Jihadists in Syria: Myth or Reality?

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 9 Issue: 34

President Bashir al-Assad

In a speech on June 20, Syrian president Bashir al-Assad identified three components of the unrest in his country: citizens with legitimate grievances and needs that must be addressed; criminal elements; and “radicals” seeking to destabilise the country. He accused external forces, outlaws, and radicals of exploiting the “movement seeking legitimate reforms” (BBC Arabic, June 20).

Since February 2011, Syria has witnessed a series of demonstrations and protests demanding the ouster of the president Bashir al-Assad and his family and an end to the rule of the Ba’ath party. The protesters insist on the peaceful nature of their political movement, but in order to justify its violent reaction against them the Syrian regime claims that they are confronting “Takfiri-Salafi armed groups” and “outlaw gangsters.”

When Bashir’s father Hafiz Assad (1930-2000) clashed with the Muslim Brotherhood during his four-decade rule, he applied similar descriptions for his opponents. In a speech aired on Damascus Radio on June 30, 1979, the late Syrian president said:

They [the Muslim Brotherhood] have exploited the atmosphere of freedom in order to tempt some young people into committing crimes and to cause [them] to become enemies of Islam. We cannot be lenient with this group, which has committed various acts of murder and one of the most odious massacres ever known in the history of Islam. [1]

Democratic Protests

Both presidents accused “extremism”, but the historical contexts are different; in the late 1970s and the early 1980s there was an armed opposition to Syrian regime and the latter responded by using disproportionate measures of violence, causing the death of tens of thousands of people, most of them civilians. Currently, although the Syrian regime is confronted by peaceful demonstrations inspired by the success of revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, it has responded in a fashion similar to the Hafiz Assad’s crackdown on Islamists in the early 1980s, killing more than 2000 civilians since the uprising began six months ago (Guardian, August 8).

According to a report based on the testimony of Syrian opposition figures and prepared by the Henry Jackson Society (a London-based association devoted to democratization), the Syrian opposition is a democratic-leaning movement in which “the Islamist quotient among the opposition is very low.” [2] Al-Qaeda leader Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri indirectly confirmed the absence of jihadis from the Syrian scene when he addressed a video message to Syrian protesters saying:

Our brothers and fellow Muslims of the Sham [Levant], the land of Ribat [steeds of war] and jihad, Allah knows that if it weren’t for the raging war with the New Crusades in which we are engaged, and were it not for these borders restrictions penned by Sykes and Picot and sanctified by our rulers, my brothers and I would be at your side today, in your midst defending you with our necks and chests… but we are consoled by the fact that Sham, the land of Islam and martyrdom, has enough mujahideen for themselves as well as others. [3]

While all indicators show that no “Takfiri-Salafi armed groups” are leading the democratic protests in Syria, it seems that the Syrian regime seeking to tailor a message to the West, which seems to be willing to listen to Arab regimes once the spectre of “Jihadism” is raised. However, the violence that the regime is using against protestors might inadvertently lead to radicalization and the emergence of new jihadists as well as provoking existing Syrian jihadists, pushing them out into the streets in revolt.

Syrian Jihadists

The American invasion of Iraq in 2003 played a major role in increasing the numbers of Syrian jihadis. With the Syrian government turning a blind eye, regions bordering Iraq, like the Bou Kamal area, became hubs for facilitating the entry of jihadis to Iraq to fight the Americans. Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, then the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, was also very keen to create the Levant branch of al-Qaeda, hence he was relying on jihadists from the region.

Since then the number of Syrian jihadists has increased. For instance, according to figures compiled by the author, Syrians formed a high proportion of the Salafi-Jihadists in Iraq, coming in second place by nationality with 13% of the Arab volunteers in Iraq. [4]

It seems that the activity of the Syrian Salafi-Jihadists was not limited to Iraq and Syria. They also formed a high proportion of jihadists acting on Lebanese soil before and during the confrontations at the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp between the Lebanese authorities and militant Islamists in 2007. Syrians formed about 13% of those jihadists, after the Saudis with 16%, Palestinians from the refugee camps with 31%, and Lebanese with 33%. Seven per cent came from other sources. [5]

The increasing number of Syrian jihadists is also combined with the production of thousands of pages of literature theorizing a confrontation with the Syrian Alawite regime. The most well-known writings in this context are those of Abu Musa’b al-Suri (a.k.a. Mustafa bin Abd al-Qadir Sitt Maryam Nasr, currently believed to be imprisoned in Syria after rendition by the United States).

Al-Suri wrote several books on jihad in Syria and his vision of the Levant region, and Syria in particular, based on two levels: first, an intellectual theorizing, and at the second level, a focus  on strategies for a revolution or confrontation with the Syrian regime, which he sees as a kafir regime representing "Nusayris" (a pejorative term for Alawites) and Ba’athists. [6]

Following the death of Hafiz al-Assad, al-Suri wrote a book entitled Ahl as-Sunna fi’l-Sham fi Muwajihat al-Nusayria wa’l-Salibeen wa’l-Yahoud (The Sunni People in the Levant in the Face of Nasiriyah, Crusaders and Jews." Al-Suri focuses on two fundamental issues in this work: the “Nusayri” sect and its unjust dominion in Syria and the Syrian state apparatus in its entirety, which, according to al-Suri, is supported by the West to establish peace with Israel. Al-Suri sees a Sunni revolution in Syria as a strategic solution: “We must highlight the basic identity of this confrontation with the Alawi Nusayris, focusing the axis of confrontation towards the correct key to this jihadi conflict between truth and falsehood, [which] is the Sunnis in the face of the Alawi Nasiriyah."

Another well-known jihadi writer, Husain Bin Mahmoud, wrote a March 26 article entitled “Demashq: Qa’dat a-Jihad fi al-Ard” (Damascus: the Jihad Base on the Earth), in which he presented several hadiths of the Prophet Muhammad that emphasize the qualities of the Levant for jihadists, being the “land of faith and science,” the home of “the best soldiers on earth,” and “the best place to migrate to.” [7]

Stressing the sectarian understanding of the situation in Syria according to the jihadists’ perspective, Bin Mahmoud claims 80% of the people in Syria are Muslims who are being repressed by a “non-Muslim” Alawite minority and asks how a “despicable, humiliated minority became superiors of the best soldiers on the earth?” In answering himself, Bin Mahmoud says that the people of the Levant were humiliated when “they replaced the banner of jihad with [the banner of] national resistance, and replaced the identity of Islam with nationalism, and the doctrine of Islam with Ba’athism and socialism.”

Like most jihadists tackling the Syrian issue, Bin Mahmoud expects the people of Syria to have a role in jihad: “When the people of the Levant come back to the righteous, and the sound of bullets [is] exalted, and young people shout in the squares, ‘God is great,’ and the voices of minarets start to call for jihad, then I [will] preach the gospel of Muslims in the East and the West [that] infidels will be destroyed…and then woe to the infidels and its people from the soldiers of al-Sham.  


Obviously, al-Qaeda and affiliated Salafi-Jihadist groups have an ideological and geopolitical perspective towards Syria, but their project is based on promoting a sectarian division inside Syria that is at odds with the Syrian protestors’ ambition of having a post-Assad democratic state. This has prevented the jihadists from exerting political influence during the on-going crisis despite the allegations of the regime

However, the violence that the regime is using to deal with protesters could serve as a source of radicalization that could activate the jihadists inside the country. If this happened, the Assad regime would face a political and security catastrophe by having to deal with “real” jihadists ready to engage the regime with violence.

By their peaceful political activity, the young protesters in Syria are building a barrier to prevent Salafi-Jihadists from making inroads into the Arab Spring. Meanwhile, the government is paving a way for their entry by its violent repression of a peaceful opposition movement.


1. Quoted in Nikolaos van Dam, The Struggle For Power in Syrian: Politics and Society Under Asad and the Ba’th Party, I. B. Tauris, 1996, p.95.

2. Michael Weiss, Hannah Stuart and Samuel Hunter, The Syrian Opposition: Political analysis with original testimony from key figures, Henry Jackson Society, London, 2011 https://www.henryjacksonsociety.org/cms/harriercollectionitems/SyrianOpposition.pdf.

3. Al-Zawahri video message entitled Ei’zul Shariq Awaloh Demashq (the Glory of the East Begins with Damascus), disseminated on jihadist web forums on July 27. Downloaded from: https://aljahad.com/vb/showthread.php?t=9054 .

4. The Saudis came in first with 53%. See Terrorism Monitor, December 2, 2005.

5. Figures compiled by the author from open sources.

6. The term “Nusayri” refers to followers of Abu Shu’ayb Muhammad ibn Nusayr (d. 863 AD).

7. https://muslm.net/vb/showthread.php?t=446295.