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March 18, 2014 2:16 pm
Hundreds of foreign fighters have abandoned rebel ranks in northern Syria as frustration rises over bloody infighting there – a trend that suggests declining enthusiasm among hardline Sunni Muslim militants participating in Syria’s torturous civil war and raises concerns among western security officials that these combatants may head to other countries.
The outflow of foreign militants is still small, rebels and activists say, but illustrates the disillusionment many appear to feel as they spend more time fighting each other than the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
More than 4,000 people have died in three months of rebel-on-rebel clashes across opposition-held territories in northern and eastern Syria, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a pro-opposition advocacy group.
“These fighters feel they came to fight an oppressive regime, not rebels. The numbers are not huge, but this is important because it shows the level of resentment among foreign fighters over what is happening,” said Rami Abdelrahman, the Observatory’s director. “These fighters are asking, what is this cause I’m dying for?”
Syria’s conflict began as an uprising against Mr Assad’s rule three years ago, but descended into civil war after a brutal security crackdown. Sectarian dimensions to the conflict have drawn foreign fighters to both sides of the fight.
The opposition, made up largely of Syria’s Sunni majority, has attracted Sunni militants from around the world, many of whom came with experience fighting US forces in Afghanistan or Iraq and helped local rebels seize a broad swath of territory along Syria’s northern and eastern borders in 2012.
Activists and rebels say Saudis, Kuwaitis, Libyans, Tunisians, Yemenis and European fighters have been among those who have returned home, with a few headed to other battlefields.
“Since the second week of January until now . . . hundreds, if not more than two thousand, went back to their home countries,” said a co-ordinator for the Nusra Front, a Syrian rebel group affiliated with al-Qaeda that has embraced many foreign fighters.
Western and Israeli intelligence sources believe Sunni militants seasoned by fighting in Syria could eventually head for jihad in other countries where radical Islamist groups are working – such as Iraq, Yemen and Egypt’s Sinai peninsula, where rising militant activity has been warily watched by neighbouring Israel.
“There are already influences from Syria [in Sinai],” said one senior Israeli intelligence official. “We’re obviously worried about more coming there, joining these groups, inserting themselves into the situation . . . we want to prevent this from becoming worse.”
The US and Russia are pushing for local ceasefire deals to allow more humanitarian aid to flow into Syria
An estimated 11,000 foreign fighters remain in Syria and European intelligence analysts say the number of militants leaving is small – and fighters are still coming. The number of foreigners remains a concern not only for western states, who fear returnees could use their skills to launch attacks at home, but also for Gulf states like Saudi Arabia, which saw a large number of its citizens join the fight in Syria. Riyadh earlier this month gave citizens fighting abroad a two-week deadline to return home or face unspecified penalties.
The infighting among rebel groups began in January when an alliance of moderate and Islamist units launched a campaign against the radical Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham amid tensions over the control of lucrative border crossings and oilfields. Non-Isis fighters were also angered by the group’s seizure of rebel territory and its focus on building an Islamic statelet between eastern Syria and Iraq rather than fighting Mr Assad.
Perceived connections with Isis have stoked resentment of foreigners by anti-Isis groups, who see the foreign fighters as fair game for attack and weapons theft.
ISIS is now focusing its efforts on its stronghold of northeastern Raqqa province and moving further east to Deir Ezzor province, allowing it to contest other rebels’ control of oilfields and connect its territory to neighbouring Iraq.
One source close to Isis, who asked not to be named, said most aligned with the group who “copped out” of Syria were being sent to Iraq instead. Iraqi officials have noticed the rising numbers, according to one western security official, and Isis and Iraqi forces have been battling in majority Sunni areas of the country.
Disillusionment is growing among all rebels as they grapple with the increasingly convoluted conflict, argued one Syrian fighter from the Suqur al-Sham brigades in the north. Syria’s civil war now has three fronts: rebels against the government across the country; rebels and the government against separatist Kurds; and now, rebels against each other. More than 140,000 people have died from daily bombardment, massacres, torture and executions.
“Syrian jihad was overly romanticised when the revolution began,” the Suqur al-Sham fighter said. “Maybe the foreigners are realising it’s not as great as they thought.”
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