience and engagement with hundreds of Syrian insurgents, from ordinary
foot-soldiers to many of the most powerful group’s leaders and senior political
command structures, from secular nationalists to devout Salafists. Most of
these men picked up weapons as a last resort to protect their communities, but
they now find themselves embroiled in a vicious and seemingly intractable
civil conflict. Many of these revolutionaries—from young men in their twenties to those in their fifties, all of whose lives have been thrown into turmoil
since 2011—have become friends and acquaintances. It is hard not to take
their stories personally, from a young IT graduate who lost seventeen members of his family in the horrific sarin gas attack outside Damascus in August
2013 to an older sheikh who spent three separate extended periods in prison
living in inhumane conditions and being tortured merely for being an outspoken member of the political Islamist opposition. This is to name only two.
None of these men particularly wanted to be carrying guns in their homeland,
but the struggle for justice and freedom has become a very personal one.
â•… The experiences, stories and comments of these men, all now insurgent
fighters, are interwoven throughout this book. Many now reflect on the
peaceful pre-revolution days and wonder: was all worth it? Why did the
‘West’ come to the aid of Libyans when they rose up against Gaddafi, but
ignored the plight of Syrians when they were beaten, tortured, shot, blown up
and gassed? This is a legitimate question worthy of more investigation.
â•… Four years of concerted research and work on the Syrian conflict and its
complex insurgency has also brought brought me into contact with jihadist
militants, from al-Qaeda, IS and other independent and international groups.
This access has been of immense value in acquiring greater familiarity with
terrorist organisations that are otherwise off limits and closed to Western
nationals. Maintaining contact and a sporadic dialogue with such individuals
is a delicate task, but the insight gleaned proved time and again that it was
worth the time invested. Nonetheless, the publication of an extensive policyfocused assessment of IS for the Brookings Doha Center in December 2014
incurred an aggressive reaction from Islamic State and its support communities online, thus placing this author on several official and unofficial IS ‘lists’.
		
xiii

PREFACE

This experience served as a reminder of the intensity of jihadist self-awareness
and self-protection amid international scrutiny and attack.
â•… Knowing Syria as I do, with its extraordinary history, architectural and
natural beauty and its superlatively welcoming people, the rise of jihadist militancy across the country is deeply concerning. That such groups, who hold
such inherently violent and exclusionary ideologies, have become an integrated and fundamental component of the revolution and the anti-government insurgency is proof only of the failures of the international community
to back a moderate Syrian nationalistic opposition that only wanted better
things for their homeland.
â•… Despite their broad ideological differences, most Syrians still involved in
the revolution in 2015 want what they wanted in 2011, but the sheer power
and intimidating dominance of jihadists has forced them to befriend their
enemies. This book will tell the story of how this unfortunate state of affairs
came to be. Where did the jihadists come from in the first place? How did
they establish themselves, and what was their role in the revolution? What
role did external actors play in facilitating the rise of jihadists and how might
US-led and Russian intervention impact their status in Syria?
â•… These questions and many more form the basis of The Syrian Jihad.
Ultimately, we must also reflect on how a virtuous and well-meaning populist
revolution, yearning only for the virtues of freedom, became transformed into
an intractable civil war in which jihadists have found such a comfortable home.
Charles R. Lister, Doha, October 2015

xiv

INTRODUCTION

Syria currently represents the centre of the world for jihadist militancy. Even
the high-profile conflict in Iraq is a rung lower given the psychological pull of
conflict zones for men seeking to attach an Islamist ideological fervour to a
specific political–military cause. While September 2015 estimates suggested
at least 30,000 non-Syrians have joined the jihad in Syria at some point since
2011, it seems likely that this number is probably higher. After all, intelligence
officials from the UK alone revised that country’s citizen flow into Syria from
600–700 in March 2015 to an extraordinarily higher estimate of 1,600 the
following month, with an additional five citizens leaving for Syria every week.1
â•… Such flows have significantly raised the profile and long-term sustainability
of the jihad in Syria, but the domestic dynamics within Syria have played an
equally significant role, if not one that is far more important.
â•… Understandably, much has been written about the phenomenon that is the
‘Islamic State.’ Its slick media production, its brutal levels of violence, apocalyptic rhetoric, its effective fusion of fanatical Islamic extremism with ideals of
Baathist Arab power, as well as its image as an international movement building
a proto-state that spans across 100-year-old colonial borders, has seized the
world’s imagination. But although initially an Iraq-based organisation, IS benefited hugely from the conflict in Syria, and today the effective capital of its
‘Islamic State’ lies in the northern Syrian city of Raqqa. Moreover, much of the
group’s most valuable resources lie in Syria, where the immense complexity of
the conflict offers it a sustainable long-term presence and territorial control.
â•… The Syrian Jihad is about much more than IS, however. Countless other
powerful jihadist groups have made Syria their base, many of which are led by
and include within their ranks veteran jihadist figures with extensive experience in the upper echelons of al-Qaeda and other major jihadist organisations.
1

THE SYRIAN JIHAD

One of these groups is al-Qaeda’s Jabhat al-Nusra, which has arguably established an even more sustainable presence in Syria than IS. Through an intricately stage-managed game of pragmatism and Machiavellian power politics,
Jabhat al-Nusra has carved out a stake in Syria that over time has become both
tacitly accepted and militarily powerful. Its sustained focus on recruiting heavily from within Syria’s pro-opposition population has ensured it has, by and
large, avoided the kind of isolation from popular opposition dynamics experienced by IS.
â•… However, IS’s dramatic advances in Iraq and its proclamation of a caliphate,
not to mention its status as the primary focus of international airstrikes, has
presented an existential challenge to Jabhat al-Nusra and its jihadist legitimacy. This has encouraged a shift within Jabhat al-Nusra’s pragmatic posture,
to the extent that it has begun to show signs of demonstrating the kind of
belligerent and self-assertive behavior that got IS into trouble in 2013 and
early 2014.
â•… Syria’s Jihad is therefore a complex story, involving a huge cast of jihadist
actors operating within one of the most intense and multifarious civil wars in
recent history. In establishing a base in Syria and by playing a role in its revolution, Sunni jihadists had a crucial part in internationalising the conflict.
â•… One consistent theme throughout the Syrian civil war has been the sheer
multitude of insurgent and jihadist protagonists involved. By early 2015 at
least 150,000 insurgents within as many as 1,500 operationally distinct armed
groups were involved in differing levels of fighting across Syria, some within
broader umbrellas and fronts and others existing entirely independently.
Although the emergence of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in the summer of
2011 appeared at the time to herald the formation of an organised and moderate armed Syrian opposition, it quickly fell victim to the fact that its leadership
was based outside Syria, in refugee camps in southern Turkey. Not only was its
command-and-control potential thus hampered from the start, but its financial support was divided according to the respective interests of regional
countries such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar as well as governments in
Europe and the United States.
â•… In fact, the consistent failure of external states with interests in supporting
the revolution to unify their provision of assistance explains not only the
proliferation of insurgent factions, but also the opposition’s incapacity to
present a genuine threat to the Assad regime. The fact that groups found
themselves having to compete with each other for funding and support, and
in so doing were often moulding their image and ideological frames of refer€

2

INTRODUCTION

ence towards those potential backers, meant that very few of them retained a
consistent strength and long-term viability. Such inconsistencies ensured that
external initiatives aimed at establishing a unified structure for the insurgency
would almost certainly fail. Thus, separate attempts to establish and operationalise provincial military councils, the Supreme Military Council and a
ministry of defence within the exiled interim government all fell far short of
attaining anything like success on the ground inside Syria.
â•… Moreover, although not immediately visible at the time, the FSA was only
one of many armed insurgent movements to emerge in mid-2011. From June
that year a number of more Islamist-minded factions were coming together
and setting up bases outside Damascus, in Homs and in Syria’s north. These
were groups such as Kataib Ahrar al-Sham—which would go on to become
the largest and arguably most powerful Syrian insurgent group—Suqor alSham and Liwa al-Islam, as well as the al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra.
â•… By mid-2011 a broad range of insurgent actors, which reflected the varied
social backgrounds of Syrian society, had emerged. This did not augur well for
a well-organised and unitary armed opposition. Moreover, as time passed,
actors on the more Islamist end of the insurgent spectrum began demonstrating superior levels of internal organisation and insurgent coordination, and
were thus enjoying sustained and reliable sources of support from outside
sources. Qatar in particular played a key role in buttressing such groups in the
conflict’s first twelve months, while Turkey and Jordan had an influence on
their borders with Syria which ensured that certain groups acquired more
reliable channels of support than others.
â•… It was within this context of insurgent proliferation, moderate failures to
unify and escalating violence and brutality that jihadists found and established
such solid foundations. Not only did Syria present an attractive proposition
for prospective jihadists as a result of its prophesied place in Islamic tradition,
but also its close proximity to Europe through Turkey undoubtedly facilitated
the arrival of foreign fighters from a very early stage. Among the various early
starters within the jihadist camp were several groups founded and led by
Chechens. At first, these were not Chechens coming directly from Russia’s
North Caucasus, but rather individuals already residing within Turkey’s wellestablished Chechen diaspora communities.
â•… Jihadist groups also directly benefited from the failures of more moderate
insurgents, which encouraged the perception that the jihadists were more
extensively and reliably funded, more professional, better armed and equip�
ped, and were therefore simply more successful in battle. As such, many Syrian
		3

THE SYRIAN JIHAD

men involved in fighting for the revolution chose to join groups with a more
extreme outlook than they were perhaps initially inclined to, but did so in
order to be part of a ‘winning team’ and the better to fit in with what was an
increasingly Islamist landscape, especially in northern Syria.
â•… While revolutionary and of significant value to the outside world, the
explosion in the use of social media to publish and promote battle updates,
insurgent bulletins and other news arguably also discouraged broad opposition unity in Syria. Any group intending to be taken seriously in Syria maintained social media accounts on multiple different platforms, which by itself
induced a dynamic of self-promotion that was often contrary to the presentation of a single unified opposition. Jihadists in particular proved especially
adept at managing their use of social media and the production of qualitatively superior video and imagery output, which further demonstrated the
reputation of professionalism that they were gaining on the battlefield.
â•… Ultimately, however, while the Sunni jihadist component of Syria’s insurgency fed off and benefited from others’ indadequacies and failures, it also
established and maintained its own unique internal dynamic. As the number
of jihadist groups grew through 2013 and 2014, the two key nodes of alQaeda and IS (or its predecessor, the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS))
emerged as defining influences around which other factions either aligned
themselves or asserted continued independence. As 2015 began, both had
effectively established their own unique modi operandi, and although they
were pursuing the same objective, al-Qaeda (or Jabhat al-Nusra) had adopted
an incremental approach towards establishing Islamic rule. These diverging
strategies precipitated a significant debate within the broader jihadist community, which by extension split the world’s jihadists into two camps.
â•… However, while IS had manoeuvred itself into being an avowed enemy of
the entire Syrian insurgency by late 2013 and early 2014, Jabhat al-Nusra had
quite ingeniously redefined itself as a jihadist organisation enjoying a broad
base of acceptance within Syria’s opposition-supporting community. By pragmatically managing its relations with the broader insurgency, Jabhat al-Nusra
was limiting the extent of its al-Qaeda-like objectives. However, at least within
its senior leadership, the intent to one day establish Islamic emirates across
Syria remained. Such objectives began to materialise more overtly in late 2014
until the rumblings of resistance induced a ‘re-moderation’ in April 2015.
Whether that would endure remained to be seen, but it is unlikely that the
group’s senior leadership and foreign fighter contingents will simply relinquish
such goals, even amid rumours of an internal debate regarding its official relationship with al-Qaeda.2
4

INTRODUCTION

â•… All these developments relating to the jihadist insurgency, the broader
Syrian opposition, external supporting states, the Syrian regime and its internal and external backers will form the spine of this book’s narrative. The Syrian
conflict and the jihadist insurgency evolved through a number of different
phases. From the point at which the revolution began in early 2011 until
mid-2012, the dominant theme was of a fledgling insurgency emerging amid
an escalating regime crackdown on protest and opposition to its authority.
The interplay between these two opposing dynamics ensured that the Syrian
revolution turned into a bloody and complex civil conflict in which jihadist
groups could establish a concrete foothold and integrate themselves within a
broader cause widely seen as having legitimacy: fighting to protect Sunni civilians facing indiscriminate and brutal repression. Jabhat al-Nusra was the first
such group to become active in Syria, announcing its emergence publicly in
January 2012, six months after it had begun to form in the summer of 2011.
â•… With nationwide conflict in Syria an established reality by mid-2012, the
next phase was characterised by important insurgent victories that lasted until
roughly mid-2013. While southern Syria was beginning to emerge as a key
stronghold of moderate FSA factions with close links to neighbouring Jordan
and also Saudi Arabia, the north was evolving into an environment more
favourable to groups with an Islamic frame of reference, including jihadists.
Through the winter of 2012–13 Islamists in northern Syria led a number of
important strategic victories against the regime, thereby facilitating Jabhat
al-Nusra’s integration into the wider insurgency. That the US designation of
the group as a terrorist organisation in December 2012 sparked nationwide
protests in support of Jabhat al-Nusra illustrated how quickly the group had
begun to win a degree of broad acceptance among Sunnis. Meanwhile, other
jihadist groups were forming in northern Syria, several led by Chechens and
others by experienced militants from North Africa and the Middle East.
â•… Following a period of dramatic insurgent victories, the tide began flowing
in the Assad regime’s favour in mid-2013. After a concerted Hezbollah-led
offensive succeeded in recapturing the town of al-Qusayr close to the Lebanese
border in June 2013, the Syrian army—increasingly backed by Iran and foreign Shia militias—acquired a major morale boost, which led to a six-month
period of opposition losses in Syria’s strategically vital western border with
Lebanon and around the country’s largest city, Aleppo and the capital,
Damascus. More than anything, this phase represented one of regime recovery
rather than victory, and the long-term outcome was more of a strategic stalemate, in which neither the opposition, nor the jihadists, nor the regime and
		5

THE SYRIAN JIHAD

its supporting militias were in a position decisively to ‘win’ the conflict. This
may have been a motivating factor behind the regime’s otherwise hard to
explain sarin gas attack on Damascus’s East Ghouta suburbs in August 2013,
which killed over 1,400 people.
â•… Such horrific atrocities notwithstanding, the arrival of ISIS in Syria in
April–May 2013 opened a rift within the jihadist component of the insurgency in Syria, whereby Jabhat al-Nusra ended up breaking away from ISIS—
its mother organisation. Throughout the final months of 2013, ISIS operated
as an increasingly self-assertive actor willing to attack and aggressively undermine other groups standing in its way. As inter-factional tensions rose across
northern Syria, the regime became the only beneficiary.
â•… This dynamic continued into early 2014, when Syrian opposition patience
with ISIS’s aggression ran out and a major offensive was launched against the
group across northern and eastern Syria in January 2014. While the regime
attempted to exploit the opening up of another front in the conflict, the major
strategic shifts through mid-2014 were between ISIS and the remainder of the
armed opposition, including Jabhat al-Nusra. ISIS sustained serious losses
between January and March and withdrew altogether from three governorates, refocusing its forces around its power base in the northern city of Raqqa
and in the eastern governorate of Deir ez Zour. Despite this, and perhaps in
reaction to it, ISIS launched its own dramatic offensive in mid-2014 in Iraq,
capturing the city of Mosul and marching south towards Baghdad, before
proclaiming the establishment of a caliphate spanning parts of Iraq and Syria.
â•… This dramatic series of events, and ISIS’s renaming of itself simply as Islamic
State sent shock waves around the world, but particularly across Syria. A new
inter-jihadist competitive dynamic had emerged to challenge the jihadist credibility of al-Qaeda, and in particular of Jabhat al-Nusra. However, the most
strategically consequential shift sparked by IS’s successes was the initiation of
US-led international military intervention—in the form of cruise missile and
air strikes—against jihadist targets in Iraq (from August 2014) and Syria
(from September 2014). This introduced a new and dangerous element of
anti-Westernism into the conflict in Syria—especially within jihadist factions,
but also across much of the wider opposition, which accused the West of
willingly allowing over three years of civilian deaths at the Assad regime’s
hands, only later to intervene against the jihadists. The real danger was in the
effect that the strikes had in definitively creating a new international enemy in
the eyes of IS and Jabhat al-Nusra—both of which had previously been
focused solely on the local conflicts in Syria and Iraq.
6

INTRODUCTION

â•… As 2015 began, therefore, the conflict in Syria had become a complex web
of local, national, regional and international dynamics, involving many different actors. A very large number of battlefronts were active within Syria’s borders, and jihadist militants continued to expand their influence. While the
international community seemed more committed to countering IS in Iraq, it
was becoming apparent that any anti-jihadist strategy in Syria remained limited more to counter-terrorism rather than a grand strategy aimed at eradicating these groups.
â•… In March 2015 the broad scope of the insurgent ‘opposition’, including
Jabhat al-Nusra, appeared to experience a significant boost, and by the end of
the month a valuable Syria–Jordan border crossing had been captured and the
city of Idlib had fallen into insurgent hands—only the second governorate
capital to do so, after Raqqa. Insurgents inside Syria spoke at the time of
increased levels of support being sent into Syria’s south and north by regional
states increasingly self-confident after militarily intervening against Houthi
advances in Yemen. Opposition forces consequently continued to win significant back-to-back victories in Idlib governorate through the summer, raising
a question mark over the Assad regime’s potential to survive.
â•… However, despite the rise in confidence and continued gains by the insurgency through the first months of 2015, the fact remained that both Jabhat
al-Nusra and IS remained comfortably in place as major power-players in
Syria. IS had spent several months preparing the ground for infiltrating areas
around Damascus, further into Syria’s interior governorates of Homs and
Hama, as well as into the south, and looked far from being an organisation
weakened by international attack. Meanwhile, Jabhat al-Nusra remained an
integral part of the northern insurgency, and was still notably strong in southern Syria. Multiple other jihadist factions remained active and influential
across Syria, and thus it was hard to see anything but a continued and significant jihadist militant presence in Syria in the months and years to come.
â•… At the end of the day, the story of Syria’s conflict and its evolution is extremely
complex, but the trajectory of jihadist militancy within its ever-changing
dynamics has steadily increased in scale and potential. A great many jihadist
groups have emerged and established themselves on a local and sometimes
national level in Syria, but generally, the pro-al-Qaeda, pro-IS and independent
poles illustrate the entire jihadist landscape currently in existence. However, a
crucial fourth pole is the expressly Syrian Salafist factions that largely retain
similar conservative values as jihadists, but focus their existence solely within a
Syrian operational perspective. Groups such as Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al		7

THE SYRIAN JIHAD

Islamiyya (Ahrar al-Sham) and Jaish al-Islam, for example, have become invaluable links between jihadists and the broader insurgent opposition and, as long
as these Salafists remain supportive and accepting of groups such as Jabhat alNusra, jihadists will reap the benefits of perceived legitimacy.
â•… Simply put, and contrary to what many moderate FSA factions have said
officially and on the record, a vast majority of Syria’s insurgent opposition has
fought alongside and coordinated closely with Jabhat al-Nusra since mid-tolate 2012. While such cooperation takes place despite vast ideological differences, it has continued because an effective military opposition to the Assad
regime has been a more important priority. There is, however, a better potential alternative to such cooperation with jihadists: a closer and more beneficial
relationship with the international community.
â•… Despite this, the Western world has failed to sufficiently reach out to,
engage with and support a broad enough section of the opposition inside Syria
to persuade others to cease their support for jihadists. This remarkable lack of
commitment to reinforce a Syrian insurgent opposition has directly provided
the space for jihadists to emerge as the dominant players in Syria that they are
today. Unless this level of commitment changes, Syria will continue to represent the centre of the world for jihadist militancy for many years to come, and
the consequences for such policy shortsightedness will not only fall upon
Syria and Syrians, but will affect the world at large.

8

PART I

SETTING THE SCENE

1

BREAKING DOWN THE BARRIERS
PROTEST

It took only twenty-eight days for the Tunisian people to overthrow their
president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, from his twenty-three-year seat of near
absolute power. That ‘revolution’—and indeed what has become known as
the Arab Spring—was sparked by a single tragic act of desperation and personal protest by twenty-six-year-old street vendor Tarek al-Tayeb Mohammed
Bouazizi, who self-immolated outside the office of the governor of Sidi
Bouzid on 17 December 2010. Forced through personal circumstances to
become the main breadwinner for his family at the age of ten, Bouazizi, who
was locally known as ‘Basboosa’, had been unjustly tormented by local officials for years. That he was again harassed early that fateful morning in
December 2010 catalysed his transformation into an icon overnight. His
story, and his subsequent death on 4 January 2011, struck a nerve for many
throughout the region.
â•… Thirty-eight days later protesters in Egypt overthrew President Hosni
Mubarak, whose authoritarian rule in that country had lasted nearly three
decades. At this point, the long-held but unspoken regional norm of avoiding
demonstrations of public political opposition was well and truly destroyed.
By late February protests had erupted in at least fourteen other countries
across the Middle East and North Africa, including in Libya, where an armed
revolution would end up co-opting the support of NATO and end in
Muammar Gaddafi’s death on 20 October 2011; and in Yemen, where sus€

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11

THE SYRIAN JIHAD

tained political protest eventually forced President Ali Abdullah Saleh to
resign on 27 February 2012.
€

* * *
The common understanding of the Syrian revolution holds that it began on
15 March 2011, but this doesn’t entirely tell the whole picture. In fact, the first
notable incident of public protest against the government of President Bashar
al-Assad took place in the north-eastern city of al-Hasakah on 26 January
2011, when a local man, Hasan Ali Akleh, poured a can of petrol over himself
and set his body on fire. Although this act took place amid the tumult surrounding the proliferation in and escalation of various anti-government movements around the region, Akleh’s apparent act of desperate protest did not
precipitate immediate demonstrations across Syria.
â•… While pre-existing Syrian opposition groups did call, via Facebook and
Twitter, for a ‘Day of Rage’ across the country on Friday 4 February, nothing
of note took place, with one relatively minor exception: On the morning of
5 February several hundred protesters took part in a demonstration in alHasakah, but with minimal fanfare or consequence.
â•… Nonetheless, the significance of regional events was having its effect. A
violent assault on a shopkeeper in Damascus’a famous Souq al-Hamadiyya by
police on 17 February triggered an impromptu protest, where locals repeatedly exclaimed: ‘Syria’s people will not be humiliated!’ Perhaps this represented the landmark moment, the modest turning-point in Syria’s political
consciousness, whereby an individual act of government thuggery catalysed a
psychological rethink. Approximately 5,000 people ended up taking part in
the unplanned protest in al-Hamadiyya, which, considering the centrality of
its location, made the incident a telling one.
â•… The key catalyst came in a series of developments in the southern city of
Deraa, beginning on 6 March, when fifteen schoolboys, aged between ten and
fifteen, were arrested and detained by members of the Idaraat al-Amn alSiyasee (Political Security Directorate) for having painted the words al-Shaab
yureed eskaat al-nizaam (‘The people want to topple the regime’) on a wall.
The phrase had become well known as the slogan of the Arab Spring revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, and although the children were clearly far too
young to harbour genuinely threatening political motivations, they were nonetheless beaten and allegedly tortured in various ways, including by having their
fingernails pulled out.1 Meanwhile, as reports of their detention spread
throughout the country, acts of sporadic and planned protest spread, although
still on a comparatively small scale.
€

€

€

€

€

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12

BREAKING DOWN THE BARRIERS: PROTEST

â•… On 7 March thirteen prominent political activists serving prison terms in
the infamous Adra prison in the north-east suburbs of Damascus released a
joint letter declaring themselves ‘prisoners of conscience’ and announcing the
start of a hunger strike. This strike, they said, was predicated on their demand
for a complete cessation of ‘political arrests’ and for the government to remove
‘injustices’ and to restore ‘rights that have been taken from civil and political
life’.2 Included in the list of thirteen signatories was Anwar al-Bunni, a human
rights lawyer who had been sentenced to five years in prison for signing—
along with nearly 300 other academics and political activists—the May 2006
Beirut–Damascus Declaration, which called on the Syrian government to
respect Lebanon’s independence and territorial integrity. Another hunger
striker was eighty-year-old Haithem al-Maleh, a former judge and pro-democracy activist imprisoned in 2009 for ‘affecting the morale of the nation’ during
a television interview on London-based opposition channel Barada TV.
â•… The following day the government announced a presidential amnesty to
political prisoners over the age of seventy—in honour of the fortieth anniversary of Hafez al-Assad’s endorsement as president of Syria on 12 March
1971—thereby freeing Haithem al-Maleh. Later that day twelve Syrian human
rights groups demanded that the government ‘amend all laws that prevent
human rights organisations from working openly and freely, and civil society
from playing its role effectively’. The demands also focused on the rights of
Syrian Kurds, who it said faced ‘all forms of discrimination’ and should immediately be ‘entitled to enjoy their culture and use of their language in accordance with their civil, cultural, social, and economic rights’.3
â•… On 10 March several dozen imprisoned Kurdish activists from the Partiya
Yekîtî (Kurdish Democratic Unity Party) and Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat
(PYD, or Democratic Union Party) joined the hunger strike launched by
prisoners in Adra, and two days later Kurdish protesters held demonstrations
in the north-eastern cities of Qamishli and al-Hasakah.
â•… As in other areas of the region, Kurds had long suffered from disproportionate levels of discrimination in Syria. Kurdish cultural gatherings, including for
the annual New Year festival of Nowrūz, were effectively banned, and political
gatherings were frequently met with violent repression. Such struggles had
been an established reality for decades. In 1962, in a remarkable act of stateorganised ethnic discrimination, a Syrian census stripped 20 per cent of the
Kurdish population—approximately 100,000–120,000 people—of their
Syrian citizenship, leaving them officially stateless and classified as ajaanib
(foreigners). At the time, the government claimed that these Kurds were in fact
€

€

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13

THE SYRIAN JIHAD

refugees from Turkey who had illegally infiltrated al-Hasakah governorate in
1945. Subsequent evidence, including an investigation by Human Rights
Watch, shows these government claims to have been largely false.4 By 2011 this
stateless Kurdish minority had multiplied to an estimated 300,000 people, all
of whom had no right to hold government jobs; to vote in elections; to marry
Syrian passport-holders; or to be awarded university degrees.
â•… Tensions were rising in Syria, that much was clear; but the process of protest
was still largely restrained and limited in scope. But on 15 March youth activists exploiting the new age of social media successfully organised protests in
Damascus and Aleppo, collectively known as the ‘Day of Rage’. The events,
organised primarily through a Facebook page entitled ‘The Syrian Revolution
against Bashar al-Assad 2011’, mustered several hundred people and, although
security forces did not resort to force, six protesters were detained in
Damascus’s Old City. On the following day a similarly sized group of protesters demonstrated outside the Interior Ministry in Damascus’s Marjeh Square,
where families of political prisoners held aloft photos of their relatives whose
release they were demanding. Thirty-five people were detained at that protest,
including a ten-year-old boy, well-known philosophy professor Tayeb Tizini
and prominent human rights activist Suheir al-Atassi. Similar protests erupted
that day in Aleppo, Deir ez Zour, Hama, al-Hasakah and Deraa.
â•… ‘The atmosphere was full of gas and only needed a spark to explode,’
explained Amjad Farekh, a trainee dental surgeon from Damascus who ended
up coordinating protests in the capital before helping found the small insurgent group Liwa Jaish al-Muslimeen in 2012. A member of Farekh’s activist
circle ‘offered to set fire to himself ’ as an act of protest, but this was deemed
to have been ‘too much—we needed a more effective way’.5
â•… If these initial indirectly coordinated protests failed to convince people that
the ball was now rolling, events on Friday 18 March made it clear that Syria
was entering a new and dangerous phase of instability. At this point the fifteen
schoolboys in Deraa were still in detention, and relatives were making increasingly strident attempts to obtain more information and were demanding their
release. The children happened to be members of many of Deraa’s largest tribes
and families, including the Zoubis, the Ghawabras, the Masalmas, and the
Baiazids.6 In a now infamous meeting several days earlier, senior representatives of the boys’ families had met with the chief of Deraa’s Political Security
Directorate, General Atef Najib, who, although accounts still differ, was at the
very least adamant that the boys’ arrest and subsequent detention had been
entirely justified.
€

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14

BREAKING DOWN THE BARRIERS: PROTEST

â•… Two accounts of this meeting have survived. One, propagated by supporters of the Assad regime, claims that Najib agreed to meet with senior family
members in his private office, but proceeded to defend the legitimacy of their
continued detention while admitting that several of the boys may potentially
have been physically mistreated. The other, far more inflammatory, account is
still widely shared amongst opponents of the government. This tells the story
of a meeting in which Najib berated the boys’ fathers for allowing their children’s misbehaviour and effectively told them to forget their sons, go home
and make more children with their wives—and, should they prove infertile,
to deliver their wives to his office and he would ensure they gave birth to new
sons. Whichever account is more accurate is now academic. Either would have
been enough of an insult to ensure that further escalation was inevitable.
â•… On 18 March the boys’ families and hundreds of other local citizens
marched through Deraa demanding the release of the children, a crackdown
on corruption and the realisation of genuine democratic reform in Syria. The
protest came to a standstill outside the residence of Deraa’s governor, Faisel
Kalthoum, where a gradually expanding conglomeration of security guards,
riot police and Political Security Directorate personnel fired tear gas and
water cannons, and then, for the first time, local security forces opened fire
with small arms and four people were killed. In an instant, the Syrian revolution was born.
â•… In the five days that followed President Assad deployed a government delegation, which included Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Moqdad and senior
military intelligence officer and Assad insider General Rostom Ghazali, to
reassure locals that the central government was committed to ensuring justice.
Although the children were finally released, multiple signs of torture on their
bodies only added to the rising sense of fury within the local population. On
20 March protesters ransacked and set fire to the local Baath Party headquarters and several other municipal buildings, including the Palace of Justice.
Reconciliation looked a very distant possibility, and became effectively impossible after security forces launched a two-day clearing operation aimed at
defeating all areas of anti-government sentiment. This included an assault on
the ancient al-Omari Mosque, which protesters had adopted as a central meeting point and makeshift hospital. At least five people were killed in the operation, which subsequent video footage showed had left blood lining the
mosque’s internal walls. Although Governor Kalthoum was sacked on
23 March and General Najib quietly removed from his post and placed under
investigation in early April, this was too little too late.
€

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15

THE SYRIAN JIHAD

â•… Despite being the birthplace of the revolution, Deraa had long been seen as
a base of government support. Hafez al-Assad had strategically elevated
prominent Deraa-born men into senior positions of authority, such as tribal
leader Mahmoud Zoubi as prime minister from 1987 to 2000; Sulayman alQaddah as head of the Baath Party between 1985 and 2005; and Farouq alSharaa as foreign minister between 1984 and 2006. But events in Deraa in
early to mid-March 2011 under Bashar’s tutelage put an abrupt end to that
relationship of delicate and purchased trust.
* * *
There were small protests across several other Syrian municipalities on
18 March, including at Damascus’s ancient Umayyad Mosque, where Amjad
Farekh and his brother were arrested and then imprisoned. According to
Farekh, their arrest provided the ‘spark in my home town of Qaboun’, where
more and more protests then followed.7 By the time they were released a month
later—after suffering torture—the revolution had been well and truly born.
Notwithstanding these other protests, what happened in Deraa was the largest
by some margin in terms of scale and, most importantly, would serve as the
undisputed catalyst for the revolution and civil conflict that continues today.
Deraa quickly became known as the Cradle of the Revolution, and much of the
responsibility for that can be attributed to the actions of Atef Najib.
â•… A cousin of Bashar al-Assad, Najib was one of five children born to an
Alawite mother, Fatima Makhlouf—the sister of Anisa al-Assad, the wife of
Bashar’s father and former Syrian president Hafez al-Assad—and a Sunni
father, Najib Alaah. As a young recruit to military school, Atef grew close to
Bassel al-Assad, who as Hafez’s eldest son, was at the time the favoured choice
to succeed his father as president. However, Bassel’s death in a car accident on
21 January 1994 left that duty to his less confident and somewhat geeky
younger brother Bashar. Nonetheless, Atef quickly joined the intelligence
apparatus, where his self-interested actions and aggressive behaviour saw him
sacked some time in 1992. He remained out of service until the late 1990s,
when his Assad family insider mother Fatima managed to acquire his reemployment in the mukhabarat (military intelligence) in Damascus’s southwestern suburb of al-Mezzeh. Growing increasingly wealthy through his
management of a self-constructed and tightly controlled personal fiefdom—
which he enforced by monitoring the police and local political figures—Atef
had again begun to push his luck, and was steadily sidelined by officials above
his pay-grade, including a distant relative and the former chief of Syrian intel€

€

16

BREAKING DOWN THE BARRIERS: PROTEST

ligence in Lebanon, Ghazi Kanaan (aka Abu Yuroub). Having grown increasingly exasperated as a result of his declining level of influence, Atef grudgingly
agreed to the post of chief of Deraa’s Political Security Directorate some time
in late 2008 or early 2009.8
â•… While this may have seemed a demotion compared to his base in the centre
of power that was Damascus, Atef soon set about constructing an intricate
personal web of control around Deraa’s extensive financial infrastructure,
which was linked primarily to official and illicit cross-border trade with Jordan
as well as the lucrative water rights industry. Power and money had become
Atef ’s raison d’être, and he was in his self-righteous and self-serving element.
Thus, with such power, Atef presided over the detention and probable torture
of fifteen young boys, an act that almost overnight precipitated a revolution
and civil conflict that changed Syria forever. While Atef was seen on occasions
in Damascus’s Four Seasons Hotel throughout the summer of 2011, his location today is unknown.

		
17

2

UNDERLYING INSTABILITY

Despite proving itself as the ‘Cradle of the Revolution’, Deraa was by no means
the only population centre to rise up so early against the authority of the
Assad government. Protests quickly expanded in scale and geographical
spread, not just encompassing governorate capitals but dozens of other towns
and villages, including predominantly Sunni Muslim districts of the cities of
Latakia and Tartous—both of which are key strongholds of Alawism, of
which President Assad is a member. This was indeed partly a result of a conscious or unconscious (or both) element of ‘group think’, whereby the effect
of protests across the region was intensely infectious, but it was also more than
that. It was the result of something much deeper.
â•… As a country, and particularly since the accession to power of Bashar alAssad in 2000, Syria had developed a number of deeply damaging long-term
structural weaknesses that in just such a time of potential instability had the
capacity to accelerate localised sources of protest and instability into part of a
nationwide movement. These pre-existing catalysts were particularly evident
in the spheres of socio-economics; the relationship between the state and
Sunni Islam; the continued prevalence of Syria’s one-party state and endemic
government-facilitated corruption; and the qualitative demise of the Syrian
Arab Army (SAA).
â•… The following pages will briefly cover these various aspects and their relative
importance within pre-revolution Syria in relation to their role in encouraging
the proliferation of anti-government protest and anger in early 2011. This is
not intended to be an exhaustive assessment, nor is it meant to cover all the
19

THE SYRIAN JIHAD

minutiae involved; there are many better sources dedicated to the subject. It
is simply intended to provide some foundational context upon which to interpret the main subject of this book: the emergence, development and evolution
of jihadist militancy within Syria’s anti-government insurgency.
â•… Socio-economically, Syria was balancing on a precipice. When Bashar alAssad succeeded his father as president in mid-2000 he began putting into
place the stepping-stones necessary for a new and, for Syria, revolutionary
policy of Western-style neoliberalism and economic liberalisation. The comparatively modern Bashar—with roughly two years of experience under his
belt working in ophthalmology at the Western Eye Hospital in London’s affluent Marylebone—looked set to open Syria up to the wider world.
â•… This initial promise helped spark the rabia dimashq, or Damascus Spring,
whereby academics, intellectuals and others began a period of intensive discussion and debate over Syria’s political and social future. This reformist culture
led the establishment of so-called mutadayaat, or forums, where discussion
groups would gather publicly to debate issues of perceived importance. As a
sign of the times of hope, even members of the traditionally closed-minded
Baath Party joined these forums, openly discussing the feasibility of political
reform, the value of democracy and liberalism and other such populist topics.
The rapid rise to prominence of the issue of political imprisonment—raised
in this context in the famous Statement by 99 Syrian Intellectuals on
27 September 20001—led to the release of several hundred detainees from
Mezzeh prison in Damascus a little over a month later, in November.
â•… All this apparent liberalising took place within a challenging political environment for Bashar, who, upon assuming office, was faced with his father’s old
guard, whose loyalty to the traditional Baath values of socialism and Arab
nationalism did not go hand in hand with political liberalisation and a potential opening up to Western sources of investment. One of Hafez’s most ardent
supporters and head of the Military Intelligence Directorate, Ali Douba, was
pushed aside quickly in February 2000, into a kind of forced retirement in the
Douba family home town and ancient coastal fortress of al-Qurfays in
Latakia’s Jableh district. But others, including Bashar’s brother Maher alAssad—the commander-in-chief of the ultra-loyalist Republican Guard and
the army’s Fourth Armoured Division—remained in their seats, and as such,
Bashar’s policy of openness did not last long.
â•… With such new and previously unknown political freedom, prominent
members of the Damascus Spring perhaps began to push towards the invisible
boundaries far too quickly. The red line was seemingly crossed in August 2001
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20

UNDERLYING INSTABILITY

when the secretary-general of the Syrian Communist Party and a key political
activist, Riyad al-Turk, appeared to celebrate this newfound freedom in Syria
by exclaiming on Al-Jazeera that ‘the dictatorship has died’. Turk was promptly
arrested in Damascus several days later on 1 September, and with that the
Damascus Spring came to an abrupt end. Another prominent activist, Riyad
Seif—who had teetered on the edge of establishing a new political party—was
detained on 5 September; and prominent Syrian economics academic Aaref
Dalila was taken in on 9 September. Many other activists met a similar fate that
month, and were duly imprisoned for periods lasting throughout the 2000s.
â•… While political reform and openness most certainly failed, Bashar’s determination to introduce economic liberalism into state policy did not. On
10 October—around a month after the effective end of the Damascus
Spring—the Syrian government submitted an official request to join the
World Trade Organisation (WTO). Although this objective was only realised
in May 2010, when the United States dropped its opposition as part of a wider
initiative aimed at bringing Syria in from the cold, the sentiment coming from
Assad’s upper policy-making echelon was clear. But what was equally clear was
that any process of at least partial integration into the international economic
system was going to be a slow one. After all, Syria was widely regarded—rightfully so—as a thoroughly active member of the Iran-led axis; something that
would become increasingly clear in the mid-2000s when senior elements
within the Syrian government and security apparatus would actively facilitate
the movement of jihadist recruits across the Syrian border into Iraq, where
they contributed towards the escalating al-Qaeda-led insurgency against the
US-led coalition.
â•… Nonetheless, while clearly slow in the early 2000s, the momentum within
Damascus to push liberal economic policies gained initiative upon the
appointment of Abdullah Abd al-Razzaq Dardari to the post of deputy prime
minister in charge of economic affairs in 2005. Dardari was a fluent English
and French speaker with a thoroughly Western education: he gained his
Bachelor’s degree from the International Richmond University in the affluent
London suburb of Richmond, and followed that up with a Master’s degree
from the University of Southern California and a post-graduate degree from
the London School of Economics (LSE). After brief posts as a journalist for
al-Hayat and as a representative of the United Nations Development
Programme (UNDP), he joined the Syrian government, where he almost
immediately became a key figure in the drafting of long-term economic policy.
His background and liberal economic values made him a respected figure
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21

THE SYRIAN JIHAD

within the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). His
value within Bashar’s economic strategy was clear.
â•… From 2005 onwards privatisation of banking and business was actively
encouraged on both state and municipal levels. On 7 May 2005 Dardari
helped push through his Five Year Plan, which placed new emphasis on ‘poverty mapping’; encouraging policy reform to integrate small and medium
enterprises (SMEs) into the formal and state-administered sector; and withdrawing state control from areas of investment and other economic activities
where ‘market mechanisms are found to be worthy of playing an essential
role’.2 Dardari also began initiating a strident outreach to foreign banks and
financial bodies in search of increased levels of foreign direct investment
(FDI). He was seeking to add to the trend started in January 2004, when the
Beirut-based Banque Bemo and the Riyadh-based Banque Saudi Fransi joined
forces to establish Syria’s first independent and privately owned bank, Banque
Bemo Saudi Fransi. Contacts were soon made with a number of regional and
international banks, including the Bank of Jordan (resulting in the establishment of Bank of Jordan Syria in late 2008); Fransabank (established in Syria
in 2009); and Citigroup and HSBC.
â•… By 2006 Syria’s FDI levels had reached $600 million, which, when compared to a 1990–2000 average of $127 million, and only $180 million in
2003, represented a significant improvement. The numbers, however, were
still far inferior to those of Syria’s neighbours such as Lebanon, which in 2006
received $2.794 billion; Jordan, which received $3.121 billion; and Turkey,
which received $20 billion.3 But when including other sources of foreign
investment, most of them less officially administered and recordable by UN
bodies, Syria’s received foreign investment level for 2006 reached a number
around $1.6 billion.4
â•… Unfortunately, although this push for economic liberalisation may have
seemed a positively intended move by Syria’s senior leadership, whether by
direct orders from Bashar al-Assad or a consequence of long-established
cronyism and elite-led corruption, the partial opening up of the Syrian
economy served largely to benefit the pre-established ruling class. A lack of
political reform explains much of this, as Syrian government policy continued to be implemented by Damascus-appointed officials at both provincial
and municipal levels, almost all of whom tinkered with policy to suit their
own financial ends.
â•… As such, Syria did indeed experience increased wealth and improved and
more competitive levels of capital accumulation, but the majority of this was
€

22

UNDERLYING INSTABILITY

placed in the laps of the ruling elite. And what wasn not, was more often than
not taken in by the shadowy but immensely powerful mukhabarat. In some
respects, enhanced levels of finance flowing towards private enterprise presented mukhabarat officials with an opportunity. Ironically, the localised
power and social-level influence of these secret police officials increased as
they sought to tighten their grip on the activities of local business owners.
â•… Although Syria’s gross domestic product (GDP) had risen to $59.15 billion
(up from only $19.3 billion in 2000),5 the gap between rich and poor had
simply continued to widen. Salaries had continued to stagnate, and while
economic liberalisation had opened Syria up to cheap foreign manufactured
goods, this had had a dramatically damaging effect upon domestic manufacturing, which simply could not compete. Fuel prices had also risen notably,
and access to water had both declined and become more costly. The middle
class was particularly badly hit by this concurrent rise in the cost of living,
while the rural working class, the majority of whom were reliant on income
from the agricultural sector, struggled terribly.
â•… The prospects for these rural farming communities were dealt a further
blow by a series of deeply damaging droughts between 2006 and 2010. They
struck the agriculturally vital north-east particularly badly, adding to the
region’s already existing struggles with rapidly diminishing groundwater levels—which were themselves a result of corrupt mismanagement and naively
overambitious farming development projects. In fact, the management of
water resources in Syria at the time was so complex—it involved elements
within a total of twenty-two ministries, councils, commissions and directorates6—that simple-minded policy making was inevitable and opportunities
for corruption would have been rife.
â•… The 2007–8 crop season was hit the worst, with average levels of rainfall
declining by 66 per cent from the normal annual average. As a result, crop
yields declined by 32 per cent in state-irrigated areas, while other areas reliant
on rainfall for watering plummeted by as much as 79 per cent—which combined meant that Syria’s agricultural production declined to a level of 2.1
million tonnes, or less than half of the average of 4.7 million tonnes. For the
first time in fifteen years Syria was forced to import wheat to feed its population.7 And to add to the growing misery, the central government cancelled
several key subsidies in 2008 and 2009, which resulted in dramatic increases
in the prices of fuel (diesel increased from SYP7 ($0.14) to SYP25 ($0.53) in
May 2008)8 and agricultural fertiliser (increased from SYP450 ($9.60) to
SYP900 ($19.15) in May 2009).9
		
23

THE SYRIAN JIHAD

â•… The effects of drought, corruption and economic liberalisation, together
with minimal political reform, meant that Syria experienced high levels of
rural-to-urban migration in the 2000s. A great deal of this population movement was undertaken by agricultural workers, for whom farming had simply
become no longer financially viable. Labour statistics show that an estimated
460,000 people stopped working in the agricultural sector between 2001 and
2007, representing a sector change of more than 10 per cent of Syria’s total
workforce and a 33 per cent decline in Syria’s agricultural labour force.10 The
north-eastern governorates of al-Hasakah, al-Raqqa, and Deir ez Zour saw the
most dramatic population shifts, with many people moving much further
south, to suburbs around Damascus and also to the cities of Homs and Deraa.
By 2009, for example, the UN estimated that between 60 and 70 per cent of
villages in al-Hasakah and Deir ez Zour had become entirely deserted.11
â•… The development of a number of sprawling, poverty-stricken suburbs comprising large numbers of financially frustrated and largely unemployed or
underemployed citizens around Syria’s urban centres was of significant consequence for the country’s socio-political future. It was these people, the working citizens who felt cheated by a corrupt and often inept government
apparatus, that started and led the country’s first anti-government protests in
early 2011.
â•… All of this meant that by 2010, although economic growth and expansion
was a reality, the pursuant failure of the government to distribute added
income had caused considerable financial contradictions, putting the country’s
economy on a precipice of sorts. Socially, this economic policy mismanagement had further reinforced an already existing class divide in Syria, between
the government-aligned political and economic elite.
â•… In terms of religion, the presidency of Bashar al-Assad opened up more
doors to Syria’s Sunni majority than had been available during his father’s
time. Hafez al-Assad had sustained a complex relationship between his government in Damascus, the increasingly powerful mini-state that was the
mukhabarat, and Sunni Islam. While his fundamental foundations within the
secular and socialist Baath Party meant that religion played a minimal role
within his political psyche, its central place within society could not simply be
dismissed, and subtly institutionalised attempts were made to present Hafez
as a pious man. In fact, immediately following the 1963 Baathist coup—
known in Syria as the 8 March Revolution, and which would eventually propel Hafez to the presidency in 1971—the Baath Party, and by extension the
Syrian government, maintained an often hostile relationship with portions of
Syria’s politicised Sunni community.
€

24

UNDERLYING INSTABILITY

â•… The Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood represented an immediate
barrier to the consolidation of Baath power following the 1963 coup. With
political liberty and religious practice the first targets of the newly empowered
Baath elite, supporters and members of the Brotherhood emerged in opposition. Alawites quickly came to dominate politics and the parliament, with the
country’s Sunni majority forced into subjugation. In such a context,
Brotherhood militiamen clashed several times with Baath Party personnel in
1963, which prompted the swift and effective prohibition of the organisation
in Syria in 1964. This, however, proved a deeply damaging decision, as portions
of the Brotherhood soon came to represent armed opponents of Baath rule.
â•… Beginning in 1964, the Brotherhood played a lead role in instigating a series
of strikes, protests and riots across Syria. In the first incident of real significance, in April, Brotherhood supporters in the central city of Hama began
taking control of key roadways and districts. Roadblocks were swiftly set up,
stores selling alcohol were attacked and the imam of the city’s Sultan Mosque,
Sheikh Mahmoud al-Habib, emerged as a vocal supporter of what was widely
perceived as a localised uprising.12
â•… Several days into the localised revolt, the death of one pro-Baathist fighter
during a riot near the Sultan Mosque proved the provocation necessary for
then President Amin al-Hafez to approve an all-out assault by the National
Guard on Brotherhood positions across the city. Focusing on the Sultan
Mosque, the National Guard’s tanks and field artillery took only two days to
defeat what was the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood’s first insurrection against
Baath Party rule. At least seventy Brotherhood supporters were killed and
their leader, Issam al-Attar, was forced into exile in Germany.13
â•… With the Brotherhood thus banned in Syria and with the battle lines
drawn, a prolonged period of tit-for-tat protests by the Brotherhood and
unforgiving crackdowns by the Baathist security apparatus began. These tensions and hostilities continued both above and below the surface through the
late 1960s and into the early 1970s, when Hafez al-Assad forced himself into
the presidency (in 1970–1).
â•… Two years later a newly proposed Syrian constitution was drafted, which
included a clause specifying that the Syrian president did not have to be
Muslim. This re-energised Brotherhood-led protests across the country, and
by the late 1970s, following Syria’s occupation of Lebanon in 1976, suspected
Brotherhood-linked gunmen had begun carrying out sporadic assassinations
and targeted small-arms attacks on key military, political and pro-Baath individuals, many of whom were Alawite.
		
25

THE SYRIAN JIHAD

â•… All these years of rising tensions led eventually to an armed assault on the
Aleppo Artillery School in the city’s al-Roumseh district on 16 June 1979,
which left as many as eighty-three training cadets dead. This was to be the first
act of the so-called Fighting Vanguard (al-Talia al-Muqatila). Composed of
followers of Brotherhood-affiliated Marwan Hadid—who had died in 1976,
a year after his arrest for advocating armed jihad in Syria—and led by several
individuals, including Adnan Uqla, Ayman al-Sharbaji, Husni Abu and
Mohammed al-Zoubi, the Fighting Vanguard launched an armed insurgency
against the Baath government and its Alawite leadership in what has commonly become known simply as the Islamist Uprising.
â•… Following sustained violence, strikes, and protests that often brought entire
cities and towns to a standstill, the government passed Law No.â•–49 on 7 July
1980, which made membership of the Muslim Brotherhood a crime punishable by death. Despite approximately a thousand Brotherhood members surrendering to authorities during an initial fifty-day amnesty, suspected Fighting
Vanguard attacks continued across the country. While many attacks targeted
Alawite officials and population centres, Sunni members of the state-sanctioned Muslim leadership (or ulama) were also targeted, including, most
famously, Sheikh Mohammed al-Shami, who was shot dead in his mosque in
Aleppo on 2 February 1980.
â•… Following three large car bombings outside government-linked targets in
Damascus in August, September and November 1981, the notorious insurrection in the city of Hama began. Fighting Vanguard and other Sunni gunmen
seized control of the city, prompting a sustained three-week military bombardment campaign that killed somewhere between 10,000 and 40,000 people. This massive and largely indiscriminate use of military power, in what is
now known as the Hama Massacre, brought the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria
to its knees, and for many years the organisation essentially ceased to exist.
â•… Syria subsequently suffered from what some have termed a ‘turban drain’,14
as prominent Sunni scholars fled from Syria and settled in more accommodating countries elsewhere in the region. The 1980s represented an era of unrivalled political authoritarianism in Syria during which Sunni Islam and
religion in general was kept tightly controlled by the state apparatus. Many
mosques were open only at prayer time, and chose to shut their doors to the
traditional hosting of religious lessons and discussions.
â•… However, although Hafez al-Assad may have imposed a brutal defeat upon
the Muslim Brotherhood in 1982, he could not escape the reality that Syria
retained a majority Sunni population. The key to reasserting a peaceful equi€

€

€

26

UNDERLYING INSTABILITY

librium was acquiring and fostering relationships with Sunni leaders who
would be willing to assume positions of public religious authority but simultaneously to be distinctly non-political and acquiescent to government expectations regarding the private practice of moderate Sunni Islam. As such, the
government in Damascus presided over the establishment of the Hafez alAssad Institutes for the Memorisation of the Quran (Ma’ahid Hafez al-Assad
li’l Tahfiz al-Qur’an).15 Unsurprisingly, the all-seeing mukhabarat kept a close
eye on the institutes’ activities.
â•… Individual Sunni scholars deemed capable of providing popular depoliticised religious authority were also fostered and elevated into prominence,
such as Sheikh Salih al-Farfour and Sheikh Ahmad Kaftaru. Others assumed
prominent roles in the media, like Marwan Shaykhu, a senior officer in the
Ministry of Awqaf (Religious Endowments), who held regular programmes
on state radio and television16 until the early 1990s.
â•… A fascinating example of this state-facilitated and directed management of
Sunni Islam is the case of the internationally respected Sunni scholar Sheikh
Mohammad Said Ramadan al-Bouti. With an undergraduate degree and a
Ph.D. from the famed al-Azhar University in Cairo, Bouti was by the age of
thirty-six clearly a promising young mind within Sunni Islamic thought.
Although more culturally motivated than political,17 he wrote several times
and in depth about the damaging consequences of the Western imported
ideologies of Marxism and nationalism, claiming that the latter had been
introduced into the Ottoman Empire by imperialists and Freemasons in order
to undermine its structure.18 But perhaps more important than any belief he
held, Bouti’s rejection of political Islam, and thus his opposition to the activities of the Muslim Brotherhood, stood him in good stead for acquiring the
support of the Baath Party and, by extension, of Hafez al-Assad. Bouti took a
public stand on state television against the 1979 Aleppo Artillery School
attack and labelled those involved as bandits.19
â•… Over time, as a senior staff member at the University of Damascus through
the 1980s and 1990s (while holding several honorary and visiting professorships across the Arab world), Bouti achieved the remarkably rare and privileged
position of having regular access to the president, with whom he could discuss—albeit often dismissively—subjects such as the Brotherhood and notable
figures within conservative Sunni circles. This unrivalled seniority and acceptance within the beating heart of the Baath Party apparatus eventually saw Bouti
appointed as the preacher of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus’s Old City
during Bashar al-Assad’s presidency in 2008. Ultimately, Bouti’s perceived
€

		
27

THE SYRIAN JIHAD

l� oyalty to the Assad family may have contributed towards his death in an apparent bomb attack in the al-Iman Mosque in Damascus on 21 March 2013,
although some aspects of his death remain deeply mysterious.
â•… The 1990s brought with them a number of coincidental domestic and
international developments that contributed towards a partial revitalisation
of Sunni Islam in Syria. Perhaps most interestingly, Hafez al-Assad’s role in
opposing the peace negotiations between the Palestinians and Israelis (particularly in Oslo in 1993) helped to facilitate the development of close relations between the government in Damascus and Sunni Palestinian resistance
groups such as Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ). Despite appearing
to fundamentally contradict the principle of total opposition to conservative
and especially militant Islamism, this was part of an especially astute government strategy of adopting a foreign policy closely aligned with popular opinion (this would continue into Bashar al-Assad’s presidency). At the same time,
worsening levels of economic decline as well as continuing political frustrations helped encourage a revival of religious practice, particularly across the
growing urban sprawl. But in terms of actual domestic policy, this shifting
societal undercurrent was by no means understood by the state apparatus, and
little was done to help incorporate this changing social dynamic.
â•… In a sense, Sunni Islam was allowed to undergo a limited recovery within
Syrian society, but only within the confines of what the government in
Damascus deemed to be acceptable limits of practice. Public observation of
Islam became somewhat more acceptable during the 1990s, and mosques
gradually began providing the kind of social and public services that they had
done in the past, and many previously exiled imams and scholars began
returning to their homeland.
â•… When Bashar al-Assad assumed the presidency in 2000, Hafez’s minority
complex gave way to Bashar’s somewhat more self-confident posture. Almost
immediately, Bashar presided over a partial revival of Sunni Islam within stateaccepted circles and set about establishing friendly and eventually rather cosy
relationships with moderate Sunni leaders, who were duly installed in positions of authority. In the political realm, Bashar appointed Sunnis into the
positions of foreign minister (Walid Muallem, from February 2006), vice
president (Najah al-Attar, from March 2006), deputy minister for economic
affairs (Abdullah Abd al-Razzaq Dardari, from 2005) and ambassador to
London (Sami Khiyami, from July 2004).
â•… This gradual integration of Sunni Muslims into the spheres of officialdom
and the loosening of the shackles binding religious communities continued
€

28

UNDERLYING INSTABILITY

throughout the 2000s. However, in 2008 the government began implementing various initiatives that brought back memories of the Hafez administration, such as dismissing female public-sector employees for wearing the niqab
and allowing the mukhabarat to reassert their vigilance over mosque and
religious studies activities.
â•… While socio-economics were the key foundational factors behind the simmering popular resentment that erupted from March 2011 into a nationwide
revolution, there were many long-term political frustrations in play too.
Fundamentally, it was politics that was at the foundation of much of the revolution’s causational factors. Most obviously, Syria was—despite the official
government line—a one-party state ruled by a family and its loyalist clique. At
times, since taking power in 2000, Bashar al-Assad and his perceived interest
in opening up to the world appeared to herald a new era for Syria, beginning
with long-desired political reform. But despite several apparent openings,
particularly in 2000 and 2005, glimmers of hope were soon extinguished by
the sheer weight of the all-seeing security apparatus.
â•… The one apparent area of political policy that remained consistent with that
of the administration of Hafez was Bashar’s maintaining of a foreign policy
that was by and large in keeping with popular opinion. In doing so, Bashar
managed to sustain the line that he was qualitatively different from most of
his peers elsewhere in the region, whose foreign policies often pandered to
Western expectations. Considering Syria’s complex geo-political location—
wedged between the socially and politically intense state of Lebanon, the
nearly NATO state of Turkey, the conflict-riddled Iraq and comparatively
stable Jordan—this people-friendly foreign policy may well have been what
kept Syria so stable during the years of relative instability that struck many of
its neigbours throughout the 2000s.
â•… Another often overlooked area of underlying instability was the state of
Syria’s military, particularly in terms of its level of funding and structural
upkeep. As a result of an experience-driven realism, both Hafez and Bashar
al-Assad fostered the development of a military apparatus that was, at its
heart, commanded by an Alawite officer corps. The bulk of manpower was
composed of young Sunni men, many of them conscripts. While in theory this
sectarian division of labour would be perfectly effective in sustaining an interstate war with, say, Israel, it has proven an inherently damaging structural
disadvantage in fighting an internal civil war. As such, when the revolution
began in March 2011, the SAA contained approximately 220,000 soldiers, but
two years later, due to the possible unreliability and potential disloyalty of the
		
29

THE SYRIAN JIHAD

Sunni-dominant portions of the SAA, the military was forced to rely upon an
Alawite-led core of roughly 65,000 personnel nationwide.20
â•… Disregarding sectarian make-up, the SAA also suffered from a state of relative dissatisfaction and lack of investment. The military’s withdrawal from
Lebanon in 2005 had also served as a considerable blow to operational
morale. While the SAA had benefited from strong levels of military investment during the presidency of Hafez al-Assad, particularly in the form of
weapons purchased from the Soviet Union, Bashar spent comparatively little
on expanding its capabilities, and much of the military’s weaponry was deteriorating into disrepair.
â•… As such, when the first signs of an armed insurgency began to appear in
Syria in April and May 2011, the military was ill prepared to deal with what
it faced.
â•… To put it simply, several decades of mismanagement, corruption, violence
and short-termist opportunism within the Assad family, the Baath Party and
similarly invested spheres of political influence meant that when Mohammed
Bouazizi set himself on fire in Tunisia on 17 December 2010, several key elements within Syrian society made a revolution a real prospect. And not only
that, but it would serve to determine many of the defining characteristics of
the revolution and the insurgency itself.
â•… It is, however, worth emphasising at this point that despite the still-dominant role of Alawites and the Assad family within Syria’s governing elite, the
country was largely stable along its very varied ethnic and sectarian lines.
Bashar al-Assad had in fact fostered a partial integration into officialdom of
not only Sunnis, but also members of Syria’s Christian, Druze and even
Kurdish communities. As such, while sectarian undertones have today certainly ingrained themselves prominently as fundamental elements within the
civil war in Syria, the revolution did not initially develop along strictly sectarian lines.
€

€

30

3

SYRIA’S FLIRTATION WITH JIHADISM

While the eruption of the Arab Spring and pre-existing social, political, religious and economic structural issues in Syria may have made the country a ripe
candidate for revolution, they did not necessarily indicate the potential for the
dramatic growth in jihadist militancy that has been seen since 2011. Some of
the reasons for it—and thus another underlying factor—may be found in
Syria’s recent past, during which the country’s leadership established, exploited
and attempted to manage extensive relationships with jihadist militants in
order to export threats against its enemies, rather than face them at home.
â•… In terms of the influence it has had upon the evolution of jihadist militancy
within Syria’s revolution, this ‘flirtation’ with jihadism could be said to date
back to the first months and years after Bashar al-Assad’s assumption of power
in 2000.
â•… Bashar took the mantle of power from his father Hafez at the beginning of
a phase of more overt Islamic practice in Syria. This was at least partly the
result of Hafez’s opening up to Islam in the 1990s, when dozens of new
mosques were constructed across the country and countless Islamic schools
were established in which Qur’anic studies prevailed over traditional curriculums. An influx of foreign Islamic finance, particularly from Wahhabi Saudi
Arabia in the late 1990s, meant that many of these institutions gradually took
on a more conservative aspect, in a departure from their original roots, which
were derived from more moderate Sufi Islamic practices.
â•… Although Bashar initially sought to open up to Islamists in the hope of
drawing them in and under his control, the already accelerating Islamic revival
31

THE SYRIAN JIHAD

had become an independent phenomenon. Overt Sunni Islamist influence
over society, particularly in large outlying towns and in urban centres, had
begun to increase markedly. Jihadist militancy was growing roots in the southern city of Deraa and in the northern cities of Idlib and Aleppo, and one man
in particular was emerging as a key player: Mahmoud Ouul al-Ghassi.
â•… Based out of the al-Sahour Mosque in the north of Aleppo city, al-Ghassi,
more popularly known as Abu al-Qaqaa, had begun adopting a more assertive
posture in 1999, where he and his right-hand man Abu Ibrahim were building
a close-knit following.1 After arriving in the city in the late-1990s, Abu alQaqaa’s first introduction to Aleppo came when he was brought to a local
administrative building and introduced to the area’s police chiefs. According
to one of the chiefs in the room: A Military Intelligence officer brought this
young man in.
The man was dressed like a Pakistani and barely spoke a word. I don’t know if he was
shy or what, but the officer spoke on his behalf. We were instructed to produce a
local ID card, a driving license and other documents for him, but without any registered address or other personal information. This was illegal in Syria, so we knew
straight away, despite his youth and foreign appearance, that we were dealing with
someone important. It was only years later that we realised who we had helped.2

â•… At the time, escalating tensions in Palestine and continued conflict in
southern Lebanon provided local sources of Islamist frustration in cities like
Aleppo, while ongoing conflicts in Kosovo, Kashmir and Afghanistan contributed towards the transnational jihadist picture that Abu al-Qaqaa so
keenly painted from the pulpit.
â•… For this emerging Syrian jihadist core, the spectacular attacks of
11 September 2001 represented a tremendous victory against the ‘great Satan’,
the United States of America. Within two weeks Abu al-Qaqaa and Abu
Ibrahim held a celebratory festival in Aleppo, ‘featuring video of hand-tohand combat and training montages of guerillas leaping from high walls’.3 This
proved to be a test of the patience and willingness of the Syrian authorities to
allow such an overt expression of support for an act that had dramatically
changed the world overnight.
â•… As it happened, Abu al-Qaqaa and a few of his followers were arrested by
Syrian mukhabarat the following day, although they were released shortly
thereafter. Since his public re-emergence in Aleppo in 1999, rumors had been
floated across Syria and further afield that Abu al-Qaqaa was an agent of the
Syrian intelligence apparatus, or that he was at least working with their tacit
approval. His quick release did indeed look suspicious, and even more so
€

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SYRIA’S FLIRTATION WITH JIHADISM

when his Aleppo following, which had by now adopted the name Ghurabaa
al-Sham (Strangers of the Levant), began holding public jihadist meetings and
celebrations as regularly as once or twice a week by early 2002—all without
any security suppression. In fact, some of these events were even attended by
government officials, including one with the title ‘The People of the Levant
Will Now Defeat the Jews and Kill Them All’.4
â•… There was no doubt that anti-American and anti-Israeli views had long
found a place within Syrian society, at both official and unofficial levels. So it
was not altogether surprising that isolated expressions of celebration developed after 9/11. Moreover, the all-powerful Syrian security apparatus built by
the Baath Party and Hafez al-Assad was well known for infiltrating its substate adversaries as part of a strategy of covert control and intelligence collection. Commenting on this strategy in a 2010 meeting with a US delegation
led by the then coordinator of counter-terrorism at the State Department,
Daniel Benjamin, Syria’s General Intelligence director Ali Mamlouk claimed
that ‘in principle, we don’t attack or kill [jihadists] immediately. Instead, we
embed ourselves in them and only at the opportune moment do we move.’5
â•… Thus, while President Bashar al-Assad had proclaimed Syria’s support for
the USA amid the fallout of 9/11, his security apparatus continued to provide
Islamists and jihadist circles the necessary space to operate, albeit under their
constant surveillance. According to a detailed report by Ghaith Abdul-Ahad
it was within this context that Abu al-Qaqaa’s right-hand man Abu Ibrahim
began to question how they were being afforded such freedom.
We asked the Sheikh why we weren’t being arrested,’ said Abu Ibrahim. ‘He would
tell us it was because we weren’t saying anything against the government, that we
were focusing on the common enemy, America and Israel, that beards and epaulets
were in one trench together.6

â•… Despite questions behind the scenes, Abu al-Qaqaa’s Ghurabaa al-Sham
movement was growing in confidence, and seemed to have become a power in
Aleppo that the government and its security forces were no longer able to
restrain. Numbering over a thousand men, the movement’s core began enforcing strict interpretations of sharia law on the streets of Aleppo’s outlying districts and night-time patrols intimidated those who preferred Syria’s
traditionally liberal lifestyles.
â•… It was perhaps fortunate then for Syria’s security structures that the USA
ended up launching an invasion of neighbouring Iraq in March 2003. With
jihadists in Aleppo, Idlib, Deraa and elsewhere beginning to adopt an increasingly overt and public profile, the arrival of American and coalition armed
		
33

THE SYRIAN JIHAD

forces and the eruption of conflict in Iraq provided a perfect opportunity for
Syria to transform a potential internal threat into an exportable external one.
â•… Abu al-Qaqaa, his followers in Ghurabaa al-Sham and many other less militant but nonetheless politically active Islamists began scouring urban centres
across the country for recruits for the ‘resistance’ that Syrian state media was
proclaiming on a daily basis. Meanwhile, Syria’s Grand Mufti, Sheikh Ahmad
Kaftaru, issued a fatwa making it fardh ayn (religiously obligatory) for all
Muslims, both male and female, to resist the ‘occupying forces’ using any available means, including suicide bombings. The Grand Mufti’s son, who by this
time had become the more active component of his eighty-eight-year-old
father’s Damascus-based foundation, subsequently defended his father’s ruling
by claiming that ‘every Muslim in the world is part of the same body. If you
stick a needle in one part of the body, all the organs will respond.’7
â•… Coming on the heels of the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, the
sheer ‘shock and awe’ of the initial stages of the US-led Operation Enduring
(later Iraqi) Freedom aroused intense emotions across the Arab world. In
Syria, where anti-American sentiment was already a widespread phenomenon,
a desire to travel to Iraq and defend it against foreign invasion was rife—and
Syrian authorities did little to prevent it. In fact, the Syrian Baath Party was
widely accused of organising the recruitment of volunteers from across the
country to join the ‘resistance’ in Iraq. The then Lebanese wing of Syria’s Baath
Party additionally contributed towards this mobilisation drive, reportedly
collecting 200 recruits from around the border town of Arsal alone in late
March 2003.8
â•… As the initial invasion unfolded, busloads of Syrians were driven across
Syria towards the eastern governorates of Hasakah and Deir ez Zour, where
border guards willingly waved them through ‘open gates’9 into Iraq. Reports
flooded in at the time detailing the arrival en masse of these foreign recruits.
While then Iraqi foreign minister Naji Sabri claimed that 5,000 volunteers
from across the Arab world had arrived within eleven days of the invasion,10
1,000 Palestinians from the Yarmouk refugee camp outside Damascus were
reported to have signed up two days later.11 Despite being in the midst of the
Second Intifada, Palestinian Islamic Jihad also sent a ‘wave’ of willing suicide
bombers to Iraq via Syria within ten days of the invasion to ‘fulfill the holy
duty of defending Arab and Muslim land’.12
â•… Casualties from the first days of fighting also demonstrated the rapid internationalisation of the conflict, with a Palestinian Arab Liberation Front
(ALF) fighter from Lebanon killed in a US airstrike on the first day of the war
34

SYRIA’S FLIRTATION WITH JIHADISM

(20 March) and another Palestinian volunteer killed when a bus he was travelling in was blown up by an American Apache helicopter on the main road
between Syria and Baghdad.13 British Special Air Service (SAS) commandos
even detained four busloads of potential suicide bombers, all carrying Syrian
passports, in Iraq’s western Anbar province after their arrival from Syria.14
â•… This was the start of a mass migration of Arabs towards Iraq—almost exclusively via Syria—that would come to define the development of a committed
jihadist insurgency in that country. Crucially, it was something that elements
within the Syrian security apparatus seemed determined to facilitate, despite
President Assad’s offer of unqualified assistance to the USA in its declared
‘War on Terror’.
â•… Notwithstanding their vast differences, this offer had been quickly accepted
by the USA, which within weeks of the 9/11 attacks rendered Syrian national
Mohammed Haydar Zammar from Morocco to Damascus’s Far’Falastin
prison in late October 2001. Zammar had been an active recruiter for alQaeda, including in Europe where he encouraged the coming together of
chief 9/11 hijackers Mohammed Atta, Ramzi bin al-Shibh and Marwan alShehhi, as well as affiliated facilitators Said Behaji and Mounir El Motassadeq.
After his covert transfer to Damascus—something not made public until the
summer of 2002—US intelligence operatives were allowed to ‘submit written
questions to the Syrians, who relay Zammar’s answers back’—an arrangement
described in 2002 as one that ‘insulates the US government from any torture
the Syrians may be applying to Zammar’.15 It is quite feasible that another
equally significant al-Qaeda figure, Mustafa Setmariam Nasar (or Abu Musab
al-Suri) found himself in a similar situation some years later. After he was
detained by Pakistani security forces in Quetta in November 2005 Nasar’s
whereabouts were a total mystery until his lawyer, Clive Stafford-Smith,
announced in June 2009 that his client was in Syria and may have been held
there for ‘some years’.16
â•… The explosive start to the conflict in Iraq had therefore led to a rapid establishment of foreign-fighter recruitment and facilitation networks in Syria, for
the express purpose of feeding a fledgling jihadist insurgency in Iraq. On one
level, pre-existing Syrian Salafist figureheads took the reins of the recruitment
networks themselves. People such as Abu al-Qaqaa used their pro-jihadist
credentials to attract recruits both inside Syria and across the Middle East and
North Africa. Another individual, Mohammed Majid (better known as
Mullah Fuad), a Kurdish Islamist preacher based in Damascus, found himself
on European authorities’ radars as an apparent ‘gatekeeper in Syria for volun€

		
35

THE SYRIAN JIHAD

teers intent on reaching Iraq’.17 These initial networks fed many fighters into
Ansar al-Islam and Jama‘at al-Tawhid wa’l-Jihad ( JTWJ), the latter being the
antecedent movement of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).
â•… But on another level the establishment, expansion and consolidation of
these networks throughout 2003 and into 2004 necessitated a strong element
of government complicity—or a turning of two blind eyes, if one is being
generous. A combination of established anti-Americanism in Syria, still-popular pan-Arabist unity and inter-Baathist loyalties between Assad’s Syria and
Saddam’s Iraq meant that elements within the Syrian government and security
apparatus used these networks and advanced their expansion. But as time
wore on, the dominant actor in maintaining the durability of these foreign
fighter networks—Syria’s military intelligence, led by Assad’s brother-in-law
Assef Shawkat—had an express interest in ensuring that these hundreds and
thousands of jihadists, many of whom definitively sought martyrdom, did not
remain on Syrian territory for long.
â•… Eastern Syria’s 605-kilometre border with Iraq thus became a transit point
for the region, and then the world’s wannabe jihadists. Syria’s tribally dominated and largely desert east had long been a region with ‘extensive tribal
smuggling networks … much of which [had] traditionally received the explicit
or tacit support from Syrian and Iraqi officials’.18 Anything from livestock,
electronics, cigarettes, foodstuffs and people had been smuggled through this
region for decades. The border was porous anyway, with only two principal
official crossings—at al-Yaroubiya in northern Hasakah and al-Bukamal in
central Deir ez Zour—but these smuggling routes seemed tailor-made for
foreign fighter recruiters in Iraq.
â•… With things so decidedly loose on the Syrian side of the border, one would
have thought the situation on the Iraqi side would have been tightened following the Saddam regime’s overthrow. However, the catastrophically shortsighted decision by the chief administrator of the US-established Coalition
Provisional Authority (CPA), Paul Bremer, to dissolve the entire Iraqi military, security and intelligence apparatus—known simply as CPA Order
Number 2: Dissolution of Entities—meant that Iraq’s 35,000-man border
guard ceased to exist overnight.19 With the exception of reconnaissance
patrols by British and American special operations forces, foreign fighters
were free to cross almost at will. While a US special operations taskforce did
launch a cross-border raid 40 kilometres into Syrian territory in order to
targe