Jihadis come from far afield to support the revolution

Tue, Jul 31, 2012, 01:00

SCORES OF foreign jihadists have crossed into Syria from Turkey in the past two weeks, some of them telling Syrians that they are planning to travel to Aleppo to join a decisive battle against regime troops.

Syrian residents and a Turkish smuggler interviewed say many of the men have come from the Caucasus, while others had arrived from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Gulf Arab states.

According to locals who have dealt with them, the new arrivals embrace a global jihadist worldview that sets them apart from most leaders in the armed Syrian opposition and is stirring deep discontent among the rebel leadership.

Rebel leaders inside Syria say about 15 to 20 foreign fighters have been crossing each day since mid-July, trying to join up with an estimated 200 to 300 foreigners in Syria.

“There have been Tunisians, men from Uzbekistan too and from Pakistan,” said the smuggler.

“They say the Syrians are brothers and that they are going to help them.”

Some of the new arrivals have told local people they will also try to connect with a small number of homegrown Syrian groups in the country who at least partly share their ideology and who fought against US forces in Iraq.

The Syrians’ journeys to Iraq during the height of the Sunni insurgency from 2004 to 2007 had proved instructive in the violence in Iraq’s Anbar province, which borders eastern Syria. And their border crossings had been facilitated by the Syrian regime’s security apparatus, which had also acted as a conduit for arriving foreign fighters.

A former adviser to senior ministers within the Iraqi administration said: “There were two aspects to the Syrian efforts in Iraq. First there was their obvious support for the old Iraqi Baathists and then there was the evidence of people coming across and being caught.

“The intelligence showed strongly that they could not have done so without the help of the Syrian regime.”

One Syrian veteran of the Iraq war said: “The brothers who came to join us [in Iraq], particularly from the Maghreb, all flew into Damascus airport and were directed to the border by the intelligence services.

“They crossed the borders the same way that we did. The intelligence officers were responsible for the crossings.”

Almost 18 months into the Syrian uprising, the spectre of the Syrian veterans of the Iraq war has loomed large in a series of clashes in the north of the country, particularly in the past two weeks as both sides have been braced for the showdown in Aleppo.

Rebel leaders fear the recent arrivals also add an unwanted dimension to the Syrian uprising, which was inspired by the popular revolts that ousted entrenched old orders elsewhere in the Arab world but has since evolved into violent insurrection.

Since the first signs of revolt in the southern Syrian city of Deraa, regime officials have cast the instability as a plot by such jihadist groups, backed by western and gulf states. – (Guardian service)