Islamism has featured prominently in the politics and policies of modern Syria on a number of different levels. Like other majority Sunni Muslim Arab countries governed by secular autocrats, Syria has a long tradition of Sunni Islamist opposition activity. The fact that the hereditary dictatorship of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has long been dominated by Alawis, an Islamic offshoot sect viewed as heretical by religious Sunnis, renders it uniquely vulnerable to Islamist challenges. It has managed to survive for nearly a half-century in spite of this Achilles' Heel by brutally suppressing dissent and tightly regulating Sunni religious practices.
Notwithstanding its heavy-handed treatment of Islamists at home, the Assad regime has eagerly armed, financed, and sheltered foreign Islamist organizations committed to fighting its enemies abroad. The sectarian and ideological affiliations of these groups have been varied, ranging from the Shi'a Hezbollah militia in Lebanon to the Sunni Palestinian Hamas movement and al-Qaeda-aligned terrorists battling U.S.-led coalition forces in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. In addition to advancing the regime's regional strategic objectives, support for these groups helped defuse Islamist militancy at home by appropriating radical causes that resonated with disaffected youth.
The eruption of a popular uprising against Assad in March 2011 and the country's subsequent collapse into civil war changed everything. Although protests were initially peaceful, multi-sectarian, and explicitly oriented around the pursuit of democratic change, the escalating violence and prolonged breakdown of law and order in many areas of the country were exploited by both indigenous and foreign Islamists (including many who had hitherto supported the regime).
Once the bête noire of secularists, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood came to dominate the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition. However, more radical Islamist forces on the ground have since eclipsed its influence. Flush with financing from the Arab Gulf (in contrast to cash-starved, poorly-armed, and secular-leaning rebel forces), more radical Salafi-jihadists close to al-Qaeda have gained dominion over key parts of northwestern Syria. Many rallied alongside Iraqi jihadists under the banner of the Islamic State, which seized control of large swathes of Iraq's Sunni heartland in 2013 and 2014.
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