Extremist Groups in the Syrian Civil War: New Actors & New Threats


A. Yashlavskii, Institute of World Economy and International Relations, Russian Academy of Sciences (IMEMO RAN), 23 Profsoyuznaya Str., Moscow, 117997, Russian Federation (dosier@mail.ru).


Since 2012 one can speak about a real civil war in Syria with participation of different political forces. Extremist Islamist jihadist groups like “Front al-Nusra” and “Islamic State of Iraq and Levant” (ISIL) play very active role among them. Relations between ruling elites and Islamists have been very complex in Syria during the past decades. On the one hand, Syrian Alawite regime is secular and nationalist. On the other hand, official Damascus used to be one of the sponsors of the militant Islamist anti-Israeli and anti-Western groups in the Middle East. Besides, Syria is a close ally of Islamic Republic of Iran and Lebanese Shi'ite Hizbullah. From our point of view, the union between Assad's Syria and Islamist groups was rather tactical than strategic one. Syria always played very important role for Sunni Islam, e.g., “the Land of Sham” had a big importance in eschatological beliefs of Sunni Muslims as a place of the final battle between Believers and Dajjal (Anti-Christ). Many foreign Islamist militant involved in Syrian War are inspired by this belief. Additionally, although a big majority of Syrians are Sunni, a dominance of Alawite sect in the political and social and economic life of the country disaffects of many Syrians with an escalation of Syrian conflict. Islamization of “Syrian revolution” is connected with cruel oppression of opposition by Assad's forces and powerless position of the West. At the same time, islamisation is a common feature of the Arab Spring. Arab Spring extremist Islamists have appeared along with relatively moderate Islamist and secular pro-Western groups. Foreign militant Jihadists play an important role in radicalisation of Islamist factor in the conflict. While Shi'ite groups (like pro-Iranian Hizbullah) regards Syria as a crucial part of Shi'ite belt from Mediterranean to Iran, Sunni extremists are not going to lose ground in the face of Shiite 'heretics'. The involvement of Arab Wahhabi monarchies (Saudi Arabia and Qatar) in the current turbulence must be also noted. ISIL is now the key actor of Syrian civil war. It is active not only in Syria but also in Iraq, the homeland of the organization. Initially, this Sunni militant group was closely connected to Al Qaeda. Now the relationships between them are rather tense because of ISIL’s efforts to overmaster another Jihadist group, “Front al Nusra”. The strategic aim of the ISIL is an establishment of an Islamic State (in Iraq and later in Syria) and the restoration of Caliphate. The tactics of the ISIL include guerrilla warfare and cruel terrorist attacks against military and civil people. In Syria ISIL fights against Assad's forces as armed opposition (both secular and Islamist) for control over territories and power. “Front al Nusra” (Front of Support of the Land of Sham People, FN) is genetically connected to ISIL. In terms of ideology there are no divergences between two groups, but they are rivals when it concerns the issues of popular support and political influence. Some Syrian people consider FN as a local group in contrast to foreign militants dominated ISIL. Activities of Jihadist groups is a real danger not only for Syria, but for the whole region and even worldwide.


Syria, civil war, Islamism, terrorism, Islamic State of Iraq and Levant, Front al Nusra, Al Qaeda, Caliphate, Jihadism

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For citation:
Yashlavskii A. Extremist Groups in the Syrian Civil War: New Actors & New Threats. Mirovaya ekonomika i mezhdunarodnye otnosheniya, 2014, No 10, pp. 93-104

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