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The Salafist Roots of Uprising in Syria


“When taking a closer look at events during the first months of the Syrian uprising, however, a very different picture emerges. Salafist activists and militants played a key role from the beginning of the uprising, while launching an armed insurrection against the Syrian state.

Syrian sociologist Muhammad Jamal Barout noted that the Salafist movement was prominent in “creating and pushing the events” of the Syrian uprising, and pointed to the important role played by supporters of Muhammad Sarour Zein al-Abeddine, an exiled Salafist cleric who mixed the anti-Shia views of Ibn Taymiyya with the ideas of revolution and the sovereignty of God of Sayyid Qutb.

Salafist activists and militants viewed the 2011 uprising as a chance to reignite the 1979-1982 war against the Syrian government, which they viewed as a heretical, “Alawite-led regime,” in hopes of erecting a fundamentalist religious state in its place.

This desire of the Salafists to topple the Syrian government aligned with the goals of US intelligence. US planners sought regime change in Syria to weaken Iran, and in response to Syrian, Iranian and Hezbollah support for Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation.

With the help of regional allies Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, Israel, Jordan, and the Future party in Lebanon, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) provided billions of dollars’ worth of weapons and equipment to Salafist militant groups.

This informal partnership between Salafist militants on the ground and foreign intelligence agencies ensured that the protest movement would become militarized, and that the ensuing Salafist-led insurgency would plunge Syria into one of the bloodiest wars of the last half century.

Valid Syrian government claims that it faced a nascent armed Salafist insurgency from the beginning of the uprising were not considered credible, while false claims of opposition activists, such as Saleh’s above, about the entirely secular and peaceful nature of the uprising were wrongly taken at face value. Little effort was made by the Western press to determine which of the conflicting narratives (pro-government, pro-opposition, or neither), were indeed accurate.

In most narratives of the Syrian uprising, the long history of the conflict between the Syrian government and the country’s Salafist community before the 2011 uprising is simply ignored. Also ignored are the activities of the Salafists during the first weeks and months of the uprising.

In these narratives, it is as if Syria’s Salafist community simply did not exist until many months after the uprising started, while armed Salafist militant groups came into existence seemingly out of thin air, and only in response to the alleged government crackdown on peaceful secular protestors.