Within the complex web of armed civilians, defected soldiers, paramilitary units and militias, the dynamic of growing numbers of foreign militants joining the fight is providing further confusion and danger as they disperse within the different groups present, including the Free Syrian Army, Liwa al-Islam, Katibat al-Ansar, Ahrar al-Sham, and most concerningly Jabhat al-Nusra, which has close links with al-Qa’ida in Iraq. Accurate estimates of the number of foreign fighters in the country are difficult to come by but there are somewhere between 1500 and 2500. Of course, not all of these are battle-hardened warriors; many have travelled to the region to experience the “thrill” of a war zone, provide assistance in non-combat roles or want to help because of family ties to the region. But many make the trek with the goal of helping to overthrow the Assad regime.
In this context, it’s hard not to draw parallels with the situation in Afghanistan during the mid to late-1980s when foreign fighters poured into the country to assist in defeating the Soviet forces there. Although they only made up a minority of the jihadis within the fighting force, they capitalised on the training, both ideological and practical, to create the beginnings of the al-Qa’ida narrative and sow the seeds of the global jihad. One among them became the group’s figurehead. When focusing on the situation that has developed in Syria, we’d do well to learn from the mistakes that were made when al-Qa’ida went about its business relatively unwatched and unconstrained.
There’s evidence jihadis from Chechnya, Algeria, Tajikistan, Pakistan, Xinjiang province in China, Afghanistan, the US, Europe (about 20 Swedes, 10 Danes, 13 Norwegians and unspecified numbers from Britain, France and Belgium), Indonesia and Australia have been active in Syria.