Why are Syrian rebels Islamist

Domestic conflicts

Carsten Wieland

To person

Dr. Carsten Wieland works in the diplomatic service of the Federal Foreign Office. From December 2013 to June 2014 he worked as political advisor to the UN / AL Special Envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, at the UN in Geneva and, since 2016, for his successor, the UN Special Envoy Staffan De Mistura. Wieland worked for years as a journalist, author and political advisor. As a Middle East expert, he has published extensively on Syria, where he also lived for several years. Wieland also holds a visiting professorship at the Universidad Rosario in Bogotá and was the dpa correspondent in Tel Aviv, Washington and Colombia, where he also headed the office of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation. This contribution represents the personal opinion of the author. Www.carsten-wieland.de

Hundreds of thousands of Syrians lost their lives in the suppression of the peaceful uprising of 2011, and around 13 million became refugees. Today Syria is partially occupied and economically on the ground. The UN peace process in Geneva is stalling because there is no international momentum for a peace agreement.

October 20, 2017: View of the destroyed Raqqa. (& copy picture-alliance / AP)

The current situation

The military clashes between government troops, opposition groups and Islamist militias are now mainly limited to the Idlib region in northwest Syria. In the rest of the country, President al-Assad rules with a hard hand. The population suffers from the omnipresent secret service apparatus, from arbitrary arrests and torture, as well as from destruction and displacement. The prospects for returnees remain very uncertain in view of the persecution of dissidents and the bitter economic hardship. Anger is growing even in parts of the population loyal to Assad. After many years of suffering, people finally want to see progress and criticize corruption, a lack of prospects and the collapse of the state, which has become the prey of rival power networks and militias.

Assad, his family dynasty and the power system that supports him cannot survive without the military support of Russia and Iran. In view of their own serious economic problems, however, the two most important allies do not have the necessary resources to provide financial support for a large-scale reconstruction of the country. Moscow and Tehran are hoping for the money from the West. The EU and most European countries, however, make their commitment dependent on political reforms which, among other things, are intended to create security for the return of refugees. So far, the Syrian government has refused any concession and thus virtually brought the political process in Geneva to a standstill.

Since November 2019, the now fourth UN special envoy to Syria, Geir Pedersen, has been trying to bring together at least one Syrian-Syrian constitutional committee. The aim is for the government, moderate opposition and representatives of civil society to discuss a new constitution under the auspices of the United Nations. Other important issues of UN Security Council Resolution 2254 of December 2015 have now been ignored. These include political reforms, including fair elections, as well as reform of the security sector and the joint fight against terrorism.

As confusing as the landscape of actors in Syria has become, the political endeavors to find a peace solution are just as complex. With the Astana format [1], Russia, Iran and Turkey are trying to withdraw important areas of the peace process from the UN and to influence them more strongly. It began at the beginning of 2017 with the establishment of eight "de-escalation zones" in Syria, the negotiation of regional ceasefires and "reconciliation agreements". The process was continued at the political level in 2018 at a Syrian-Syrian "reconciliation conference" in Sochi, Russia. Although the UN was able to achieve at the last minute through tough negotiations that a constitutional committee would not be founded in Sochi but in Geneva under UN leadership, it is, however, dependent on the will of the three Astana states if they are to make any progress in negotiations want to achieve.

After seven "de-escalation zones" had been recaptured by the Syrian regime without major Turkish, US or other Western resistance, Russian-Turkish unity reached its limits in the Syrian province of Idlib at the end of 2019 and 2020. Heavy bombing by the Syrian army with Russian support halved the last "de-escalation zone" and drove several hundred thousand civilians north. Turkey closed its borders, causing another humanitarian disaster that eventually spilled over to Greece and the EU. The Idlib ceasefire agreement between Ankara and Moscow remains a fragile compromise. Russia accuses Turkey of not having done anything against the radical Islamic Al-Nusra in Idlib, which has become the strongest force in the province militarily and with a civilian administration. Turkey has brought most of the more moderate opposition groups under its command as the "National Syrian Army". At the same time, Ankara supports the "Syrian Transitional Government" on a civilian level, which is based in the Turkish-occupied northern Syria and is close to the opposition National Coalition in Istanbul.

In addition to the complex situation, the challenge posed by the COVID-19 virus came in spring 2020. Most of Syria's medical infrastructure has been destroyed in recent years by air strikes by its own government and Russia. The few remaining functioning hospitals have insufficient equipment, medicine and staff. The densely packed refugees, who live in camps under disastrous hygienic conditions, especially in Idlib, are exposed to the pandemic without protection.

Another aspect of the Syria conflict took shape in 2020: for the first time in the world, a henchman of Syrian President Assad, accused of severe torture, is standing in court abroad: the trial of a former head of the secret service began in Koblenz in April 2020 who came to Germany as a refugee in 2014. Syrian human rights activists, German and international NGOs are working on further charges. At a time when political change in Syria seems hopeless, they want to promote at least justice for almost 100,000 people who disappeared, prisoners or tortured by the Assad regime.

Causes and Background

The reign of Bashar al-Assad began in 2000 with a tentative reform of the socialist planned economy, albeit without granting more political freedoms. Political reforms were discussed in the "Damascus Spring" debate clubs. However, in early 2001 the regime put down the predominantly intellectual movement. Further waves of arrests followed in 2006 and at the end of 2009.

The selective liberalization policy intensified the social inequalities, which increasingly affected the Syrian middle class. The loot economy of the Assad clan and the influx of Iraqi refugees who left their country as a result of the US intervention in 2003 aggravated the situation. In view of the deep dissatisfaction, the "Arab Spring" spilled over to Syria at the turn of the year 2010/2011. The demonstrators called for respect for human dignity, freedoms, the rule of law and social and economic prospects.

The regime tried to discredit protests and resistance as the work of "foreign conspirators" and "Islamist terrorists" in order to legitimize the brutal crackdown on its own population. The original confrontation between the Assad regime and large parts of the population is now accompanied and superimposed by a number of other conflicts:
  1. The debate about the social model of the Syrian state: In addition to moderate and conservative Islamic ideas, radical and pseudo-Islamic ideas compete. Attracted by the war and the breakup of the state, jihadist groups invaded from abroad. Many Syrians see their centuries-old tolerant social model in jeopardy. But they currently only have the choice between a dictatorial and economically bankrupt regime that is secular, and areas controlled by Islamic rebel groups, most of which are under Turkish control.
  2. The front position between politico-military groups and criminal associations: Access to economic and financial resources has made it possible for various militias to divide the country among themselves and to benefit from the war economy. These and the collapse of the education system are ruining the country for generations.
  3. The conflict between ethnic-religious groups: The Sunni-Shiite antagonism has a regional dimension. Shiite militias are supported by Iran and Hezbollah. Turkey is the main behind the Sunni parliamentary groups. Smaller religious communities, such as Alawites, Christians or Druze, threaten to be crushed between the two camps.
  4. The Kurdish conflict: With its invasion of northeast Syria in 2019, Turkey largely smashed the Kurdish autonomy project of the PYD ("Rojava"). The PYD-led militias (SDF) had to move to southern desert areas. Since 2019, the rival Kurdish forces of the PYD and the pro-opposition Kurdish National Council (KNR) have for the first time started talks under French and US mediation in order to reduce inner-Kurdish tensions.
  5. The struggle for regional supremacy: Iran is pursuing the consolidation of the Shiite presence in Syria with great commitment (e.g. targeted settlement, purchase of land and real estate). The aim is to maintain the land connection from the Shiite areas in Iraq via Syria to the sphere of influence of the Shiite Hezbollah in Lebanon ("Shiite crescent"). Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey had long tried to drive back Iran's influence. Saudi Arabia has since moved away from its tough position in the Syria conflict and is looking for new alliances. Turkey is betting on an arrangement with Russia to consolidate its influence in northern Syria.
  6. The rivalry between the major global powers: Russia and China oppose the US policy on Syria. They want to prevent the regime from being overthrown and have repeatedly prevented its conviction for violations of war and human rights at the UN level.
  7. The refugee crisis: Especially in the neighboring countries (Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey), but also in the EU, the influx of over 6 million Syrian refugees is creating new (domestic) political problems and fronts, while at the same time disagreement about how and with which one political and military use of the Syria war is to be ended.
Syria has become the battlefield of five foreign armies and militias: Russia, Iran, Lebanese Hezbollah, Turkey in the north, and the United States. When Assad could no longer control the uprising in 2013 and lost large parts of his territory to the rebels, Hezbollah came to his aid under pressure from Iran. Iran later also sent direct military aid in the form of the Revolutionary Guards and Shiite militias. Russia jumped to the side of the dictator in the fall of 2015, mostly with air support, military police and advisers. Since then, Russia and Iran have been competing for the greatest influence on Syria's politics and economy. Syria is also of interest to both countries in geopolitical terms. For Russia the presence in the eastern Mediterranean and for Iran the function of Syria as part of the "Shiite crescent" is in the foreground. Iran has now advanced through Syria and Lebanon to the borders of Israel.

Turkey supported the uprising against Assad from the start. In the meantime their strategy has changed. The cornerstones are the arrangement with Russia and Iran and the war against the PKK-friendly Kurds in northern Syria. In essence, it is about establishing zones of influence in Syria. With this and the establishment of a buffer zone for refugees, Turkish President Erdogan justified the invasion of Turkish troops in northern Syria. Since 2019, the Kurds have been displaced from the fertile areas in several stages. The two autonomous Kurdish regions were deliberately smashed under the Turkish occupation.

Erdogan played into the hands of US President Trump's sudden announcement that the majority of US troops would be withdrawn from northeast Syria. He had thus dropped the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) led by the PYD [2] as allies. The US is no longer concentrating on the fight against Assad, but on containing al-Qaeda and IS. How Washington acts is largely dictated by domestic political interests.

Processing and solution approaches

With Russia and China, Syria has important protective powers, which so far have prevented both effective measures to contain the conflict and sanctions against the Assad regime in the UN Security Council. Russia is sticking to the Syrian regime, also in order not to endanger its strategic access to the Mediterranean. In addition, after the NATO intervention in Libya, Moscow does not want to allow any further regime change that is militarily supported by the West. Last but not least, Putin sees Russian intervention in the conflict as an opportunity to reaffirm his great power status.

Politically, the following approaches for dealing with the conflict are currently in question:
  1. Continuation of the Geneva UN talks on the basis of UN resolution 2254 (2015): An international momentum as well as economic and political pressure would be conducive to progress in order to force the Syrian regime at least to participate in the constitutional process, which should result in fair elections. The political will of Russia and Turkey and a patient and united Syrian opposition are key to making progress here.
  2. Complementary function of the Astana process: After the questions of the zones of influence have largely been clarified, Astana can provide impetus outside the Geneva process and force the conflicting parties to compromise. Unity between Russia and Turkey is crucial here. The UN has avoided declaring Astana as competition. It depends on whether the West and / or Arab states can act as a counterweight.
  3. Danger of a resurgence of IS and Al-Qaeda: under the circumstances of extreme human hardship, a lack of education, persistent economic hardship, fragmented actors and the power vacuum in the still contested areas, there is a risk that the victories won against the extremists in Syria and Iraq will not last long. The question is also whether the country can be calm and pacified in principle if Assad and his secret services remain in power.
  4. Political stabilization and reconstruction: Avoiding a renewed power vacuum and stabilizing Syria and Iraq, civil reconstruction and the return of displaced persons will remain a long-term challenge. Already today there is heated debate about when international support for the reconstruction in Syria should start - even before a political agreement with the aim of stabilization or solely on condition that a real political transition is guaranteed. Otherwise, so critics warn, the reconstruction money will mainly flow into the war economy and into the pockets of the power elite around the Assad clan.
Demonstration in the northern Syrian city of Maaret al-Numan on September 1, 2013. (& copy picture-alliance / AP)

History of the conflict

Until the beginning of the unrest in mid-March 2011, many observers did not believe in a revolt in Syria. Ideologically, the people, influenced for decades by an anti-Israeli and pan-Arab discourse, were indeed closer to the regime than in the pro-Western autocracies of Tunisia or Egypt. But in Syria, too, anger about corruption, arbitrary rule and poor living conditions had built up, and above all the images of courageous demonstrations in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya made fear of the regime disappear.

Syrian society before the war was a colorful mosaic of religious groups. The Assad clan belongs to the Alawites minority (approx. 12%). Even if not all Alawis support Assad by far, many now fear the revenge of conservative and radical Sunnis. In 1982, Hafez al-Assad, the father and predecessor of the current president, carried out a massacre in Hama that killed many thousands of Sunnis. The aim was to put down a flare-up revolt by the Muslim Brotherhood.

The remaining minorities, such as Christians or Druze, also supported, at least in their majority, the secular Ba'ath regime, as they fear the dominance of radical Islamic Sunnis. Although the Assad regime had been able to retain the moderate Sunni trading class, this alliance began to crumble with the uprising.Most recently, the extent of the destruction and suffering, the great fear of radicalism and an uncertain future in parts of the population have weakened the support for the uprising and played into the hands of the Assad regime.


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Syria in Crisis: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Beirut

Syria Conflict Mapping: Carter Center

Syria: International Crisis Group

Syria blog by Joshua Landis, Director: Center for Middle East Studies and Associate Professor, University of Oklahoma (USA)

Website of the largest moderate opposition platform National Coalition of the Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (NK), recognized by more than 130 states as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.

Local Coordination Committees of Syria (intra-Syrian opposition movement that originally coordinated)

Local Coordination Committees of Syria (internal Syrian opposition movement)

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Overview of the events from the perspective of the revolutionaries

English-language Syrian magazine in private hands

Syrian state news agency SANA (reflects Syrian government perspective)

Oppositional side with creative-critical comics about Assad and his entourage