TRIPOLI, Lebanon: Foreign fighters among the ranks of Syrian insurgents have become increasingly common in the three years since the war began.
Syria became an attraction for foreign jihadists after other battlefields were no longer accessible; fighting in Afghanistan is now limited to the Taliban, while Al-Qaeda in Iraq lost a considerable amount of popularity after its violent acts against civilians triggered a backlash by tribal and other groups.
Al-Qaeda’s political theories are based on confronting the Western world and taking advantage of disorder to take control of territory, meaning that its followers are making headway in Syria, the same way they did in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Those following up on the issue find it difficult to gather information about foreign fighters in Syria, known as “muhajireen,” especially as the issue has become sensitive after the presence of foreign fighters in Syria generated firm criticism from the U.S. and Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia, which is seeking to discourage its nationals from embracing armed jihad.
A Syrian national who transports foreign fighters to the battlefield in his country said that three groups wield influence in northern regions and have significant numbers of foreign fighters. Two are Al-Qaeda affiliates, namely the Nusra Front and the splinter group the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS). The third is the Islamic Front, a coalition of seven Islamist militias.
The people smuggler, who was in Lebanon in between trips abroad, said other rebel alliances consisted of small groups that were not as effective on the ground.
A large number of the foreign fighters who arrived in Syria joined the Nusra Front at first, before switching to ISIS, he recalled. The situation, though, has been in flux after the beginning of the year saw bloody battles that pitted ISIS against other rebel groups, including Nusra, as some foreign fighters sought to join or rejoin Nusra, which was dubbed the only legitimate Al-Qaeda franchise in Syria by the movement’s leader, Ayman Zawahri.
The wave of movement toward ISIS took place in the wake of the group’s capture of Raqqa province last year, when it demanded that Nusra Front fighters swear allegiance to the Chechen emir of an ISIS battalion, Omar al-Shishani, in Aleppo.
Soon after, the Nusra Front turned its attention toward the suburbs of Damascus and southern Syria, including the city of Deraa, a symbolically significant area for the Syrian opposition, all the way to the border with Jordan.
Sheikh Omar Bakri Fustoq, a leading Islamist figure based in Tripoli, Lebanon said the goals of foreign jihadists in Syria could be summarized in three points.
“Some venture there to provide the weapons and ammunition needed for the jihadist cause,” he said. Another group, he continued, see the jihad in Syria as a social and cultural mission, specifically in the provinces of Raqqa and Aleppo, where jihadists hold territory. Most, however, go to train fighters, which is the case of the Chechens, who can draw on vast experience in fighting against the Russian military. Most Chechens fighting in the field are relatively older and have much military expertise and have been training fighters in northern Syria, he said.
According to Fustoq, solidarity with fellow Muslims was a normal reaction to the chaos and violence in Syria, as fighters from many countries have arrived in Syria. European officials are now busy monitoring the movements of nationals to and from the conflict, fearing the implications for security in their countries.
Fighters inside Syria are reluctant to divulge information about their activities and hesitant to speak to foreigners. Some fighters hailing from the West are concerned that speaking to the media might pose problems for them in their home countries later on.
One rebel commander told The Daily Star over Skype that a large number of foreign fighters in Syria are Arabs that came from the Gulf, Libya, Tunisia, as well as other countries, such as Afghanistan and Russia.
The European nationals who have gone to Syria comprise about 15 percent of the total number of foreign fighters, he said. Turkish territory provides the preferred crossing point, since Ankara does not require a visa from Europeans.
However, the commander said the fighters coming from the United States, Canada, and Australia were small in number and “their presence is mostly “symbolic, often used by ISIS to spread propaganda.”
ISIS also uses a number of its fighters to carry out suicide missions, which is what happened in Aleppo’s central prison with British suicide bomber whose nom de guerre was Abu Suleiman al-Britani.
While the campaign against ISIS was spearheaded by units from the mainstream Free Syrian Army, Islamist figures have also found the Al-Qaeda extremists to be far beyond the pale of acceptable behavior.
Sheikh Abdallah al-Tamimi, who lives in Australia and spoke on behalf of the Syrian National Liberal Party, said most opposition members were against takfirism of the extremist jihadists, referring to their policy of passing death sentences on Muslims who are deemed insufficiently religious.
While the Nusra Front has sought to distance itself from ISIS, Tamimi called both groups “fabrications” that are being used in an attempt to defeat the Syrian uprising.
He also denounced suicide attacks and the presence of takfiri groups, which “are doing a great service to the Assad regime,” as they legitimize the regime’s claims that it is fighting fundamentalist Muslims.
Tamimi said Tripoli was a recruiting ground for the jihadists, “and although the number of new recruits isn’t high, the majority of those selected to fight have only a minimal education, and are easily misled by extremist ideology.”