Hussam al-Mahmoud | Hassan Ibrahim | Khaled al-Jeratli
Without an invitation and under the pretext of participating in the military action against the Syrian regime, the foreign fighters came from different nationalities and ethnicities a decade ago and settled in the northwestern region.
They got Arabic names and wives to integrate, but their presence, concentrated in northwestern regions, is still a dilemma for the de-facto ruling armed groups such as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS).
Scarce information, limited to leaks from those interested in the “jihadist” and Islamic movements, constitutes the basis of what is known about them, without clarification, confirmation, or denial from the HTS, which is the “commanding and forbidding” force in the same areas where these fighters penetrate.
With every operation or incident that foreign fighters are subjected to, such as arrest or release, or assassination and liquidation in some way, Tahrir al-Sham remains silent, leaving the event to pass without official comment by its spokesmen or officials, with the exception of some cases that surface, contrary to what has been since their involvement in military action in Syria in 2011.
In this in-depth report, Enab Baladi discusses with experts and researchers the milieu that surrounds foreign fighters in northwestern Syria, the nature of their movement in light of the presence of a larger dominant force in the region, and their relationship with it.
Enab Baladi also sheds light on their role on the ground after nearly a decade and if there is a will by international powers or vision to determine their future.
No talk about them in Idlib
Foreign “jihadists” had faced several events and changes in the recent period, the most recent of which was last October, when news reported that Chechen fighters had left the countryside of Latakia to fight the Russian forces that had been invading Ukraine since 24 February.
Among the most prominent of these fighters is Rustam Azhiev (Known as Abdul Hakim al-Shishani), a veteran of the Chechen-Russian war in the 1990s and commander of the Ajnad al-Kavkaz group fighting Syrian regime forces in Latakia, arrived in Ukraine with a group of Chechen fighters to battle Russian forces, al-Monitor website reported on 22 October.
The US-based website that covers the jihadist groups said it has learned that “the commander and members of Ajnad al-Kavkaz, a Chechen-led Islamic rebel group active in northern Syria, headed to Ukraine to fight against the Russian forces there.”
Al-Monitor quoted sources of Ajnad al-Kavkaz as saying that “more commanders are expected to leave Idlib for Ukraine to escape the crackdown led by (HTS), and to seek revenge against Russia and the forces of President Vladimir Putin’s ally, Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov.”
On 24 October, Enab Baladi contacted the media office of Tahrir al-Sham to obtain a comment or clarification about the departure of Abdul Hakim al-Shishani and members of his group from Idlib, accusing HTS of exerting pressure on the fighters to push them to leave the area, but it has not received a response until the moment this report was published.
Abdul Rahman al-Haj, a Syrian expert covering religious movements, told Enab Baladi that the Russian invasion of Ukraine created a new opportunity for foreign fighters to fight their “main enemy,” referring to Russia, indicating that their delay in the battle in Ukraine is an indication of the difficulty of their movement.
On 25 September, the HTS released the military commander of the Ansar al-Sham group, Abu Musa al-Shishani (brother of the leader of the Jund al-Sham faction, Muslim al-Shishani), and it is alleged that after his release from prison, he joined the Jund Allah (Soldiers of God) group led by the Azerbaijanis.
The release, which passed without comment from Tahrir al-Sham, came after about 11 months of detention in the wake of an attack it launched in the countryside of Latakia on 26 October 2021, in which groups of foreign fighters were targeted.
The Russian TASS agency, on 9 September, quoted Oleg Egorov, deputy head of the Russian Reconciliation Center in Hmeimim air base, as saying that the leader of the Tawhid and Jihad battalion, Siraj al-Din Mukhtarov (Abu Salah al-Uzbeki), was killed in Russian raid along with more than 20 “terrorists” from the al-Nusra Front (HTS).
TASS said that the al-Uzbeki, who was behind organizing the “terrorist” attacks on the regime forces and civilian infrastructure facilities, was killed as a result of the strike carried out by Russian planes in Idlib on a camp of “militants” on the 8th of the same month.
For its part, the media office of Tahrir al-Sham denied to Enab Baladi, via email, the death of Abu Salah al-Uzbeki during the raid, pointing out that the Russian warplanes targeted a stone sawmill without any other details about the leader.
At the same time, the rescue Syria Civil Defense agency confirmed that the Russian air forces committed a new massacre, during which seven civilians, including a child, were killed, and more than ten people were wounded, most of them workers in a stone quarry in Hafserjah village in the western countryside of Idlib.
HTS and “Jihadists” network
Last February, the HTS released Omar Diaby, the French jihadist leader of the al-Ghuraba division in Syria, after detaining him since August 2020, according to AFP.
Diaby, alias Omar Omsen, considered one of the main recruiters of young French jihadists, is free. The preacher, present in Syria since 2013 and who is the subject of an arrest warrant from French justice, had been in the hands of the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham group since August 2020, the French news agency reported.
“I had spoken to his son, and he was released,” Jean-Charles Brisard, director of The Center for the Analysis of Terrorism (CAT) in Paris, told AFP. “HTS had to set conditions for his release but does not wish to make them known,” he added, indicating that he had no information at this stage on the reasons for his release.
The jihadist, who is the subject of an arrest warrant from French justice, had been in the hands of the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) group since the summer of 2020, which holds the region of Idlib in north-western Syria, the AFP said.
Enab Baladi contacted, at that time, the HTS media office to verify the report of releasing Omsen and a number of commanders of the al-Ghuraba division and the reasons for the arrest and the accusations leveled against them. The HTS media office evaded the questions and just said that the case had become “old.”
Aaron Y. Zelin, a senior researcher at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who covers jihadist groups in North Africa and Syria, considered Tahrir al-Sham’s secrecy about foreign fighters to be linked to the sensitivity of the issue.
Zelin told Enab Baladi that the HTS is trying to remove itself from the “terrorist” list.
The fact that there are members of other “terrorist” groups on its territory, whether inside or outside the prison, complicates the issue, especially if one of them is of Western nationality, according to Zelin.
Expert Abdul Rahman al-Haj interpreted this secrecy about foreign fighters in a different way, as he attributed it to Tahrir al-Sham’s desire to preserve its ability to implement its plans in order to ensure the cohesion of its ranks.
The HTS seeks to avoid direct confrontation and expanded operations in order to maintain its relationship with the global “jihadist” network, which enables it to obtain information and ease the tension with the network itself to the minimum limits in order to ensure the stability and to grip the power in its areas of control, al-Haj added.
“Brothers in the ranks of the revolution”
The silence of HTS and secrecy regarding foreign fighters included commentary on some internal security incidents, including the arrest of the murderers of a man and his wife in the village of Kaftin in the northern Idlib countryside on 20 August by the General Security apparatus (accused of being affiliated with Tahrir al-Sham).
Diaa al-Omar, the General Security spokesperson, told Enab Baladi via an email that the “criminal cell” consisted of several people, most of whom were arrested and confessed to their affiliation with the Islamic State group, adding that their leader is an Uzbek national.
On 24 August, the General Security issued a statement stating that Abu Bakr al-Uzbeki and Abdullah al-Uzbeki, who were involved in the killing of a man and his wife, belong to one of the ISIS security cells.
On 18 February, the HTS issued a statement in which it denied following a systematic policy of displacement towards foreign fighters (described them as Muhajireen) residing in the city of Idlib and its countryside after asking them to vacate the homes in which they reside within a specific time limit.
Tahrir al-Sham’s statement considered the foreign fighters part of the revolution, saying, “They are still on the side of the revolution, with its project, and with its leadership.”
Abu Mohammad al-Jolani, the leader of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, in an interview with the Independent Türkçe on 5 September 2021, praised the efforts of those he described as “immigrant brothers (Muhajireen) who came to help” and promised not to abandon them, responding to a question about their existence in the future of Syria.
Al-Jolani added, “Those fighters are part of us, they mix with the people, they are happy with the people, and the people are happy with them, and they do not pose a threat to our state, and they exist under the policy that we established.”
Researcher Aaron Y. Zelin believes that the former Syrian offshoot of al-Qaeda does not trick or deceive any party when it does not discuss the issue of foreign fighters publicly.
Zelin also pointed out that these groups exist, and some of them are able to continue operating openly, such as the Ansar al-Islam group, the Imam al-Bukhari battalion, the Tawhid and Jihad battalion, and the Turkistan Islamic Party.
Some accounts of jihadist groups are also active o Telegram (the instant encrypted messaging service), through which they publish footage and photos of training, fighters, and weapons, and also announce through them the targeting of sites of the Syrian regime forces near the contact lines, through written statements.
The HTS worked to extend its control and strengthen its military presence by dissolving and displacing some factions, confiscating their weapons, or forcing them to comply with its policy. Then, it headed for dismantling jihadist groups whose military formations were dominated by foreign fighters.
The most recent of these operations is the security campaign it carried out in October 2021 against the headquarters of foreign “jihadist” factions in the countryside of Latakia, the largest of which is the Junud al-Sham faction, led by Muslim al-Shishani, whom the HTS previously demanded to leave the Syrian territory with his foreign fighters.
Over the years, al-Nusra Front (Hayat Tahrir al-Sham), which was founded in Syria at the end of 2011 and disengaged from al-Qaeda in 2016, has carried out arrest campaigns against leaders and members of jihadist groups that are not affiliated with it and has placed them in its prisons.
The prisons of Zanbaqi, al-Oqab, and Harem, which are run by the Tahrir al-Sham, are filled with jihadists, leaders, and members of al-Qaeda, especially non-Syrian immigrants, on charges of belonging to the Islamic State organization, or what researcher Yilmaz Saeed described as “kharijites and heads of sedition,” according to an analytical article by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy published on 8 November.
The finger of accusation is directed towards the HTS with every operation by the US or the International Coalition against jihadists, leaders of jihadist movements, or members of groups classified on terrorism lists as Hurras al-Din (HaD) or independent jihadists.
The HTS is accused of being behind the targeting and of providing intelligence information to the International Coalition to get rid of some jihadist leaders, particularly foreigners.
The researcher, Abdul Rahman al-Haj, said Tahrir al-Sham has restricted the movement of “jihadist” groups to minimum limits through its strong security apparatus. Also, by providing information to international powers to liquidate leaders in ISIS or al-Qaeda that pose a fatal threat to Tahrir al-Sham and to al-Jolani in person.
While most of the al-Qaeda jihadists and Salafist jihadists are wanted by their countries and other countries in the region and around the world, their survival in Syria under the al-Jolani’s umbrella despite restrictions is a “fait accompli” imposed by multiple variables and factors according to the researcher.
These accusations were endorsed by some incidents, such as the repeated appearance of the HTS leader, whether through press interviews or among people, or with officials from the Syrian Salvation Government (SSG) and notables of the northern region, although al-Jolani is wanted by the US, and his name is still on Washington’s wanted lists with a reward up to 10 million US dollars for anyone who gives information about him.
Before the frequent appearances of al-Jolani, Tahrir al-Sham had significantly changed its behavior and had taken measures that enabled it to manage the region militarily, economically, and in services.
According to researcher Abdul Rahman al-Haj, the exclusion of jihadist groups and foreign fighters was the most prominent step in efforts to remove the HTS name from the terrorism lists.
Al-Haj added that it seems far-fetched at present since the survival of the classification is useful for subjugating Tahrir al-Sham and prompting deeper changes as long as there are no other options for al-Jolani except to comply with this role.
Hayat Tahrir al-Sham has turned today an American and International need due to its ability to penetrate jihadist movements. The HTS is currently the only group that can be counted on to make it happen.
Dr. Abdul Rahman al-Haj
A Syrian researcher and expert covering religious movements
Al-Haj pointed out that the United States recently used this tool (designating the HTS as a terrorist organization) to deter al-Jolani, when it demanded Tahrir al-Sham to withdraw its forces from the areas of the Syrian National Army (SNA) on 18 October.
The US embassy in Damascus said, via Twitter at the time, “We are alarmed by the recent incursion of HTS, a designated terrorist organization, into northern Aleppo. HTS forces should be withdrawn from the area immediately.”
It is difficult to know whether the foreign fighters are a burden or a pressure card in the HTS’ hands, but if it wants to try to negotiate with Western countries on the issue of terrorism designation, it can use them.
Aaron Y. Zelin
Senior researcher at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy
“Road bump,” What is their fate?
Today, foreign fighters participate in the areas of control governed by Syrian armed opposition factions after years of their presence in Syria, and the changing data of the military action against the Syrian regime and the narrowness of its geographical area without a final “dissolving” of their presence through their integration into the factions of the dominant forces, and without their presence in a structured military body recognized at the local level.
Despite the existence of many flaming fronts that could be a “fishing ground” for fighters of this kind, such as the Ukrainian front, foreign fighters, at least at the level of individuals and not leaders, are still present in northwestern Syria, which are the same areas that include the “legitimate” opposition and other opposition groups, according to the classification of the Turkish presidential spokesperson, Ibrahim Kalin, during an interview he gave to the Turkish “A Haber channel, on 18 October.
In the same context, the Syrian regime attributes its targeting of areas outside its control (the latest of which was the missile strike on camps for the displaced north of Idlib on 6 November) as a response to the bombing of its military sites in Idlib.
This means that the regime uses the operations that it carries out separately from the armed opposition factions as a pretext to target civilians, without classifying the foreign fighters by name, because it deals with the opposition fighters of different names in northwestern Syria as “terrorists,” according to what is stated in the official statements and statements issued by its officials.
With regard to the international interests of their presence in Syria, and their military future, at the level of individuals and groups, the journalist and researcher in Islamic affairs, Yasser Badawi, believes that the existing international political conflicts deal with them as a pressure card, ruling out at the same time their continued presence or survival in Syria in this way.
At the same time, Badawi clarified that the issue of returning them to their countries is thorny, and many ethical and security factors are intertwined with it, pointing to the possibility of those who married and integrated into society to stay without posing a threat.
“The presence of senior commanders must be ended. As for the individuals, they have other accounts in which what is social overlaps on the one hand, and what is familial on the other, given that some of them are mainly Arabs and got married in Syria.”
It is assumed that the solution will be international in general, for the mother countries to facilitate the return of their citizens to them within settlements that may be based on facilitating their return and lifting terrorism charges against them, as long as benefiting from them in other places is relatively difficult due to the difficulty of their movement and the absence of its organization, and the absence of any indications of benefiting of this kind also.
According to a study issued by the Jusoor Center for Studies last April, there are six scenarios for the fate of foreign fighters in Syria, the first of which is their integration and settlement, which the study ruled out to happen in Syria, due to the difficulty of integrating fighters from non-Arab nationalities, due to culture and language.
Military analyst Tariq al-Haj Bakri ruled out integrating foreign fighters into the ranks of the armed Syrian opposition, pointing at the same time to cases of harassment they are exposed to in Idlib.
Al-Haj Bakri told Enab Baladi that in the face of any settlement in the opposition-held areas between Idlib and the countryside of Aleppo, foreign fighters are a “fait accompli,” and they can only be part of the process as individuals while marginalizing them at the level of leadership.
Jusoor’s study also mentioned that foreign fighters face a possible return to their home countries based on their countries accepting their return, assimilation, and integration into societies without trials.
There is another possibility based on their activity outside the borders within new areas of conflict, along with another scenario that talks about their mass extermination at the hands of Russia in the event that they reject the solution that it seeks to formulate and convince Turkey of.
Arrest and captivity in a detention facility sponsored and supervised by international forces, or the granting of political asylum to some of them, are also possibilities mentioned in the study, excluding the possibility of applying the last of them in the Syrian case.
The study based its scenarios on the experiences of previous conflicts and wars that took place in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Afghanistan, Iraq, Chechnya, Britain, and Iran.
Less numbers and influence
The researcher at the Orient Center for Studies, Saad al-Share, pointed out the decline in the number of foreign fighters or “Muhajireen” in Syria since the expulsion of ISIS from northwest Syria towards its north-east and then to the Badia desert and Iraq as well, pointing also to the absence of new recordings for the arrival of fighters to the north of Syria.
The researcher added to Enab Baladi that the number of foreign fighters is decreasing, and their presence in the public scene is small, compared to the Syrians on the one hand, and the previous years during which names with weight in the “jihadist” movements appeared on the other hand.
“The International parties are facing a complex issue, as they do not want foreign fighters to remain in the north so as not to be a factor of pressure in the region, and there is also a problem with their return to their countries.”
The International parties seek to keep the situation in the north as it is, provided that there is no influence or voice for the “Muhajireen,” and it is not possible for foreign fighters to move in the face of the current situation in the region.
On the future of their presence in Syria, Saad al-Share focused on the lack of seriousness of the International parties in resolving the file of foreign fighters, as long as the Syrian file as a whole is still open, and if resolving this file, in particular, may precede any understanding or final settlement in Syria, given that deciding on the Syrian issue will not happen until some related files are dealt with, including the presence of foreign elements.
Looking at the examples in Iraq and Afghanistan, the fighters may infiltrate into another country or countries, and some of them may return to their countries, such as those coming from Europe or the Gulf States, after a settlement they make there, but only a small part of them may return to civilian life, as happened in Afghanistan.
In addition to these possibilities, the researcher Saad al-Share ruled out any future recruitment of foreign fighters, due to their weak influence, to the extent that they do not become a source of temptation for any party.
Although there have been previous attempts of this kind when al-Qaeda sought to attract the Hurras al-Din (HaD) group, the possibility of recruiting members and fighters at the present time has become excluded.
Russian political analyst Dmitry Brega told Enab Baladi that the best scenario in dealing with the file of foreign fighters today is to keep the situation as it is as long as the Syrian file as a whole is in a state of stagnation on more than one level.
How do they live?
Since the beginning of the entry of foreign fighters into Syria, they worked within formations isolated from their surroundings due to the absence of organizing military action at its inception, and with the expansion of this work, the military arena witnessed a merger between local and foreign factions of these “jihadist groups.”
This rapprochement between foreign fighters and their local counterparts naturally led to the emergence of features of a situation similar to the integration of foreigners into the local community on the basis of the common ideological situation between them and a group of society.
Marriage, conquest, or integration
The villages of northeastern and northwestern Syria witnessed many marriages of foreign fighters to Syrian women, some of which continued and some that ended in various circumstances and ways.
Sociologist Safwan Qassam told Enab Baladi that cases of rapprochement between foreign fighters and the Syrian society cannot be considered “societal integration,” especially since they are forced, in the cases of many Syrian women, in the face of the power of arms on the one hand, and the ideological dominance of foreigners in some areas where they settled on the other hand.
Qassam described these marriages as “invasion” operations that used to take place in the past, given that the men of the invading tribe used to marry the women of the tribe they invaded.
Economic conditions and the search for safety are also among the reasons that prompted some families to accept the marriage of their daughters to foreign fighters on the grounds that they are “authorities” in their areas, according to Qassam, who ruled out linking marriages to efforts to integrate into society, as they may end in divorce or abandonment. The husband is separated from his family, and many marriages of “unknown parentage” fighters were with widows or divorced women.
In 2014, with the beginning of the appearance of foreign fighters in Syria in the media, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said that the increase in the number of foreign fighters in Syria, whether in support of the regime or the opposition, ignites what it described as “sectarian violence,” referring to the Iranians, Lebanese, and Afghans who are fighting on the side of the regime forces on the one hand, and the foreign “jihadists” fighting on the side of the opposition on the other.
Of course, the social change brought about by the presence of these fighters in Syria is a negative change in addition to the factors that turned the Syrian political issue into an ideological, religious, and sectarian dispute, according to Qassam.
These fighters fought in the ranks of many opposition factions and had a role in classifying some factions on Western terrorist lists, such as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and Jund al-Aqsa organization.
In some Syrian regions, a kind of “popular incubator” has been formed for them, given their role in achieving “achievements” in the battles waged by the opposition factions against the regime in recent years.
The difficulty of leaving armed groups comprising hundreds and perhaps thousands of “restricted” fighters without official regional or international sponsorship has opened the door to talk about solutions to the presence of foreign fighters in Syria between those who support and reject their survival.
The social researcher, Qassam, considered talking about their integration into society a rather advanced step, which must be preceded by monitoring and determining who can be integrated in the first place, as it is not possible to deal with them without looking at their combat backgrounds in different places and times.
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