Syria is now home to the largest and most capable concentration of Sunni jihadist militants anywhere in the world, and it will be for a long time to come. Whatever progress the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) makes in the coming months, the sheer chaos and destruction resulting from five years of conflict ensure that instability will reign supreme in Syria for years to come. And here, jihadists have the most to gain.
In March 2011, Syrian men, women, and children took to the streets, holding hands and chanting about the need for political reform and freedom from repression. Their calls were greeted with tear gas, rubber bullets, and live automatic gunfire. The increasingly violent and indiscriminate suppression of peaceful demonstrations—and events like the horrific torturing to death of 13-year-old Hamza al-Khateeb in Daraa—turned a protest movement into a revolution.
The regime’s subsequent escalation gave birth to the Free Syrian Army, both as a force to protect civilian demonstrations and to retaliate against the regime for its crimes. Violence bred more violence; five years later, roughly half a million Syrians are dead and over half the population has been displaced, both within the country (6.6 million) and outside (4.6 million).
SYRIA’S FLIRTATION WITH JIHAD
Although the eruption of popular protest, regime violence, and civil war created conditions under which jihadist militancy could thrive, Syria had already been fertile ground for Sunni extremism. For many years prior to 2011, the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had maintained a consistently flirtatious relationship with Sunni jihadists. Damascus aimed at manipulating them into acting as proxies for Syria’s foreign policy agenda.
The scale and nature of the relationship were best exemplified during the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq from 2003 to 2010. As U.S. troops plodded their first steps on Iraqi soil, Syria’s regime-appointed grand mufti, Sheikh Ahmad Kuftaro, issued a nationwide fatwa making it fardh ayn (religiously obligatory) for all Syrian Muslims,
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