When the Syrian regime said almost two years ago that foreign combatants were fighting with the rebels against the regime, little attention was paid to the subject. Some even purposely ignored the signal and stressed that the Assad regime was lying in an effort to marginalize the opposition and attract sympathy for its efforts to portray itself as the spearhead in the fight against al-Qaeda terrorists.
Moreover, during the initial stages of the rebellion against Assad, the American, British, French, and Turkish intelligence services all thought that the Assad regime would not last long. While they provided shelter, training, and non-lethal aid to the rebels, they assessed it was just a matter of time before Assad fell. Thus, they deeply misunderstood the power structure in Syria.
The civil war in Syria is entering its third year and there is no end in sight. Assad remains in power, his regime is still functioning, and he has not lost any major city to the rebels. On the contrary, Assad’s praetorian guard, led by his brother Maher and assisted by Hizbullah fighters and Iranian supervisors, succeeded in maintaining territorial continuity between Syria’s main cities and, when confronted head-on, defeated the rebels and the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Assad’s allies (Iran, Hizbullah, Russia, and China) remain loyal to him. Russia played a pivotal role in preventing a U.S. retaliatory strike that could have caused Assad’s fall following his regime’s chemical weapons attack on two Damascus suburbs – an assault that killed hundreds of civilians. The price Assad had to pay to ensure his regime’s survival was to give up his chemical weapons arsenal, which he did quite promptly.
Who Are the Rebels?
The main change in the Syrian battlefield today is the transformation in the make-up of the rebel forces fighting the Assad regime. In the beginning of the rebellion in 2011, the Free Syrian Army and other small militias were the spearhead of the armed opposition to the Assad regime. At that time, jihadist fighters were still a marginal phenomenon, a “romantic” offshoot of the so-called Arab Spring. However, during the last year, a dramatic change has taken place. The jihadist fighters have become omnipresent on the battlefield at the expense of the FSA, which is struggling to maintain a presence on the ground that would enable it to participate in any future political settlement in Syria.
There are a few hundred jihadist organizations fighting the regime. Most are insignificant in strength and numbers, but the two main groups are the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL (Arabic: al-Dawla al-Islamiyyah Fi Al’Iraq Wash-Sham), and the al-Nusra Front (Arabic: Jabhat al-Nusra li-Ahl Ash-Sham, which literally means “Support Front for the People of the Levant”). Both ISIL and al-Nusra are affiliated with al-Qaeda. Al-Nusra, which was established in January 2012, rose to prominence in the early stages of the Syrian conflict and was superseded by ISIL more recently. Both organizations share a common goal of establishing a Sunni state based on Sharia law, but both seem to be bitterly against any merger between themselves.
ISIL has changed the course of the civil war in Syria since its appearance in April 2013. Originating in Iraq, where it has been active since the early days of the 2003 war with the U.S., ISIL has extended its presence to areas vacated by the Syrian army, especially in northern Syria, where it has already established Sharia law in a number of small communities now under its control.
The main characteristic of both organizations is that they have become beacons around which thousands of foreign combatants have gathered in order to fight the Assad regime. At the beginning, the flow of foreign volunteers was slow and away from the media spotlight. The volunteers enter Syria mainly through Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq, secretly crossing Syria’s porous borders. One could learn about the presence of foreign fighters in Syria only through obituaries published in their countries of origin after they died on the battlefield or through information leaked to the media by intelligence agencies.
The foreign volunteers stay for some time in Syria, long enough to be trained in weapons, explosives, and guerilla warfare, then return to their countries where they recruit new fighters for the battle in Syria. The exceptions are mercenaries from the Balkans or Chechnya, who fight for money and stay in Syria for as long as they are being paid.
Western Jihadists in Syria
There is no official number of foreigners fighting in Syria. According to a recent estimate,1 there could be more than 10,000. French President Hollande said that French intelligence had counted 700 French citizens and foreigners who had gone to Syria from France. The German interior ministry said that 240 people had left Germany for Syria last year. According to the New York Times, American and European intelligence sources estimate that 1,200 young people had left their countries of origin to join the rebels in Syria and, by extension, al-Qaeda’s global network.2 Another report said that at least 70 Americans had either traveled to Syria, or tried to, since the conflict began in 2011.3 The foreign volunteers come from all over the world and are not necessarily from Arab or Muslim countries. The larger foreign contingents come from Libya, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Morocco, and Lebanon. The list of countries is exhaustive and includes Canada, the United Kingdom, Kazakhstan, Indonesia, and even China, Gaza, and Israel.
Most volunteers are integrated into al-Nusra or ISIL, but not exclusively. Other groups with concentrations of foreign fighters include the Eagles of Honor (Suqour al-Izz), founded by Saudi fighters, and the Movement of Islamic Levant (Harakat Sham al-Islam), led by Moroccan fighters. Both groups are active in the Latakia area.4 Outside the northern area, the most notable independent formations are the Green Battalion (Al-Katiba al-Khadraa’), founded by Saudi fighters and based in the Qalamoun area of Damascus province, and the Congregation of the Levant Fighters (Jamaat Jund Ash-Sham), founded by Lebanese fighters in the western Homs governorate. Other foreign fighter groups are or have been mere fronts for ISIL. The most notable is the Army of the Followers of the Prophet (Jaysh al-Muhajirin wal-Ansar), based primarily in Aleppo, Idlib, and Latakia provinces. Another independent foreign group called the Lions of the Caliphate Battalion (Katibat Usud Al-Khilafah), active in the Latakia area, pledged its allegiance to ISIS in November 2013 and thus merged into the larger organization.
Information is scarce about the presence of foreign fighters in groups fighting with ISIS, such as the Islamic front (Al-Jabha al-Islamiya), the Mujahidin Army (Jaysh al-Mujahidin), the Front of Syria Revolutionaries (Jabhat Thouwar Souriya), and the Islamic Movement of Free People of the Levant (Harakat Ahrar Ash-Sham Al-Islamiyya). Volunteers are not only males, but also include young women who have chosen to assist the men in their tasks.
The Danger to the West
The heavy presence of foreigners in the Syrian conflict has triggered the alarm in Europe and the United States. Intelligence services have warned of the threat of jihad-inspired terrorism being conducted in Europe by volunteers who received weapons and explosives training in Syria.
The case of Mohammed Merah, who targeted French soldiers and Jewish civilians in a shooting spree in the French towns of Toulouse and Montauban in March 2012, illustrates the extent of Western concerns. Merah traveled to Afghanistan and Pakistan after being exposed to jihadist ideology while in prison in France. From the thousands who have taken part in the conflict in Syria, one could imagine the emergence of another Merah.
In this context, it is no wonder that Western intelligence services that had been involved in training opposition fighters to Assad could be the same ones who, according to the Syrian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, have contacted the Assad regime in order to check possible ways to limit the damage from the return home of these same fighters.
One thing is clear. The presence of foreign jihadists in Syria has increased the security challenges that Western nations face today. The West has an interest in ending the Syrian conflict as soon as possible in order to stop the flow of jihadists from Western countries. It must also monitor the return home of Western jihadists who have received military training.
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