Sectarian conflict might dominate coverage of Syria today, but internal Sunni dynamics will define its tomorrow. Tensions between Alawis and Sunnis won’t be settled over night, but the demographics in Syria do not suggest a prolonged conflict similar to Iraq or Lebanon.
Unlike those countries, Syria is overwhelmingly Sunni (~75%) and Bashar al-Assad’s fate rests on their support. Over the last two years, the strategic alliance between Assad and the Sunni elite has eroded significantly. Assad’s former Syrian-Sunni allies are now some of his opponent’s most important financial contributors. Russia seemingly hedging its bets on Syria’s future, and the United States attempting to raise its profile on the issue bothindicate that post-Assad preparations are being made.
After almost two years since the rebellion began, over 44,000 have been killed, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. According to press accounts and my personal observations during a recent trip to the Syrian/Turkey border as part of Truman Project's Democracy and Human Rights Initiative, the rebels control much of Syria’s north, including most of the border with Turkey, significant portions of Aleppo, and are steadily making a push for Damascus, the final prize. Even Assad’s deputies have cynically taken to the airwaves to advocate for a political resolution, an unlikely proposition at this stage.
An impending power vacuum is inevitable so focus must shift to the competitors aiming to fill that space. The common consensus is that the opposition’s political and military factions are poised to battle for authority. In reality, this competition highlights a more fundamental confrontation: traditionalist Sunnism versus its more puritanical Salafi strain. The Syrian coalition understands this with their perspicacious selection of Mu’az al-Khatib to lead the opposition: the former head imam at Umayyad Masjid, the country’s most important religious site and the fourth holiest site in Islam. Al-Khatib, a Sunni traditionalist, can counter the growing appeal of Salafism. Rebel militias are dominated by an ideological spectrum of Salafi fighters, but are united by both the cause and their interpretive approach to Islam’s foundational texts. Despite Salafism never having mass appeal in Syrian society, there is potential for that to change.
Most traditionalists are loath to accept this, but admit a prolonged conflict favors the Salafis. They argue that Syrian society has never been receptive to Salafi ideology, despite hosting some of its intellectual heavyweights, like Nasr al-Din al-Albani. Traditionalists argue that people reject Salafi rigidity and its intolerance of Syria’s historically pluralistic society. The Salafis rely on one powerful counterpoint: the people will reward them for the blood they are shedding. In other words, while the traditional scholarly class enjoyed the safety of privilege both inside and in exile, the Salafis languished in Assad’s prisons and ran the revolution’s frontlines.
To some degree, these are all valid points. Salafis do dominate the fighting force, but revolutions only involve a fraction of the people; elections involve many more. As Egypt has taught us, people’s support for revolution is not always an endorsement of the revolutionaries. It is also true that Salafism has never had mass appeal in Syria and, more importantly, opposition to it has been rooted less in sensational caricatures than in its religious heterodoxy. Yet, prolonged conflict changes a society. Already support for Salafis appears to be far higher than before; people may not always reward revolutionaries, but they don’t often discard them either.
As the war continues, Salafis are being defined by new stereotypes. They have cast themselves as relics of fabled medieval Islamic warriors. They promote discipline in their ranks, impose law and order in the territory they control, race to the front of battle and seek permission before entering homes. As a result, they embody the noblest characteristics of the Islamic past: devotion, piety, fearlessness and honor. The revolution is rebranding Syrian Salafis, even the extreme ones.
Why does this all matter? Simply put: Salafi fighters are numerically insignificant without popular support. The United States’ recent labeling of Jabhat al-Nusra, the most prominent Salafi militia, as a terrorist group only bolstered its mass appeal. As the conflict prolongs, the Sunni balance of power will shift resulting in serious long-term consequences. A speedy end to the conflict must be the highest priority.
To this end, leaving aside contentious issues of no-fly zones and arming rebels, there are other steps that can be taken.
First, we should increase our support for local councils in opposition-held northern Syria. Not only is the north a vital safe haven for Syrian civilians, but its security will contribute to Syria’s future stability.
Second, we must engage in symbolic acts of public diplomacy. Ambassador Robert Ford’s early visits of solidarity and vocal support of the opposition still resonate with Syrians. The absence of such bold acts has hurt American credibility. High profile visits to refugee camps or inviting Mu’az al-Khatib to the White House would demonstrate our commitment to the Syrian people while isolating the Assad regime.
Finally, a forward-located embassy near the Syrian border in Jordan or Turkey would not only demonstrate serious engagement, but would increase our effectiveness in resolving the conflict. The end of Assad’s regime is inevitable. How much time it takes to occur, however, will not only mean lives lost, but how greatly Syrian society is altered.
Adnan A. Zulfiqar is a Fellow at the Truman National Security Project. He previously lived in Syria (2002, 2007 and 2008), and recently returned from the Turkish/Syrian border as part of Truman's Democracy and Human Rights Initiative.