If you are planning on entering the United States with Syrian Customs stamp in your passport, prepare yourself to go through some heavy questioning—at the least. Having seen a spike in foreign fighters flocking to the civil war in Syria within the past year, Western governments have grown increasingly wary of nationals who could return home with radicalized ideals and newfound animosity.
What business does a citizen from the Western World have in the Syrian conflict? To most, the answer is simple: none. But to a select group of Muslims living in the West, the call for jihad rings clear and true. They see the tyranny and monstrous human rights violations of the Assad regime as too much to bear. Given the little tangible intervention by Western powers, these citizens can no longer sit at their televisions and watch the massacre, so they choose to take up arms. At its core, the mission is a humanitarian crusade which, to the perspective of the unbiased onlooker, would seem honorable; but Western governments are fear-stricken by the thought of radicalized nationals returning home with the feeling of jihad still pulsing in them.
However, the true threat to the Western World is much more imminent than it seems, because the mission for most of these fighters is to become a martyr in Syria—hence, a return flight is out of the question. Others are less frightened of them returning home, but rather of the long-term threat of a universal Islamic caliphate. During numerous interviews, many fighters have expressed ambition to continue their jihad in regions like Palestine, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and other places with large Muslim populations. In the eyes of many, Syria is the stepping stone to a historic crusade that these foreign fighters desire to carry out in the Middle East.
Recent numbers estimate up to 12,000 foreign fighters waging war in Syria, including over 100 Americans and 1000 Europeans. Most of them gather the money for a one way flight to Istanbul, find a local smuggler to bring them to a gap in the Turkish-Syrian border crossing—to which the Turkish government turns a blind eye—and they cross into Syria, beginning their mission.
The actual desire for these foreign soldiers differs between rebel groups. Deplorable extremist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, closely allied with Al-Qaeda, and the Islamic State accept most foreigners who have come to fight. The Free Syrian Army, a more moderate rebel group, requires that the foreign volunteers who wish to fight in solidarity with the rebels register officially. Other groups believe the Syrian Civil War is for Syrians only and if one desires to aid the rebels, send weapons or money–but do not come to fight.
This movement of foreign jihadists fighting to aid and protect other Muslims in conflicts is not a new one, as foreign fighters have appeared in most sectarian Islamic conflicts like Afghanistan, Iraq, Bosnia, and Chechnya; but the plentitude of those in Syria is unique. This rise in numbers can most likely be attributed to the increase in online recruiting and propaganda that has been extremely prevalent in the recent years. Some websites and videos solicit funds and contributions to support jihadists while others recruit Muslims to join the cause.
Babar Ahmad, a English citizen currently detained in the US who went to Bosnia during the Civil War of 1992, said during an interview: “I decided I wanted to do more than just giving food and water…I wanted to stop it happening. I went to the Bosnian army, and I said I want to help defend your people. It was a moral, human obligation—religion did not come into it.”
This humanitarian perspective is shared by a proportion of the fighters, including an ex-military Dutch citizen named Yilmaz, who gave an interview with Dutch news source Nieuwsuur in which he asked those watching at home to “open your heart; open your eyes to what’s going on over here…and (inshallah) maybe you’ll change your mind and see that many, many, many of the people here came for the right reasons.”
This reasoning should be given consideration and contemplation by those who choose to ignore that some of what these fighters are undertaking is beneficial for the Syrian people. Those who portray them as malicious terrorists with a desire to destroy the Western World fail to recognize their actual focus is toppling the regime of Assad—a goal that many human rights believers would like to witness. It’s true the notion of a purely humanitarian rebel group in Syria that wants only to protect the innocent is ludicrous; there is hate and deep-set interreligious prejudices portrayed in many of the interviews with fighters, and there is no doubt that some hold animus towards Westerners. But as Ahmad and Yilmaz said, defending innocent Syrians is a humanitarian obligation; and if governments will not get their hands dirty, someone will.
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