By Elizabeth O’Bagy of the Institute for the Study of WarSince the beginning of the Syrian uprising, President Bashar al-Assad and other regime officials have emphasized the role of foreign-backed terrorists and radical jihadists. In an interview on August 29, Assad denied the existence of civil protests in Syria and spoke of the “foreign backed conspiracy” threatening his country. “Many people were misled in the beginning, thinking that what is happening is a state of excitement, a wave of the ‘Arab Spring’…. [But it] isn’t a revolution or a spring; it is terrorist acts in the full meaning of the word,” he proclaimed. This refrain has been a critical component of the regime’s propaganda campaign, and its primary justification for its harsh crackdown of the Syrian opposition.
The regime’s insistence that jihadist radicals and terrorists instigated and perpetuated the Syrianconflict is indefensible. The Syrian uprising began as a popular resistance against autocracy. Yet as the conflict drags on, a radical Islamist dynamic has emerged within the opposition, and it warrants further scrutiny. The vast majority of Syrians opposing the regime are local revolutionaries who espouse varying degrees of personal religious fervor. However, there is a small but growing Salafi-jihadist presence inside Syria. The Syrian Salafi-jihadists have been aided by foreign fighters, some with significant capabilities and connections to al-Qaeda (AQ) and other international jihadist networks. Their presence among the opposition galvanizes Assad’s support base and complicates U.S. involvement in the conflict.