A paper by Richard Barrett, Senior Vice President of the Soufan Group looks at the flow of foreign fighters into Syria, fighting for the rebel side of the conflict, and the consequences of their return once hostilities in Syria come to an end.
Syria's civil war began in the spring of 2011, a result of the region's Arab Spring protests. Opposition to President Bashar al-Assad's iron grip on Syria began with nationwide protests that were met with violent responses from Assad's forces. As the conflict/civil war has proceeded, Syria's government has lost control of significant portions of the country and, as shown onthis map from Strategic Needs Analysis Project, currently controls a very small part of the nation:
The analysis by Richard Barrett estimates that over the first three years of the conflict, 12,000 foreign fighters/jihadists have migrated to Syria from at least 81 nations around the world with 3000 of those being from Western nations as shown on this map with the darker brown coloured nations supplying more foreign fighters:
Here are the nations that have supplied the most fighters to mid-2014 at the latest:
Tunisia – about 3000
Saudi Arabia – about 2500
Morocco – about 1500
Russian Federation – over 800
France – over 700
Turkey – about 400
United Kingdom – about 400
Australia – about 250
Belgium – about 250
Algeria – about 200
In addition, about 30 fighters have come from Canada and 70 plus fighters have come from the United States. In most cases, numbers of fighters which are supplied by government authorities are imprecise, however, commanders in the Free Syrian Army report that they have representatives from many different nations fighting with them, many of them being converts to Islam.
Most of the foreign fighters are joining extremist groups since they are better able to absorb foreigners who don't speak Arabic and have no formal military training, rather than the Free Syrian Army which is focused solely on what is happening in Syria. While there are foreign fighters on the Government side of the conflict, most of them come from three nations; Iraq, Lebanon and Iran. Estimates suggest that at least 3000 to 4000 fighters on the Government side have been contributed by Hezbollah.
A typical foreign fighter is between the ages of 18 and 29, however, their are some volunteers as young as 15 years of age as well as fighters in their thirties. Most fighters are male, although there are some women who have travelled with their husbands or who have joined friends who are fighting in the conflict. Most fighters have no military training but there is a core group of older fighters who have fought in other conflicts including Russians who fought in the Caucasus as well as around 500 Saudi nationals who have been active in Iraq for a number of years.
Here is an interesting recruitment photo, reassuring potential recruits that life as a fighter in Syria is a positive and gentle experience:
According to French authorities, many of the jihadist volunteers are disaffected, aimless young men who are lacking a sense of identity and belonging. The need to join the conflict in Syria is part of the obligation to help a Muslim community that is under attack. The recruits wish to join a holy war that was prophesied in the Quran and die as a martyr, thus receiving their reward in the afterlife.
The report concludes by looking at the potential threat that these foreign recruits present to their home nations once the conflict in Syria comes to a conclusion. The author notes that the Syrian war is likely becoming an incubator for another generation of terrorists. This is particularly worrisome, largely because the three groups that have attracted the most foreign fighters, Ahrar al-Sham, Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS, were formed by people that were originally members of al-Qaeda, a terrorist group which has a mandate of mounting attacks in Western nations. Once the conflict in Syria is over, the indoctrinated foreign fighters may find themselves shifting their emphasis from a local enemy to a broader enemy, the apostate Western nations from which they came, as part of their agenda to build a world-wide Muslim caliphate. This eventuality suggests that the decade-long War on Terror has been a colossal failure.
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