Syria's Dangerous Ex-Pats

The involvement of foreign fighters has important implications and not just for the Middle East.

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Hezbollah supporters distribute sweets to passersby, as they celebrate the fall of the Syrian town of Qusair to forces loyal to President Bashar Assad and Hezbollah fighters, in Bazzalieh village, Lebanon, near the Lebanese-Syrian border, Wednesday, June 5, 2013. The Syrian army captured a strategic town near the Lebanese border on Wednesday after a grueling three-week battle, handing a heavy defeat to rebels and solidifying a shift in the country's civil war in favor of President Bashar Assad's regime.

Even as news reports suggest that the Assad regime is gaining momentum against Syrian rebels and reports continue to discuss infighting amongst the rebel factions there still remains a large flow of third-party belligerents ("foreign fighters") coming from outside Syria. Some of these fighters, such as Hezbollah, Iraqi fighters and Iranian advisers, are supporting the regime while others are opposing it.

The involvement of these foreign fighters will have both short- and long-term implications.

In the short-term they seem to be carrying out and fueling a proxy war between Iran and the Gulf states in a war of dogma and influence between Sunna and Shia Islam. This has also led to violence in Iraq (see here and possibly here) and the U.S. alerting the Lebanese government about al-Qaida linked plots against Hezbollah targets in southern Lebanon. Worst case, as Adam Garfinkle, editor of The American Interest, suggests, is that the sectarian battle lines being drawn are a possible modern day attempt to re-fight the Battle of Karbala.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on Syria.]

In the long-term, aside from the nightmarish full-bore Karbala scenario, the big issue is what happens when these fighters return home? If history is any guide the answer to that question is not very encouraging. Just in terms of Sunni foreign fighters their numbers are quite large. As Ian Lloyd Neubauer has reported:

As many as 6,000 foreign fighters from nearly 50 nations have now joined the brutal 2½-year civil war to unseat President Bashar Assad of Syria. The vast majority are veterans from the Arab Springs of Libya, Tunisia and Egypt. Islamist volunteers from Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, Jordan, Turkey and a few former Soviet republics bolster their ranks…

Surprising estimates suggest that Australians now make up the largest contingent from any developed nation in the Syrian rebel forces. There are around 120 French fighters in Syria, about 100 Britons and a handful of Americans – but there are at least 200 Australians, according to a public statement made by David Irvine, director general of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO). The total may appear small, but it is growing rapidly, having doubled since the end of last year – and when looked at as a proportion of the Muslim population of Australia, the figure is startling. The French, British and American rebel fighters are drawn from communities that number 4.7 million, 2.7 million and 2.6 million respectively. The Australian contingent is drawn from a Muslim population of just 500,000, and is causing concern to a government that fears the homecoming of a battle-hardened group of radicalized Islamists when the conflict ends.

There are also reports ( here, here, and here) that members of the Pakistani Taliban are also in Syria to help train and fight the Assad regime for sectarian purposes.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

As one can see, this is not just a matter of potential implications for countries in the Middle East or South Asia. This will have many international security repercussions for years to come. Clint Watts (full disclosure: a friend and colleague) has argued convincingly that the flow of such foreign fighters might be usefully tracked and interdicted through the electronic and physical detritus they cast off during their movements to and from Syria (and other locales) using "ant colony optimization" modeling. Such information will be increasingly important to try to prevent a non-stop, self-perpetuating traveling roadshow of violence.

Shameless plug: If you are interested in this topic be sure to check out a program that FPRI will be holding (also webcast) on this topic in Washington, DC on October 23, 2013.

Michael P. Noonan is the director of the Program on National Security at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.