Syria: The Story of How Jihad Was Declared
By: Nasser Charara
Published Saturday, January 5, 2013
As the Syrian uprising approaches its second year, the Salafi contingent among the opposition is gaining prominence. Al-Akhbar recounts how a group of Salafi activists declared jihad.
A Damascus-based Salafi military leader, who was an ordinary civilian at beginning of the uprising, says that the crisis would not have reached this point “if only President Bashar al-Assad had carried out what he promised me on 21 November 2011.”
Back then, the opposition movement was still largely peaceful, with only a small minority carrying weapons, mostly as a reaction to the security forces killing protesters or their relatives.
The commander remembers the first person to carry a weapon in the movement. He was the father of Moataz al-Shaar, a university student killed in one of the early peaceful demonstrations in Damascus. During his funeral, his father swore that he would get his revenge.
In the demonstration that ensued, Shaar took a pistol and, from amidst the crowd, fired the first bullet of the armed opposition movement, which now counts nearly 300,000 well-armed fighters in its ranks. “Abu Moataz” became an example for many more in the coming months.
In November 2011, the commander met with Assad. It was the first initiative taken by the internal opposition to try to reach some sort of agreement with the regime about how to proceed. At the time, the commander says, his father – a Salafi-leaning imam in Damascus – was in prison.
As he tells it, Assad greeted him at the door of his office and paid close attention to what the commander had to say. “Frankly speaking,” he told the president, “the opposition movement remains relatively peaceful. The solution is for a new mixed government, led by the opposition, to be set up, because the current one represents the regime only and cannot solve the problem.”
Assad’s response was to propose that the opposition organize itself into popularly-based political parties or currents, promising to clear the way for such formations to enter parliament and government by amending the constitution and conducting free elections.
The Call for Jihad
The commander says that the turn to a military solution on the part of the regime came during a visit to Damascus by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, accompanied by the chief of intelligence, who handed Assad an “alternative plan.” This was followed by the government assault on the Baba Amro district in Homs at the beginning of 2012.
It was also around this time that 70 sheikhs from the Syrian Council of Clerics issued a fatwa, or religious edict, that declared jihad in Syria the duty of all Muslims. The Salafi sheikhs understood that the call for jihad had to be introduced in phases in order for many Syrians to accept it.
They had noticed that the early protests were limited to social and economic demands, and when Islamist activists would raise slogans calling for the downfall of the regime, many participants would quickly leave. But soon this began to change and the Islamists were able to call for the execution of the president without alienating the protesters.
Two sheikhs in particular helped lay the groundwork for the rapid growth of Salafism in Syria: Sheikh Mohammed Srour and Sheikh Adnan al-Arour. Both men were once members of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood who fled to Saudi Arabia, where they were embraced by the ruling family and the Wahhabi clerical establishment.
Srour is credited with creating the juridical framework for the establishment of al-Qaeda by merging Wahhabi Salafism with notions of jihad as espoused by Sayyid Qutb, one of the most influential thinkers of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood executed by Gamal Abdul-Nasser in the mid-1960s.
Arour gained notoriety in the early days of the uprising, directing his many followers through Saudi-based satellite television channels. He became the preferred point of reference among Salafi sheikhs in Syria, where he played a key role in popularizing Islamist slogans and practice among opposition protesters.
The Belhaj Model
Islamist insiders today insist that the key group in the movement today is the Ahrar al-Sham Brigades and not the Nusra Front, which receives the most attention. They argue that the leadership of the Ahrar Brigades, after its merger with a number of other Islamists factions over the summer, are the ones who are guiding the movement, particularly on the ideological level.
To this end, the movement has produced a 40-page internal manifesto to organize and direct its members. The document emulates the experience of Abdul-Hakim Belhaj, the Libyan Islamist rebel leader, borrowing the following four points:
1) The call for jihad must be waged under the banner of Islam.
2) Islamic law is to be enforced by setting up specialized councils in the various locales, whose duty it is to apply the law on civilians and combatants alike. News has been circulating recently that a supreme council has also been formed to appoint and oversee the work of local ones.
3) The goal is to establish a state in Syria that is not necessarily religious, with the proviso that it is not based on the military and that it implements Islamic law based on the idea that it is the will of the majority.
4) With the toppling of the regime, the military brigades must dissolve themselves and surrender their weapons to the newly established armed forces, integrating competent fighters into the new Syrian army.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.