SOME ban cigarettes, sport the short trousers of the type worn by the Prophet Muhammad’s companions, and send suicide-bombers to blow up government checkpoints. Others joke about growing beards to butter up rich conservative donors from the Gulf. Welcome to the eclectic world of Syria’s Salafists, so far only a minor strand of the rebel forces fighting to overthrow President Bashar Assad’s regime, but one that is growing.
Salafists have been on the rise in Syria since the start of the year, when Jabhat al-Nusra (The Support Front) presented itself. The group, which sees Syria’s struggle as part of a global jihad, is the only one explicitly recognised by al-Qaeda. It marks itself out with suicide-bombings that often cause civilian casualties and has a slick media operation. With its forces on the front line in the raging battle for Aleppo, Syria’s second city, its impact is getting stronger.
Ahrar al-Sham (Freemen of Greater Syria) is another slightly more moderate Salafist network, operating mainly in the north-west province of Idleb. Like Jabhat al-Nusra, it wants to impose a strict Islamist state and sees the fight in Syria as a sectarian battle of Sunni Muslims versus Alawites, the esoteric Shia offshoot to which the Assads belong. The two groups’ numbers are probably relatively small. Whereas Mr Assad’s regime encouraged the flow of jihadists into Iraq to kill Americans after the invasion in 2003, it has generally stamped on extremists. But jihadists are a minority within the Salafist trend; most Salafists are of a milder bent.
“Rebel ranks are drawn disproportionately from poor, conservative areas where Salafism has resonance,” says Noah Bonsey, an author of a recent report by the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based lobby, on jihadists in Syria. He thinks the regime’s reliance on Alawite soldiers and on thugs known as the shabiha, as well as the support of Shia powers, including Iran and Hizbullah, a Lebanese Shia party-cum-militia, has helped to spread the Salafist idea that the uprising is really a struggle for Sunni dominance.
Cash from Gulf benefactors who favour religious fighters has given the Salafists a high profile. Some fighters exaggerate their religiosity. “We grow beards and act more religious to get money,” admits a fighter with al-Farouq, an Islamist group. “But many of us drink beer.” Although the opposition in general has failed to present a clear vision of Syria after the Assad regime has fallen, Salafism, with its glorification of death in the cause of jihad, has provided its fighters with an identity.
Whether Salafist groups will emerge on top, as some Western governments fear, is another matter. They will certainly want a share of the spoils in a future Syria, especially if they provide a disproportionate share of fighters and weapons.
Yet the rest of the opposition has urged them to hold back, arguing that their presence is already playing into the hands of the regime, which has long portrayed the rebels as Islamist terrorists tied to al-Qaeda. A prominent Salafist television preacher, Adnan al-Arour, has condemned Jabhat al-Nusra’s suicide-bombing tactics.
So far, Islamist rebel coalitions such as the Syrian Liberation Front, which is composed mainly of Saqour al-Sham (Falcons of Greater Syria) and al-Farouq, both based in the province of Idleb, have failed to win support among Syrians at large, many of whom are secular-minded, especially the good quarter of Syrians who belong to non-Sunni minorities, including Christians, Alawites and Druze.
One argument being heard more loudly among Western and other governments wanting to help the rebels is that funds should be unified and channelled so that jihadist and Salafist groups do not benefit disproportionately from the largesse of Islamist-minded Gulf sponsors. Rebel commanders such as Mustafa Sheikh of the Free Syrian Army, which is wary of the Salafists, wants to bolster regional military councils. But as the bloody stalemate persists, 19 months after the start of the uprising, Salafist groups may get stronger.