Small Wars Journal

Syria’s Foreign Fighter Dilemma

Wed, 09/17/2014 - 6:04am

Syria’s Foreign Fighter Dilemma

Raja Sutherland

The Syrian Civil War has recently seen a massive influx of foreign fighters (FFs). While the West hoped the Free Syrian Army would prevail quickly against Assad’s forces, they lacked the political will to support them. Instead, radical Islamist factions have risen and established a firm presence in the conflict, and it is now time to question whether a hands-off policy has really worked in favor of western interests.

Reasons behind the Mass Mobilization

When analyzing the reasons why the Syrian Conflict has drawn the attention of so many FFs, there are a number of plausible explanations. First and foremost, Syria’s geographic location makes it very accessible via Turkey, which had turned a blind eye to foreign fighter traffic until recently. It is clear Turkish policy intended to speed up Assad’s demise has backfired, instead playing a crucial role in contributing to Al Qaeda’s strength in northern Syria, which has been supplied by all of the foreign fighters entering via Istanbul. Also, unlike previous conflicts such as Iraq and Afghanistan, where western countries were fighting the groups those foreign fighters were flocking to, in this case they are primarily joining the side which the West is backing, drawing parallels to Afghanistan in the 1980s when the mujahedeen received support from western governments to fight the Soviets. [7]

There is also the risk factor to take into consideration. Unlike post 9/11 Iraq and Afghanistan, where foreign fighters had little protection and were battling a far superior military force, the current conflict in Syria, while dangerous for its participants, allows a variety of participants to join, from extreme risk takers to those who are more risk adverse. [8]

The final, and most debated, reason behind foreign fighter mobilization is the sectarian dynamic of the conflict which exists in Syria. Unlike previous conflicts, where foreign fighters fought against a perceived infidel invader, there is none in Syria. Some experts have pointed to the Iraq conflict, in which sectarianism was rife and helped lay the ideological shift for this war. [9] Others experts have pointed out those foreign fighters haven’t been attracted to sectarian conflicts in the past, and that despite Iraq’s sectarian issues numbers of FFs decreased rapidly after the U.S. military withdrew. [10]

Goodbye Free Syrian Army; Hello Al Nusra and ISIL

During the first year of the Syrian Civil War, in 2011, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) was the predominant force on the battlefield; both Western and Turkish governments had hoped it would succeed in bringing about Assad’s demise when jihadi activity in Syria was still low. This did not happen, and at the FSA’s expense in the years following Al Nusra and ISIS, along with several hundred other smaller jihadi organizations, became the main actors in the conflict. [11] Needless to say, this has worked to the FSA’s disadvantage as far as western support goes. With the decision to suspend non-lethal aid, FSA forces have little hope of being a dominant force in shaping the post-Assad Syria, and Al Nusra will certainly not negotiate any deal with Assad involved. [12]

It is impossible to talk about interventions in the Middle East by the United States and her allies without talking about the legacy of Iraq. While Libya was a success, experts on the region have pointed out Syria is not Libya. For one, Assad’s army is more formidable than Gaddafi’s, and has more allies on the international stage, such as Iran and Russia, which complicates matters. In addition, there are fears that a direct intervention would further inflame the sectarian divide and cause spill over into the neighboring countries. [13]

High Tech Jihadists

When it comes to social media exposure, it could be contested that Syria is breaking new ground. With the advent of globalization and the proliferation of smartphones, along with web wide access, the Syrian conflict is being covered in an unprecedented way. The main social media outlets –YouTube, Twitter, and other sites–provide a boon to opposition forces of Assad, particularly Al Nusra, which has its own media channel called the White Minaret which is uniquely authorized to release information to more popular social media websites. [14] This has worked against the West when it comes to overlooking the role social media has played in the online recruitment of Muslims in western countries. With Syria becoming the dominant conversation on Islamist forums, and western security focusing their concerns elsewhere, they have left themselves wide open to the Trojan horse that the web has been playing in the current conflict. [15]

The Future of Syria and its Implications

What was hoped to be a swift victory against Assad’s forces has become a drawn out battle which is likely to continue for years to come. With western nations standing helplessly by as more foreign fighters continue to be drawn into the conflict, with a high probability that they will join a radical group like ISL or Al Nusra, Syria runs the risk of becoming another safe haven for Islamic extremism like Afghanistan was in the 1990s. Only this time, there is an added risk with citizens from western countries becoming radicalized and hardened with battlefield experience, which could make them deadlier when it comes to committing acts of domestic terrorism. Whatever reservations the West had about backing the Free Syrian Army, inaction has exacerbated security risks for the foreseeable future. The future of Syrian national unity seems bleak, and even if Assad should fall sooner than expected, that would most likely be followed by infighting destined to last much longer, and cause further instability in the region. How the West will respond to these challenges remains to be seen.


1. Skidmore J. "Foreign Fighter Involvement in Syria." Foreign Fighter Involvement in Syria. International Institute for Counter Terrorism, Jan.-Feb. 2014. Web. 10 Mar. 2013.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.  

4. Baker, Aryn. "Jihad for Beginners: Westerners Fighting with Al Qaeda in Syria." Jihad for Beginners Westerners Fighting With AlQaeda in Syria Comments. TIME, 14 Nov. 2013. Web. 10 Mar. 2014.

5. Schmitt, Eric. "Worries Mount as Syria Lures West’s Muslims." The New York Times. The New York Times, 27 July 2013. Web. 12 Mar. 2014.

6. Zelin, Aaron Y. "Who Are the Foreign Fighters in Syria?" The Washington Institute. The Washington Institute, 5 Dec. 2013. Web. 10 Mar. 2014.

7. Hegghammer, Thomas. "Syria's Foreign Fighters." Foreign Policy. N.p., 9 Dec. 2013. Web. 1 Mar. 2014.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid.

11. Neriah, Jaccques. "Foreign Jihadists Fighting in Syria: An Overview of the Danger." Jerusalem Center For Public Affairs. Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, 23 Jan. 2014. Web. 12 Mar. 2014.

12. Coughlin, Con. "Moderate Syrians Now Stand No Chance of Defeating Assad." News Moderate Syrians Now Stand No Chance of Defeating Assad Comments. Telegraph UK, 12 Dec. 2013. Web. 12 Mar. 2014.

13. Naím, Moisés. "Why Libya, But Not Syria? - Carnegie Endowment for International Peace." Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. N.p., 18 May 2011. Web. 10 Mar. 2014.

14. "The Al Nusra Front (Jabhat Al-nusra)." The Al Nusra Front (Jabhat Al-nusra). The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Center, 23 Sept. 2013. Web. 13 Mar. 2014.

15. Sage, Alexandria. "Insight: West Struggles to Cope with Online Recruitment for Syria Jihad." Reuters. Thomson Reuters, 04 Sept. 2013. Web. 12 Mar. 2014.

About the Author(s)

Raja Sutherland is a student at San Francisco State University earning a Bachelor’s degree in International Relations. This is his first publication which was originally published on; a new SFSU based archive for student research.