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Growing Islamist influence in Syrian uprising; Christians vulnerable

Country/Region: Middle East and North Africa, Syria

The uprising in Syria is taking on an increasingly Islamist character as al-Qaeda militants infiltrate the country, rebel bands declare “jihad” and the Muslim Brotherhood gains political strength.

Damascus_protests_2011-4X3.jpg
The year-long uprising in Syria
is becoming increasingly militant
CC BY 2.0 / syriana2011

The opposition to President Assad comprises disparate groups with varying agendas, but, as happened in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, Islamists are now becoming prominent in Syria. Their influence is coming from both inside and outside the country, and while some, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, are pursuing a political agenda, others, including al-Qaeda, are using terrorist tactics.

US officials have warned that al-Qaeda militants from Iraq are infiltrating Syria; recent suicide bombings in Damascus and Aleppo have borne the hallmark of the group. Worryingly, Christian neighbourhoods have been targeted in a number of the blasts.  

Al-Qaeda supporters are largely Sunni Muslims extremists; Sunnis are the majority group in Syria and central to the opposition. The regime is dominated by the minority Shiite Alawite sect and closely allied with Shiite Iran.

Call for jihad

Some rebel bands are using the language of jihad and urging others to join them in a holy war. A spokesman for the “god is great” Brigade said on the Internet:

To our fellow revolutionaries, don't be afraid to declare jihad in the path of god. Seek victory from the one god. God is the greatest champion. Instead of fighting for a faction, fight for your nation, and instead of fighting for your nation, fight for god.

Influential Muslim clerics have been calling on Syrians to bring down President Assad. One Syrian Salafi cleric, Sheikh Adnan al-Aroor, who is based in the Gulf, regularly delivers provocative speeches broadcast on Saudi TV channels calling for jihad against the “infidel” Assad regime.    

And Safwat Hejazi, a prominent Muslim cleric in Egypt, told a rally in Cairo in support of the uprising that it was the duty of every Muslim to kill the Syrian president.  

Political sway

Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood, which emerged from the Egyptian revolution as the biggest political winner, is gathering strength in Syria. Their dominance in the Syrian National Council, the body that is establishing itself as the opposition’s political leadership, has provoked several prominent figures to quit.

One of them, Kamal Labwani, a veteran secular dissident, said that the council was “a liberal front for the Muslim Brotherhood” and that the Islamist group was trying to build allegiances on the ground in Syria. He and others say that the Brotherhood is distributing money and weapons in its bid to win support. 

President Assad and his father before him kept a tight leash on the Brotherhood; membership of the group has been punishable by death. 

Christians vulnerable

The increasing influence of Islamists in Syria is extremely concerning for the country’s sizeable Christian minority, who, before the revolution, enjoyed considerable freedom and peace. As perceived supporters of the government, they have already been suffering grave abuses at the hands of the opposition.

The Christian community in Homs has been the worst affected. They have been subject to kidnappings, gruesomely brutal murders, and severe damage to their homes. Last week, anti-government forces there occupied the evangelical school and the evangelical home for the elderly. In response the army shelled both buildings. Despite several direct hits on the home, only one person was killed. The anti-government forces fled and the army then moved in to clear the landmines planted at the school by the rebels, as well as advancing on two other Christian neighbourhoods.  

One senior Christian leader in Aleppo expressed his fear that as the insurgency becomes increasingly militant, the terrorism may be geared in part “toward the non-partisan, defenceless and easily victimised Christian communities”.

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