April 15, 2014
As Lebanese and Iraqi Shiite militants flock to Syria to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, estimates suggest 11,000 foreign fighters have joined the ranks of Sunni Islamist rebel groups in northern Syria, most notably the Al-Qaeda offshoot Islamic State in Iraq and a-Sham (ISIS).
Though the vast majority of those foreign fighters, or muhajirs, as they call themselves, are Arab, many have also arrived from regions farther flung: Western Europe, the United States, Canada and Australia.
Instead of fighting to topple al-Assad, ISIS – which espouses the creation of an Islamic caliphate in Iraq and Greater Syria through violence – has since January found itself in open conflict across northern Syria with other rebel groups.
It is hardly surprising, as a recent video circulated by ISIS shows fighters sit around a camp fire burning their passports, pledging allegiance to Allah and denouncing everyone but themselves as kuffar, infidels, either to be converted or killed.
“Foreign fighters have been more proficient fighting us than fighting the regime,” Hani Helal, a journalist with pro-opposition Sham News Network, told Syria Direct, who argued foreign fighters had hurt the rebels’ cause.
But among other pro-rebel Syrians, including Yaser al-Hiraki, a journalist with the pro-opposition Idlib News Agency, foreign fighters represent a valiant cause. “They responded to the call of jihad from far away, and came to jihad,” he tells Syria Direct’s Osama Abu Zeid.
Q: Have you met foreign fighters?
I have seen them but not spoken with them, as I have not had any appropriate opportunity to. In general, there are many in our area, northern Syria.
Q: Are most of those fighters Free Syrian Army-affiliated?
The majority of them are in Islamist battalions, especially the Islamic State in Iraq and a-Sham [ISIS], Jabhat a-Nusra and the Islamic Front.
Q: Why do they prefer Islamist battalions?
Because they publicly call for an Islamic caliphate, and its reclamation by force from the enemies of the religion. Also, they are more significantly more disciplined than other battalions, known for their bravery and sacrifices, which many people know of.
Moreover, many [Islamist groups] do not follow foreign agendas, whereas the Free Syrian Army is backwards in this sense, following a number of foreign political agendas.
Many of those groups say: “If we didn’t follow [foreign] agendas, we’d be eating air [penniless] and we would close the battalion.”
Meanwhile, ISIS and Jabhat a-Nusra intend to remain in Syria until the last drop of their blood. As in, they have great faith in their religion. There is a great difference between the FSA and the Islamists in that regard.
An estimated 11,000 foreign fighters have joined rebel ranks in Syria.
Q: Are foreign fighters popular among Syrians?
Yes, greatly. The Syrian people, and I am one of them, of course, welcome foreign fighters more than Syrian ones. We appreciate those who have come from outside the country to help protect our families, our dignity and our religion.
Q: Why are they popular? Do foreign fighters actually influence the flow of battle?
For their migration and support of us, despite the great distance between us. They responded to the call of Jihad from far away, and come to Jihad.
When European fighters, and other foreign fighters, mix among us, it strengthens the social relationships between us and they feel comfortable. They are very happy to be here.
The effect [on the battle] is of course generally very positive. Even if it was negative, their coming strengthens the determination of the fighters. They have experience with weaponry and tactics. In addition, they come to fight, not for money or power, the opposite of many “sons of Syria.”
Q: How do Syrian fighters accept foreign fighters?
As foreign fighters are in the country for the first time, they feel somewhat anxious and worried. Syrians show enthusiasm and affection toward foreign fighters.
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