How far will extremism affect stability in post-war Syria?
The protracted nature of the Syrian conflict and its rapid transformation into a regional and international proxy war have significantly contributed to the complexity of the conflict and exacerbated the threats to the country’s social cohesion and stability. However, as the fighting seems to be abating, post-war Syria will likely struggle to restore its pre-war stability as its social cohesion and sense of identity are at stake.
Religion in Syria has always been characterized by its long-standing moderation and down-to-earth pragmatic versions of faith. But the fragmentation of the country over the last few years and the perpetuation of identity politics are undermining this moderation the longer a permanent political solution remains off the table. A recent study suggests that the number of Salafi Jihadist fighters in Syria ranges from 43,650 to 70,550, numbers which are thought to be the highest globally.
Following the militarisation of the conflict, radicalized and violent extremism infiltrated both the regime and rebel ranks with thousands of foreign fighters from 100 countries. Those fighters are often predominantly driven by religious impetus, drastically changing the dynamics of the conflict and posing serious challenges to future stabilisation efforts.
As the Syrian regime faced existential threat during the early years of the conflict, its strategic regional ally, Iran, deployed thousands of foreign fighters to support it on the pretext of defending sacred Shiite sites, evoking sectarian odds and intensifying both domestic and regional polarization.
Additionally, in coordination with other actors, Iran has engineered a few deals of demographic swaps aimed at altering the demographic landscape in former rebel-controlled territories, something that is likely to deepen divisions, undermine future stabilisation efforts and nurture radical narratives.
Moreover, besides the demographic swaps which are laden with sectarian grudge, Iran is relentlessly continuing its attempts to dominate the Syrian economy, focusing on Damascus as a basis for future expansion. According to a recent report, Iran is planning to open branches of its banks in Syria to push long-term ‘strategic cooperation’ through reconstruction endeavors. This will certainly fuel future spites in post-war Syria, which will likely further extremist narratives in response to what is widely considered ‘Shiitasation’ of Syria.
Similarly, other parties to the conflict -- benefiting from the failure of the US and its allies’ efforts to train and build up moderate opposition forces -- continued to push their polarising narratives, tapping into confessional, sectarian and ethnic sentiments seeking different endgames.
Turkey, for example, with its deep-seated fear of a de facto Kurdish state near its borders and a desire to cement its leverage in the conflict, has turned a blind eye to -- if not facilitated -- the influx of anti-regime fighters joining rebel forces. These anti-regime fighters include extremist groups such as Ahrar al-Sham (AS) and the now de facto ruling power in the majority of the Idlib province territory Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), formerly known as al-Nusra Front.
Furthermore, ethnic tensions are mounting in northern Syria in the wake of the Turkish-led military operation known as Olive Branch, where thousands of Kurdish citizens have reportedly been displaced from their homes. Ironically, the homes have been commandeered by Sunni Arab citizens displaced from other parts of Syria under the infamous population swaps. This, in addition to accumulating ethnic tensions, will reinforce separatist tendencies and promote social intolerance. Extremist and radicalized propagandas thrive and operate at their best drawing on ethnic rivalry.
With ISIS's self-proclaimed caliphate diminishing in Syria's far-east region, more focus is shifting towards the northern province, Idlib, which is home to thousands of radical Salafi-jihadist groups dominated by the former al-Qaeda affiliated group known as Hay'et Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). The region also showcases how state violence, increasing local grievances and lack of genuine international policy to bolster moderate opposition forces and foster local governance have enabled extremists. They've since been able to strengthen their grip on civil society and cultivate ideas of violent extremism.
The group has benefited from several dynamics, such as the exhaustion of the FSA in fighting both ISIS and the regime and from relocations of fighters displaced from southern and central Syria. It also benefits from border crossings such as Atma, Khirbet al-Joz, and Bab al-Hawa that were captured from rebels. The group has ultimately consolidated its dominance over most of the province, and it is increasingly trying to promote its social appeal through branding Idlib as a religious and conservative society while at the same time suppressing opposing agendas of civil society groups and activists.
Through HTS administration of the city and its resources, Salafists are aiming to sustain their haven by influencing young men and children as young as 10. A few Salafist-related outreach and proselytisation centers such as Markaz Du’at al-Jihad and Markaz Du’at al-Tawheed are operating across Idlib targeting mosques, schools and public playgrounds. They preach for Jihad and recruit young people for summer training camps where participants are exposed to radical ideologies and are encouraged to dismiss democratic values, unwelcome inter-communal diversity, pursue vengeance and embrace violence as means to attain power.
Earlier this year members of Horas Alden, a faction that splintered off of HTS, stormed the University of Ebla in the city of Sarakib, protesting for gender segregation on campus. More recently, HTS forcibly appointed two of its legislators (known as Shar’ie) at Idlib university in an effort to intensify its interference within the public sphere.
A few grass roots and civil society activists who requested anonymity claimed that much of the radicalisation activities and activists in northern Syria belong to foreign members rather than local citizens. The province hosts approximately 20,000 foreign fighters including their family members. Economic difficulties such as a shortage of jobs and livelihood programs are playing a key role in promoting militarisation and radicalisation, according to activists.
As local communities remain vulnerable, intolerance and violence will continue to mount, and the need to support local communities against radical influences becomes more important. While violence has significantly decreased in 2018, the country is unlikely to see stability unless an internationally fostered political solution to the conflict is agreed upon, including a broader policy for post-conflict recovery, a DDR program and a counter-extremism strategy. Otherwise, the world will see extremists take control of and transform more and more of Syria.