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Nabil Mohamad, Syrian journalist and writer
Supervised and edited by:
Mohammed Kafina & Erik Prins, senior editors of Fanack
In the first half of the 1980s, during the era of former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, the Muslim Brotherhood inside Syria collapsed. Al-Assad launched a bloody war against the group; most notable was the massacre committed by the Syrian regime in the city of Hama in 1982. Following this incident, no Islamic organisation or group was able to operate inside Syria outside the framework of the official Syrian regime.
The movement opposing the Syrian regime expanded in the summer of 2011, resulting in the Damascus government’s loss of control in certain areas. Subsequently, the environment became conducive to the emergence of various Islamic points of view within groups opposing the Syrian regime which were initially, civil and peaceful tendencies, and later, after the beginning of armed opposition, militarised inclinations.
Broadly speaking, there have been two entirely different perspectives within opposition groups since the start of the anti-regime movement. Opposition groups and individuals with liberal or leftist orientations, and those with no ideological affiliation, rejected the characterisation of the movement as Islamic. The other perspective, however, affirms the Islamist nature of the movement, considering its launch from mosques and the chanting of Islamic slogans by demonstrators.
This plurality of perspectives indicates that the movement was not organised under one leadership with authority. In addition, the creation of organised civil and military structures outside the control of the Syrian regime naturally led to the presence of a clear Islamic orientation in some of them. This resulted from the fact that the majority of the opposition belonged to conservative Sunni areas, which were subject to bombardments and sieges by the Syrian regime. The Islamic trend later came to dominate the political and military scene.
Beginning of Islamisation
In September 2011, some six months after the protests against the Syrian regime erupted in various parts of Syria, a political opposition entity was established under the name of the Supreme Council for the Leadership of the Syrian Revolution (hereafter ‘Supreme Council’). Previously called the Syrian National Council, it was one of the first political bodies created in the aftermath of the revolution.
At the end of 2011, shortly after its establishment, the Supreme Council began to cooperate with armed factions with Islamist leanings that had started to form in areas of Homs and the countryside of Damascus. According to the Malcolm Kerr-Carnegie Center for Research, the council included members with an Islamic background, which led to the council’s support for extremist factions.
The armed Islamist forces, whose presence and strength increased with the advent of 2012, strengthened the overall Islamist trend. Their presence can mainly be attributed to support for these forces from countries with conservative Islamic orientations such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, which all supported military factions. Additionally, parties and individuals in these and other countries supported several Islamist forces in Syria.
These factions ranged from conservative Islamist to hardline jihadist. A trend that was exacerbated by the Syrian regime’s release of extremist Islamist figures who had been imprisoned, as they later became hardline military leaders in their areas.
Detached Political Opposition
After the start of the revolution in Syria, the political opposition witnessed two main bodies, the second built on the ruins of the first. A critique later directed at the two bodies was that they were formed outside Syria, far from the centre of the conflict.
The first of these bodies – the Syrian National Council – was established in October 2011. The second – the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (hereafter ‘National Coalition’) – was established in November 2012 and still exists as of May 2022. Both entities faced severe criticism from various opposition forces within Syria and accusations of pursuing foreign agendas and seeking personal gains. This resulted from the growing number of crises in the country, such as the bombing of cities, the increase in the number of refugees and displaced persons, and the exposure to harsh humanitarian conditions that political forces could not confront.
One of the National Coalition’s most important tasks was to supervise the work of the military factions affiliated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The factions began to grow due to an increase in the number of Syrian army defectors and the formation of local armed groups made up of young men from areas that were no longer under the regime’s control or had been subjected to bombardment and siege. In March 2012, a military office was established within the opposition coalition to support the FSA and organise its work. Financing and arming the FSA began to emerge as a primary task. The opposition group faced various issues: securing military support, convincing supporters of the council’s ability to control the military factions and the allocation of weapons to the different factions.
The Coalition could not control all the formed factions, especially in northern Syria, where factions were continuously emerging, mostly of an Islamist nature. These factions had adopted Islamic literature, which they used in the names of the factions to their slogans, the names of the battles they are fighting, and the names of the leaders and their appearance. It also classified the enemies as apostates, heretics and infidels. Most importantly, the systems of administration that these factions later created were based on conservative Islamic law.
The factions undertook their military activities without supervision or coordination with the Coalition. In most cases, they did not coordinate with the leaders of the military offices affiliated with the Free Syrian Army. Even within the FSA, divisions surfaced among the factions, as the Coalition was accused of supplying some factions more than others, in particular the Islamist factions close to Qatar. Thus, the divisions between factions became apparent, the strength of the Islamist factions increased, and they began to appear as the most capable in a military confrontation with the Syrian army.
Meanwhile, an Islamist jihadist force was increasing in presence in parts of Syria, namely the ” The al-Nusra Front (hereafter: al-Nusra), ” which would later be called “Jabhat Fateh al-Sham,” and subsequently “Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.”
Al-Nusra was a jihadist force that began to expand after its establishment in January 2012. The presence of this faction in the media and public discourse increased in conjunction with suicide operations it carried out targeting headquarters of the Syrian regime in Aleppo, Damascus, Deir ez-Zor and other Syrian regions.
On the civil side, the presence of Islamist forces became apparent too in areas outside the regime’s control, where civil work had to be organised quickly. This occurred in light of the political, legal and security vacuum created by the regime’s exit, which often led to unqualified groups and people from the regions assuming responsibilities.
At a legal level, Islamic courts that followed Sharia law, at times headed by local sheikhs, began to appear and used the Islamist factions present in the area to implement their decisions. These courts began to clash with the civil movements affiliated with the Coalition. Thus, the situation in the areas outside the regime’s control was generally turbulent, suggesting impending clashes. It seemed new flags would be raised, each with their own affiliation, and reflecting a future that these regions’ people did not expect.
2013 – Islamist Factions
Since late 2012, the power of Islamist factions had been increasing, and meetings between their leaders started appearing in the media. The factions often drew criticism from other parties, struggling to maintain a more moderate image of the revolution against the Syrian regime. Among them was the National Coalition, which was criticised and not recognised by the Islamist factions. The factions rejected the Coalition’s leadership and representation of the Syrian people, as was stated publicly by the factions’ leaders.
Concurrently, differences between the opposition factions started emerging as intermittent clashes and later fierce battles. There were numerous reasons for the differences, from disagreements regarding control over territories and differences in the factions’ supporting parties to attempts at winning support for one faction by eliminating another. Simply put, those factions willing to fight in the war against the most radical organisations would receive military support.
The most prominent clashes were between the Free Syrian Army factions and al-Nusra, which had announced its allegiance to the jihadist al-Qaeda organisation in April 2013. Likewise, battles were fought between conservative Islamist brigades and al-Nusra, which materialised as the strongest faction, especially in northern Syria. Al-Nusra’s strength raised fears among various forces, whether the FSA or other Islamist factions, as it became evident that skirmishes turned into major battles in several Syrian regions. The gun barrels at that time were not aimed at the Syrian regime, as was supposed.
On 22 November 2013, the major Islamist opposition factions united under the name “Islamic Front” through a statement published in the media. Remarkably, the Front attributed itself to both a political and a military profile, indicating that its role was not limited to fighting. Instead, it would play a role in ruling the areas in which its factions were present, covering almost the entirety of Syria’s opposition-controlled areas. The Islamic Front did not announce a clear position on the National Coalition at the time, which can be explained by the fact that some of the Front’s factions remained linked to the FSA’s Staff Command, which was run by the National Coalition and received American and Saudi support.
The Syrian areas outside the regime’s control were not subject to unified rule. Instead, factions had almost absolute authority over the regions in which they were present. Jaish al-Islam (The Army of Islam) took control of the eastern Ghouta area of Damascus in the capital’s countryside. The Ahrar al-Sham movement, Liwa al-Tawhid and al-Nusra consolidated their power in parts of Aleppo, Idlib, Homs and Hama, while the remaining factions held sway over areas where they were present. Dependent on the ties that dominant military forces’ leaders had with local government councils, authority could be either direct or indirect. In this context, the methods of governance varied between conservative Islamic rule, hardline rule, and others that were more hardhanded.
The increasing strength and plurality of the Islamist factions, their different sources of funding and armaments, and the presence of lines of contact and overlapping territories, resulted in near-daily inter-faction battles making headlines in the media. This became particularly prevalent in 2013 and 2014, at which time it was not yet clear which forces were most viable and strongest militarily.
In northern Syria, factions such as the Syrian Revolutionaries Front could be found; an opposition faction described as moderate and at odds with al-Nusra. The ensuing fights between the two groups resulted in al-Nusra gaining the upper hand and thereby complete control over the areas previously held by the Syrian Revolutionaries Front. The Islamic State, which had spread to a great degree in the eastern region and other areas of Syria in 2013, was also waging war against a group of other forces such as al-Nusra and the Islamic movement Ahrar al-Sham, affiliated with the Islamic Front. These forces successively lost their territories, particularly in the east, to the most radical organisation in Syria.
In llight of these battles, the advance of extremist forces into areas controlled by less radical parties, and the withering of the moderate Free Army factions, the opposition-controlled areas fell largely under the authority of Islamist forces. This led, progressively, to people leaving Syria if possible or internal displacement to border camps. Political and military analysts believed the Syrian regime benefited from the factions’ disputes and battles, as their fights against one another undoubtedly mitigated attacks against the regime.
Assad Regime Benefits
The Syrian regime considered the ongoing battles between the various opposition forces in the north of Syria and the growing strength of the Islamic State in the east to serve its interests in several ways. The faction’s battles made the factions come across as rival militias looking for gains. Additionally, the fights presented a divided opposition and mitigated the opposition forces’ attacks against the regime. And most importantly, the factions, in particular the Islamic State and al-Nusra, manifested as militant Islamist.
These factors would shift the West’s focus to curbing the influence of extremists. The Syrian regime would also arise as a force trying to combat extremism. Since the first weeks of the war in the areas rebelling against the regime, discourse in state media concerned fighting extremism, which would undoubtedly prevent Western military support for those factions.
With Islamist factions, especially the Islamic State and al-Nusra, increasing their control over regions in Syria, the media continuously broadcast the factions’ egregious practices in these areas. Bloody scenes showed field trials involving gallows and sharp weapons, and Sharia courts easily issued death sentences. Along with poverty, continued bombing and fighting, this contributed to civilians fleeing the areas, some recounting their suffering under the militant rule in the media. Meanwhile, the Syrian regime emerged as the factions’ enemy, which, according to the narrative the regime and its supporting parties asserted and reiterated, would undoubtedly rule the country in case of the regime’s demise.
Moderate Opposition Disappears
The moderate Syrian opposition had almost entirely disappeared in light of these developments. Areas controlled by a non-extremist faction had become a rarity. The leaders of the Free Syrian Army factions disappeared by fleeing the country or were killed by bullets of either militants or the Syrian army. Thus, the equation “either Assad or the militants” came into existence, and international efforts began focussing on the struggle with the militants in a war that would last for years.
The majority of unarmed and non-militant Syrian opposition members and organisations, which played various roles over time, especially in governing civilians in areas where the regime had lost control, fled abroad. Those who insisted on staying found themselves in contention with the extremist factions and vanished when the factions opened their prisons. The fates of the most prominent remain unknown to this day. A case in point is the disappearance of the four human rights activists Samira al-Khalil, Razan Zaitouneh, Wael Hamadeh and Nazem Hammadi, who had firm positions against the extremist forces in the Syrian opposition areas, especially in the Damascus countryside. Jaish al-Islam, which ruled the eastern Ghouta area of Damascus for years, was accused of their disappearance in late 2013.
In northern Syria, al-Nusra was on the lookout for dissenting voices and was known for arresting journalists and activists, whom it held in its infamous prisons. It, too, closed the offices of civil society organisations operating in the areas to gain complete control over their territories and rule the population with force.
Regime Besieges, Regains Control
With the growth of Islamist forces in the opposition areas and the increasing strength of the Islamic State, the Syrian regime continued its military campaigns, leading to, among other things, the destruction of entire cities and the siege of the cities’ residents. Clearly, from 2014 onwards, the regime regained control over the cities it had lost in previous years.
Starting in Homs, the Syrian army destroyed entire neighbourhoods and prevented the entry of food and medical supplies during a siege that lasted approximately two years. The siege ended in May 2014, at which point the regime regained control over the city and expelled a large portion of the populace under an agreement that allowed residents to leave the city.
The scenario first seen in Homs was repeated in subsequent years in other cities that the opposition lost, starting from eastern Ghouta, all the way to Aleppo and Daraa and various areas of the northern, southern and central countryside. Many residents found themselves forced to ride the green buses, a symbolic example of displacement. Civilians were sent to Idlib, which remained under control of the opposition forces. Some residents remained in their destroyed neighbourhoods, only to suffer from a policy of marginalisation or recruitment into the regime’s forces or its loyal militias. The regime, at the time, imprisoned at will. Anyone who was proven to have participated in any activity in support of the opposition forces could be jailed, as well as those objecting to the regime’s decisions after it took control. This ultimately led to tens of thousands remaining forcibly disappeared to this day.