Syria: The Lastest Venture for Global Jihadists

When the Syrian uprising began in March 2011, few took President Bashar al-Assad’s claims that jihadist fighters were among the opposition too seriously. 18 months on, Merve Arkan details the extent to which radical Islamist mercenaries have infiltrated those fighting Assad’s army.

al-monitor A man holds up a gun, symbolizing the fighting across the region. Photo by REUTERS/Osman Orsal.

Topics covered

radical islam, mujahedeen, al-qaeda, turkey, syrian opposition, syrian, syria, shiite-sunni strife, lebanon, jihad, fsa

Aug 22, 2012

It is not only those Syrians who demand democracy fighting against Bashar al-Assad. The number of foreign combatants [mujahideen] coming to Syria for jihad is rapidly increasing.

When the first anti-Assad voices were heard in March 2011, there were already fears that this could turn into a sectarian war. This is what happened and the sectarian struggle that is forever ready to explode in the Middle East spread to Syria. Naturally, it didn’t take for the indispensable players of this war to show up in Syria: Foreign combatants that are the mujahedeen. They see themselves as martyrs of revolution. They are coming to Syria to be martyred. Their goal is to topple the regime of Assad.

For a long time, Assad’s claims that there were jihadists in the opposition were ignored. Nobody discussed the fact that a large part of the Syrian opposition were Sunni Islamists and that they were against Assad because he was an Alawite [a sect of Shiite Islam]. The opposition that quickly became an armed force was seen not only by the Western press but also in Turkey as a set of revolutionaries fighting for democracy.

‘Atheist Assad’

The war in Syria is actually the outcome of the escalating Shiite-Sunni strife in the Middle East. Foreign warriors now said to be number in the thousands in Syria believe the Assad family is “atheist", and that they must therefore be ousted. Many Shiites and Christians abandoned their homes, even the country, because of jihadist attacks. Of course, Western countries, which for months labeled the opposition “democracy fighters” are not happy with the situation. But isn’t history full of cases in which the end justified the means?

Fighting together with the Free Syrian Army [FSA], or separately with their Syrian co-religionists, are fighters from Morocco, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. There are even veteran Chechnyans and Somali fighters. The high number of Libyans among the Islamists determined to get rid of Assad is especially interesting.

Al-Qaeda’s call

The same FSA that asks for more support from the West has divergent views about the presence of Islamist fighters. Some FSA officials express concern about the strengthening of al-Qaeda in Syria. Many try to avoid the subject so as not to harm the revolutionary fervor. An FSA commander in Aleppo, Abu Ammar, last week warned that if the West doesn’t provide more weapons, then they will cooperate with al-Qaeda.

The influence of al-Qaeda and associated organizations should not be underestimated. Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in February issued a call to members and supporters in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey to support their Syrian brothers. Some pro-Jihad websites are calling for volunteers to go and die fighting Assad’s soldiers. Abu Bakhri al-Husseini, of the group Islamic State of Iraq, which is close to al-Qaeda, saluted his Syrian brothers and said the “Islamic state has no borders.”

Lebanon-based Fatah al-Islam claimed credit for attacking a Syrian military vehicle saying that “30 Alawite soldiers were killed” in the ambush. Leader Abdulghani Chevher was killed fighting in Syria in April.The Al-Nusra Front made a name for itself with attacks on government forces and its websites displays photos of Syrians whose heads were chopped off because they were Alawites. These cannot please the countries that call for support of the opposition.

Turkish Jihadists at the front

Although their numbers are not known, there are more than a few Turkish fighters. In the last couple of weeks there were press reports of Turks killed fighting the Syrian army. News of the death of al-Qaeda’s Turkish leader Baki Yigit gave credence to claims that the Turkish branch of al-Qaeda was getting organized in Syria. Turkish jihadists are said to be grouped under the name the “Omar Farouk Brigades.”

There are also western jihadists fighting in Syria. Some are there to gather intelligence but most are fighting for jihad. Dutch photojournalist Jerome Oerlemans and British photographer John Cantile, abducted last month while trying to cross into Syria from Turkey, said that among the opposition men who kidnapped them were English speakers with London accents. A British man reached by the Daily Telegraph in Aleppo said he is ready to die for Jihad. Abu Jacob, who says he is a convert to Islam, doesn’t give his real name. Fighting alongside the opposition for several months, he says: “I want to die in Syria. We will all get to paradise. This is our destiny.”

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