The presence of Salafis, who have started to play an increasingly prominent role in the 17- month-long Syrian crisis, has been exaggerated by different circles for strategic interests, experts say.
Radwan Ziadeh, a member of the Syrian National Council (SNC) as well as a former senior fellow at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) in Washington, D.C., believes that there is no substantial presence of Salafis in Syria, criticizing media for exaggerating their presence, numbers and role. “Indeed, Salafis play an important role in the revolution,” Ziadeh told Sunday’s Zaman. “Western media has been exaggerating the role of Salafis in the Syrian revolution rather than focusing on the massacres committed by the regime.”
Members of the media claim that religious donors in the Gulf support the Salafi segments in Syria and that there were signs that Salafis were involved in a series of bombings, including the recent bombing in Damascus that killed three leaders of the regime. Iran, a close ally of Assad’s, claims that Salafis -- acting as guardians for Sunni interests -- are using the civil war in Syria to gain political power and revive the sectarian conflict with their historical foes, the Shiites.
The Syrian opposition agrees that exaggerating the Salafi threat has been one of the approaches adopted by the regime, made in order to create fear among minorities, including Christians, the Druze and Alawites. Needless to say, the recent blasts in Syria have awoken and unveiled the Salafi issue in Syria.
Since the start of the uprising, the Syrian regime has claimed that foreign-financed extremist jihadist groups, who are abusing the political dynamics to promote their own version of radical Salafi Islam in Syria and gain power, have dominated the opposition, but the Syrian opposition has consistently denied this claim.
Mohammad Al-Abdallah, executive director at the Syria Justice and Accountability Center (SJAC), told Sunday’s Zaman that due to oppression from the Assad regime, Salafis did not play much of a role in society and politics, and were merely background figures in the picture, adding that they never had anything close to a serious majority. “Salafis were not visible in the Assad era. But they are now more visible for two reasons. First, the Syrian regime is weak. Second, Salafis have benefited from important financial support that some countries are providing the group. Therefore, they are more organized and visible in the Syrian crisis,” said Abdallah.
Salafi groups were not the key players in Syria initially, but as the crisis escalated, their influence deepened. Some Middle East experts say Salafis played a significant role in the several acts of violence in the Middle East.
“Salafis are playing an important role in Syria on the battlefront. The nature of the struggle in Syria has changed. The struggle in Syria has started to gain an Islamic identity. Salafis, who play an important role in the struggle currently, will surely seek their share of the spoils in the post-Assad era,” Veysel Ayhan, chairman of the International Middle East Peace Research Center (IMPR), told Sunday’s Zaman.
Salafis are only one piece of the rapidly evolving Islamist spectrum. Salafis go much further in restricting political and personal life than the larger and more modern Islamist parties that have won electoral pluralities in Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco recently. For most Arabs, the rallying cry is justice, both economic and political, but for Salafis it is also about virtue.
“The Syrian population includes different ethnic and religious groups. No group will be able to rule Syria if it does not have tolerance and forgiveness in its policies towards minorities. If Salafis aim to be active in the post-Assad era, they should understand that forgiveness and tolerance are the two pillars of Syrian society,” said Ziadeh.
Agreeing with Ziadeh, Ayhan stated that Syrian culture and history include ethnic, religious and ideological diversity. “Salafis are a threat to this diversity. Diverse segments in Syria, not only Alawites, but also seculars, worry about the Salafi presence,” said Ayhan.
The Muslim Brotherhood has so far emerged as the clear political winner from the popular uprisings that have seized the Arab world. In Egypt and Tunisia, its affiliated political parties have won power outright in democratic elections. But the Brotherhood is not the only movement; Salafis are also seeking to participate in the political game of the post-Assad era.
When asked whether Salafis can play an important role on the political scene in the post- Assad era, opposition figures replied that they do not expect Salafis to gain substantial support from the Syrian people.
Bassam Ishak, a senior member of the SNC, told Sunday’s Zaman that Salafis will not be able to rule Syria with one-party rule, adding they did not have the all-important public support from the Syrians. “Some 40 percent of the Syrian population consists of minorities. Therefore, it is very hard for Salafis to gain their support. I’m not worried about the emergence of a Salafi power in the post-Assad era,” said Ishak, adding that they do not have large amount of support to fear about.
Agreeing with Ishak, Abdallah said Salafis would not be able to enjoy the support of the majority, yet addressing the role of Salafis in the post-Assad era, Abdallah added, “It is unclear what popularity the Salafis will gain at the end of the crisis.”
Experts, giving the Libyan case as an example, stated that the Syrian crisis had similarities to the Libyan crisis, adding that in both crises Salafis engaged effectively in the fight against the regime on behalf of the opposition.
Ishak maintained that Salafis, who played an obvious role during the battle against Libya’s Col. Muammar Gaddafi, did not gain the majority after his fall. Ziadeh added, “Just like in the case of Libya, the ones who have exaggerated the Salafi fears will receive the same answer when the free elections take place in Syria.”
Meanwhile, Mehmet Seyfettin Erol, the head of Ankara’s International Strategic and Security Research Center (USGAM), stated that as the revolt in Syria against the Assad regime has dragged on far longer than any other Arab Spring uprising, Salafis have started to play an increasingly prominent role amid the power vacuum, emerging as a serious threat to Turkey in the post-Assad era.
“In the post-Assad era, Salafis will be a serious obstacle to Turkey’s role in the new Middle East. Rather than Syria, it will be an important threat to Turkey’s regional role. Salafis are trying to steal the role from Turkey, and the West has opened the way [for them] to achieve this aim,” Erol told Sunday’s Zaman, adding that Turkey must be careful about the Salafi threat.
“Today, Salafis have become a deciding factor in the power struggle in the Syrian crisis. Salafis will play an important role in determining who the power players are in the new Middle East,” concluded Erol.