There are two scenarios for the war in Syria. In the first, mounting pressure, fatigue, and personal insecurity would affect a division within the regime, and especially amongst the leadership of the Alawite sect to which the Assads belong, which would lead some in that leadership to marginalise – or eliminate – Bashar and, his influential brother, Maher Assad. The vacuum at the top would be filled by a coterie of military leaders who would, then, reach out to key rebel fighting groups and international stakeholders with a peace offer. The result would be a federal Syria, with a president and government in Damascus retaining semblance of power, and three or four regions whose own local governments would have effective control on all key daily-life matters. This scenario is unlikely to take place.
In the second and likely scenario, the war will continue, albeit in a less intense format, for several years. Some jihadist groups will remain focused on the struggle. Others will withdraw towards the plains extending from eastern Syria to western Iraq, where they would aim to carve for themselves areas of stability and would try to create isolated ultra-Salafist (strict, purist, highly conservative Islamist) communities.
Three factors will help them. First, the regimes in Baghdad and Damascus (irrespective of the nature of the latter) will lack the military, financial and logistical means to take on these groups. Second, the powerful states that have the means – mainly Israel and Jordan – realise the immense costs of entering into guerrilla warfare with mobile jihadists, and believe that they can contain that threat through infiltration and manipulation, as well as logistically and militarily pushing the existence of these groups away from their borders. And third the Saudi-Iranian cold war – raging across the region – and the increasing confrontation between Saudi and Abu Dhabi on one side and Qatar on the other, give several actors different incentives for using some of these jihadists as tools in various struggles. This means that funding and armaments will continue to flow to these jihadist communities.
These Salafist jihadist groups are not run by primitive simpletons. The Salafi-jihadi movement sees itself on a mission to resuscitate the Islamic caliphate. They consider themselves to have defeated the Soviets in Afghanistan, the Americans in Iraq, and are now taking their jihad to the heart of the Arab world: the Levant. The leaders of these groups understand that this region is a transit-or-chokepoint for trade and energy from the Gulf and Iraq to the Mediterranean, Red and Dead seas.
The groups that will try to create these Salafist jihadist enclaves will aim to significantly enhance their social bases: expand their communities from male fighters to families, build links to other similar communities, and gradually create independent revenue streams for themselves. The rising sectarianism between Sunnis and Shiites which for few years now has been flaming religious fervour across the region, will lend significant support throughout the Eastern Mediterranean to these groups’ pugnacious rhetoric. Unofficial surveys put the level of support for these groups in various Arab countries at eight to ten per cent – but real support is likely to be higher. These groups will especially find receptive hearts and minds amongst the young Syrian refugees scattered across Lebanon and Jordan and who now, conservatively, surpass a million. These refugees come from the Syrian society’s poorest, least educated, and most conservative segments; and for the past two years (and likely for the foreseeable future) will be living in highly challenging socioeconomic conditions, and amongst disgruntled host communities whose living conditions have been steadily deteriorating for the past two years.
These Salafist jihadist enclaves will enjoy strategic depth. Through various links to the refugees’ communities in Turkey and Jordan, these enclaves will be able to benefit from these economies’ openness in sourcing needs, establishing disguised trading connections, and generating funds. They will create logistical lines to other jihadist groups in nearby locations, notably central Iraq and the Egyptian Sinai. And crucially, the more these groups widen their presence in eastern Syria and western Iraq, other social groups – most notably Christians, other religious minorities, and liberal Muslims – will leave. This will exacerbate the dramatic talent loss that Syria and Iraq have been witnessing, and will give the jihadist groups a wider geographic platform to operate from.
The influence on the youths in the refugees communities merits special attention. We are likely to see the same cycle that took place in Algeria and Egypt in the 1970s and 1980s. The young that these Salafist jihadist groups will manage to attract to their thinking will initially be apolitical, drawn to these groups’ piousness and – crucially among youths lacking any real social and educational life – their strong sense of community and camaraderie. Quickly, those youths will acquire political awareness, and the dominant ideology will be a strict, puritanical form of Islamism that rejects nationalism and that sees the communities around it as, at best misled, at worst heretical. Then radicalisation will take hold. If that scenario materialises, these Salafist jihadist enclaves will evolve into communities larger – and by far more dangerous – than the Mujahedeen have ever been in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Previous experiences reveal that pure military and security solutions are always deficient; jihadists have the ability to regroup, especially in regions devastated by civil unrest and where central authority is weak. Media campaigns will prove futile, and in this case counterproductive, especially that now political Islam across the Arab world has a strong feeling of victimisation. Infiltrations by intelligence agencies help contain the threat in the short term, but can’t eliminate it. Socioeconomic solutions have the best chance of success.
As the Syrian war progresses and both Lebanon and Jordan reach their utmost capacity at absorbing refugees, the objective of regional powers should be to avoid the sprawling refugees’ – and their immediate host – communities from becoming failed economies, living off donors’ charity, and gradually turning into ghettos bustling with huge pools of angry, radicalised young men (and women). There should be concerted efforts at developing the plains in eastern Syrian that are detached from the fighting. The more there are economic opportunities in this region, the more it would become destination for refugees, including ones that reside in Lebanon and Jordan, but have no economic resources (or opportunities) there. The presence of large, diverse, and economically engaged communities will significantly lower the chances of Salafist jihadist enclaves emerging there. Otherwise, the sprawling refugees – and host – communities in the Eastern Mediterranean will be like parched grass awaiting sparks by the blowing wind of Salafist jihadism.