Outsourcing a Revolution
Foreign Fighters in the Syrian Conflict
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In previous posts we have covered more completely the armed groups fighting on either side of the Syrian conflict. From moderate FSA units to Jabhat al-Nusra and their ever-expanding affiliates, and from the morph of the community Lijan Militias into the more formal and Iranian/Hezbollah-trained Jaysh al-Sha’abi, the civil war has no shortage of constantly factioning combatant groups. But even before the formation of the now well-known radical elements, the initial concerns and reservations of the international community lay in the influx of foreign fighters traveling to Syria to wage jihad alongside the regime or its opponents. These fears have since been underplayed after successes of radical groups, suspected chemical weapons attacks, and conflict regionalization drew more attention. However, recent reports have served to remind us that the lawlessness of Syria’s border regions makes it relatively simple for any determined soul to enter the country and play an active role in the revolution.
From as far east as China, to southern Asia, North Africa, and even the Americas, foreign nationals fight effectively in many brigades of the armed opposition. It has been estimated that over 300 foreign nationals enter Syria daily through the country’s now very porous borders to join the revolution. Though most of these fighters come from Arab countries, each has his own motivation to join the struggle. Religious and ideological ties breed in many a sense of responsibility to liberate Syrians from their regime. Additionally, due to colonial powers’ relative lack of consideration when drawing the borders of their Middle Eastern mandates, familial ties transcend official frontiers; able-bodied young men in Irbid, Jordan often have ties to residents of Deraa or al-Suwayda, just as communities in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley have with the citizens of western Homs. Still others are veterans of the Arab World’s other revolutions, including Yemen and Libya, who, after the fall of governments in their own countries, sought participation in Syria’s conflict for a sense of continued revolutionary purpose or a new realm of chaos from which to loot unprotected wealth.
Saudi Arabia has played a separate and rather unique role in the supply of foreign fighters to Syria’s front lines. The Kingdom’s Wahhabist history, along with more modern factors such as its fear of Iranian influence and the Gulf region’s significant populations of underrepresented Shias, has led it to be wary of the expansion and influence of Shiism. Accordingly, the Saudi government, along with the weapons and cash it is unofficially sending to more radical Sunni elements, has begun giving some Saudi citizens the quiet and semi-official blessing to go and wage jihad in Syria. Reese Erlich’s recent article for NPR outlined specific cases of Saudi judges granting convicts a sort of amnesty: avoid serving a sentence in a Saudi prison by joining (mainly radical Islamist) revolutionaries in Syria and filling the even greater role of marginalizing Shia influence in the Levant. The number of Saudi convicts fighting in Syria is now estimated to be in the hundreds. Most of them are fighting with radicals.
Recent reports also identify Western fighters entering the opposition’s ranks. At least one hundred British citizens have armed themselves and entered Syria, also to fight mainly with extremist groups. Eric Harroun, a former U.S. Army soldier, traveled to Syria to fight alongside (supposedly) Jabhat al-Nusra in an anti-armor squad. Even a Chinese citizen by the name of Bo Wang, who claims to have converted to Islam and travelled to Libya to study Arabic and participate in the revolution, is now fighting with the opposition. Chechens, Russians, Pakistanis, Jordanians, Tunisians, Lebanese, Libyans, and citizens of an estimated 20 other countries have been seen fighting in the ranks of some FSA, Islamist, and pro-regime forces.
Of course, influx of foreign nationals into civil guerilla conflicts is nothing new. In history’s most recent wars, and particularly in predominantly Muslim states, foreign fighters have deployed individually or en masse to support members of their religious or ancestral communities. In Iraq, hundreds of Jordanians, Syrians, Lebanese, Iranians, and North Africans participated in the fight against invading American forces. Some, including the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, led entire militant organizations like al-Qaeda, which itself is now headed by an Egyptian citizen. In Afghanistan, Uzbeks, Pakistanis, Turks, and Tajiks traveled to fight alongside the Taliban during Operation Enduring Freedom. Even in Bosnia, Chechen fighters traveled from the Northern Caucasus to gain combat experience to use against Russian forces in their separatist conflicts. (Available here is an FPRI research compilation outlining the issue of foreign fighters in conflicts in the Islamic world in recent history.)
What is disconcerting, then, is not that foreign fighters have entered Syria in large numbers; Syria’s sparsely populated, unsecured, and mostly desert borders with Iraq, Turkey, and Jordan make it rather simple for determined foreign nationals to enter the country and arm themselves. Unsettling instead is that most of these fighters are joining radical groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham, and the lesser-known Syrian Islamic Front. There are immediate threats associated with this trend. Firstly, an increase in international visibility and reputation of these groups to likeminded actors in the Levant, Gulf, Northern Caucasus, Horn of Africa, and Islamic Maghreb creates networks of coordinated funding, equipment, training, and personnel transfers that serve to strengthen enemies of democracy in Syria and abroad. Transfers of Libyan weapons stores to Islamist groups in northern Mali exhibited that these networks already exist and operate effectively. Secondly, foreign nationals may slip undetected to their home countries after the conclusion of the conflict and take their weapons and explosives training, their resources, and their connections into militant groups along with them. This may be especially true of foreign nationals fighting for groups in Syria’s opposition, whose resourceful “DIY” capabilities create frighteningly effective ad hoc weapons systems out of civilian consumer goods.
By contrast, most moderate FSA brigades, especially those under the command of the Supreme Military Council, abide by strict regulations disallowing foreign fighters. As the opposition’s military command structure becomes more formalized, effective, and disciplined, unit commanders who realize the potential long-term threats of foreign fighter influence have played active roles in ensuring the exclusion of non-Syrian elements.
Syria’s revolution is indeed being somewhat outsourced. In a conflict in which the combat capabilities of the opposition are far outweighed by the might, discipline, and supplies of the regime, every able body is an asset. With prior experience in previous guerilla conflicts, the flow of foreign nationals provides their host groups with added battlefield effectiveness. This effectiveness is a luxury that moderate units must instead source from the capable regime defectors willing to fight alongside them. And though the flow of these defectors has increased as Syrian Army morale steadily fails, the advantages they provide remain outweighed by Assad’s loyal forces.
By providing the Supreme Military Council with internationally-led training, as has been specifically requested by its commanders in the form of special operations, IHL, and chemical weapons securement training, the international community can curb the influence of such malicious elements. If and when the post-Assad reconstruction era dissolves further into a battle between armed groups competing for territory and influence, this training can provide units appreciative of democratic and multi-sectarian transition with the capability to defeat radical groups and their foreign cohorts.