In the two years since its inception, the image of the Syrian civil war has veered dramatically away from its revolutionary, secular origins. What began as a response to the brutal repression of peaceful protests by Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s regime has now mutated into a beleaguering quagmire of sectarian and Islamist violence.
The slow radicalisation of this conflict has not, as some hold, been manifest destiny. The Syrian rebellion was not an al-Qaeda plot to overthrow the Assad regime from the start, as Ba'athist, Russian and Iranian media like to claim. Rather, it has been the outcome of a process influenced by a politically weak oppositional front, repeated regime brutality, jihadist opportunism, and varying degrees of international interventionism.
Debates over root causes aside, the reality on the ground appears stark. As loyalist forces continue to harden supply lines, the opposition is plagued with internal violence between secularists and Islamists.
While Western powers struggle to define a clear policy response to rebel factioning, jihadist violence and power grabs continue to degrade what little cohesion the opposition possessed.
The Islamist warchild
The role of militant Islam was minimal at the beginning of the Syrian revolution, but since June 2011 it has become increasingly central and inseparable from the struggle.
Historically, grassroots militant Islam manifested in Syria as a response to the Ba'athist regime by extremist elements of the Muslim brotherhood. Such radicalism was effectively suppressed by Hafez al-Assad during the 1982 Hama massacre that left an estimated 20,000 dead. Following Hama, violent Islamist resistance in Syria experienced a thirty-year lull.
Since 2011, however, Syria has become a hub for jihadist groups, both foreign and domestic. The war has attracted and produced hardliners who are committed to the expansion and unification of Muslim states under sharia, as well as war tourists, who will often fight in theatre for a few weeks, before returning home with adventurism sated.
For many of these militants, the conflict is viewed through a lens that stresses its sectarian nature. Emphasis is placed upon the “Nusayri” (a derogatory term for Alawites) roots in the Syrian regime, as well as the “atheist godlessness” of the Ba'athist philosophy underwriting the state.
Jihadist groups moving into Syria brought with them several advantages over their secular counterparts. Veterans from other Islamist-linked conflicts, such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya and groups like Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) displayed an immediate tactical efficacy over moderate local forces, often acting as the vanguard in major offensives.
Al-Nusra has purposefully avoided the high-attrition city fights that characterise much of the Syrian conflict. Instead, it bases itself in the countryside and strikes opportunistically against strategic targets. This approach has a key tenet of the group, allowing it to develop and expand its veteran core and capabilities. Meanwhile, competitors waste their best and brightest in urban meat-grinders like Aleppo, Homs and al-Qusair.
The external networks supporting jihadist groups are also more robust than for the local FSA rebels. While the Free Syrian Army had to build its connections from scratch since 2011, many Islamist militants entering the Levant brought with them state and non-state connections built up over the past decade on fronts ranging from Tajikistan, to Chechnya, to Yemen.
Compounding this, Saudi Arabia and Qatar appear to have at least tacitly encouraged and supported some of these same organisations in their efforts. It remains unknown whether Riyadh and Doha are actively seeking to cultivate Islamism in the conflict, or are simply taking an advantage to hurt an old foe.
Regardless of motivations, the end result has been a gradual empowerment of Islamists over moderates in the opposition, and a weakening of oppositional legitimacy vis-à-vis the Western international community.
Déjà vu all over again
The capacity of militant Sunni Islamist groups to hijack secular insurrections is by no means new. A similar dynamic has was displayed in both the Russo-Chechen wars and the 2012-13 Malian insurrection.
In each case, what began as an ethno-separatist uprising was infiltrated by jihadist elements. The presence, ideologies and activities of these fighters transformed the character and nature of these conflicts; a phenomenon the renowned counter-insurgency expert David Kilcullen dubs “the accidental guerrilla syndrome”.
The presence of foreign Islamist fighters fundamentally weakened the legitimacy of these struggles for independence, and was a pivotal factor in their failure.
In the case of Chechnya, the radicalising effect that culminated in the 1999 invasion of Dagestan, the 2002 Dubrovka theatre siege and the 2004 Beslan school hostage crisis destroyed much of the international sympathy for the Ichkerian cause.
These incidents also quieted the voices of local liberal opposition, giving Russian authorities carte blanche in their violent suppression of the Caucasian insurgency. Although an insurgency continues to simmer in the Caucuses, the likelihood of a Chechen state free from the fetters of Russian federalism today is effectively zero.
What begun as a secular struggle for the independence of the ethnic Tuaregs of Mali’s north was quickly supplanted by a stream of local and foreign jihadists, intent upon establishing a hard-line sharia state within that same space.
France, the Economic Community Of West African States and the African Union might have been able to accept a new indepedent secular enclave in the Sahel landscape, but the prospect of a North-African Afghanistan and the inherent regional instability posed by such a state were intolerable.
Winning battles, not wars
In both Chechnya and Mali, Islamist militants often outperformed moderate forces on the battlefield due to their training, equipment and ideological commitment. But despite the tactical advantages, jihadist groups fundamentally weakened these bids for independence by destroying the political viability and credibility of the opposition.
A similar dynamic now seems to be emerging in the case of Syria. With murders of senior FSA figures in the opposition and clashes between moderate and extremist elements, the limited tactical benefits of jihadists is overshadowed by the chaos endemic to their presence.
For America and the European Union, this only makes engagement with the opposition more difficult. Politically, supporting an opposition that increasingly dominated by groups who stress illiberal and sectarian goals can only weaken the rickety moralism used to publicly to justify such interventionism.
Historically, western support of such groups led to immense blowback. Pragmatically, the questions still remain “who do we arm?”, “are they reliable?” and “how can we ensure our equipment doesn’t end up in the wrong hands?”.
While the west has hesitated over these questions, the jihadists of the Syrian civil war have continued to act and destabilise. Amidst this, repeated calls to “arm the moderates” appear more and more like an attempt to hold a gushing wound with a band aid.
This is not to say that Assad is poised to strike a death blow to opposition: the regime itself appears to be undergoing a similar, if less dramatic, process of decentralisation with its own militia groups.
The comparison with the Lebanese civil war is hard to ignore. As analyst Aron Lund notes: “the war [in Syria] will go on, and on and on”.