Foreign militants fighting in Syria battlefields

Published: March 7, 2012
Rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters are seen in the Syrian village of Jussiyeh on March 6, 2012, just across from Lebanon's eastern Bekaa region. PHOTO: AFP

Rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters are seen in the Syrian village of Jussiyeh on March 6, 2012, just across from Lebanon's eastern Bekaa region. PHOTO: AFP

BEIRUT: Foreign Sunni militants are fighting alongside Syrian rebels who have taken on President Basharal Assad, but their numbers are hard to assess and almost certainly small, insurgents and analysts say.

An AFP correspondent who met several Syrian rebels over a week in the city of Homs, which was recaptured by regime forces on Thursday, said he sometimes saw them mingling with strangers of the same beliefs.

“Five Libyans fought with us in Homs. They were all killed,” said a leader of a group from the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA), which clashed with regime forces in Homs.

However, while denying that there are many foreigners battling Syrian forces, he said “there are a few, of different nationalities. But we are mostly Syrians.”

While the numbers are difficult to pin down, one international expert said that, in a violence-wracked country, the possibility of foreign fighters participating in a rebellion always exist.

“In a country where chaos sets in, it goes without saying that space is created for foreign volunteers” but their role “will remain paltry unless the Syrian fighters see value in their presence,” said Peter Harling, from the International Crisis Group.

In mid-February, an observer with the Arab League in Homs told AFP that “many foreign fighters,” including Pakistanis, Afghans, Lebanese, Iraqis, Sudanese, Libyans and Yemenis led most of the fighting and “dominated everybody.”

Harling dismissed that as fantasy.

“It is a product of his imagination. I do not see how foreigners at this stage of the conflict would impose anything” on the Syrians and “I do not believe that they are many.”

Harling’s views were echoed by Karim Emilie Bitar from the French Institute of International and Strategic Relations.

The proportion of foreigners “is probably very slim,” said Bitar, while warning that it was “likely to grow now that Qatar and Saudi Arabia have openly announced that they favour militarisation of the Syrian revolution.”

He said some foreign fighters were “members of al Qaeda, who responded to the call by Aymana Zawahiri (the leader of the group), who has openly encouraged them to lead the fight in Syria.”

“Most of these previously fought in Iraq. Other militants are more or less independents, from Libya or elsewhere, who were mobilised by images from Syria,” he said.

The group leader from the Free Syrian Army denies al Qaeda has any role in the Syrian revolution.

“Al Qaeda has nothing to do with us. Al Qaeda does not interest us,” he said.

The arming of the Syrian rebels as encouraged by Qatar and Saudi Arabia is being intensely discussed in Arab and Western spheres, but Washington is reluctant, fearing that weapons may land in the hands of al Qaeda.

Western fears were further aggravated after Iraqi Prime Minister Nurial Maliki recently said al Qaeda militants, who are well established in his country, had started to move to Syria.

But Harling disagreed, saying “there is no evidence at this stage that the Syrian conflict will evolve” as it did in Iraq, a country regularly torn by deadly suicide bombings carried out by local and international volunteers.

One such fighter is a 29-year-old Lebanese, who goes by the name of al Baghdadi, and “enlisted” in the Free Syrian Army.

He said he was a sniper in Baghdad supporting former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein during the US-led invasion of the country and returned to Lebanon after Saddam was ousted.

Pointing to a Christian comrade, he said in the Syrian rebellion religion “does not matter” and explained that he is fighting “the unjust regime of Assad to protect Syrian children from death.”

Another militants who declined to give his nationality and wore a salwar kameez, a tunic common in Afghanistan, said he fought US forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, gaining the nickname “The Taliban.”

He said France should establish a “no-fly zone” over Syria, and added jokingly “otherwise we will attack France after killing Bashar.”

Suddenly turning serious, he said: “We do not want anything from the Americans; they are our enemies.”

Facebook Conversations

Reader Comments (10)

  • Abdul Majeed
    Mar 7, 2012 - 1:02PM

    This proves China and Russia were right in veto-ing the GCC-US-NATO-ISRAEL touted UN resolution.


  • Mar 7, 2012 - 3:22PM

    yet Pakistan has its part in the mess that is occuring there!


  • Noise
    Mar 7, 2012 - 7:48PM

    These murderers have killed tens of thousands of innocent people in Iraq. They need to be driven out of Syria and those who harbour them need to be rounded up otherwise Syria will become another Afghanistan.


  • Mar 8, 2012 - 8:53AM

    It’s Libya all over again.


  • Lord
    Mar 8, 2012 - 9:39AM

    GCC countries are being fooled by west .They want to topple Syrian regime because its hostile to Israel and they want a govt in syria who is friendly to israel. God knows when these oil owners will grow up.


  • Baloch
    Mar 8, 2012 - 11:02AM

    Libya, Syria, Pakistan…..


  • Cautious
    Mar 8, 2012 - 11:12PM

    Classic Pakistan — anti Western mantra takes precedence over protecting Syrian people or acknowledging that the Muslim Arab Countries are the driving force behind the effort to contain Assad.


  • j. von hettlingen
    Mar 9, 2012 - 4:15AM

    It’s difficult to turn a blind eye to the atrocities committed by Assad’s butchers. Boys and men had had their throats slit before their family members. How can these butchers believe they can get away with murder?


  • Muslimah
    Mar 9, 2012 - 11:26AM

    Its surprising to see all the foolish comments here.You people have no idea whats happening in syria, its a genocide but why would that matter to any of you. Perish in your ignorance.


  • Sunny
    Mar 9, 2012 - 5:30PM

    Arming rebels in a peaceful country and then condemning regime for their actions which otherwise are for crushing rebels mixed with al-qaida foreign fighters – is a typical western plan earlier repeated in Libya. The rebel’s leader Burhan Ghalioun, who is assured of full support by GCC-Israel-US-EU, has refused to UN representative Kpfi Annan for a dialogue with Assad, how can one talk peace with him. The double standards’ silence of the west on Bahrain and Yemen where GCCs are prime culprits of committing crimes to the kind of Assad being blamed has further complicated the issue. Next on the line could be arming Balochistan Liberation Army by the same western group (Resolution in US senate already in place) including our Arab brothers who have Chinese engineers killed in Gawadar earlier. The trend of achieving foreign policy objectives through arming rebels mixed with mercenaries alongwith media is a foul and must be condemned and veoted.


More in World