Summary

A close look at the competing claims, actors, and movements for authority within the Syrian civil war reveals three distinct periods of political and religious influence: that of Syrian scholars, who were the first to inject religious language into the revolution; that of Salafi scholars predominantly from the Gulf; and lastly, that of jihadi organizations like ISIS and Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, who were active on the ground.

This paper focuses on which figures relied on action—rather than theoretical abstraction—to establish legitimacy and authority on the ground in Syria. Tracing the conflict from the first clerical attempts to coordinate the Syrian opposition to the conflict’s regionalization, and, later, internationalization, this paper demonstrates that the words of actors on the ground are more likely than those of far-off figures—however popular—to resound effectively.

Key Points:

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  • The initial exile of clerics during the Syrian conflict’s early stages gave rise to a second wave of Gulf Salafi clerics who internationalized the conflict.
  • As the influence of domestic and regional religious scholars faded, a vacuum of clerical authority in the conflict emerged. This space became dominated by brutal jihadi actors. 
  • The international community has miscalculated the credibility of moderate actors on the ground and has favored organizations that have grown detached and disconnected from the conflict. Brutal organizations have capitalized on this crisis of authority.
  • More than scholarly merit or standing, it is the ability of an actor or group to deliver through action that becomes the ultimate marker of authenticity, and in Syria’s case, piety.
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