FSA fighters in Syria, defending the Salahadeen neighbourhood of Aleppo from Assad’s forces. Image via James Lawler at NPR.org.

A recent US intelligence report estimates that there are upwards of 7000 or more foreign fighters fighting against the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, during the Syrian ‘war’. These fighters come from more than 50 countries and join a variety of different groups some join the more moderate muhajireen brigades, others are fighting with more hard-line groups like ISIS.

While it is indeed true that many of these fighters are wholly reprehensible, extremist individuals that none of us would want returning to our countries (especially those foreigners fighting with groups like ISIS, AKA al-Qaeda), that narrative can definitely not be applied across the board to attack foreign fighters per se. Simply because not every foreigner who has gone to Syria to fight is an extremist, not by any means. Yet this is NOT what the media would have you believe.

Firstly, I will show a variety of evidence demonstrating that attacks on foreign fighters in Syria, homogenising them as extremists per se, couldn’t be further from the truth. As shown above, some fighters are clearly with reprehensible groups like al-Qaeda, many are not. Most are young men (predominantly Muslims) who are moved by the wholesale slaughter and genocide of a whole population, and feel the need to act. They simply feel that they cannot stay away as the death toll rises, and very few people seem willing to do anything. Who can blame them? This is abundantly clear when many of the more (relatively) unbiased reports are brought to light, such as this video, showing a contingent of British foreign fighters:

This doesn’t just go for fighters from the west; it goes for fighters from all over the world. One volunteer who appeared on social media was from China, named Bo Wang, a Muslim convert who calls himself Youssef. He appeared in a video in the northern Syrian countryside, in which he condemned the Syrian government for “butchering every Muslim here in cold blood, including children and women” and stating that “people have no freedom, no democracy, no security and no respect here, not at all.” He also spoke of historical Chinese ties to Syria, claiming that the Chinese government had destroyed the “traditional friendship between the Chinese and Arab people” because they “sell weapons and provide financial assistance to the Assad government.” He also apologised for his government’s support for Assad, and warned them that if they continued to do so “all Islamic countries will join together to implement economic sanctions on China.”

Do these sound like the words of an al-Qaeda jihadist?

A former fighter from the Kosovo Liberation Army, Namon Demolli, is shown here in this video. He came to Syria in 2012 to fight against Assad’s regime, just as he also fought in the Kosovo Liberation Army in the 1990’s up until 2000, with the aim of freeing Kosovo from Serbian oppression. Demolli was killed in action in November 2012. His case serves to remind us that internationalism and international solidarity comes in many forms:

Ibrahim al-Mazwagi is shown in this Channel 4 documentary. He is a young man of Libyan descent, who originally fought against the Gaddafi regime during the Libyan Revolution of 2011, and managed to return home without any legal obstacles (ironically, fighting Gaddafi was alright, fighting Assad is not). He too claims he is there for the Syrian people, while honestly recognising the fact that some Syrians feel as if foreign fighters in their country are superfluous. Mazwagi died in combat in 2013.

American fighters have also turned up in Syria. The most notable example of this is the case of American young man Eric Harroun. In January 2013, he entered Syria to fight against the Assad regime with the Free Syrian Army. However, after a chaotic retreat, he ended up finding himself among the ranks of Jabhat al-Nusra, a controversial group he fought alongside for a month, before they helped him get back to the FSA. He left Syria in late-February, and met with the FBI several times in Turkey, where he seemingly unintentionally incriminated himself under an obscure law regarding the use of explosives abroad. When he got home, he was ridiculously arrested and charged with conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction. This case is one of the most notable in the efforts of various governments to prevent their people from helping oppressed Syrians.

To illustrate the media’s extreme bias against foreign combatants in the Syrian civil war (especially the mainstream media outlets), I will quote a number of articles dealing with the issue of foreign fighters joining the Syrian opposition to fight against the Assad regime.

An article in The National:

WASHINGTON // More than 7,000 foreign militants are fighting for the rebels in Syria’s civil war and some are being trained to return home and conduct attacks, according to US spy chiefs.

The estimate, given at a Senate intelligence hearing, was much higher than earlier figures of 3,000 to 4,000 foreign fighters in Syria, and came after news emerged this week that Congress had secretly approved more funding to send weapons to “moderate” rebels.

“We estimate, at this point, an excess of 7,000 foreign fighters have been attracted from some 50 countries, many of them in Europe and the Mideast,” James Clapper, the US director of national intelligence, told the hearing on Wednesday.

“And this is of great concern not only to us, but to those countries,” he said at the Senate Intelligence Committee’s annual hearing on global security threats.

US spy agencies had not previously made the figure of 7,000 public, though it has appeared in classified intelligence reports, a US official said.

Mr Clapper said US intelligence agencies had spotted the appearance of “training complexes” for foreign fighters in Syria, where the war has killed at least 130,000 people and forced millions to flee.

An article from Fox News:

BRUSSELS – The European Union’s anti-terror chief will tell EU interior ministers on Thursday about the “major security threat” that the increase of foreign fighters in Syria poses.

A note for the meeting from the office of EU Counter-Terrorism Coordinator Gilles de Kerchove stresses that numbers of fighters traveling back and forth from Syria is increasing.

The note, obtained by The Associated Press, specifically calls for better use of airline passenger information available to security officials to keep track of when and how rebels move to Syria.

Yet another article from The Telegraph. This one homogenises ALL fighters from the UK (specifically) per se as ‘radicals’ for going to Syria to fight against the Assad regime:

Twice as many British fanatics may be fighting in Syria as previously feared.

After talks with David Cameron on the conflict, François Hollande, the French president, told a press conference that up to 700 Britons were in the Middle Eastern country.
Mr Hollande said Britain and France shared the “same level” of young people who had headed out to join extremist groups.

Downing Street played down his comments immediately, and stood by estimates that 350 Britons are fighting in Syria. However, senior Whitehall sources accept that the numbers are increasing constantly and that estimates are based only on those the police and intelligence services know to have travelled out.

Syria is the biggest attraction for would-be jihadists, and MI5 and counter-terrorism police fear Britons will be trained in terror techniques there. Last month, an al-Qaeda defector in Syria told The Daily Telegraph that Britons were being encouraged to return home to carry out atrocities. Fighters are trained in how to make and detonate car bombs and suicide vests and are sent back to set up terror cells, the defector from the Islamic State of Iraq and al–Shams (ISIS) claimed.

There is a clear narrative which is being developed and fed to the public (such articles have harped on about the foreign fighter bogeymen for two years now) via various media outlets, representing various geopolitical players; the mainstream media outlets representing the opinions of our governments, and the so-called ‘alternative’ media outlets representing the viewpoints of Assad’s allies, such as Russia and Iran. The narrative that any foreigner fighting against the Assad regime has to be connected to terrorist groups like al-Qaeda, without exception, and it is “almost inevitable” that they will come home and launch terrorist attacks on their homeland.

An observer unacquainted with the geopolitical wrangling going on over Syria would expect the opinions of these media outlets to differ, especially due to the widely held perception that the US and Russia are geopolitical foes (a simplistic viewpoint which holds much sway in leftist and anti-imperialist circles, many of which see Putin as an ‘anti-imperialist’). But ironically (in this simplified context) both ‘mainstream’ and ‘alternative’ media outlets (both representing factions, namely the US and Russia, which are so ostensibly opposed to each other) have come together in a sickening chorus of smears; not only often slandering those Syrians standing up to their government as ‘terrorists’, but heavily slandering anyone from abroad who dares to come and help the Syrian people.

Despite their posturing, Obama and Putin are very much united on one issue. They would rather see Assad himself removed, but his repressive security apparatus kept in place via a “transitional government”. Image via pjmedia.

But why, said observer may ask? Isn’t Obama’s goal clearly to topple Assad? Isn’t Russia’s goal to keep him in power and protect the ‘legitimate’ government? *This rhetoric becomes increasingly pro-Assad.* Are the US and their allies not backing the Syrian rebels?

In short, is simply because all sides have an interest in Assad staying in power, or at least his regime, even if that necessitates sacrificing the figurehead of the regime (Assad himself) by backing a ‘transitional government’ and keeping the security apparatus in place. Indeed, this is the point of the hopeless ‘Geneva 2’ conference. Despite all their posturing, none of these governments want Assad, the devil they know, and his regime, to depart from power and leave an unstable power vacuum on Israel’s borders.

The US sees Assad’s regime as an ally in the ‘war on terror’ and a source of local stability (despite his constant backing of al-Qaeda, a huge elephant in the room which nobody wants to claim ownership of) he is Russia’s key arms purchaser and guaraantor of their only naval base in the region, and Israel sees him as guaranteeing their borders along the Golan. In terms of the laughable claim that the US sends arms and weapons to the Syrian rebels, this is quickly brushed off when the facts are scrutinised more closely.

How does this relate to foreign fighters and Syria, the same unaccustomed observer may ask? Well, here is where the factor of foreign fighters comes in. In short, despite there being a strong case for observers to argue that the foreign fighters fighting on the side of the Syrian opposition are fighting in alignment with the interests of their own governments (many foreign fighters fighting in Syria come from Europe, Saudi Arabia, and other nations, whose governments do much posturing in support of the Syrian revolution), the reality is altogether different. Those taking this stand should learn to take into account what the politicians do, not what the politicians say.

What the politicians have done is the following: arrested foreign fighters who have fought for the Syrian opposition once they have returned home, starved the Syrian opposition (including the moderate Free Syrian Army) of arms, refused to let the Free Syrian Army leader come to Washington to lobby for support, and declared that anyone returning from Syria would be arrested and questioned like a common criminal (they have made sure to phrase the latter in technical jargon, however). If we could ignore the politicians’ rhetoric, and let their actions speak instead of their mouths, what does it show us about what side they support?

Although their rhetoric would incline some to think otherwise, the last thing our various governments want to do is to encourage their domestic citizenry (especially when this citizenry is both Muslim and Sunni) to take up arms against the Assad regime. Not only would this encourage others to do so (and thus lessen their control over their people, cynically justified by the war on terror as being for their ‘own safety’), but it would be of immense help to the opposition in toppling Assad, if more and more fighters flooded into Syria to fight on the front-lines and increase the pressure on his increasingly battered army. That would not only spell Assad’s collapse, but the collapse of his regime and security apparatus – an apparatus which has been incredibly useful to foreign powers, both eastern and western, for nearly 50 years.

Israeli-occupied territory on the Golan Heights, illegally occupied since 1967 (possibly as a result of a deal between Hafez al-Assad and Israel).

In short, they worry that a huge influx of foreign fighters, if gone ignored and unchallenged by their security services, could flood into Syria and overwhelm and destroy the Assad regime. Worse still for them, it could then turn on Israel’s occupied territory along the Golan Heights, bombarding the IDF with an overwhelming number of rockets, guerrilla warfare attacks, and all manner of threats. So far, Assad’s army, still stationed around sections of the Golan, has kept Israel’s borders quiet, never firing a shot to reclaim what is clearly a huge segment of Syrian territory in enemy hands. So much for Assad’s alleged anti-Zionism, eh? Now those oh-so-evil rebels could help reclaim the captured territory for their nation, with the help of foreign fighters, if they succeed against Assad. For shame! Israel has even discussed creating a buffer zone to keep unfriendly rebels at bay.

This article in the Jerusalem post says it all about their attitude and concerns:

Israeli intelligence says that if President Bashar Assad falls, the growing number of jihadists in Syria will take control and attack Israel. Europeans worry that their citizens currently fighting alongside Islamists will later carry out attacks at home.

The West and Israel have been reluctant to intervene with enough force to tip the balance of the fighting in Syria, but the continued influx of Sunni jihadists to the region and their increasing attacks in neighboring Lebanon and Iraq has some thinking Assad’s regime is the better of two evils.

The number of jihadists in Syria has grown from 2,000 to more than 30,000 in two years, and if Assad falls, they “are going to move and deflect their effort and attack Israel,” a senior intelligence official told the AP on Sunday.

They see Assad as preventing this, and thus from their point of view, if they encourage foreign fighters to go to Syria and fight for groups which they say are aligned with their interests (although their actions more than debunk this posturing) this risks making their nightmare scenario a reality. Hypocritical as this may seem, the approach of the European and American ‘friends of Syria’ is that they would prefer that their citizens stuck to opposing Assad and assisting the Syrians with their rhetoric only. If they go to fight and protect them, they’re ‘terrorists’, and are arrested and ostracised as such.

Birds of a feather flock together… Sergei Lavrov and Walid al-Moallem, foreign ministers of Russia and the Assad regime respectively, together at a press conference. Photo via the Guardian.

In terms of Assad’s allies (such as Russia, China, and others), they also have a very strong interest in preventing their citizens from fighting in Syria. This is ironic, due to the fact that their support for Assad has created a rather self-fulfilling prophecy; they worry that terrorist attacks on their own soil could be the result of their own citizens returning from Syria, yet it is the same unconditional, unwavering support for Assad which they have so constantly shown, which is giving some of the potentially more extreme foreign fighters the chance they are looking for to justify attacks on their soil. Russia, China, Iran and other nations are now widely seen as blood-soaked oppressors of Muslims, especially since Chechnya, and are doing absolutely nothing to help to dispel this perception in the eyes of the Muslim world.

For governments everywhere, branding those who have fought against Assad as ‘terrorists’ in the media (swaying public opinion against them) and harshly interrogating and arresting (and often charging) them upon their return is useful to European and American governments; not only does it ensure that few people will stand up and speak out for ‘terrorists’, but it strongly dissuades many others from joining in the fight; not only will they see it as just another Middle Eastern war that they shouldn’t be involved in, but the last thing they will want to do is put their own freedom at risk, or lose the chance to come home altogether, if Theresa May gets her way.

While it may be true that some of these fighters (especially radicalised converts and notable extremists) may inevitably pose some form of threat when they return to their home countries, it is abundantly clear that they are by no means the majority. These young men have families, friends and close ties with their home countries. The last thing they would want to do is to come home and harm their nation and their family’s chances, especially when their goal is to fight to defend oppressed people.

The problem with today’s society. Image via Teakster on Deviantart.

Gone are the days of the Spanish Civil War, in which men and women could freely and openly volunteer to go abroad and fight against oppression without being labelled as dangerous extremists who could endanger people upon their return. Instead, in these days of our security services being Islamophobic and paranoid about terrorist threats, anyone who fights for freedom (as opposed to supporting it from behind their computer screens) is sees as not ‘normal’. It simply isn’t the done thing anymore, as Matthew VanDyke (who fought in Libya) balefully noted himself:

“Before me there were also men who have done what I do. William Alexander Morgan, who fought with Che and Fidel in Cuba. As Comandante. He also said: “It is the duty of free people to fight for the freedom of others.” He gets a Samuel Adams from the refrigerator, opens it, but does not drink.

“Why didn’t people go to Libya?” He expected no answer. “It has shifted slightly between generations. Values. Commercialization has shifted these values. No one is interested in a kinship of humanity, no one here is interested anymore in international politics. It’s all about buying and consuming.” And while he says this is the Yeti hunting on television is interrupted by advertising.

In regard to Islamic fighters helping the people of Syria when few others will, blogger and activist Nott George Sabra’s article “Islamism as Internationalism” is well worth checking out.

Who cares about Syria’s genocide in this day and age? Coronation Street is on the television.

Ben Allinson-Davies is a worker for Radio Free Syria, blogger, and film-maker, who spent over a week in Syria with the people there, including rebel forces. His documentary on the revolution can be found here.