The think tank associated with Tony Blair’s Faith Foundation, the Centre on Religion and Geopolitics (CRG), has released a report entitled “If the Castle Falls: Ideology and Objectives of the Syrian Rebellion”.
The report concludes that international attempts to divide the Syrian rebellion into moderates and extremists are bound to fail; rarely do the rebels themselves make this same distinction. While some groups apply tests of ideological purity to their allies, others are more pragmatic, working with whatever group supports their objectives. The greatest danger to the international community are the groups that share the ideology of ISIS, but are being ignored by the Atlantic Alliance in the battle to defeat ISIS. While military efforts against ISIS are necessary, policymakers must recognise that its defeat will not end the threat of Salafi-jihadism, unless it is accompanied by an intellectual and theological defeat of the pernicious ideology that drives it.
The report states that Syria now hosts the largest gathering of jihadi groups in modern times. The West’s current focus on a military defeat of ISIS does not consider the other groups in Syria (and around the world) with exactly the same ideology and global ambition.
Their research has found that should ISIS fail, 15 Salafi-jihadist groups are ready to succeed ISIS. These groups could compete for the spotlight, ensuring allegiance from global fighters and securing the financing that ISIS has attracted. The West risks making a strategic failure by focusing only on ISIS, resulting in the other groups re-emerging as atomised terror groups around the world.
The report claims to provide the most detailed analysis to date of the major jihadis and rebel groups operating in Syria. The study found out of 48 rebel factions in Syria, 33% of the groups — nearly 100,000 fighters — follow the same ideology as ISIS. If Islamist groups (those who want a state governed by their interpretation of Islamic law) are taken into account, this figure jumps to 60%, but alliances frequently change according to short-term objectives and external events. Through a series of graphs and charts the report defines the groups, their numbers and locations, their ideologies and conflicting objectives.
Across Syria, in situations where short or long-term objectives overlap, groups form coalitions, regardless of ideology. This shows that any attempt by international powers to distinguish between acceptable “moderates” and unacceptable “extremists” is flawed. Apparently, such overlaps are endless. In one battle in Jisr al-Shughour this year, Jabhat al-Nusra fighters were used as shock troops, with fire support from Western-armed rebels. Meanwhile, a Free Syrian Army group vetted and supplied with arms by the United States is reported as having lied about its collaboration with Jabhat al-Nusra.
Western attempts to divide the rebellion into moderates and radicals have frequently encountered problems. Four identified groups, reported to have been vetted and supplied with US anti-tank missiles, are ideologically Islamist or Salafi-jihadi. The report questions UK Parliament’s claim that 70,000 moderate fighters are ready to support international airstrikes against ISIS. A recent study of the probable factions included in this figure included 19,000 militants that CRG classifies as Islamist or Salafi-jihadi.
Contrasts are made with Libya, where international action put a stop to the rebellion, but the failure to stabilise the country left a vacuum for extremist groups to grow. The growth of rebel groups in Syria was encouraged by the fall of Libya’s Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in November 2011. Meanwhile, the rapid rise in the number of Salafi-jihadi groups indicates that, as the war went on, factionalism, often driven by a drive for ideological purity, caused groups to divide and multiply.
Recent research from the CRG revealed that ISIS is no more extreme than Al Qaeda, Ahrar al-Sham or any other group that shares its ideology. Their short-term objectives may differ, but ultimately all such groups pose a threat to the West if they operate unchallenged.
If ISIS is defeated, there are at least 65,000 fighters belonging to other Salafi-jihadi groups ready to take its place. Of these groups, four are large enough to hold territory and build their utopian Islamic state: Ahrar al-Sham (15,000), Jabhat al-Nusra (10,000), Jaish al-Islam (17,000), and Liwa al-Umma (6,000) — a total of 48,000 militants who have shown willingness to join forces in coalitions. There are 15 Salafi-jihadi groups, many opposed to ISIS, which share the group’s vicious ideology and will benefit from its defeat; eight of these have explicitly committed themselves to international jihad, making them highly likely to support attacks on the West.
The report states that without regional support to pacify the country, the defeat of Assad will not end the conflict, and will leave it vulnerable to domination by extremist forces. If only ISIS is defeated, there is a high risk that dispersed ISIS fighters and other Salafi-jihadi groups will expand their horizons and launch attacks outside of Syria. “The West destroyed the caliphate” will be a new rallying cry.