Syria’s pivotal position, geographically and politically, between developments in Lebanon and Iraq has made it a major new focus for Western policy in the Middle East. One of the several factors casting the spotlight on Damascus is its ambiguous relationship towards Islamist militants operating in neighboring territories — Iraq in particular, where it is suspected of facilitating the transit of mujahideen into the country across its borders. However, following more than a 20-year lull since Hafez al-Asad brutally put down the Muslim Brotherhood in the city of Hama in the wake of a failed assassination attempt in June 1980, Islamist political activity has accelerated at home. For Damascus this constitutes a third hostile front, one that it had hoped to avoid through progressive investment in ‘official Islam.’ Instead, the more than 20 new Syrian higher-education institutions for teaching Islam have failed to stem the jihadist tide, which is now gaining in confidence.
A gauge of this confidence is the recent appearance of a new online magazine, the Risalat al-Mujahideen (Message of the Mujahideen) produced by the online publishers Minbar Suriya al-Islami (Islamic Pulpit of Syria), on www.nnuu.org. Its first three monthly issues have determined its editorial priorities: the awakening of jihadi consciousness among the country’s youth through an effective call to arms, and the establishment of overt hostility to the regime both politically and doctrinally. The theme was graphically expressed on the cover of the maiden issue where, beneath an illustration of an automatic machine-gun was featured “A Call to Sunni Youths in the Levant”, and an exposé of the “Criminal History of [Interior Minister] Ghazi Kanaan.” The second issue of Risalat al-Mujahideen focused on calling for support from Islamic intellectuals and preachers, and adjacent to an illustration of the ruins of Hama highlighted its theme: “Why do we oppose the Baathist Nusayri [an abusive term for Alawite] regime?” The most recent issue continues the theme of a call to arms, renews Sunni consciousness as the “victorious denomination” and focuses in on the ruling Alawi regime’s concept of the state (“plots of land to be shared out among cronies”).
The rise of jihadist currents in Syria naturally reflects the events taking place in its neighboring states. As in Iraq, the militancy not only focuses on the more familiar secular geo-political priorities, but also the lines of doctrinal conflict, as illustrated in Iraq by the targeting of religious symbols of the majority Shi’a community. In the case of Syria, however, the exercise is less quixotic, since the Alawi community, from which the regime draws its elite, represents no more than 12 per cent of the overall population. Judging from the editorials of the Risalat al-Mujahidin, the fact that Alawis — more so than Shi’ites — are deemed to be incompatible with Islam appears to be a rallying cry for the burgeoning Syrian jihadist movement.