Syria: A new destination for only al-Qaida’s Foreign Fighters?

Syria has become a magnet for foreign fighters coming from Iraq, the rebel forces of the Libyan city of Misrata, from Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Lebanon. International media and numerous experts have attributed this massive affluence of foreign fighters to al-Qaida’s call on Muslims to join the Syrian revolution and fight against al-Assad’s regime.

Al-Qaida’s message was clear: “A lot of people fought side by side with the Islamic state of Iraq and it is good news to hear about the arrival of Iraqi fighters to help their brethren in Syria”. And Ayman al-Zawahiri [1] continues: “Syria is bleeding to death, but our people’s resistance continues and grows despite all the pain, sacrifice and deaths”. Finally, he warns Syrian people not to trust Western powers, the US, the Turkish government or other Arab governments:  “you know what they want from you. If you want freedom, you shall put an end to this regime. If you want justice, you must fight against al-Assad”. Indeed, al-Qaida, as an ideological movement, is calling for Jihad to overthrow al-Assad’s regime.

Conversely, al-Qaida has a very serious PR problem: they have been trying to overthrow Arab governments for more than 20 years, calling for Jihads all over the Arab world. However, the peaceful revolutions that swept away the dictatorial regimes of Egypt and Tunisia (amongst others) have proved that non-violent protests can be more effective than terrorist attacks. This has ended up refuting al-Qaida’s main argument: the violent Jihad being the only way to fight Western-backed dictatorial regimes. Parallel to that, these non-violent protests have a seemingly profound democratic component in their ideology, which highlights the necessity of free press, free elections, civil liberties and minorities rights. This component is radically opposite to al-Qaida’s ideas. However, this brand of democracy would not likely be understood as a Western democracy, but more as a Islamic-type democracy.

The various foreign fighters could be influenced by either one of the two transnational ideologies, and although the aim is to fight against the regime, the  supporting ideology can be very different, with several implications and repercussions. The foreign fighters want desperately to put and end to the al-Assad regime. However, the future regime could be either an Islamic democracy or an Islamic (Sunni) dictatorial state (as al-Qaida would prefer).

 Before analyzing further this argument that defends that foreign fighters of Syria can be instigated by both a Islam-based pro-democracy ideology or an al-Qaida’s-based Jihad, it is important to understand what foreign fighters are. Since the issue of foreign fighters is an under-researched topic, conceptualizing and defining them is still a hard and contested task, with different scholars providing various angles from which to observe this phenomenon. Another problem is that this phenomenon is currently linked to the Islamic Jihad movement in places such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan or the North Caucasus. However, this is only representative of a small fraction of foreign fighters’ phenomena around the world and throughout history. Foreign fighters are not just Islamic jihadists, and neither are they restricted to the dynamics of Islam. In fact, the phenomenon has occurred in different and distant conflicts such as the Spanish Civil War, the Texas Revolution, the Israeli war of independence, and so forth. With this note on the diversity of foreign fighters in mind, the following is possibly the best conceptualization of the phenomenon:

“a foreign fighter will be a non-indigenous, non-territorialized combatant or an ideologue, detached from any state wishes or interests, that joins a revolutionary movement motivated by ideology, religion or/and kinship and who is present where the conflict takes place”.

The foreign fighters phenomenon is not an isolated one; it feeds on the international dynamics of world politics that influence a conflict. This is what scholars call the recruitment process, which differs greatly from one conflict to another. In the case of Syria, there are two distinct world dynamics. One is al-Qaida’s call on Muslims to fight violently against al-Assad regime as the only way to effect change; and the other is Islamist democratic ideology. The latter does not imply terrorism, and is basically portrayed in the figure of the Muslim Brotherhood, in its transnational conception. It wishes to confront the repression of a dictatorship but rejects any relationship with al-Qaida or other fundamentalist terrorism.

Al-Qaida’s new target group

Young people, especially men, are al-Qaida’s main target group from which to recruit to take up arms and accomplish the Jihad. However, those young Arabs are increasingly linked to Western society thanks to social networks, which give them more freedom of speech and have shown them freedom of press. Consequently, they have come up with new ideas of freedom and non-violent action. These uprisings have taught them that they do not need to travel to Afghanistan or Iraq to engage in Jihad if they want to make a change. They can accomplish their objectives also, or maybe only, by peacefully marching against their authoritarian regimes.

However, there are still those who believe in al-Qaida’s message.  Al-Qaida’s call to arms in Syria makes perfect sense, since the movement is in search of a war. When the US troops fled from Iraq, many mujahideen [2] found themselves inactive and regarded the Syrian cause as an achievable one; thus, they came with weapons and took action.

Either way, the fact that terrorists are fighting on the side of the opposition forces gives legitimacy to the al-Assad repression to a certain extent, since it is claimed that all instability is being ignited by al-Qaida, just as in Libya. In fact, al-Assad’s repression has been criticized by the international community, but no action has been accomplished against it. If al-Qaida becomes key for the opposition group to fight the regime, the willingness of the world to help would surely dramatically decrease. These volunteers could unintentionally strike a death blow to the Syrian uprising.

An Islam-based democracy in the figure of the Muslim Brotherhood

Although it maybe easy, sensationalist and perhaps even profitable to blame al-Qaida for being the only cause for fighters arriving in Syria, there is still another ideology that recruits foreign fighters, the Islamic democracy. It may be considered by some as incoherent and impossible, since democracy can only and best be understood as in the key of Western tradition. However, it is the concept that best explains the will of Islamic groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood: to accept the establishment of a path to a democracy but with Islamic conditions. Indeed, some officials in the Jordanian and Egypt Muslim Brotherhoods have been willing to compromise their ideology, adopting a more pragmatic focus on such topics as Israel peace treaties, al-Qaida, Iran, Shiites’ growing influence and even Hezbollah.

The Muslim Brotherhood meets the conceptual requirements to be called a transnational ideology which can determine the arrival of foreign fighters because it urges the spread and promotion of the key concepts of Islam as a basic rule of behaviour that must regulate all aspects of human life. The Muslim Brotherhood was born in 1923, in Egypt. Its main objectives were the implementation of the Shari’ah, the restoration of the Islamic Caliphate and the diffusion of its power and ideology to all non-Islamic governments through violent and political confrontation. Although it had a fundamentalist focus in the beginning, nowadays the Muslim Brotherhood has evolved to adopt a very moderate and pragmatic approach, engaging with other non-Islamic actors and, as mentioned above, coming to terms with many of the Western interests in the Arab region. The Brotherhood has many ramifications in almost every Arab country and in many Muslim ones  (Tunisia, Jordan, Syria, Egypt, Libya, Iran…).

Some newspapers have reported testimonies of foreign fighters that do not believe in al-Qaida’s message. For example, Mr. Husseini, a non-fundamentalist Iraqi, states that “the war fought in Syria is not one in which Islamic terrorism has a place. However, it should be the duty of all true Muslims to help people in this struggle. People in Iraq were seeing the suffering that takes place in Syria and decided to give support, but terrorist-free ideology”. Other foreign fighters stated that there are plenty of refugees coming to Iraq, and Iraqi people must look after them as a reward for the help provided when the Iraqis escaped to Syria during the war. Acknowledging what al-Qaida is doing in Syria, they assured that “the terrorist movement does not have the support of true Iraqis. al-Qaida is propaganda, spread inside Iraq by people who want to damage solidarity with Syria”. The Syrian National Council, an opposition coalition, and the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the umbrella organization of the armed resistance, argued that the “rebellion in Syria is a popular uprising of Syrian citizens who are fighting for their freedom and for democracy”.

The Syrian context at a crossroads of an influx of foreign fighters

In the beginning, killings by al-Assad’s regime were perpetrated in a fashion which sought to avoid any attention or criticism from the international community. The authoritarian ruler claimed that he was fighting Islamic fundamentalism, just like Qaddafi. However, the repression grew tougher and the killings could not be covered up by the same argument. Currently, there are three distinct conflicts on the Syrian stage, demonstrating that the situation is likely end up in a bloody civil war: 1. the regime against the uprising, which is unarmed; the action against the uprising is simple brutal repression from the government; 2. an armed uprising that could be deemed an insurgency, fighting against the regime; 3. a inter-religious conflict where mutual killings of Sunnis and Alawis are carried out in various towns and neighbourhoods.

We should bear in mind that al-Assad is on the side of the Alawi, just one of the numerous minorities in Syria.  Therefore, it is not difficult to imagine an even greater number of foreign fighters arriving in Syria and fighting on all sides of the conflict. For example, Hizbollah fighters could fight on the side of al-Assad regime, while Kurds could come and defend their clan compatriots; Druses could do the same for their religious community. In fact, Syria consists of many ethnic and religious minorities; thus, the conflict could split into several sub-conflicts attracting different kinds of foreign fighters.

At any rate, with international media portraying the Syrian opposition as movement backed by al-Qaida’s foreign fighters, it seems that very little action will be taken, despite efforts by the Syrian opposition to defend its democracy-driven rebellion.

[1] Ayman al-Zawahiri is al-Qaida’s current leader. He assumed the leadership position in June of 2011, after Osama bin Laden’s killing, thus becoming the most wanted terrorist on the FBI’s list. Source: Council on Foreign Relations

[2] In its broadest sense, those Muslims who proclaim themselves warriors for the faith. Source: Britannica

This is a nonprofit explanation-opinion.

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