Thoughts on the Proportion of Foreign Fighters in Syria

14 Sep

“Thoughts on the Proportion of Foreign Fighters in Syria “

 

Sherifa Zuhur   (please do not cite without permission, this is based on a chapter in an academic book on ‘markets of violence’ in the Syrian revolution.)

 

sherifazuhur@gmail.com

 

A plethora of media and ‘expert’ sources claim that ISIS’ numbers “may have” tripled – with the CIA’s estimate at 20,000 to 31,500 in Iraq and according to some, 50,000 (an exaggerated figure) in Syria.[1]   Last year, some sources claimed Jabhat Nusra and ISIS were no more than 7,000 to 10,000[2] (together), with only 5,000 “official” Nusra members (BBC), Nusra’s leaders claimed they have 15,000 or 20,000 troops. ISIS’ approximate size in 2013 was calculated at 5,000 to 6,000 fighters.[3]

 

Reasons given for the increase are a) an increase in foreign fighters, despite the fact that international authorities were alerted last year to the danger of foreign fighters returning to their own home countries and began serious review of travelers; or b) other fighters joining ISIS or tribes joining ISIS (a trend seen in Iraq, but not particularly in Syria although some tribes are participating).

 

Western media are using a figure of 12,000 (or 11,000) foreign fighters as of late summer 2014 in Syria – which means that the overall figure of 100,000 rebel fighters must have increased (despite a fairly high casualty rate). On Sept. 8, a figure was given of 3,000 fighters from Tunisia participating in the Syrian revolution  by Peter Neumann at ICSR at King’s College.[4]  Contrast this with a U.S. Congressional report said that U.S. intelligence had estimated 7,500 foreign fighters were in Syria as of February 2014.[5] Are nearly half the fighters, Tunisian? No. Then, how accurate are these assessments? And are we concerned about them as a determinant of the salafi-jihadists’ rapid growth?  Or as predictors of a campaign against salafi-jihadists (yes) and the probability of rebels overcoming Assad’s forces (yes) or at least holding their own?

 

Can we properly assess the size of salafi-jihadists’ forces as a whole (given that some include ‘nationalist salafis’ like Ahrar al-Sham, and some do not, and with claims that the Jaysh al-Islam, for example is at 50,000 alone). The ICSR had also claimed (in 2013) that foreign jihadists are only 10% of the opposition. Once again, the size of the revolution (‘insurgency’) is debated: the U.S. estimates 75,000 to as high as 115,000.[6]

Is the danger of blowback from foreign fighters being exaggerated, given that their primary goals are in Syria?  The al-Qa’ida movements have already given us a great deal of information about the reasons that foreign nationals join a global jihad movement in a particular local battle.

Let’s review some of the other information from last year:  Syria was already seen as a jihadist magnet more powerful than Afghanistan or Yemen, a year ago.[7] Analysts claimed, then that 40% to 80% of groups like Nusra and ISIS are foreign fighters, although identifications of slain fighters do not support such claims.[8]   Officials thought that perhaps 700 or 800 salafi-jihadists had traveled to Syria from Jordan and about 100 were killed there.[9] Numbers of Tunisian (600), Saudi Arabian[10], Libyan, and Iraqi fighters are significant. An estimated 100 Chechen fighters were in Syria.[11] The FBI has identified 100 American Muslims fighting in Syria, France had identified 150 French jihadists, and the Spanish government arrested Wahhabists in Ceuta who sent 50 fighters to Syria.[12] British authorities estimated that 200 UK nationals are fighting in Syria, but have only positively identified twenty;[13] and twenty Dutch fighters, mostly of Moroccan descent, were in Syria (with six killed) led by Abu Fida’a;[14] Swedish Security Services estimated 30 Swedes traveled to Syria to fight, and a senior security official claimed 80 Australians are fighting in Syria, perhaps 20 with Jabhat al-Nusra.[15] At least 40 Tehrik-i-Taliban (TTP) fighters have fought in Syria[16]; out of perhaps 100 Pakistani fighters in Syria. The TTP leaders run a network with Lashkar e-Jhangvi bringing militants to Syria,[17] who likely fought with Hafiz Gul Bahadur group members in the Katibat Muhajirun in Latakia under Abu Jafar al-Libi. An ISIS video from July 2013 showed 10 to 20 TTP fighters in Syria,[18] and 30 slain Pakistani fighters’ bodies were returned to Pakistan in September.[19] Anywhere from “several” to 50 Indonesians are thought to be in Syria.[20] The Katibat Taliban (KaT) who fight the Kurdish-Syrian PYD were reportedly paid an initial sum equal to $1000.[21] (I am looking at the economic aspects of the fighting elsewhere, in a book on the political economy of conflicts in Arab tates).

 

Although many of governments put measures in place to apprehend those traveling to Syria, jihadists have succeeded in traveling like a Saudi engineer, who left his job to join the jihad,[22] al-Sharikh (Sanafi al-Nasr), a cousin of Osama bin Ladin, who formerly fought in Chechnya and Afghanistan, and Abu `Awan al-Shamani who set off a Nusra suicide bomb at the French hospital in Aleppo.[23] Saudi Arabia has arrested jihadists on their return from Syria; 1,200 had traveled to Syria by 2013 [24] and now estimates are at anywhere from 1,500 to 2,500.

The Tunisian Minister of Interior offered the number of 2,400 fighters in June of 2014, without specifying any sources. [25]  Unclear numbers of Libyans are fighting in Syria, having undergone training in Libya.

Some claim 600 foreign fighters were killed in Syria in the first half of 2013. That is a fairly small proportion of rebels killed as a whole. However, the website Syrian Martyrs had only documented 326 foreign fighters deaths by June of 2014 (and this source documents deaths even when identification by name is not made).

 

Lest we forget, there are at least 10,000 foreign Shi`i fighters in Syria as well – and again these are estimated numbers. And we might remember that the Hizbullah and other Shi`i fighters are also hostile to a democratic way of life, have slaughtered Syrian civilians, and yet, they are not the subject of the current frenzy of concern over foreign fighters.

 

With the dramatic beheadings of U.S. journalists and a U.K. aid worker in Syria, it is difficult not to exaggerate the overall threat to the West, and recall that the context of these fighting groups and others, as well as a non-violent revolutionary movement is the effort to bring down the government of Bashar al-Assad.    From this brief review, we may deduce that if the higher numbers of foreign fighters are correct, the size of the revolutionary forces is higher than estimated (or at the high end of current estimates).

 

 

[1]New York Post, September 12, 2014 . http://www.nydailynews.com/news/world/isis-muster-20-000-31-500-fighters-triple-previous-estimates-cia-article-1.1937563

 

[2] Noman Benotman and Roisin Blake. “Jabhat al-Nusra lil-Ahl al-Sham min Mujahedin al-Sham fi Sahat al-Jihad.” Strategic Briefing. Qulliam Foundation, n.d. http://www.quilliamfoundation.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/publications/free/jabhat-al-nusra-a-strategic-briefing.pdf Estimates 5,000. An estimate of 6,000 to 7,000 is given by Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center. “”The Al Nusra Front.” September, 23, 2013, http://www.terrorism-info.org.il/Data/articles/Art_20573/E_076_13_1861409435.pdf

The group was established in 2012, claimed to double with new recruits including jihadists returning from Iraq, or traveling from overseas.

 

[3] “Al Qaeda’s Syrian Strategy.” Foreign Policy, October, 10, 2013.

 

[4] ABC News, September 8, 2014. http://abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory/expert-12000-foreign-fighters-syria-25364064

 

[5] Remarks by James R. Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, to the Senate Armed Services Committee, February 11, 2014.

 

[6] Congressional Research Service. “Armed Conflict in Syria.” June 27, 2014, 3.

 

[7] Kristina Wong, “Foreign Fighters Surpass Afghan-Soviet War, Storm Syria in Record Numbers,” Washington Times, October 20, 2013.

 

[8] These can be obtained on a daily basis, when they are identified (identification is not always possible) via the Local Coordination Committees in Syria of the SOHR.

 

[9] Interview with Mohammed al-Shalabi, a Jordanian Salafi-jihadi leader, on August 9, 2013, see Suha Philip Ma’ayeh. “Jordanian Jihadists Active in Syria.” Countering Terrorism Sentinel, October 24, 2013. http://www.ctc.usma.edu/posts/jordanian-jihadists-active-in-syria; “10 Salafists Enter Aleppo Through Turkey,” al-Ghad, October 7, 2013; Muwaffaq Kamal,  “The Salafi Jihadi Denies Establishing a Murabitoon Brigade,” al-Ghad, September 23, 2013; “Teenage Jordanian ‘Jihadist’ Killed in Syria,” Jordan Times, February 28, 2013; Hassan Tammimi, “Jordanian Salafi from Rusaifa Killed in Syria,” al-Ghad, August 4, 2013.

 

[10] John Kerry inaccurately claimed there were no Saudi Arabian fighters in Syria in June of 2013, despite the reported death of a Nusra commander, Kasura al-Jazrawi in May 2013. CNS News.com June 25, 2013.   In October, 2013, the Mufti of Saudi Arabia issued a statement to discourage Saudi engagement in jihad in Syria even as 16 year old Moath al-Hamili arrived to fight. Global Voices, October 1, 2013. http://globalvoicesonline.org/2013/10/01/the-16-year-old-saudi-who-is-fighting-in-syria/

 

[11] “Битва за Ичкерию перекинулась на Сирию,” Kommersant, July 26, 2013 http://www.kommersant.ru/doc/2241167

 

[12] Newsweek, October 25, 2013.

 

[13] Jenny Cuffe, “Who Are the British Jihadists in Syria?” BBC News, October 15, 2013.

 

[14] Samar Batrawi, “The Dutch Foreign Fighter Contingent in Syria.” CTC Sentinel, October 24, 2013.

 

[15]Per Gudmundson, “The Swedish Foreign Fighter Contingent in Syria.” CTC Sentinel, September 24, 2013; Zammit, Andrew. “Tracking Australian Foreign Fighters in Syria.” CTC Sentinel, November 26, 2013.

 

[16] Zia Ur Rahman, “Pakistani Fighters Joining the War in Syria.” CTC Sentinel, [Countering Terrorism Center] September 24, 2013.

 

[17] Ahmed Wali Mujeeb, “Pakistan Taliban ‘Sets up a Base in Syria,’” BBC, July 12, 2013; Maria Golovnina and Jibran Ahmad, “Pakistan Taliban Set Up Camps in Syria, Join Anti-Assad War,” Reuters, July 14, 2013.

 

[18] “Video Confirms Pakistani Taliban’s Presence In Syria,” The Middle East Media Research Institute, August 1, 2013.

 

[19] Aqeel Yousafzai, “Taliban se muzakraat Hukmaran band gali mai,” Hum Shehri [Lahore], September 9-15, 2013.

 

[20] AP News. “For Indonesian Jihadists: Civil War in Syria Beckons.” Townhall.com January 10, 2014.

[22] Shown here after shooting rabbits in the desert, a favorite male pastime. “Mudir “Kahraba tarbiyya” yiktib “wastaituhu”wa ghadir ila Suriyya,al-Sabq 10/7/2013.

http://sabq.org/0qFfde

 

[23] Aaron Y. Zelin, “The Saudi Foreign Fighter Presence in Syria.” CTC Sentinel, April 28, 2014 https://www.ctc.usma.edu/posts/the-saudi-foreign-fighter-presence-in-syria

 

[24] Fahd al-Dhiyabi, “Saudi Interior Ministry Says 25 Percent of Fighters in Syria Have Returned,” Asharq Alawsat, March 24, 2014.

 

[25] Al Arabiyya, 23 June 2014. http://english.alarabiya.net/en/News/2014/06/24/Ministry-around-2-400-Tunisians-fighting-in-Syria.html

 

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