Foreign jihadists swell rebel ranks in Syria

Published Thursday, July 26, 2012

In restive northwest Syria, the insurgency has found an unlikely new partner in the struggle against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad: foreign Islamists who are arriving in large numbers.

But rather than adopt the revolt's calls for democracy and the fall of a dictatorial regime, such jihadists have taken a sectarian stance, promoting hatred against the minority Alawi sect, which they consider as "apostates."

At the Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey, seized by Islamist militants last week, dozens of men claimed to have traveled from several Arab and Muslim countries.

Some said they were from Algeria, others claimed to be from Morocco, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia. A few say they are from even farther away, including insurgent hotbeds such as Chechnya and Somalia.

From the start of the 16-month uprising – which has grown into an armed insurgency backed by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey – the Syrian regime has claimed rebels were hosting al-Qaeda fighters, and that the revolt was a foreign conspiracy.

It is unclear just how many foreign jihadist fighters have entered the country.

What is clear is that Syria's rebels do not want to admit that the jihadist phenomenon exists.

In the central province of Hama, a rebel who identifies himself as Abu Ammar says he commands a 1,200-strong battalion.

"We will never let al-Qaeda take root here – we'll kill them if they try," he says. "The revolution belongs to the Syrians."

But eyewitness accounts suggest those fighters are coming whether he likes it or not, some of them likely to have been spurred by militant websites urging Islamists to join the uprising.

One website, the World Jihad Network, features a call published by the Iraqi Banner of Right and Jihad in June 2012 to "volunteer for jihad in Syria."

Another carries a statement by Abu Bakr al-Husseini, identified as emir of the Islamic State of Iraq, an umbrella organization for al-Qaeda and proxy groups.

"I do not forget to pay tribute to our brothers in the blessed, beloved Syria," says Husseini, adding that "the Islamic state" does not recognize "artificial boundaries or frontiers."

The Lebanese militant group Fatah al-Islam – which is linked to al-Qaeda – claimed responsibility in June for an attack on a military vehicle in the northern Aleppo countryside near the city of Aazaz.

"Thirty Alawi troops were killed in the Aleppo countryside," a statement from the group dated June 18 read, describing members of the Alawi sect as "Shia heretics."

In late April, Fatah al-Islam's leader Abdel Ghani Jawhar – one of Lebanon's most wanted men – was killed in Syria.

Jawhar was wanted by Lebanese authorities for the 2007 killing of 14 Lebanese soldiers in the northern port city of Tripoli.

Some believe that more jihadists will join the uprising as the fighting becomes more violent.

On one Internet forum, a statement by the radical Ansar al-Sham group said "the world needs to know that... Syria has started to attract young Arab men... who are ready to enter Syrian territory and join the revolutionaries and the fighters."

The statement adds that "no one has the right to blame the Syrians for the fact that Syria has become a theater for international jihad."

The Ansar al-Sham statement also threatens attacks outside Syria.

"They have the right to target international interests the world over, belonging to whoever directly or indirectly supports the ruling gang in Syria."

"Hundreds of Libyan heroes" are also fighting against the "Nusayris" – a derogatory term used to describe Alawis – claims another internet forum, Honein.

The forum shows a photograph of men wearing military clothing, and another of two protesters holding up a poster with a logo that reads "the Revolutionaries of (Libya's) Tripoli Brigade."

Alawis are not the only target of radical jihadists. A report in Germany's Der Spiegel on Wednesday highlighted the suffering of Christians, as foreign Salafis and Islamists take charge of the revolt, and turn what was initially a call for democracy, into a fundamentalist drive of hate against Syria's minorities.

The article notes the cleansing of Christians in the restive village of Qusayr, citing Syrian Christian refugees in Lebanon who explained how Salafis drove them out of their homes, and killed their men.

(AFP, Al-Akhbar)

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