Check out my new piece for the Washington Institute’s Policy Watch: “Foreign Fighters Trickle into the Syrian Rebellion”

 

Ever since the Syrian uprising began to show signs of becoming an armed rebellion, President Bashar al-Assad and other regime officials have painted the opposition as terrorists or other foreign actors who have penetrated the country in order to create anarchy. Although that general characterization is inaccurate, a small but steady stream of foreign Islamists is entering the fight against Assad’s forces. More worrisome is that some mainstream clerical voices as well as violent Islamists are now calling for jihad in Syria.

WHY SYRIA?

One of the reasons why the ground is fertile for greater jihadist penetration in Syria is because the regime turned a blind eye to foreign fighters passing through the country to join al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2004-2007, the height of the post-Saddam insurgency. Although the facilitation networks established during those years became less active in 2009-2010, they appear to have reignited of late. Therefore, the jihadist elements currently entering or already active in Syria are not starting from scratch — they probably still have contacts to help them bring in more fighters from Iraq, North Africa, and Europe.

In Libya, many worried that NATO’s involvement would spur jihadist penetration, but that did not occur on any appreciable scale. In Syria, however, the past six months have seen the arrival of significant numbers of foreign fighters. One difference is that al-Qaeda and key global jihadist ideologues have actively incited individuals to join the fight in Syria. For example, Sheikh Abu al-Mundhir al-Shinqiti, a Mauritanian considered the most important such ideologue still at large, has endorsed the new Syrian jihadist organization Jabhat al-Nusra.

HOW MANY ARE THERE?

Although no reliable data is available regarding the number of foreign fighters in Syria, many sources have discussed their presence. A broad survey of reporting on the issue found at least thirty-three English, Arabic, and French news accounts that mentioned statements by foreign fighters and facilitators in Syria, confirmed deaths of such individuals, or confirmed arrests at the border. Jihadist forums also discuss such fighters, occasionally mentioning individuals who have been “martyred” in Syria (though it is uncertain whether these sources are describing the same individuals or separate cases).

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