If the Castle Falls: Exploring the Ideology and Objectives of the Syrian Rebellion
3 min read
Posted on: 21st December 2015
Five years on from the secular rising in the Middle East commonly known as the "Arab Spring," Syria now hosts the largest gathering of jihadi groups in modern times.
The current focus on a military defeat of ISIS does not consider the other groups in Syria (and around the world) with exactly the same global ideology and ambition.
Our research has found 15 groups stand ready to succeed ISIS. Their ideology is Salafi-jihadism: a transnational religious-political ideology based on a belief in violent jihad to enforce a return to a perceived Islam of the Prophet Mohammad's first followers.
Its cruel and horrific acts rightly shock us. But it is not simply a ‘death cult.’ ISIS represents a continuation of a way of thinking that started before it existed and will carry on if it is defeated. The West risks making a strategic failure by focusing only on ISIS. Defeating it militarily will not end global jihadism. We cannot bomb an ideology, but our war is ideological.
If only ISIS is defeated, there is a high risk that dispersed ISIS fighters and other Salafi-jihadi groups will expand their horizons and launch attacks outside of Syria. “The West destroyed the caliphate” will be a new rallying cry. In a dangerous escalation, these groups could aim to compete for the spotlight – to ensure allegiance from the global fighters and financing that ISIS currently attracts.
Two years after being deported from the UK, the thinking of Abu Qatada, a leading ideologue of al-Qaeda, has featured prominently in its Syrian affiliate’s English language magazine al-Risalah.
This report sets out who these groups are; their ideology, numbers, and alliances. Over several months our team has tracked and analysed a range of sources to come up with what we consider to be the most detailed analysis available of the major jihadis and rebel groups operating in Syria.
Sixty per cent of major Syrian rebel groups are Islamist extremists. Our study of 48 rebel factions in Syria revealed that 33 per cent - nearly 100,000 fighters - have the same ideological objectives as ISIS. If you take into account Islamist groups (those who want a state governed by their interpretation of Isamic law), this figure jumps to 60 per cent.
Unless Assad goes, the Syrian war will go on and spread further. Despite the conflicting ideologies of the rebel groups, 90 per cent of the groups studied hold the defeat of Assad's regime as a principal objective. Sixty-eight per cent seek the establishment of Islamic law in Syria. In contrast, only 38 per cent have the defeat of ISIS as a stated goal.
Syria's rebels cannot be divided into radicals and moderates. Any attempt by international powers to distinguish between acceptable 'moderates' and unacceptable 'extremists' is flawed. Where short- or long-term objectives overlap, groups form coalitions regardless of ideology. Across Syria, Islamists battle Assad or ISIS alongside non-Islamists, and Western-supplied arms are used as fire support for extremists.
The world's inaction drives the growth of extremism. The failure of the international community – including regional powers – to intervene in Syria early in the war can be identified as a factor in the growth of rebel groups, including extremists. Particularly notable is the international inaction that followed the regime's use of chemical weapons in August 2013, after which some of the most powerful coalitions still active in the conflict were formed.
If we defeat ISIS, 15 groups wait in the wings to take its place. The 16 Salafi-jihadi rebel groups we examined have some 96,000 fighters in their ranks. According to the latest CIA estimate, ISIS only accounts for 31,000 of these. According to recent research from the CRG, ISIS is no more extreme than al-Qaeda or any other group that shares its ideology. This means that if ISIS is defeated, some 65,000 fighters belong to groups that are ready to take its place.