TAL RIFAAT, Syria: The bearded gunmen who surrounded the car full of foreign journalists in a northern Syrian village were clearly not Syrians. A heavyset man in a brown gown stepped forward, announced he was Iraqi and fingered through the American passport he had confiscated.“We know all American journalists are spies. Now tell us what you are doing here and who you are spying for,” he said in English before going on to accuse the U.S. of the destruction of Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I really want to cut your head off right now,” he added, telling his men, many of whom appeared to have North African accents, that this American kills Muslims.
With the intervention of nearby villagers, the confrontation eventually was defused. But it underscored the unpredictable element that foreign fighters bring to the Syrian conflict.
Most of those fighting the regime of President Bashar Assad are ordinary Syrians and soldiers who have defected, having become fed up with the authoritarian government, analysts say.
But increasingly, foreign fighters and those adhering to an extremist Islamist ideology are turning up on the front lines. The rebels are trying to play down their influence for fear of alienating Western support, but as the 18-month-old fight grinds on, the influence of these extremists is set to grow.
Monday, a U.N. panel reported a rise in the number of foreign fighters in the conflict and warned that it could radicalize the rebellion.
The Syrian government has always blamed the uprising on foreign terrorists, despite months of peaceful protests by ordinary citizens that only turned violent after repeated attacks by security forces. The transformation of the conflict into an open war has given an opening to the foreign fighters and extremists.
Talk about the role of foreign jihadists in the Syrian civil war began in earnest, however, with the rise in suicide bombings. U.S. National Director of Intelligence James Clapper said in February that those attacks “bore the earmarks” of the jihadists in neighboring Iraq.
Rebel commanders are quick to dismiss the role of the foreign fighters and religious extremists, describing their numbers as few and their contribution as paltry.
Col. Abdel-Jabbar Aqidi, a top rebel commander for the Aleppo area, told The Associated Press there were maybe 500 jihadists involved in the battle for Aleppo, while a report from the Quilliam Foundation, a London-based think tank studying extremism, estimated a total of 1,200-1,500 foreign fighters in all of Syria.
Other commanders estimated that at most, jihadists, whether local or foreign, made up no more than 10 percent of the fighters.
While this is a small amount compared with the thousands of rebels battling the regime, Peter Harling of the International Crisis Group warns that the religious extremists will have an influence on the rebellion.
“I think numbers are irrelevant,” he said, adding that the extremists are a “very important phenomenon in many ways. Their presence is very divisive, whether there are many or not.
“They are certainly visible, and this increasingly shapes the complexion of the opposition in ways that are not negligible,” Harling said.
Reflecting their extreme sensitivity to the topic, the media center on the Syrian-Turkish border investigated and questioned any journalists they discovered who had written about foreign fighters in Syria.
“My brother died in this revolution. This revolution means everything to me, and if the world thinks that Al-Qaeda is involved, it is finished,” said Nader, a young rebel with the media center who declined to give his last name.
The media center investigated and questioned any journalists they discovered who had written about foreign fighters being involved in the rebellion.
Most of the rebels fighting in the north come from the countryside and have always been more traditional and religious than the more cosmopolitan urbanites of Aleppo.
Rebels often wear the beards associated with religious Muslims and pepper their conversations with references to their faith, but that does not necessarily mean they subscribe to ultraconservative views.
“Having a beard is not a symbol of extremists. It just means we’re religious, like a woman wearing a headscarf or a Christian wearing a cross,” said Abdel-Malik Atassi, a young rebel in the town of Marea, as he gestured to his bearded comrades.
Atassi also noted that the fighters tend to me more religious.
“As a fighter, I am constantly close to death, so yes, I am more religious and I want to follow the prophet’s traditions more closely in case I die,” he added.
Rebel leaders like Abdel-Aziz Salameh, one of the top commanders in the countryside, said that while he hopes for a future government system based on Islamic law, it will ultimately be the people’s choice.
“We don’t let the foreign fighters spread their way of thinking in our home,” he told AP. “We don’t need foreign fighters. We have 100,000 men who want to fight, but we don’t have weapons for them.”
While Salameh and other rebel commanders have pledged to respect Syria’s pluralistic society, which includes many ethnic and religious minorities, the jihadists are increasingly framing this war as part of a regional struggle between the Sunni and Shiite sects.
Assad and many of the top people in the regime belong to the Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, and the jihadists are framing the struggle in Syria as another front in the battle against what they perceive as heretical Shiites.
In the numerous online statements celebrating their nearly daily operations in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, or Victory Front, the largest jihadist group, often states that the attacks are to “avenge the Sunnis killed by the apostate regime.”
Despite their smaller numbers, the jihadists bring experience in fighting guerrilla wars as well as their own supply lines for much needed weapons and ammunition, making them attractive to local Syrians to join.
“The infiltration of weapons and funding to these groups, as well as the ethno-religious component of the Syrian uprising, is likely to continue to serve as a source of attraction for many fighters, some of whom are ex-Free Syrian Army soldiers and many of whom are from foreign countries,” noted the September report by the Quilliam Foundation about the role of jihadists in the rebellion.
The jihadists also have a reputation for heading straight to the front lines. Few were in evidence in the countryside, where many rebel units are involved in managing the civilian areas.
A French physician with Doctors Without Borders working near the front lines in Aleppo said in an interview last week that based on style of dress and what their companions said, half of the rebels he treated were jihadists, both foreign and Syrian.
In the end, the 12 bearded men who threatened the car full of journalists may have backed down because of wanting to maintain a good relationship with the civilians from the nearby village.
The more a rebel group is entrenched in the population, the more self-discipline it will exercise and the less likely it will engage in atrocities, Harling said. The problem with the jihadists and foreign fighters is that they often have few links with civilians.
“There is no jihadist precedent in the Islamic world that hasn’t ended in one way or another in total failure, which makes it difficult to understand how it carries so much appeal,” he said.