Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1143, 11 - 17 April 2013
Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Issue 1143, 11 - 17 April 2013

Ahram Weekly

Who’s fighting in Syria?

The Syrian regime has claimed that the majority of those it is fighting are foreigners, but the opposition insists that foreigners make up only a tiny fraction of its ranks, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

Al-Ahram Weekly

Six months after the start of the Syrian uprising over two years ago and as the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad stepped up its military crackdown, many Syrians took up arms to counter the regime’s oppression and join the peaceful protesters.

The first armed units were made up of civilian volunteers, but within weeks defections from the country’s military began and the first defecting officers formed the nucleus of the Free Officers fighting the regime.

As more military personnel defected and more civilian volunteers joined their ranks, they formed the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which aimed to counter attacks by the regime on residential areas and protect protesters.

In time, more FSA brigades emerged that adopted a broad national outlook to overthrow the regime and create a civil and democratic state. Some of these then began to break off into Islamist groups, and members of the opposition abroad used their financial means to steer some armed groups in one direction or another.

Nearly one year after the uprising began, jihadist groups emerged such as the Al-Nusra Front, which adopted the goal of overthrowing the regime and establishing an Islamic state. The jihadist groups used their financial and weapons advantages to expand their base and win the loyalty of FSA units.

Since the first few months of the uprising, the regime has been claiming that there is foreign interference in Syria and that Arab and foreign fighters are spreading havoc in the country. It has continued to claim that the majority of the opposition fighters are “foreign terrorists” in an attempt to blame them for the violence against the protesters since the start of the uprising.

As the regime’s military crackdown turned into a fierce war against its own people and the hundreds of armed revolutionary brigades, reports began to emerge of the presence of Arab volunteers fighting alongside the Al-Nusra Front, which the US has added to its list of terrorist organisations.

According to opposition figure Ayman Abdel-Nour, Al-Assad told the Syrian media recently that the regular army’s inability to take the city of Daria near Damascus after 120 days of non-stop shelling was because of the presence of foreign contingents fighting in the city, including Israelis and US commandos, for example.

However, the regime itself has been involved in forming the armed groups and of being a key mover in some of them. During the first year of the uprising, the regime released more than 60,000 prisoners by presidential decree, which facilitated the creation of the armed rebel groups and served its interests in painting them as criminals and former prisoners.

During the same year, the regime also facilitated the formation of armed jihadist groups, with some of them already having close ties to officers in the security agencies from the time when Syria served as a corridor to Iraq for radical groups together with weapons and funds.

Members of such radical groups that were behind bars in Syria were released on certain conditions and their direct and indirect ties continued with the Syrian security agencies.

Opposition and foreign intelligence agencies have confirmed such suspicions, with many countries being worried about the radical elements in the ranks of the Syrian opposition, many of them Islamist brigades using various names.

Media reports say that there are hundreds of European mercenaries among the Syrian fighters, something that worries European diplomats because these combatants could pose a threat to European security when they return to the continent from Syria. 

At the beginning of this month, a report from the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, a partnership between Britain’s King’s College, London and a university in the US, revealed that some 600 combatants from 14 European countries were fighting alongside revolutionaries in Syria, including Britons, Austrians, Spaniards, Swedes, Germans, French and Dutch.

The report estimated that 2,000-5,500 foreign combatants from around the world, including the Arab states, had gone to Syria over the past two years.

According to the most conservative estimates of the Syrian opposition, some 150,000 fighters are now battling the regime, including military personnel who have defected and civilian volunteers. According to the International Centre report, foreigners amount to no more than 3.5 per cent of all the combatants in Syria.

The French newspaper Le Canard Enchainé recently reported that French intelligence estimates put the number of extremist foreign fighters in Syria at 1,500, or 1.5 per cent of all combatants. This figure had caused the French government to hesitate in sending weapons to the revolutionaries out of fears that these weapons could end up in the hands of radical jihadists, the newspaper said, who are believed to make up around 5,000 combatants.

US General Martin Dempsey, chair of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said a few days ago that he had never seen a more complicated conflict than the one in Syria. He warned that the situation in the country was critical, with no one knowing whether Syria would become “another Tora Bora” and a magnet for terrorists from around the world.

The Syrian opposition says that the above estimates are exaggerations and that concerns about foreign combatants in the country are unfounded. There are very few foreigners in Syria, the opposition says and the majority of them are Syrians with dual citizenship and not members of radical jihadist groups.

There are liberals, leftists and moderate Islamists among the foreign fighters, the opposition says, while at the same time adding that volunteers from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and the Lebanese Shiite group Hizbullah are in the country fighting alongside regime troops out of sectarian loyalty.

Fawaz Tallu, an opposition figure, told Al-Ahram Weekly that there were few jihadists in Syria. “They are individual cases and do not constitute a trend or have political or military value, even if symbolically,” Tallu said. “Talk about foreign jihadists is propaganda by the regime and its allies in Russia and Iran who want to press the ‘fight against terror’ button that is popular with the international community.”

According to revolutionary sources, opposition fighters amount to around 1,400 combat brigades operating across the country. About one third of these are under the umbrella of the FSA and the rest are under other organisations and groups in the opposition’s eight blocs.

The largest and most notable of these is the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Syria, a moderate Islamic bloc created in September 2012 that includes around 50,000 combatants belonging to four smaller groups, most notably the Banner of Islam, that operate across the country.

The Al-Farouk Brigades, meanwhile, is a leading independent group that receives financial and military assistance from the Gulf countries. It includes the largest number of volunteer combatants, having a total of more than 20,000, and it operates like a regular military contingent.

The largest group of Salafist combatants is the Free Levant Front, which is an umbrella group for more than 11 brigades across the country, amounting to nearly 13,000 fighters. It is funded by some Gulf states and aims to establish an Islamist regime in Syria.

The Grandchildren of the Prophet group is composed of around 15,000 combatants who do not aim to create an Islamic state but want to overthrow the regime and prosecute its leading members.

The Al-Nusra Front, adopting a similar ideology to Al-Qaeda, includes 6,000 fighters and its activities were first recorded in February 2012. Its combatants are the most skilled of all those fighting the Syrian regime, possibly because of their desire to become martyrs.

The Hawks of the Levant group is the oldest combat force, formed in mid-2011. It comprises some 4,000 combatants and seeks to establish Islamic rule, while accommodating Syria’s religious and sectarian minorities.

The Advocates of Islam bloc, created in mid-2012 from seven different cells, follows the orders of the FSA but raises a black banner to indicate its loyalty to Islam. It is most active in Damascus and surrounding rural areas.

According to the Syrian opposition, the FSA alone has at least another 50,000 fighters whose orientation is nationalist with no religious or sectarian overtones. These fighters are fighting for a plural, civil and democratic Syria and they do not include any foreigners, according to the opposition.

As the war in Syria continues, the international community is worried that the country may become a destination for jihadists from around the world. Syrians are also concerned that this may happen and they do not want their country to become the Middle East’s Afghanistan or Somalia.

Tallu summed up the opposition’s standpoint by saying that “the Syrian revolution does not need foreign fighters. Hundreds of thousands of free Syrians are ready and want to join the FSA. What is stopping them is the fact that they need equipment and weapons, which nearly all the world is stopping from reaching the Syrian revolution.”

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