Salafists Rise in Syria

One radical element of the anti-Assad coalition is willing to gain power at any price.

As the uprising in Syria continues, the opposition is growing stronger by the day. But as the war grinds on, significant developments may affect both the political landscape of the Levant and an alternation in political power among the key players of the opposition. Whereas Turkey has supported and more or less controlled major groups among the Syrian opposition, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have supported the Salafists, ultra-Orthodox Muslims, but have maintained little if any control over them.

First, though they share in principle the vision of recreating the righteous salaf (predecessor) society, which applied the prophetic model during the period of the first four rightly guided Caliphs (from 632–661 AD), Salafist groups differ over the methodology by which to bring about this society and therefore are not united in practice. Next, Salafists are more or less operating freely in Lebanon and Deir ez-Zour province in Syria. Most importantly, they are exploiting their historic and growing presence in Tripoli and the Akkar region as well as the political impasse in Lebanon between the pro- and anti-Syrian forces. Consequently, they have been able to obtain significant funding from Saudi Arabia and Qatar and at the same time support the Syrian opposition without restrictions. By operating freely in northern Lebanon, they have increased their political power among Sunnis by standing out as the most potent group supporting the opposition.

Signs of their emerging clout hardly can be missed in Tripoli, as I witnessed during my recent research trip there. They have been able to help create secure areas and establish makeshift hospitals for the opposition near the Syrian border, both inaccessible to Lebanese authorities. These activities, in addition to their military intervention on the side of the Free Syrian Army, have enhanced dramatically their political power. According to the political anti-Syrian-regime forces in Lebanon, especially the powerful Hariri Mustaqbal party, the "Salafists can be controlled, and the priority remains about bringing down the Syrian regime."

Keen analyst and observer Mustafa Alloush, a former deputy and a leader of the Mustaqbal party, informed me that Salafist power cannot grow in urban areas such as Tripoli, given the infitah (openness) of the populace and the presence of secular and progressive parties. But by the same token, he expressed to me his serious concerns about the Salafists leading the way in creating an area of operations of Sunni Islamism connecting Iraq's al-Anbar province with Syria's Deir ez-Zour province. Accordingly, it is not implausible to consider that Salafists may well hew a territorial passage under their control extending from al-Anbar province to Tripoli.

The Salafists, unlike some groups in the opposition, are preparing for a long battle with the regime, believing that the longer the battle is fought, the stronger they will become. In a lengthy interview with Tripoli's powerful Salafist sheikh Salem Bin Abd al-Ghani al-Rafi'i, I inquired about the commitment of the Salafists to topple the regime and the impact of possible future massacres on their determination to stay the course. Al-Rafi'i's soft tone belied his steely poise when he asserted that "we are ready to sacrifice two million martyrs before we reconsider our policy towards the brutal Asad regime." In the same breath, Sheikh al-Rafi'i emphasized his openness and care for the Christians as well as his willingness to politically work with them.

The ease with which al-Rafi'i committed himself to deposing the regime at this staggering human cost underscores the Salafists' rigidity, their radical stance towards the regime and, most importantly, their readiness to plunge Syria in a bloodbath just to remove Assad. His statement also implies that even if the regime retreats into the Alawi heartland, Salafists will not cease fighting until it collapses. Moreover, he is clearly aware of the support the regime receives from Iran, Iraq and Hezbollah, and yet he remains committed to fighting the regime without making any political compromise.

The Syrian crisis not only is evolving towards sectarian consolidation and cleansing. It also is violently reshaping the political landscape of the Levant. The region’s countries are taking stances and pursuing policies that work at cross-purposes. Meanwhile, the United States and the West generally appear to have little, if any, control over the horrible unfolding events.

Robert G. Rabil served as a chief of emergency for the Red Cross in Lebanon during the country's civil war. He is associate professor of political science and the LLS Distinguished Professor of Current Events at Florida Atlantic University. He is the author of Syria, United States and The War on Terror in the Middle East and most recently Religion, National Identity and Confessional Politics in Lebanon: The Challenge of Islamism.

Image: FreedomHouse