The "Islamization of the Syrian Revolution"

The "Islamization of the Syrian Revolution"
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Arabic version






The fifth anniversary of the Syrian revolution in 2016 coincided with a nationwide ceasefire that succeeded somewhat in reducing the levels of violence in the country. It was an opportunity in some areas for the return of peaceful civil demonstrations, which had characterized the first months of the revolution before the escalation of violence, the persistence of armed conflict and the emergence of tyrannical “Islamic” parties that overshadowed all other groups.


The return of civil demonstrations to the forefront of the scene was remarkable. The independence flag (the flag of the revolution) and the first slogans of the revolution were seen on the streets again replacing the various Islamic flags. In some areas under the control of Islamic groups clashes broke out between protesters and the authorities. In Maart al-Nouman, the residents forced the so-called "Mujahideen" or freedom fighters, to pull out of their headquarters on March 14, 2016. This shows that when given the opportunity some Syrians showed their discontent toward the practices and agendas of Jihad groups.



These divisions bring to the surface the issue of the Islamization of the revolution; the urgent need to understand and analyze this phenomenon, and the specific reasons and circumstances which resulted in its emergence. The principal purpose of this study is to examine the Islamization of the revolution and discuss the general context and characteristics of this phenomenon’s emergence. The militarization of the Syrian revolution by both the regime and the opposition, each supported by foreign backers, and the rise of Salafi jihadists during these years, will be explored. The dialectical relationship between Islamic militant groups and the Syrian political opposition is central to this study.





There are two comparative aspects of the Syrian revolution and its transformation. Since the first peaceful demonstrations calling for change back in 2011, the Assad regime has attempted to justify a security solution or military response to the unrest in Syria through its official media. The claims of Salafist leaders and a “sectarian revolution" that later emerged on the ground, are consistent with the Assad media’s narrative. However, it is also well-known that groups within the opposition and its supporters had already begun to swing toward a religious and sectarian discourse. This was illustrated early on among some rebels.



These sectarian discourses had a deep impact on large segments of public opinion inside and outside Syria, who remained reluctant to support the popular revolution and the opposition groups despite expressing sympathy for the situation in the country. The religious situation in Syria is extremely complex due to the diversity of sectarian and ethnic identities. The regime has exploited these societal sensitivities and contradictions to perpetuate its rule and split society. It was not very difficult, therefore to ignite sectarian tensions.


Simultaneously, the Salafi Gulf States’ intense lobbying against Shiites in general has promoted a fake sensitivity to sectarian awareness. This Gulf advocacy has interpreted the strategic, military, technical and political alliance between Iran and Syria in their conflict with Israel, as a factional and sectarian alliance.[1] 


One of the earliest cases that indicated that some people sought to make the public movement sectarian and doctrinal took place only ten days after the first demonstration in Damascus and a week before the start of demonstrations in Deraa. This was the Friday sermon on March 25, 2011 of Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi in Doha, Qatar, who is affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood’s International Union of Muslim scholars. Qaradawi’s sermon carried sectarian overtones. He criticized Assad and his Alawite caste and said he was "locked into his sect," and that "the Syrian people treat him as a Sunni." This contributed to the increasing polarization that began in 2011. Qaradawi’s speech included sectarian bias and verbally attacked the Alawite minority to which Assad belongs. The public division this speech created was only heightened when the regime began to call the Syrian revolution a sectarian conflict.  


Early examples of sectarianism also include speeches by Salafist Sheikh Adnan al-Arour. Arour is a Sunni cleric from Hama in Syria, who regularly appears on the popular Saudi channel al-Safa, where he is known for his criticism of non-Salafi groups fighting the regime. He became the non-official face of the anti-regime movement at the start of the revolution. Articles he wrote in April 2011 were marked with the same populist and sectarian language as his TV program in which he talked about Alawite, Sunnis, and Shiites, and called for jihad.



Arour gained a great following among protesters especially in Homs, Deraa, Idlib, Hama and Deir ez-Zor. In many instances, protesters carried signs that supported him and favored his speeches. On the one hand, the repetition of Arour’s words was a measurement of his impact on public opinion. On the other hand, the use of his words show a deviation in the revolution’s initial slogans of freedom and democracy, and the descent towards sectarianism, revenge and hatred.[2]


Most important of all, the slogans of the protests began to change. Every week the Facebook page "The Syrian revolution against Bashar al-Assad", which was run by exiled members of the Muslim Brotherhood, would ask for a vote on the slogan or title that should accompany the Friday demonstrations. Friday was the main day for protests and each title carried a political and ideological message from Syrians inside and outside the country. As such, any religiously-named Friday demonstrations had a potent impact in shaping public opinion.


Examples of such religious labels in the revolution’s first year were, "Grandsons of Khalid" (July 22, 2011), "God is with us" (August 5, 2011), "We [the demonstrators] will only kneel to God" (December 8, 2011), "Allah Akbar" (April 11, 2011), “If you support Allah than Allah will support you" (January 6, 2012). The Syrian Revolution Facebook page caused considerable controversy when it announced its intention to display a label on Friday January 27, 2012 saying "Declaration of Jihad." This was rejected by peace movement activists who had initially supported the page but began to criticize its use of religious slogans. However, the alternative name the page adopted for that Friday "The Right of Self-Defense" appeared to try to convey the same message as "Declaration of Jihad", particularly because it was used instead of "Civil State," which had received broad support and was adopted by a large number of demonstrators.


These sectarian trends were reinforced in a cycle; they were both produced from and resulted in the sectarian rhetoric from the official Syrian media and its allies, as well as the opposition and some of its supporters.[3]  The rising sectarian discourse and the brutal suppression of demonstrations by the regime created an atmosphere of sectarian tension, which exploded in violence in some areas and led to the emergence of jihadi groups. This situation was also carefully orchestrated by Bashir al-Assad. At the end of 2011, he released a large numbers of Islamist, some of whom had been imprisoned for participating in Jihad activities in Iraq.


These former Islamist detainees were able to form multiple jihadist groups within a short period of time following their release. These Jihadist groups differ to each other in extremism and militarism rather than type. At this time, however, they were able to put their conflicts and rivalry aside to illustrate their superior power at the expense of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which was the dominant authority in many of the areas outside the Syrian Regime’s control.



The relationship between militarization and Islamization


The repression perpetrated by the regime to suppress protestors and the escalation of security crackdowns on areas that rebelled, led people to start carrying weapons as a means of self-defense against the brutality of the security forces within the early months of demonstrations. At the same time, officers and soldiers defecting from the Syrian army began to establish what was later called the “Free Syrian Army.” These activities, ranging from demonstrators carrying weapons to defections from the army, can be seen as a reaction to the violence of the regime rather than a planned militarization among protestors.


In its initial stages, the individual carrying of weapons in some areas reflected the particular traditional, social, and tribal features of the communities, for example in neighborhoods of Homs and villages in Eastern Ghouta in the Damascus countryside. This armament trend coincided with the growing defection of officers and soldiers from the military. At first the Syrian opposition did not publicly acknowledge the existence of this armament trend, which was emerging in reaction to the regime’s security operations. However, a number of defected military personnel announced the formation of a brigade of the Free Officers on June 9, 2011 and the establishment of the Free Syrian Army.  A month later in July 2011, the opposition’s activists on the internet and its organizational committees began to exaggerate the defections and the total number of all armed actions under its banner, emulating a strategy used by opposition groups in Libya and Yemen. The Arab media’s coverage of defections from the Syrian army, particularly by Al Jazeera Arabic, also brought more attention and heightened the sense of militarization.


The militarization of the revolution in the media was deliberate and systematic. It preceded the appearance of armed opposition and actual confrontations with regime forces. Aside from local and sporadic clashes on the sidelines of demonstrations in some areas, the first signal by armed opposition groups of open confrontation with the Syrian army was November 15, 2011 when the headquarters of the Syrian Air Force Intelligence in Harasta in the Damascus countryside was attacked. This attack signaled the intention of armed opposition groups to start working to overthrow the regime militarily and was quickly latched onto by Arab, regional, and international parties, who made no secret of their support for this approach, especially as the broad Syrian opposition at the time provided political cover and confidence in its success.


Unlike the Free Syrian Army and other local armed groups that have emerged, a third movement was covertly developing in parallel with both the peaceful and military revolution. This third movement was composed of those who had an explicit military and religious ideology, which can be summarized as a jihadist revolution. A jihadist revolution can be defined by its historical revision or desire to return to pre-modern thought, doctrine, action, and goals. In addition, it includes aspects of international jihad trends, which take place in the Islamic World.[4]


With the escalation of armed opposition operations and attention on them spreading in the media, the Free Syrian Army and other groups began to show features of jihadism. Most of the Free Syrian Army battalions and brigades for example took Muslim names, and their recordings and statements on the internet were filled with religious and jihadi terms.



In contrast to what the regime and its media accuses them of, Jihadi groups have emerged explicitly to fight for the establishment of an Islamic state. Al-Qaeda, represented by its Syrian offshoot al-Nusra front (now renamed Jabhat Fateh al-Sham), officially appeared in Syria in January 2012, before the first year of the revolution was even over. A few months later al-Nusra Front and other Islamic groups became prevalent in the north of the country. Most notably the Ahrar Al-Sham movement emerged in response to the formation of a National Coalition of the Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces, who had announced a consensus on establishing a fair Islamic state on November 19, 2012.[5]  


Jihadist organizations attracted an increasing numbers of foreign fighters from Arab and other nationalities for jihad in Syria. The participation of non-Syrian Mujahideen fighting alongside the opposition was widespread. Hezbollah, the Lebanese ally of the regime sent Mujahideen to Syria to fight against the opposition. They were soon followed by Shiites militias from Iran with citizens from Iraq, and Afghanistan also joining. After regaining control over the opposition controlled al-Qaseer city in Homs in May 2013, Hezbollah’s role became more prominent. This event was followed by a declaration from a number of Muslim clerics who supported the opposition.  In an official statement at a conference held for this purpose in Cairo on June 13, 2013 these clerics stated "the necessity of jihad" and to consider what is happening in Syria a "war against Islam.”  Under the title "The position of the nation's scholars on the Syrian issue," the famous Islamic preacher Mohamed Hassan introduced the statement by saying: "The equation changed since Rafidis entered to the land of Sham”.[6] Rafidah is an Arabic word meaning “rejecters” or “those who refused” and is sometimes used by Sunnis to disparage Shia Muslims.


The Syrian opposition and the Islamization of the revolution                 


The attitude of Syrian opposition groups including the National Council and the National Coalition of the Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces towards this Islamization of the revolution is ambiguous and has changed over time. These are the same opposition groups that were acknowledged by regional and international powers as “the legitimate representative of Syrians.”



The most powerful example of this Islamization of the Syrian revolution is al-Nusra Front, which is led by Abu Mohammed al-Julani and was the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda. The official position of al-Nusra has ranged from detachment from the peaceful demonstrations in the streets, to being a “part of the revolution,” and finally to its leader breaking the group’s association with al-Qaeda in order to improve its image internationally.


In documented statements between the President of the National Council Burhan Ghalioun and his successor George Sabra, Ghalioun said that “al-Qaida’s propaganda about its role in the revolution of the Syrian people is incorrect and inaccurate," and "offensive to the martyrs of the revolution." Ghalioun also talked about al-Qaeda and that its role in the revolution "was manipulated by the regime to divert attention from what was happening… and we reject this bad organization that pollutes our revolution."


Sabra said that "the Syrian people were engaged in a seven-month battle in all the villages and we are not in need of this terrorist organization and claims that have no real foundations." He added that "the Syrian Islamic movements located in the heart of the revolution are moderate and centrist, and are a far cry from the extremist visions of al-Qaeda and its ideas. Therefore we deny the existence of this organization “Qaeda” in Syria." Stressing that "the Syrian people do not need any support from any quarter, particularly from al-Qaida,” Sabra continued that “the Syrian people have risen up and come out to the demonstrations. The people do not need such an organization, which distorts the image of the revolution and the achievements of the heroic Syrians.”


Samir Nashar, a member of the Executive Bureau of the National Council, described al-Qaeda as a "terrorist torn in society… Syria is a diverse society and Sunnis in Syria are centrists and conservative, but not comparable to al-Qaeda supporters.”[7]


Ironically, a few months later these same Council members (perhaps under Muslim Brotherhood pressure), denounced the US decision to include al-Nusra Front on the terrorist list, saying that "all those fighting the regime are part of the revolution." As a result the "Syrian Revolution" Facebook page devoted the slogans of the Friday demonstrations following the US decision, to solidarity with al-Nusra and refused to call them terrorists.



The most serious of all was the opposition’s decision to acknowledge violations committed by Islamic groups as if they were victories of the Free Syrian Army. For example, when Islamist groups attacked a number of villages in the countryside of Latakia, the National Coalition issued a statement in support of what had happened in which they described this attack as the “victories of the Free Syrian Army on the Syrian Coast.”[8] These achievements were massacres and violations against unarmed civilians that were documented by an official report issued by the organization Human Rights Watch.[9]


In spite of the positive attitude of the opposition towards al-Nusra and other Islamic groups, the majority of these battalions continued to declare their explicit refusal to participate in any political solution and rejected all political opposition parties who they accused of being agents of the West in many of their statements, some of which were on YouTube.[10]


Mujahideen and politicians


The situation in Syria has begun to change as some of the militant groups that had adopted the Salafi ideology have begun to soften their position; initiating channels of communication and consultation with the political opposition. Perhaps the mounting Western fears of "terrorism," the intensification of military campaigns against extremist groups, as well as the attempts of

regional and international parties to support a political settlement, were the reasons behind the change in the position of some mujahedeen and their involvement in politics.

For their part, the Muslim Brotherhood tried to improve the image of al-Nusra and carried on sharing propaganda for them on both the Syrian and regional level, particularly after the progress of the al-Fath Army on the ground. The al- Fath Army is a coalition of jihadist groups, some of whom are close to the Muslim Brotherhood though al-Nusra fighters constitute its core. The Muslim Brotherhood, particularly Mohammed Hekmat Walid the group’s leader or Comptroller General in Syria, repeatedly called on the military leader of al-Nusra Abu Mohammad al-Julani to break the group’s ties with al Qaeda.


Al Jazeera, which is a Qatari channel has a similar position and approach as the Muslim Brotherhood. One of its presenters, Ahmed Mansour has a tendency to favor the Muslim Brotherhood. He hosted Abu Mohammad al-Julani on Al Jazeera. Mansour is famous for the provocative approach he often takes with his guests but this was not the case when he hosted Joulani. The interview resembled more a chat between close friends than a professional journalist show and seemed like a sort of promotional declaration for the al-Nusra Front.[11]


It is worth mentioning that attempts to win over the al-Nusra Front and urge them to break away from al-Qaeda were not limited to the Muslim Brotherhood. Khaled Khoja, the former president of the National Coalition from 2015 to 2016 expressed this in his first statement after his election. But this was not feasible, as al-Nusra still adhered to its identity as a member of the al-Qaeda network.


The most remarkable and important shift in the inclusion of Salafi groups into the political arena was the participation of Ahrar al-Sham Islamic Movement and the Army of Islam in the High Negotiations Committee (HNC). The HNC was established by the Syrian opposition after the Riyadh conference on December 9, 2015 and a political officer in the Army of Islam was assigned as one of the senior negotiators. This political shift raises questions about the role of these Salafi groups’ in future political negotiations where they will try to promote their religious ideologies on policies and rights.




Over six years since it first erupted, the Syrian revolution’s transformations have produced confusing and overlapping information because of the complexity of the situation on the ground. These transformations have opened the country's future to different prospects that are inconsistent with the initial purposes of the revolution and its goals, most notably the tyranny of Islamic discourse on the public scene. This is a result of the emergence of groups belonging to Salafi jihadism, some of whom are linked to global jihad movements that are on terrorism lists while others are associated with more “moderate jihadists.” Some of these “moderate” groups have close links with traditional political Islam movements. Nonetheless these groups are hostile to democracy and assume agendas contrary to the Syrian National Project, which for years has promoted the establishment of a democratic and civil state for all Syrians. Salafi jihadist groups are also detrimental to the initial motivations and values of the Syrian revolution and its image domestically and internationally.



These dynamics have strengthened the regime’s efforts to contain the revolution and Assad’s attempts to re-introduce himself to the world as a partner in the war on terror. It seems logical that the tyrannical regime seeks to push the revolution towards Islamization, provoke sectarian strife, and push rebels into extremism in various ways. The regime has tried to use strategies that could end the Syrian Revolution and continues to label it as an extremist and terrorist revolution. However, the errors committed by the opposition or more importantly those who are supposed to represent the political and diplomatic revolution have been to adopt behavior and speeches that have only harmed the revolution and deflected from its original goals.



[1] Mohammed Jamal Parrott, “The last decade in the history of Syria,” the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, Beirut, the first edition, March 2012, p. 194.

[2] A lot of the demonstrators answered the calls of Arour to shout “Allahu Akbar” which means “Allah is the greatest,” at night from their houses and balconies. The demonstrators shouted like this as a show of defiance against the regime while protesting from within their homes. Shouting Allahu Akbar does not necessarily mean that those demonstrators adopted religious speech or became extremists; rather it indicates the large audience that watched Arour’s TV shows, which were very popular during the early months of the revolution.


[3] After the killing of demonstrators by security forces at the August 4, 2011 march called the “Friday of Resistance,” the slogans and speeches of the protests became more religious. During the demonstrations, these new religious slogans tended to bless the sacrifices of the martyrs and martyrdom and the demonstrators started to wear shrouds that symbolized mobilizing for “Jihad”. “The last decade in the history of Syria” p.228.

[4] Akram Hijazi, "FSA/Al-Nusra Front /Ahrar al-Sham battalions map of the armed forces," Palestine Network for dialogue.

[5] You can see the statement on the link

[6] You can see the statement on the link:

[7] See: "Syrian opposition underestimate the importance of al-Qaeda's role in the revolution," the link:

[8] See: Statement of the National Coalition for the revolutionary forces and the opposition "free army victories on the banks of the Syrian coast", issued on 4 August / August 2013.

[9] See: "Their blood is still here," the link:

[10] See Margin No. 8.

[11] For more see Tariq Dear, "from the Brotherhood-Qaeda," Al-Hayat newspaper, June 12, 2015





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