April 14, 2014
As the Syrian war enters its fourth year, an estimated 11,000 foreign fighters, the vast majority of them Sunni Arabs, have joined the ranks of Islamic rebel groups, while thousands of Lebanese and Iraqi Shiite militants have flocked to support government forces.
A subsection of those 11,000 fighters, though, hail from Western Europe, the United States, Canada and Australia, their physical appearances and accents rendering them a step removed from their Arab counterparts.
Many have joined the Islamic State in Iraq and a-Sham, the Al-Qaeda offshoot that has been fighting other moderate and extremist rebel groups across northern Syria since January.
It is the Free Syrian Army, not the foreign-fueled jihadi groups, that is capturing and holding territory, says Hani Helal, a reporter for the pro-opposition Sham News Network based in Idlib province. “Foreign fighters have been more proficient fighting us than fighting the regime,” Helal tells Osama Abu Zeid.
Q: How did you feel when you first saw non-Syrian fighters, particularly those from Europe?
I was surprised by their presence in Syria, as I was toward all fighters of different nationalities. In the Syrian revolution, we don’t need men, we need weapons.
Whoever says, “I’m coming to militarily support Syrians,” it would be better to just send money to support the Syrian fighters. In the end, the Syrian people know their land, its topography and the nature of the people.
A young fighter prepares to burn his Jordanian passport.
Q: Did foreign fighters join the Free Syrian Army (FSA)?
The foreign fighters are in the ranks of the Islamic brigades. They know the FSA does not need foreign fighters to come in to liberate our land and win our revolution. They want something else.
Q: Where do you see foreign fighters?
The first foreign fighters I came across were from Libya and Tunisia, in rural Idlib. As far as Europeans, I came across them recently in the town of Sarmada in rural Idlib province on Syria’s border with Turkey. One of them was French.
Q: How was your interaction with them?
I didn’t talk with them and I didn’t sit with them. I came across them in the street. I didn’t want to talk with them because I consider them intruders in our society.
Q: Did they look suspicious or look to you strangely?
They were blonde, with light beards white skin. They looked like everyone else when they enter an area they have not known previously. They stared at everything.
Q: How do Syrians see foreign fighters and how to they welcome them?
Before, when foreigners began to come to Syria, Syrians welcomed them, particularly as the world relinquished its humanitarian and international duties toward Syrians. But after the behavior of ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and a-Sham), many people came to be scared of the foreigners, though some still welcome them.
Q: Does the presence of these foreigners change the flow of the battle?
The presence of foreign fighters on the regime’s side changed the path of the Syrian revolution, turning it into a huge, semi-regional battle occurring at the expensive of Syrians and Syria.
Q: Would the presence of foreign fighters in the Free Syrian Army help?
The FSA has many men but only lacks quality weaponry. There are many brigades with dozens of fighters but no weapons, so that fighters are taking shifts to use available weapons. Most of the liberated Syrian territory has been liberated by the FSA. Foreign fighters have been more proficient fighting us than fighting the regime.
As far as their combats skills, I think they are better because they have received good and effective training previously. Many of them play leadership roles.
Q: How has the presence of European foreign fighters influenced the “revolution” in particular?
Maybe it has changed public perception of the Syrian revolution from a popular one demanding social justice, freedom and pluralism to a war between extremists and the regime. This made public opinion either stand with the regime or remain neutral.
For more from Syria Direct, like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter.