Bilad al-Sham: The Gunman’s Vacation Destination


The civil war in Syria ain’t what it used to be. Even the designation, ‘civil war’, may be too polite these days, too optimistic a term for the black hole which much of the country has become. While government forces are still united under al-Assad in the south, the opposition in the north has fractured and been overshadowed by a calamity of different causes and rallying cries. Though still anti-Assad in many ways, a lull in the conflict to a certain state of stability, with only a few towns and suburbs changing hands here and there, has turned the rag-tag assembly of freedom and foreign fighters against themselves, seeking to fill a power vacuum that hardly exists. A common enemy seems no longer enough to unite the causes, and the once hopeful rebel of Homs or Aleppo, who sought some sense of fairness or representation in his/her government, has been sidelined by an influx of fighters from all corners of the world. They arrive, jihad-ready, from as far as Australia and the United Kingdom, seeking glory, martyrdom, money, or simply a place to call their own. 

The influx of foreign fighters into Syria has only snowballed in the last year or so. Many are fresh from recent conflicts in countries like Libya, Tunisia, and Iraq, while others come from much further away to get their war on. A recent French intelligence report marked the rise as something even greater than what was seen in Afghanistan, and the head of MI5 recently admitted to there being several hundred Britons fighting in Syria for jihadist causes. Their concerns are echoed by US officials and hawks from all over, who see Syria as a useful meat-grinder mashing up would-be terrorists, while simultaneously fretting over those who will survive and move on to tomorrow’s battlefields. The MI5 chief’s comments were followed up by a short VICE report identifying Britons fighting for “al-Qaeda” (the exact group isn’t stated), and which reveals the professional militantism and ideology budding fighters are wading into. Without a doubt the largest pool of foreign fighters can be found among the various Islamic militias and brigades in the north, such as the Jabhat Al-Nusra, Ahrar ash-Sham, and the Islamic State of Iraq and as-Sham (ISIS), among others. Historian Pieter Van Ostaeyen over at his blog has detailed a number of foreign fighters from such places as The Netherlands, Belgium, Chechnya, Turkey, Russia, and beyond. In an even weirder twist, the conflict migration doesn’t seem isolated to just individuals, as there are reports of whole families up and moving from as far as Waziristan and Kazakhstan. The total numbers depends on who you ask, but as of June the best estimates indicated that about 10% of the opposition was comprised of foreign fighters, and that number has most certainly grown as the hardline jihadist groups have blossomed over the last few months. Most tragically is that while some are hardened veterans of past conflicts, many come without any sort of combat experience and get quickly eaten up in the intense urban and rural warfare.

This sort of displacement is common among conflicts in the Middle-East, where fighting can be a steady means of employment if you hitch yourself to the right gang, but the conflict in Syria has become a particularly large magnet for a variety of reasons. Jihadology curator Aaron Zelin outlined a few of the major points drawing foreign fighters to Syria in an interview with Fair Observer. The prospect of Jihad, defending the honor of Islam, and the glory of martyrdom are all part and parcel of the fighters’ motivation, and much of this is fueled by Sunni clerics like Egyptian Youssef al-Qaradawi, who calls jihad in Syria an obligation (wajib). Assad’s Alawite minority holding power over a Sunni majority is one of the most commonly cited factors, and the Assad family’s previous crackdowns on uprisings and jihad-centric movements isn’t doing any favors for him either. More interesting is the role Syria and the Greater Syria region plays into the judgement day mythology of Salafist sects. Damascus is home to a number of revered historical sites and the city plays a fairly central role in Islamic history under the Umayyad caliphate. The city is home to the resting place of the sultan Saladin and the Great Mosque of Damascus where Jesus is prophesized to return and fight the false messiah. And almost like icing on the cake, the region’s proximity to Lebanon and Israel would make it an ideal staging ground for attacks into those countries. It is no wonder then that the Bilad ash-Sham, as it is known among Salafists, would be the jewel in every jihadists’ eye as they seek to create a new Islamic emirate ruled by Sharia law. This process has already begun in some respects, such as in the northern city of Raqqa where for the last eight months al-Nursa, ISIS, and the Ahrar ash-Sham have kept a steady truce among themselves to control the city and impose their own set of rules. They have plastered the city with advertisements and propaganda and see it only as the beginning of a much larger al-Qaeda-centric territory that will one day encompass the Bilad ash-Sham.

That alone would be enough of a problem for any country to handle, but the Salafists aren’t the only ones carving out their own tracts of land and calling it home. In the northeast, various Kurdish militias such as the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) from Turkey and the Kurdish Committees for the Protection of the Kurdish People (YPG) of Syria have gone to war with the jihadist groups and made some impressive gains all along the border regions. The Kurdish people have long sought to create a new Kurdish state, even if they have to wedge it in between the states of Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran, though there remain some political and religious differences between the various Kurdish groups. For the most part Kurdish nationalist groups have tended to be very secular, such as the PKK and Alevi Kurds in eastern Turkey, but across the board they are still separated by a range of religious sects which include Sunni and Yazdani groups. Kurds in Iraq have been fairly successful in creating and maintaining their own autonomous region that has only recently seen spillover from the Syrian conflict, violence which now threatens to draw them across the border in Syria. The strategy of the Kurdish groups in northeastern Syria stands in contrast to the other groups fueling the conflict, as they seem to only want to protect what they identify as their territory, with no thoughts towards outward expansion. The experience of PKK fighters from Turkey, who have fought with their government for some time, has proved helpful in pushing jihadist groups out of their region, something of which the Turkish government has taken note and started to work against. If there’s anyone who will come out of this fight stronger and more united than ever, it will be the Kurds, and that is exactly what Turkey is afraid of.

But not everyone involved in the fighting across the country has a specific stake. Some are there because of connections, money, or just outright extortion. Neighboring and foreign states have honed in on the Syrian conflict, hoping to either prop up the Assad regime or push for its downfall through whatever opposition looks the friendliest. There have been very little secrets when it comes to Hezbollah’s involvement, or the Gulf States and the US backing opposition forces, but they aren’t the only ones with skin in the game. Russia has had the Mediterranean packed in with naval ships, heightened during a time when the US mused about more direct intervention, mostly acting as a buffer for their embattled ally, warm water port aside. Just recently a Russian mercenary was killed or captured after a government raid on the town of Al-Sukhnah, hired by Assad through the Hong Kong based Slavonic Corps Limited who have a nifty little site located here. Interestingly his documentation denotes him as operating under the Moran Security Group, a more friendly, regulated mercenary group, though whether they are just acting as an umbrella or a cover remains to be seen. Other state actors involved in the conflict include soldiers shipped in from Iran, captured on video instructing soldiers and getting directly involved in the fighting. The BBC had enough to do a mini-documentary on their involvement, though only available on their terrible iPlayer service. Foreign interference isn’t just regulated to the pro-Assad side however, and it doesn’t take a brain to guess whether the Gulf States have their own groups of mercenaries or professional soldiers already mixed in among the opposition. At the very least mercenaries get paid, which is more than what you can say about the death row inmates Saudi Arabia is feeding into the conflict. You know there’s some real hindsight in play when you let these guys loose and hope they don’t end up back home somehow, maybe with a few armed friends in tow.

2012 saw the Syrian uprising grow into something we’d like to call a civil war, if only for the neatness of categorization. 2013 has since seen that definition explode into something much more, a wider conflict that is sucking the region in like a curve in space-time itself. We’ve already seen the desperation move from one side, which prompted international outcry and an almost unprecedented disarmament in the midst of this havoc. But as government forces make further gains in the north, almost piercing the eastern and western sides in two, what kind of desperation tactics will we see from an opposition that has entrenched itself in the towns and cities of the everyday people. How will the Assad regime respond when it runs into a new Kurdish border after sweeping a splintered opposition aside? The influx of foreign fighters only serves to extend the conflict, each one looking to get their own piece of the action, capitulating to a throne of whatever higher reasoning they ascribe to. As long as there are fresh bodies, there will be fighting, and where there’s fighting, only bodies.



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