Foreign fighters get their ‘termination’ letters in Syria
As cadres emerge in place of ISIS, civilians are pushing back against the presence of militants with a poster campaign
A group of civilian activists in north Syria have launched a striking campaign against foreign fighters in an effort to counter their growing influence in rebel-held areas.
Samir Mansour, an activist involved in the creation and distribution of the posters, spoke to The National using a pseudonym, explaining the thinking behind them.
“We are showing that these foreign fighters are not welcome in Syria, and they have been the main reason behind the international community’s attacks on these areas.
“We don’t want them to go home, we just want them to stop working with terrorist groups. I don’t think they can go home,” he said.
The group’s first target was a British fighter known as Abu Yusuf Al Britani, whose real name is believed to be Dimitry Kaplan.
Over the past few weeks, posters adorned with his mugshot have appeared in cities across Idlib province, including Ma’arat Al Numan, Saraqib and Idlib city itself.
The posters allege Al Britani has also been responsible for policing internet cafes in rebel-held Syria, under Hayat Tahrir Al Sham’s (HTS) increasingly authoritarian regime.
Security officials believe the Briton has links to ISIS, and has previously served as head of HTS’s Istishhadi, or martyrdom, operations.
A sign of his importance is his four-person bodyguard detail, security officials told The National.
Mr Mansour said that the posters, which are titled “termination of contract”, are part of a wider civic rejection of the foreign fighters in some of north Syria’s most hardline groups.
“People are sick of foreign commanders’ constant intervening in local disputes”, Mr Mansour said.
A report last year by the Soufan Centre estimated that as many as 40,000 foreign fighters entered Syria from more than 110 countries. Many joined ISIS, but significant cohorts were also attracted to Al Qaeda-linked groups such as HTS and Haras Al Deen, both of which retain a significant presence in north Syria.
Despite ISIS’s loss of Raqqa, and the vast majority of its territory, foreign fighters continue to play key roles in other groups.
The posters are not the first example of Idlib’s civilian population pushing back against these foreign fighters. Last Wednesday, civilians protested against a group of Uzbek fighters who were attempting to establish a headquarters in a civilian building in central Idlib, out of fears the building would be targeted by air strikes.
“When they are seeking refuge in civilian areas, they are endangering Syrian lives,” Mr Mansour said.
The campaign is not without risk. Mr Mansour is aware that if caught he could face arrest, torture – even execution – but the threat does not stop him.
“There is no bigger threat at the moment than that posed by HTS, Daesh – who have come back to the area, and Ansar Al Deen – all of them have foreign fighters with them. Instead of one threat, we have three.
“The regime is a threat on the front lines, but in our areas, it’s the foreign fighters.
“Here, they are the real threat – that’s why we are fighting back.”
A security source told The National that the campaign “highlights the real attitude that many Syrians – whether in the opposition or HTS or Daesh – have towards these outsiders.
“They’re unwelcome, and the majority of Syrians have never really welcomed them. Foreign fighters therefore have often formed cadres within their own groups and remained isolated from the locals. This has simply accentuated the differences between them and the locals.”
The regime is a threat on the front lines, but in our areas, it’s the foreign fighters ... that’s why we are fighting back SAMIR MANSOUR Activist, Idlib province, Syria
This ‘wanted’ poster in Idlib features the face of fighter Abu Yusuf Al Britani, warning he is not welcome
The activists have papered the posters across Idlib province