BEIRUT: This week’s announcement from Al-Qaeda’s Iraqi branch that they have merged with the Syrian jihadi group Nusra Front damaged claims by secular opposition members that Syria’s conflict is driven by a popular domestic pursuit of civil and political freedoms.
The regime of President Bashar Assad has long claimed that responsibility for the devastating civil war falls largely with foreign terrorists, allegedly driven by a desire to establish an Islamic state in Syria.
But according to the author of a recent report on the issue of foreign fighters in Syria, foreigners do not represent more than 10 percent of the total number of opposition fighters.
Examining around 450 Western and Arab media sources, along with martyrdom notices on online jihadist forums, the report, published last week by the International Center for the Study of Radicalization at London’s King’s College, says that somewhere between 2,000 and 5,500 foreign fighters have gone to Syria.
The most conservative estimate for the current size of the total rebel force is 60,000, the report says.
“So the majority of fighters the regime are fighting against are Syrian,” Aaron Zelin, who authored the report, said in a Skype interview with The Daily Star.
But, Zelin added, most of those foreigners who have entered Syria have done so over the last year, and this rapid movement of fighters across sovereign borders is one of the largest in recent history.
“In terms of foreign fighters’ mobilization in the Muslim world, this is probably the second or third largest historically, going back to the 1980s.”
While the Afghan conflict of the 1980s drew between 5,000 and 20,000 foreign jihadists, around 4,000-5,000 traveled to Iraq after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
“But the difference in these numbers,” said Zelin, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, was that they cover “the breadth of the entire conflict.”
However, he added, “most of those foreign fighters who have come to Syria have come over the last year only. So almost the same amount who went to Iraq over eight years have arrived in Syria in just one year,” if looking at the upper estimate.
He also stressed that, at least in terms of Afghanistan, foreign fighters did not start arriving in earnest until around 1984 – five years after the outbreak of war. In Syria, however, “this has been an instantaneous mobilization, a lot of people very quickly. And depending on how long the conflict goes on for, it very well could hit that lower-end estimate for the Afghan war, and we all know what was born out of that war.”
Although the report focuses on European fighters – between 140 and 600 of which have traveled to fight in Syria – the majority of foreigners are from the Arab world, Zelin said, particularly “Libyans, Tunisians, Saudis, Jordanians and Lebanese.”
Most, he said, are driven “abroad for more altruistic reasons. They want to help out their fellow Sunni brethren who they see are being slaughtered in the face of no or minimal action by Western or other Arab countries.”
That some foreign fighters are motivated by wider ideological reasons cannot be denied, he added, but it appears very unlikely, when reflecting on historical precedent, that any of these jihadists would return home to Europe or the West inspired to embark on terrorist campaigns.
“People should not be necessarily overreacting or creating policies that would then cause individuals to potentially go into that realm when you could have prevented it by just leaving people alone in the first place,” he said, or by “providing amnesty for people who want to go back to their desk job.”
“Yes, they could be Islamists, but that doesn’t mean they’re global jihadists looking to attack the West.”
However, along with Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, the Afghan war also gave birth to a series of low-level insurgencies across North Africa, specifically in Egypt, Libya and Algeria.
But while the authoritarian governments of Moammar Gadhafi in Libya and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt were able to contain such revolts, the current transitional structures – weakened in the post-Arab Spring fallout – in place in those countries will not be as prepared, Zelin said.
“I have a hard time believing they will be able to contain it on the same level as say the governments in the 1990s would,” he added.
Unfortunately, Zelin said, several governments appear to have preemptively absolved themselves of responsibility for their nationals traveling to Syria to fight.
“That doesn’t really send the right message in my opinion. They should try and have preachers talk about how historically it’s not necessary for people to help out in other wars.”
It might also be productive to stress that fighting in Syria, may not be “as glorious as it might seem. When you’re fighting an insurgency in a war, you’re not living a dream ... you’re living a very hard life.”