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Foreign fighters in Syria… between religious duty and the Islamic political project

January 24, 2014 at 10:22 am

Three years after the Syrian revolution began the number of foreign fighters in the ranks of the Free Syrian Army and revolutionary brigades have increased; however this so-called ‘immigration’ does not necessarily stop when the Bashar Al-Assad regime falls.

Recently, several media outlets circulated reports and news on the presence of foreigners in the ranks of the Free Army and revolution brigades. Some also reported the presence of complete brigades made up of foreign fighters, usually known amongst Jihadists as “immigrants”. “Masar Press” spoke to some of these fighters and brigade leaders to find out what drives them to come to Syria, and also reported on Syrian opinions on dealings between foreign fighters and civilians.

Between regime propaganda and field statics

Since the beginning of the revolution, media outlets loyal to the regime were keen to use terms that would alarm the West and the rest of the world. Perhaps the latest of such statements was made by the Minister of Information in the Assad government, Omran Zoubi, who said that the percentage of foreign fighters in the country has reached almost 80 per cent.

However, all relevant studies indicate that they represent a very small percentage. According to the estimates of “The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation” (ICSR), the maximum total number of foreign fighters in Syria over the entire period of the revolution amounts to about 5,500 fighters, while the minimum number of the opposition forces is 60,000 fighters. This means, based on the centre’s data, foreign fighters make up less than 10 per cent of the total number of opposition fighters.

In this regard, an official from the “Sham Freedom Movement” told “Masar Press” that the number of foreign fighters in the movement’s ranks are “very few” and pointed out that one of the most important fighters who fought in the ranks of the movement is the Emirati Colonel, Mohammed Abdouly, who was involved with the movement and supported it with his military experience.

Moreover, Abu Farouk, leader of one of the battalions in rural Damascus, explained that the percentage of foreign fighters in Damascus and its outskirts does not exceed 5 per cent of the total fighters on the Damascus Front. Moreover, he noted that the victories made on the ground “cannot be achieved by foreigners due to their lack of knowledge of the land.”

Immigrants from various countries and regions

Opposition groups usually call non-Syrians fighting against the regime “immigrants”. This term is especially used by Al-Nusra Front and groups adopting the Jihadist ideology.

Abu Huzm Al-Kurdi, leader of the Tali’at Al-Haq Brigades in the countryside of eastern Aleppo noted that out of all the opposition groups, the Al-Nusra Front allocates specific brigades for “immigrants”, assigning them to support operations and giving them their own headquarters in northern Aleppo.

The fighters are from several Arab and Western countries, and Abu Huzm Al-Kurdi speaking about this explains that Saudis, Egyptians and Moroccans make up the largest number of Arab fighters, whereas many of the European fighters are of Moroccan origins. Moreover, there is a small percentage of fighters from former Soviet Union counties, especially Chechnya and Kyrgyzstan.

All reports obtained by “Masar Press” indicate that the vast majority of these fighters are in the northern and eastern areas of Syria due to its proximity to the border.

Some for humanitarian reasons and others for Islamic Jihadi reasons

Foreign fighters usually avoid contact with the media, but “Masar Press” was able to talk to some. Amongst these fighters was Abdulrahman Al-Zaltini (from the Libyan city of Zliten) who fights alongside Syrian and Arab fighters in the “Liwaa Al-Umma” brigade, founded in Ma’arrat al-Nu’man in Idlib.

Abdulrahman reveals the existence of fighters of other nationalities in his brigade including Egyptians and Tunisians who have a range of different motives for going to Syria, including humanitarian and Islamic jihad reasons. Regarding the reasons that led him to Syria, he said “We are here to defend our Syrian brothers who have suffered injustice even more than the Libyans suffered injustice under Gaddafi’s regime.”

A prominent official of the “Sham Freedom Movement” summarised the reasons that drove the Emirati Colonel, Mohammed Abdouly, to go to Syria by saying “he was driven by the international and Arab failure to put an end to the suffering of the Syrians, he came to support the Syrians and to become a martyr.”

These reasons also included denominational motives. When we met “Abu Huthaifa Al-lebnani”, he stressed that his presence was “a response to Hezbollah’s sectarian intervention in the area.”

Islamic motives and belief in the establishment of a “Caliphate State” remains one of the most important motives, as Abu Huzm Al-Kurdi, an Iraqi fighter said, “His project is not over when Bashar Al-Assad is overthrown, but when an Islamic state is established.”

Most of the foreign fighters we met were highly educated and cultured, most of whom had earned science degrees. Abdulrahman Al-Zaltini (with a Bachelor’s degree in network engineering) says “most of my fellow fighters are university graduates. They came fully convinced that they are doing what they are doing because they are educated and most of them are religious.”

He talked about the degrees of some of the Arab fighters that came with him, “Huthaifa Al-Masri graduated with a degree in Mine Engineering and studied Sharia’a Studies under Al-Azhar scholars in Egypt.”

Abu Huzm Al-Kurdi also lists some of those who he describes as intellectuals with degrees in Sharia’a and other fields, “Abu Baker Al-Masri has a Master’s degree in Energy Science, Abu Abdulrahman Al-Masri is a teacher in Egypt and Abu Muath Al-Saudi has a Master’s degree in political thought.”

Cautious friendly relationships

In regards to dealings between foreign fighters in Syria and Syrian civilians, we asked a member of the Ismaili community, Abu-Asa’ad, from the city of Al-Silmiya about how the foreigners treat them. He did not hesitate in saying that such fighters “do not hide their hatred of the sect, as they regard them as misguided.” However, there are also those who “we have seen nothing but good from, such as Abu Mohammad Al-Tunisi”.

Abu-Asa’ad believes it is wrong for “strangers” to assume leadership of the brigades due to their lack of knowledge concerning “Syrian privacy, which causes some people to alienate them.”

Abu Huzm Al-Kurdi praises the “immigrants” on their dealings with the Syrian people, as in his opinion, the immigrants are caring and “always leave behind a good impression.” He also believes that, in general, they are trustworthy and friendly towards the people and make “moving speeches that move people and encourage them to fight and join the ranks of the fighters.”

Finally… The most important question remains: Will the foreign fighters abandon their weapons after the fall of Al-Assad? Are they prepared to return to their countries? This question was not answered clearly by anyone. In the eyes of the Syrians, this issue remains unlikely, because these fighters went to Syria for “ideological and intellectual reasons and have dedicated their lives to Jihad.” Abu Asa’ad also says their presence in Syria after the fall of Al-Assad will be “a source of tension.”

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.