Ji­hadists storm Syria in record num­bers

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics - BY KRISTINA WONG

For­eign­ers fu­eled by Is­lamic fury are rush­ing to Syria to fight Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad at a faster rate than the flow of rebels into Afghanistan in the war against a Sovi­et­backed regime in the 1980s, an­a­lysts say.

An es­ti­mated 5,000 to 10,000 for­eign fight­ers have come to Syria since the out­break of the up­ris­ing in March 2011.

“This is prob­a­bly one of the big­gest for­eign-fighter mo­bi­liza­tions since it be­came a phe­nom­e­non in the 1980s with the Afghan ji­had against the Sovi­ets,” said Aaron Y. Zelin, a Wash­ing­ton In­sti­tute re­searcher who stud­ies al Qaeda and Syria.

The num­ber of for­eign­ers in Syria has not reached the level in Afghanistan three decades ago, but that civil war lasted nine years, while the Syr­ian re­bel­lion is 2½ years old.

Mr. Zelin said the rate of for­eign re­cruits stream­ing into Syria is “un­like any­thing else.”

The for­eign fight­ers — called ji­hadists, or holy war­riors — come from at least 60 na­tions. Most are Arabs from Saudi Ara­bia, Libya and Tu­nisia, but a few dozen are from Western Europe, par­tic­u­larly Bri­tain, Bel­gium, France and the Nether­lands, Mr. Zelin said. Ten to 20 fight­ers have come from the United States, he said.

An­a­lysts say fight­ers join the re­bel­lion out of a sense of re­li­gious duty to help fel­low Sunni Mus­lims, but they be­come rad­i­cal­ized be­cause the most pow­er­ful rebel groups are af­fil­i­ated with al Qaeda.

More and more op­po­si­tion groups are peel­ing away from the Western-backed mod­er­ate Syr­ian Na­tional Coali­tion and its Free Syr­ian Army mil­i­tary um­brella, and join­ing with al Qaeda-linked Is­lamic State of Iraq and Syria and Jab­hat al-Nusra, which are bet­ter funded, equipped and or­ga­nized.

For­eign­ers make up about 80 per­cent of Jab­hat al-Nusra’s lead­er­ship, and as much as 20 per­cent of its 6,000 to 7,000 fight­ers are from other na­tions.

About 40 per­cent of the Is­lamic State of Iraq and Syria’s 4,000 to 5,000 fight­ers are for­eign­ers, and its lead­er­ship is about 80 per­cent for­eign, ac­cord­ing to the Syr­ian Sup­port Group.

Sev­eral dozen Syr­ian rebel groups split from the Syr­ian Na­tional Coali­tion ear­lier this month, and about a dozen rebel groups formed an Is­lamist bloc with Jab­hat al-Nusra late last month.

Those rad­i­cal­ized fight­ers pose a threat to their home coun­tries when they re­turn, said Michael Scheuer, a for­mer CIA an­a­lyst.

“It is clearly more se­ri­ous to­day than ever be­fore,” he tes­ti­fied at a con­gres­sional hear­ing in Wash­ing­ton last week.

“They re­turn with con­fi­dence that vic­tory is pos­si­ble. They and their col­leagues now know that they in­flicted hu­mil­i­at­ing de­feats on the United States mil­i­tary in Afghanistan and Iraq, and that knowl­edge will boost both spir­its and re­cruit­ment.

“And they come home with a list of con­tacts among their fel­low mu­ja­hedeen from whom they can seek ad­vice or more ma­te­rial forms of as­sis­tance.”

Al Qaeda re­cruiters are run­ning charm cam­paigns to win lo­cal sup­port and bring more for­eign fight­ers to Syria.

Jab­hat al-Nusra and the Is­lamic State of Iraq and Syria pay their fight­ers “com­pet­i­tive” monthly wages com­pared with other rebel groups, and are con­duct­ing pub­lic out­reach ef­forts such as giv­ing presents to chil­dren and teach­ing them to sing re­li­gious chants, Mr. Zelin said.

“They make you feel like you want to be a part of it, like you want to join them,” he said. “It’s very com­pelling, the way they do it. They’re very good at pros­e­ly­tiz­ing. They’re post­ing all th­ese pic­tures online, videos online of all th­ese ac­tiv­i­ties, pro­vid­ing free health care in some ar­eas, pro­vid­ing fuel for peo­ple, food.”

The mod­er­ate op­po­si­tion is be­ing “squeezed” be­tween the Is­lamist rebels and gov­ern­ment forces in the civil war, which has claimed more than 100,000 lives.

The United States can do lit­tle about the alarm­ing trend, hav­ing lost cred­i­bil­ity and alien­ated mod­er­ate op­po­si­tion fight­ers who are dis­ap­pointed and an­gry with empty U.S. prom­ises, an­a­lysts said.

“At this point, I haven’t seen any in­di­ca­tion the [Obama] ad­min­is­tra­tion has any plan of how to deal with the ji­hadis in Syria,” said Barak Men­del­sohn, an as­so­ci­ate pro­fes­sor of po­lit­i­cal sci­ence at Haver­ford Col­lege who stud­ies Is­lamic ter­ror­ism.

Wash­ing­ton has protested the in­flux of for­eign­ers in the war.

“We have been very vo­cal and clear in de­nounc­ing the pres­ence of all for­eign fight­ers,” State Depart­ment spokesman Edgar Vasquez said.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

As early as last Septem­ber, ji­hadists such as Mo­ham­mad al-Sha­l­abi, known as Jor­da­nian mil­i­tant Abu Sayyaf, were pro­mot­ing at­tacks by out­side forces to top­ple Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad. There are now ji­hadists from at least 60 coun­tries in­volved in Syria’s civil war.

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