Foreign jihadists’ complex relation with Syrian society

Foreign fighters (Edited by Enab Baladi)

Foreign fighters (Edited by Enab Baladi)

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Enab Baladi – Khalid Jar’atli

Several Syrians believe that foreign fighters have negatively affected the revolution and made it look like a sectarian civil war. Others consider that these “jihadists” have done Syrians a favor by fighting along their side against the Syrian regime forces. 

After the peaceful uprising against the Syrian regime turned into an armed conflict, a wave of foreign fighters started to travel to the Syrian territories and join the ranks of the Syrian opposition fighters and “jihadist” groups with pre-arranged agendas.

Some opposition factions such as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (formerly al-Nusra Front), Jund al-Aqsa, and Guardians of Religion Organization were classified on Western terrorism lists for enlisting these fighters. 

However, many opposition factions such as Harakat Ahrar al-Sham and the Hazzm Movement included similar fighters and were classified as “moderate” factions, and even regarded as allies of the US.

Harakat Ahrar al-Sham was able to exploit the capabilities of foreign fighters away from social media and camera lenses, escaping thus designation as a terrorist group. 

The Syrian people have different opinions on the presence of foreign fighters in the ranks of the opposition factions, and also of their military and political contributions.

Some believe that their presence is essential. They have become just like all Syrians residing in northern Syria, for many of them have formed families with Syrian wives. Others think their presence is more harmful than good, seeing no positive side to their efforts at all. 

Another justification for war on “terror”

Military analyst Colonel Fayez al-Asmar believes that the participation of foreign fighters in the Syrian war has given the Syrian regime and its main allies, Russia and Iran, another justification to fight what they call “terrorists.”

Russia repeatedly bombs civilian infrastructure and service facilities. However, they later announce through their media outlets that they have attacked strategic sites of “terrorists” affiliated with one of the jihadist factions classified on terrorist lists. 

Al-Asmar believes that Russia and the Syrian regime used foreign fighters. Their presence in the ranks of the opposition factions fully serves the interest of the Syrian regime and its allegations before the international community. He added that minimal positive impact could be mentioned compared to the damages caused by their presence. 

He added, “The presence of these fighters distracts the world from the goals of the Syrian revolution, and is a reason for increasing foreign interventions and repression against Syrians, with all kinds of prohibited and conventional weapons.”

 In 2014, the US-led international coalition intervened militarily in Syria. For over a year, they bombed areas and points in northern Syria containing fighters belonging to al-Nusra Front, the Islamic State (IS) group, or factions classified by the US as extremist. 

Then, Russia justified and framed its direct military intervention in Syria as a “war against terrorism,” particularly against the IS group in 2015. The Russian intervention caused the balance of power to tilt in favor of the regime after the opposition factions controlled upward of 60 percent of Syrian territory. After that, the series of Russian bombings of residential neighbourhoods and service facilities began, which continues today.

A “complicated” relationship with Syrian society

Enab Baladi documented an incident in 2015 that took place in Turkmen Mountain in the countryside of Latakia, near Beksarea village on the Syrian Turkish border.

During a regular security check, a number of foreign jihadists stopped a bus driver at a  checkpoint. One of the fighters tried to convince the driver to give him his cigarette pack, intending to destroy it. 

According to the fighter’s interpretation of Islamic rulings, smoking is prohibited and by destroying the pack he would be rewarded by God. He insisted that the driver give him his pack of cigarettes. He even offered him some money to let him destroy it.

Having mentioned this encounter, the driver started talking about the high morals these fighters enjoy even though they cannot communicate with the Syrian people well because some Syrians reject their presence. In addition, most foreign fighters barely speak any Arabic. 

Simultaneously, the bus driver said that he hates foreign fighters because of the actions of a prince in al-Nusra Front, called Safina al-Tunisi. That prince executed 14 young Syrians, who engaged in a fight with one of his bodyguards in Qalb Loze, a Druze village in Jabal al-Zawiya in Idlib countryside.

 Safina al-Tunisi was killed on 14 September 2020 by a drone strike,  “jihadist” Telegram accounts reported. 

Future of foreign fighters in Syria

Recently, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which controls Syria’s northwestern governorate of Idlib, has asked Junud al-Sham—a multiple Sunni Islamic jihadist militant group led by Muslim al Shishani—to either join its ranks or disband and leave Syria. 

Well-informed sources on Telegram close to Junud al-Sham pointed out that the group will most likely dissolve itself. Its fighters are preparing themselves to leave Syria soon. 

 Abbas Sharifa, an expert in the affairs of jihadist groups and a researcher at the Jusoor Center for Studies in Istanbul, said, most foreign “jihadists,” as a part of security-related precautionary measures, do not have much contact with the local population. However, they mostly talk with those who fight along their side (in reference to local fighters). 

Very few foreign fighters have married Syrian women and become part of the Syrian society.

Sharifa suggested that some foreign fighters have been shaped by the Syrian culture; they no longer advocate the extremist ideas they came with. Nonetheless, others remained too narrow-minded; they could not open their minds to new ideas or integrate into Syrian social life due to cultural differences.    

Sharifa added, “Integrating these [jihadists] into Syrian society, if it takes place, will not pose any danger to society, especially since Syrian society has well-established traditional and cultural values that cannot be easily changed.” 

He added that “some jihadists’ new way of thinking can be seen as an attempt to approach the popular base.”

Sharifa does not believe that good manners alone can solve the problem of the presence of foreign fighters in Syria. The heart of the issues seems to be primarily political, and the countries that sent them to Syria must be responsible for taking them back to their home countries.  

Regarding the future of foreign fighters in Syria, researcher Abbas Sharifa said that the presence of foreign fighters in Syrian territory can be addressed in several ways. First, jihadist groups must be split into segments, most notably “fanatics and ideologues,” who could be sent to other battlefields, or they could be fought.  

The second segment includes the less fanatical. Sharifa expects them to return to their home countries and normally live after settling their situation.

The third segment includes the fighters who refuse to return to their home countries or go through another “jihadi” experience. Countries concerned with collecting information on jihadists might receive this segment of fighters. 

In 2014, when foreign fighters first appeared in Syria on-screen, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, said that the increasing number of foreign fighters in Syria, whether to support the Syrian regime or the opposition, is fueling what she described as “sectarian violence.”

She also warned that their participation in the Syrian conflict might destabilize the entire region. 

At the time, Navi Pillay referred, in a press statement, to the Iranian, Lebanese and Afghan foreign fighters fighting alongside the Syrian regime, in addition to the “jihadist” fighters fighting on the side of the opposition.

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