Syria’s Foreign Fighters: Dissecting The Next Decade of Conflict

Two weeks ago, I did a short post at FPRI on “Syria: Suffering the effects of the 2nd Foreign Fighter Glut“.  The crux of the discussion centered on how Syria has become the next epicenter for a routine pattern of foreign fighter mobilization and integration into jihadi conflicts.  I used the diagrams from a 2009 paper (Countering Terrorism from the Second Foreign Fighter Glut) to illustrate how this cycle perpetuates itself (See Figure 1 below) and why Syria will be the catalyst for a decade of conflict.

The longer the Syrian civil war goes on, the more foreign fighters will descend on the country. Western inaction in Syria will not only sustain foreign fighter flows to Syria, but will sustain a decades long jihadi foreign fighter recruitment cycle and likely produce a third foreign fighter glut fostering conflict for the next decade.

Analysis of foreign fighters to Iraq in 2008 and 2009 signaled how al Qaeda affiliates would regenerate in the future.  Slide2Here is an excerpt Countering Terrorism From The Second Foreign Fighter Glut written in 2008 and published in 2009 discussing the implications of former foreign fighters returning to their home countries as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq wind down and what we’ve seen the past couple of years.

2009 – Policy Implication: Fight the next terrorist threat, not the last one. 

Western CT efforts should avoid the tendency to protect against the last terrorist attack rather than preventing the next one. While protecting mass transit systems and thwarting WMD proliferation remains important, the more probable next generation of attacks will be against Westerners in MENA and South Asia. Former foreign fighters from the Second Foreign Fighter Glut will lead future attacks, and they may maintain only minimal connections to core AQ. As targets and access diminish in Iraq and Afghanistan, former foreign fighters will continue to recruit locally in flashpoint cities and then create their own safe havens regionally. The end result will be upstart regional groups that share some of AQ’s ideology, try to pull from larger AQ resources, and then use former foreign fighter knowledge to spearhead attacks closer to home. With limited operational space, resources and size, the scope of terrorist operations will temporarily decrease. Instead of massive, high tech, large-scale 9/11 operations, one may expect smaller scale, conventional attacks perpetrated by smaller Jihadi groups. These smaller Jihadi elements will begin with attacks on local Western targets and MENA governments in an attempt to build their popular support, gain resources and grow their capacity to execute more spectacular attacks in Europe and the United States.

Analysts might consider altering their focus to concentrate on regional nodes rather than working to link all actions back to core AQ. The North African node may be led by former foreign fighters from Algeria, recruiting from North African flashpoint cities in Tunisia and new militant enclaves in Mauritania, seeking safe haven in the trans-Sahara (Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Algeria, Libya) and conducting attacks on Westerners in Tunis, Casablanca or Niamey. The Middle Eastern node might consist of new cells led by Yemeni and Saudi former foreign fighters finding operational space in Yemen and Palestinian camps in Lebanon and attacking Western and Israeli economic and diplomatic targets. South Asia (not supported by data in this study but extremely significant) would likely see a host of Pakistani and Central Asian militant groups, holed up in tribal areas and Central Asian safe havens and conducting attacks throughout Asia.

Today, we know that Syria, much like Iraq a few years back, will be the center of gravity for future Salafi-jihadi foreign fighter violence. This is occurring for several reasons:

  1. It’s gone on way too long – The longer the Syrian civil war goes on, the more foreign fighters there will be mobilized to the battlefield.
  2. The West won’t do anything to stop fighting in Syria – Foreign fighter recruits may be a bit crazy but they are not stupid.  One of the bigger deterrents of joining an al Qaeda affiliate or an emerging militant group is whether the recruit thinks the fight they are joining has a chance to succeed.  Despite all their macho bravado, no foreign fighter wants to join a fight where al Qaeda is getting its ass kicked.  That’s why foreign fighter flows to Iraq decreased around 2008 and will slow to places like Mali where the French have intervened.  BLUF: Foreign fighters are fickle, and aside from the occasional oddball, they want to play for a winner.  For example, Omar Hammami in Somalia was whining about moving to Syria from Somalia months ago.  For a jihadi, going to fight in Syria is the equivalent of buying a Miami Heat jersey if your an NBA fan or a Yankees jersey if you are baseball fan: you don’t know if you’ll win the championship, but you’ve got a much better chance of winning if you support that team.
  3. Lots of money and weapons - Unlike other conflicts, the Syrian civil war has received substantial and sustained resources from the Gulf and now the West as well as resources from Russia and Iran on the Assad regime side.  There is plenty of fuel to keep this thing going.
  4.  Recruitment pipelines – The fighting in Syria is occurring in the exact location of foreign fighter pipelines to Iraq circa 2006-2007.  These foreign fighter recruitment networks have been easily reactivated and there is far less for recruits to resolve logistically to make their way to the battlefield in Syria.

Aaron Zelin published an excellent set of data this week on foreign fighters to Syria.  From martyr biographies found on social media, Aaron found that Libyans and Tunisians dominated the ranks.  Remember when everyone was freaking out about al Qaeda building a stronghold in Libya?  I’m sure there is an al Qaeda or al Qaeda like presence in Libya, but if hundreds of fighters from Libya are heading to Syria, we shouldn’t worry so much about an al Qaeda being resurgent in Libya.  More important for me is Tunisia.  The high numbers of Tunisians, I imagine, comes as much from the historical recruitment networks identified in the Sinjar records as much as anything going on currently.  The best recruiter of a new foreign fighter is a former foreign fighter, and Tunisia had a solid network for getting people to Iraq a few years back. To figure out the pattern of recruitment to Syria and to anticipate the implications of the 3rd generation of foreign fighters coming out of Syria, I’m going to start looking at several things below with regards to Syria’s foreign fighters.  I’m working on a couple concepts I’ll share here in the coming weeks which I think might help with some of these research issues.

  • Need more data - Aaron on his own has captured an excellent data set that is approaching 300.  But, its not nearly enough to understand the dynamics of recruitment to the Syrian conflict.  Just yesterday there were reports of 200 Islamists from Russia in Syria.  There are now thousands of foreign fighters in Syria speaking a variety of languages and communicating on a host of media.  To properly understand the foreign fighter flow to Syria, there needs to be a team of researchers speaking many different languages looking at data online and on the ground.  This is a big challenge that comes at a time when resources and interest in studying terrorism are on the decline; not an insurmountable challenge but one that will require some alternative solutions.  Additionally, if we only capture martyrdom biographies, we may be getting a snapshot of the least effective fighters or those with more of an inclination towards martyrdom.  What country’s fighters are the most talented and more inclined to stay alive and later come back home? 
  • Need to know the hometowns of recruits – Most news stories I read on foreign fighters speak only to countries. “FOREIGN FIGHTERS TO AL QAEDA ARE FROM SAUDI ARABIA/LIBYA/ETC.!”  This is meaningless.  It’s the equivalent of saying people from the East Coast are rude, the West Coast is lazy or the South is racist (All are 100% true by the way-did I get everybody angry this morning?).  Foreign fighter recruitment is a very local phenomena. To understand the dynamics that produce recruits and what can be done to mitigate recruitment requires much more micro-level data.  We need to know the hometowns of recruits, not their countries of origin.  Just looking at Aaron’s data, I’m guessing there are some important local dynamics at play in the recruitment numbers – see my circles below on Aaron’s table.  While these records report deaths, fighters from the same places often stick together, and in Syria probably die together.
  • Who is heading back home? – It appears that many of the fighters to Syria are getting killed.  But, which ones will return home? This is probably the more important point for understanding where this goes in the future.  Maybe they’ll stay in Syria, who knows, but we need to figure it out.
  • Are they joining “al Qaeda” or something “al Qaeda-like”? –  What the U.S. media is calling “al Qaeda” is a broad term that likely misses the essence of what is going on in Syria.  What if we are entering a post al-Qaeda age where things are similar at times to al Qaeda but in reality are turning into something new?  While Ayman al-Zawahiri has rightly tried to jump on the success of jihadis in Syria, Aaron’s data shows there are many jihadi groups receiving fighters and Will McCants discussed in his “Office Space” post that there are fractures in the Syrian jihadi groups similar to what has been seen with AQIM.  In the aftermath of Afghanistan 1980s, the mujahideen manifested into a threat called “al Qaeda”.  But after Syria, will we talking about a threat called “al Qaeda”? Or will it instead be morphing into a new threat known as “al-Nusra” with some of al Qaeda’s ideological goals plus some new ones? If al-Nusra focuses on fighting Hezballah after the Assad regime falls, we might not care too much.  But if al-Nusra turns its sites on Israel, well, I think there is a huge mess on the horizon.

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Syria’s Internet Blackout

This afternoon, the Internet went out on the Syrian Revolution.  Many months ago, I discussed how social media and uprisings are a two-way street noting that social media can 1) identify opposition leaders and 2) many countries have gained the capability to disable the Internet – essentially cutting off international connection to the revolt.  Well, today, Syria lost its Internet access.  Many are speculating why Syria took so long to shut off the Internet.  Here’s some thoughts being thrown about at the Washington Post:

Still, maybe one question here is why Syria didn’t do this sooner. Its uprising long ago exceeded Egypt’s and Libya’s in severity by the time those countries had instituted their own blackouts. One possible explanation is that Syria has been far more assertive online, using it as a tool for tracking dissidents and rebels, and sometimes even tricking them into handing the government personal data using phishing scams. President Bashar al-Assad has a background in computers, unlike the much older Hosni Mubarak and Moammar Gaddafi, and once even directly mentioned his “electronic army.” Assad’s regime may have seen opportunity as well as risk on the Web, where perhaps the Egyptian and Libyan authorities saw primarily a tool of the uprising. Or, perhaps the Syrian simply feared the economic consequences of an Internet blackout, or lacked the means to conduct it.

Rumor also has it the regime may be going into a serious engagement with the rebels.

So, for the US Government, what is the implication?  The first thing I thought was that the U.S. should quickly build a capability to deploy air-droppable Internet and Mobile Phone hotspots into denied areas.  These would need to be low cost and self powered (solar maybe).  If the U.S. wants to support uprisings and revolutions, especially without arming militias, we should help rebels keep their information campaigns going via social media as this is the lifeblood of these Arab Spring uprisings.  Just my two cents.

Update 0800 EST – An alternative Internet from Afghanistan

After I posted this last night, @El_Grillo1 sent me this article about an alternative Internet for assisting dissidents.  Here is a quote from the article and check out the story here.

The Obama administration is leading a global effort to deploy “shadow” Internet and mobile phone systems that dissidents can use to undermine repressive governments that seek to silence them by censoring or shutting down telecommunications networks.

Here’s some of the Internet outage charts everyone is excited about on Twitter and an old New York Times graphic showing Internet monitoring by country’s around the world.

Syria Support and ‘Loss Aversion’ – How do we think about foreign intervention? – 1 Year Post UBL – Results #5

Beginning on May 2, 2012, I wanted to find out two things with regards to one question.

  1. How supportive were voters to a Western intervention in Syria similar to the support provided to the Libyan resistance to overthrow Qaddafi?
  2. How susceptible were voters to the bias of loss aversion?  Much of the debate surrounding a Syrian intervention centers on the fear of military weapons and aid falling into the hands of al Qaeda affiliated individuals and groups.  Dan Ariely describes in his books, The Upside of Irrationality and Predictably Irrational, how fear of losses can loom larger than gains thus influencing our decisions with regards to risk. Having backed militias in Afghanistan that later provided the seeds for al Qaeda, the U.S. national debate with regards to backing the Libyan rebellion and now the Syrian uprising continually echoes with fears of “What if terrorists get our weapons?” – a justifiable fear.

To test these two things with one question, I’ve conducted a several month long experiment here at this blog via the “1 Year After Bin Laden” poll beginning on May 2, 2012 and a series of blog posts (#1,#2,#3,#4,#5,#6) during the months of August through October.  These blog posts used a variety of framing techniques designed to skew voting results with regards to ‘loss aversion’ testing (BTW – only @jeremyscahill - a journalist of course – called me out on my ridiculous framing of some of the questions).  The experiment and results come in two parts.

Experiment iteration #1 – Last question of the “1 Year After Bin Laden” survey – May 2, 2012 through July 16, 2012

Beginning on May 2, 2012, I distributed the “1 Year After Bin Laden” survey in a variety of venues.  However, there were two versions of this survey. Some respondents (90 in total) answered this question with regards to supporting Syria.

With regards to the current uprising in Syria, should the U.S. and European nations provide weapons, training and funding to the rebellion against the Assad regime if they can guarantee that 95% of all support will be gained by resistance fighters with no demonstrated connection to or ideological affinity for al Qaeda?

Some respondents (106 in total) answered this question with regards to supporting Syria – a question designed to frame the issue in terms of losses.  The hypothesis being those who receive the question referencing ‘loss of support to al Qaeda’ would select the choice to “not support the Syrian rebellion” at a higher rate.  Here’s the alternate question.

With regards to the current uprising in Syria, should the U.S. and European nations provide weapons, training and funding to the rebellion against the Assad regime even if 5% of all support provided would be lost to resistance fighters with a demonstrated connection and ideological affinity for al Qaeda?

Results Experiment #1: In this first experiment, I detected no sense of loss aversion skewing respondent choices with regards to supporting the Syrian resistance.  It didn’t matter which question voters received, they selected “Yes” or “No” in roughly the same distribution regardless of question context.  The overall balance of votes was 39% saying “Yes, we should support the rebels” and 61% saying “No, we should not support the rebels.”   In fact, those that received the loss aversion question were slightly more likely to select “Yes, we should support the rebels.”  I’ll have more analysis of these results below, but here is the breakdown chart of professional group votes for the Syria support question during the months of May through July.   Interesting points were:

  • ‘Academia’ voters were most likely to reject the notion of supporting the Syrian resistance.
  • ‘Military’ voters were more inclined to support the Syrian resistance even if some support were lost to people affiliated with al Qaeda.

 

Experiment iteration #2 – Single question posted at “Selected Wisdom” – August 27, 2012 through October 18, 2012

After analyzing the results from the “1 Year After Bin Laden” poll, I wondered if question wording, structure or placement made the bias of loss aversion not emerge.  Starting at the end of August, I decided to run this experiment again to look for 1) whether loss aversion was present with respondent choices and 2) if overall support for a Syrian intervention had changed since media coverage of Syria fighting became more profuse in recent months.
Through a series of blog posts on Syria and distribution of links on Twitter, several respondents (42 in total) answered this question with regards to supporting the Syrian resistance.

Should the U.S. and European nations back and resource the rebellion against the Assad regime in Syria if 95% of all support will be gained by resistance fighters with no connection to or affinity for al Qaeda?

Alternatively, some blog posts and Twitter links received answers to a different question (40 in total) with regards to their support for backing the Syrian resistance – again the hypothesis being those who receive the question referencing ‘loss of support to al Qaeda’ would select the choice to “not” support the Syrian rebellion at a higher rate.

Should the U.S. and European nations back and resource the rebellion against the Assad regime in Syria if 5% of all support will be lost to fighters connected to or aligned with al Qaeda?

Results Experiment #2: In the second experiment, despite significant changes in the intensity of the Syrian conflict, elapse of time, question framing, etc., I received almost the exact same results as in experiment #1.  I detected no ‘loss aversion’ bias.  Again, the overall balance of votes was 39% saying “Yes, we should support the rebels” and 61% saying “No, we should not support the rebels.”  A quick caveat, some of the voters to the second experiment were assuredly the same as those that voted in the first experiment. However, a significant amount were different as I used different and more dissemination platforms in the second experiment to gather an alternative sample.  I’ll post more cumulative analysis below, but here is a chart showing the results of experiment #2 from August 27, 2012 through October 18, 2012.

So, what does this all mean? I have lots of theories but a definitive answer would require more experimentation. Here are some of my initial thoughts:

  1. The crowd showed no real bias towards ‘loss aversion‘.  Looking at the table below, across the board respondents of all demographic breakdowns were generally split at a rate of 40% for intervention (‘Yes’ -Votes) and 60% against intervention (‘No’- Votes) with one notable exception in yellow.
  2. I believe the resistance to ‘loss aversion’, assuming I properly crafted the questions, results from a highly educated audience that knows a considerable bit about counterterrorism, counterinsurgency and national security in general.  Respondent knowledge of the topic helps them offset against question framing and arrive at decisions more analytically in this context.  This doesn’t mean that if you asked the same audience ‘loss aversion’ questions about the stock market, for example, that they would be equally resistant.  My guess would be I along with many of the respondents would be much more prone to a ‘loss aversion’ bias if queried on subjects for which we have limited knowledge and less data from which to offset the fear of losses.
  3. The ‘loss aversion’ question in the context of a Syrian intervention may not have worked because many I have talked to, and several respondents noted below, have a definitive ideological stance about foreign intervention of any kind.  Essentially, many I talk to reference getting involved in Syria quickly retort with “we should never get involved in these foreign interventions, look what happened in Libya (Iraq, Afghanistan, fill in the blank).”  Others will quickly respond with, “we intervened in Libya, so why shouldn’t we help out the Syrians?”  I believe individual respondent stance on foreign intervention in general overrides any bias detection injected by me through question structure.  Whether its Syria or any country, respondents have a pre-determined position on interventions.
  4. The recent U.S. support to Libya likely plays heavy on the minds of respondents and, depending on political preferences, can shape the responses to the Syria question.  The debate on Syria currently rests in a bizarre twist as I noted in a post this week.  The GOP appeared against a Libyan intervention under the Obama administration last year, but now has gone all in for supporting a Syrian intervention.  Meanwhile, the Democratic Obama administration backed the Arab Spring uprising in Libya but seems particularly reluctant to get involved in Syria before the upcoming election.  I’m curious how this will shake out in next week’s Presidential debate, and I have no idea how this shapes respondent choices to the Syria question during Experiment #1 or Experiment #2.

I’ll conclude with some last points related to the results breakout in the table below. The table shows the results by demographic attribute in Experiment #1 across both question types -”gain” and “loss”.  The results for Experiment #2 are at the bottom.  In green, I’ve highlighted lines I found particularly interesting and in yellow I’ve highlighted the most fascinating result.  Here are some final points:

  • Those identifying ‘Social Media’ as their primary information source were more against intervention on average.  Meanwhile, those that prefer ‘Newspapers’ seemed more balanced in their support for or against an intervention in Syria.
  • Those preferring ‘Television’ as their primary information source (a small sample) were ironically more supportive of intervention in Syria.  Is this because television portrayals provide more sympathy to the opposition and relate atrocities to the viewer in a different way?  No idea, but interesting.
  • The most interesting result is in yellow and relates to whether respondents live in and around the Washington DC metropolitan area.  Those residing around the nation’s capital were 20% more likely to be against a Syrian intervention than those that are currently living outside the beltway.  How about that?  What do folks in DC believe that the rest of the U.S. and world perceives differently?
  • In Experiment #2, I thought support for a Syrian intervention might go down after the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya.  However, the incident didn’t seem to change voting patterns.  In fact, the small sample of voters just before the attack were more against a U.S. intervention than those that voted after the Benghazi tragedy.

Here’s the full table, thanks to those that have voted and below the table are the additional comments provided by respondents to support their vote – some really insightful comments that define the key factors needing analysis as the U.S. sets its policy in Syria moving forward.

 

Here are the open comments submitted during experiment #1 from May through June 2012.

Here are the open comments provided during experiment #2 from the end of August through mid-October.

 

Ignatius take on Syria: “Get In There”

Only a few hours after I deliberated when the U.S. would take more aggressive action in supporting the Syrian Resistance against the Assad Regime, David Ignatius wrote an excellent commentary on the same issue referencing his recent trip to Syria.  Ignatius starts off his post where I concluded yesterday:

Left on its current course, America’s sensibly cautious policy toward Syria is unfortunately going to come to an unhappy end: The jihadist wing of the opposition will just get stronger and gain more power to shape Syria’s future.

Ignatius advocates the U.S. getting involved in funding distribution to the FSA – an argument also made by Asher Berman at SyriaSurvey.

If the United States helped coordinate funding, the Free Syrian Army would have several advantages: A better-organized opposition might defeat the regime, it would be better able to govern a post-Assad Syria and it could help the United States control Syria’s chemical weapons. That’s a trifecta — three good things in one.

Finally, Ignatius concludes with an interesting take on how the jihadists in Syria fund their operations through charitable gift packages from the Gulf.

Syrian jihadist battalions continue to raise their own money directly from wealthy Saudis, Kuwaitis and Qataris. The report to the State Department explains how this works. “The battalion rep or commander travels to Turkey, where he meets Gulf individuals or Syrians who live in the Gulf. The battalion presents ‘projects’ that need sponsorship, for example: targeting a checkpoint costs $20-30K, while targeting an airport cost $200-300K. . . . A video taping . . . is required to provide evidence of the operation.”

An interesting read….survey results of what you believe should be out tomorrow.

U.S. Decision On Syria Intervention Likely 30 to 120 Days Away

The news from Syria this past week has consistently returned the same general themes.  Here are some media reports I’ve been reading and I’ll highlight what I think are some key points with some commentary.

The New York Times article, “Rebel Arms Flow Is Said to Benefit Jihadists in Syria” notes:

Most of the arms shipped at the behest of Saudi Arabia and Qatar to supply Syrian rebel groups fighting the government of Bashar al-Assad are going to hard-line Islamic jihadists, and not the more secular opposition groups that the West wants to bolster, according to American officials and Middle Eastern diplomats.

Clarissa Ward of 60 Minutes (new Lara Logan I guess) provided a rather unremarkable post from her trip inside the Syrian resistance. A brave journey but the report doesn’t really reveal much that has not already been covered.  She does interview a jihadi leader in Syria but this was no PBS Frontline Ghaith Abdul-Ahad documentary.

The best article come from the The Guardian in their post “Syria dispatch: Rebel fighters fear the growing influence of their ‘Bin Laden’ faction.” If you are going to read one article on the Syrian resistance and its issues, I recommend this one. First, the article notes the FSA has had enough of the jihadists.

“Libyans”, muttered the rebel Free Syria Army leader under his breath, shooting the men a dirty look. “We don’t want these extremist people here. Look at them; we didn’t have this style in Syria – who is this? Bin Laden?”

Second, here’s the real danger – jihadists are uniting more than the FSA.

After more than a month of secret meetings, leaders of Islamist fighters – including the heavyweight Farouq Brigade that operates mainly in Homs province and influential Sukour al-Sham brigade of Idlib – have formed the “Front to Liberate Syria”.
“We are proud of our Islamism and we are Islamists. We do not want to show it in a slogan because we might not live up to the responsibility of Islam,” said the leader of the Front, Abu Eissa. “But we want a state with Islamic reference and we are calling for it.”

Interesting, so they don’t want to be called Islamists, Salafists or jihadists? They instead want to focus on local issues and institution of Sharia governance. Sound familiar?

Third, moderate secularists in Syria are worried about jihadists in Syria.

The Sunday Telegraph accompanied the head of the Free Syrian Army Supreme Military Council, General Mustafa al-Sheikh as he moved the FSA’s command centre from Turkey to inside Syria. They travelled nervously through Idlib’s countryside, in cars with blacked out windows, heavily armed, and with their rifles locked and loaded.
“It’s not because of the regime that we are carrying weapons. It’s because we are afraid of being attacked by the jihadists,” an FSA rebel later admitted.

Fourth, foreign fighters bring the cash.

Resistance groups that adopt a more overtly Islamist hue are finding it easier to attract financial support from abroad. Religious fighting groups are the prime beneficiaries of money and weapons donated by the government of Qatar, as well by wealthy businessmen and religious leaders in the Gulf and Saudi Arabia.

Foreign fighters from the Gulf brought lots of cash to Iraq. For a breakdown of foreign fighter donations upon arrival in Iraq, see this chart from my past research. The columns show what foreign fighters from each country contributed as a donation (first 2 columns), total cash on hand (second 2 columns) and what they had on hand in Syria (last 2 columns). The money data is confusing so read here, here, and here if you want more explanation of the Iraq foreign fighter records.  Bottom Line: If you want cash, get a Saudi recruit.

Here are my thoughts:

  • The Syrian resistance is not making significant gains against the Syrian regime.  After an initial flurry of success, the fight in many places appears to be at a stalemate.  This pseudo stalemate has resulted in….
  • An increase in foreign fighters, most of whom are jihadists.  These fighters come from both the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa and provide needed manpower, weapons and …..
  • Money.  Not only are foreign fighters bringing resources with them, but wealthy donors from Qatar and Saudi Arabia are backing the jihadists resulting in them expanding their influence in certain sectors and in many ways outpacing the Free Syria Army (FSA).
  • The FSA needs the support of the foreign fighters and the Gulf – weapons, manpower, and experience – but fractures continue to emerge.  FSA elements are now as worried about fighting the emerging jihadists in the country as they are about fighting the Assad regime.  This will distract the FSA from overthrowing the government, extend the revolution and result in even more foreign fighters being inspired and migrating to Syria.
  • Lastly, while the FSA can control certain sectors of cities like Aleppo, they still lack heavy weapons and remain completely vulnerable from the sky.

The U.S. remains largely on the sidelines. Reports suggest the U.S. is providing non-military aid to the Syrian resistance.  However, the U.S. fears providing much needed heavy weapons to Syria’s rebels as these weapons might have the potential of falling into the hands of terrorists operating in Syria.  So the U.S. and the West remain largely on the sidelines while donors from Qatar and Saudi Arabia back jihadist groups that continue to grow in Syria.  Essentially the fear that something might go wrong in the future (Terrorists getting U.S. weapons) results in the U.S. not playing a role in Syria and surrendering influence in a post-Assad Syria to those with the biggest wallets (The Gulf), while ignoring the other awful future scenario – an uncontested jihadi enclave in Syria threatening Israel to the west, undermining Iraqi stability to the east, and operating a safe haven projecting violence against the West globally.

The U.S. election continues to put the decision to further support to the Syrian resistance in delay.  The Obama administration, once criticized for intervening in Libya, likely fears getting involved in another unruly conflict (Syria) before an election and after the death of an Ambassador in Libya.  If the Obama administration wins a second term, will they begin dedicating more support to the overthrow of Assad? If so, the decision and support could come in as little as 30 days potentially.

Meanwhile, the Romney campaign has gone all in on backing the Syrian resistance despite being part of the party that only a year ago criticized U.S. intervention in Libya.  If Romney wins, his administration wouldn’t take office or likely make any substantive move before February.  If they did decide to intervene in February, would the FSA be able to hold out?  Would the FSA be completely eclipsed by the emerging jihadists in that four month period? Maybe so.

Regardless of which campaign wins, it seems to me the most useful action the U.S. could support, engineer, participate in is the institution of a No Fly Zone.  This would help put the resistance on level footing (closer) with the Assad regime and plays to the strengths of the U.S. and West as a whole.

So, the question is up to you, what do you think – cast your vote here and the final results will be published early next week. Thanks to all those that have already voted.

Frontline reporting on foreign fighters in Syria

Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, who has done two amazing documentaries on AQAP in Yemen and the revolution in Syria, recently published a piece in The Guardian describing the foreign fighters infiltrating the fighting in Syria.  Having spent many years researching why people travel from one country to join the fighting of an unknown group in another conflict (See here, here, and here), I found this article enlightening and consistent with other foreign fighter accounts.

Ghaith’s article is excellent and I encourage all those interested in the debate over whether al Qaeda is infiltrating the Syrian rebellion to check out his article.  Here’s some of the quotes I focused on:

Hundreds of international fighters have flocked to Syria to join the war against Bashar al-Assad’s government. Some are fresh-faced idealists driven by a romantic notion of revolution or a hatred for the Assads. Others are jihadi veterans of Iraq, Yemen and Afghanistan.

The disparate levels of fighting ability among the men was immediately clear. The Chechens were older, taller, stronger and wore hiking boots and combat trousers. They carried their weapons with confidence and distanced themselves from the rest, moving around in a tight-knit unit-within-a-unit. One of the Turks was a former soldier who wore western-style webbing and equipment, while the three Tajiks and the Pakistani were evidently poor. Their trousers were too short, their shoes old and torn.

  • Jihadi veterans are invaluable.  Ghaith notes the presence of one former fighter from Iraq, Abu Salam al Faluji, who had some harsh words for his comrades in arms.

One Syrian, breathing hard, said that he had fired three times at the tank and the RPG didn’t go off.

“Don’t say it didn’t go off,” Abu Salam admonished him. “Say you don’t know how to fire it. We used to shoot these same RPGs at the Americans and destroy Abrams tanks. What’s a T72 to an Abrams?

“Our work has to focus on IEDs and snipers,” he told the gathering. “All these roofs need fighters on top and IEDs on the ground. You hunt them in the alleyways and then use machine-guns and RPGs around corners.

“The problem is not ammunition, it’s experience,” he told me out of earshot of the rebels. “If we were fighting Americans we would all have been killed by now. They would have killed us with their drone without even needing to send a tank.

“The rebels are brave but they don’t even know the difference between a Kalashnikov bullet and a sniper bullet. That weakens the morale of the men.”

  • Casualties are mounting in Syria and especially for foreign fighters.  While its not unusual for foreign fighters to expire, they usually stick around long enough to make a significant impact.  However, a band of Chechens led by Abu Omar have already taken 25% casualties in merely two days.

But Abu Omar was angry. There had been 40 muhajiroun few days earlier but by the end of fighting that day they were down to 30. They had lost 10 men in two days.

  • Not all foreign fighters are welcome in Syria.  While Ghaith’s NPR interview noted that while there is a common enemy, the Assad Regime, the FSA is inclined to work with jihadi types.  However, the seeds of a post Assad battle between foreign fighters and the FSA already appear to be planted.

I spoke to the regional commander of the Farouq brigade, a muscular young lieutenant from the southern province of Dara’a called Abdulah Abu Zaid. “I will not allow the spread of Takfiri [the act of accusing other Muslims of apostasy] ideology,” he told me in his military compound a few kilometres from the border post. “Not now, not later. The Islam we had during the regime was disfigured Islam and what they are bringing us is also disfigured. The Islam we need is a civil Islam and not the takfiri Islam.”

The jihadis, he said, had looted and stolen from the local people and demanded protection money from local businesses in order not to steal their merchandise. “I managed to stop them,” he said, “and I won’t let them spread here.”

Later that day he issued an ultimatum to their commander, a Syrian called Abu Mohamad al Abssi, to leave the area with his foreign jihadis or he would be killed.

 

ISW Report “Jihad in Syria”: Context on Conflict

Last week, the Institute for the Study of War (aka ISW) put down another solid report on the conflict in Syria entitled Jihad in Syria. The Syrian conflict is horribly confusing and sporadically covered further muddying the debate over whether the West should or should not support the overthrow of the Assad regime.  ISW clearly has the best team and coverage of the conflict and has added a new dimension with this report expanding on their previous detailing of the FSA. Elizabeth O’Bagy has done an excellent job breaking down the different groups and facets of jihadism in Syria and appears to have really added some more horsepower to ISW’s team.
 
Here are some of the key findings from the summary I found of particular note:

  • I discussed on Twitter with some folks that I thought Syria would be the most ideal spot for jihadi migration as opposed to other Arab Spring revolutions.  This report notes:

Compared to uprisings in Libya, Egypt and Tunisia, the opposition in Syria faces a much greater threat of jihadist infiltration.  Many jihadi elements now operating in Syria are already familiar with the terrain, having been sponsored by the Assad regime for over three decades.  These jihadi elements turned against their former regime allies in 2011 and are now cooperating with local jihadists.

  • Being an election year in the U.S., the al Qaeda hype about Syria has been significant in certain circles.  However, this report notes:

Al-Qaeda’s direct involvement in Syria has been exaggerated in the media. However, small al-Qaeda affiliated networks are operating in the country, including elements of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abdullah Azzam Brigades, Fatah al-Islam and Jordanian Salafi-jihadists. Rather than sending large numbers of operatives, these networks are providing operational support, including trainers and bomb makers, in order to capitalize on the instability in Syria and expand their influence in the region.

  • And so the question remains, what should the U.S. do in Syria?  ISW’s report recommends…

The U.S. Government has cited concern over arming jihadists as a reason for limiting support to the Syrian opposition.  However, U.S. allies are already providing material support to the Syrian opposition, and competing sources of funding threaten Syria’s future stability by enhancing the influence of more radical elements. The confluence of jihadist interest with that of the Gulf states raises the possibility that these states may leverage jihadists for their own strategic purposes, while simultaneously limiting Western influence.

So if you haven’t voted yet, cast your opinion now, should the U.S. back the rebels in Syria?

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“The Battle for Syria” on Frontline – Excellent Reporting

For all those interested in current events in Syria, I recommend the new Frontline documentary “The Battle for Syria.” Another excellent piece of reporting again featuring Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, previously seen in Frontline’s feature on Yemen.

If you are a journalist wondering if you are the best war reporter, the answer is ‘No’. At best, you are #2. Ghaith Abdul-Ahad is clearly the best out there and has provided two in-depth accounts this year documenting critical battles in Yemen and Syria. Amazing reporting on his part.

Here’s the first video:

Watch The Battle for Syria on PBS. See more from FRONTLINE.

I also highly recommend Ghaith’s interview with NPR, which is where a lot of the good nuggets come from. Ghaith provides a good discussion on how Islamists and Secular rebels cooperate right now against the Asad regime but are likely to fight each other upon Asad’s fall. For those that have partaken in the “Should the West support the Syrian rebels?” debate here at this blog, here is Ghaith’s take on what the U.S. should be doing in Syria.

On the American approach to Syria

“I think [the U.S. is] taking the worst approach at the moment. They are not openly supporting the rebels, while they are, from under the table, coordinating with the rebels, letting their allies send them a trickle of weapons — the weapons are neither enough for the rebels to win nor for them to be defeated.

“So you have this prolonged conflict and mainly because of — not only the West, but the whole international community — paralysis of the Syrian situation. For months, the activists, the people were demonstrating in the streets, but no one wanted to touch the Syrian uprising because they feared it might change the balances in the Middle East. …

“So I think a big opportunity was missed when the activists were not supported, with the paralysis of the international community, allowing Russia, China and Iran to play a huge, big role in this conflict, allowing the Saudis and Qataris to sponsor militias and send weapons. So [the U.S. is] neither supporting the rebels, nor … stopping this conflict.”

For those interested in a detailed breakdown, see this interactive map on “The Battle for Syria”.

Unbelievable Photos from FSA fighting in Aleppo, Syria

The brave journalism of those reporting on the situation in Syria continues.  I saw this set of photos on Twitter and had to link to it. I’ll post one of the photos but definitely see the work of Tracy Shelton of Global Post.  She notes:

Earlier this week, I was filming a feature on life on the frontlines of Aleppo, Syria. I was camping out with the men of Noor Den al-Zenke batallion, who man a two-block stretch of back streets that now forms the final line between government troops and opposition forces

This is a picture from the point of impact where Tracey was covering the FSA.

 

See the rest of the photos at this link.  It’s well worth reading about this story and the continuing battle for Syria.

And last call for the “Should the West get involved in Syria?” survey.  Click here to vote and voice your opinion.

 

When should the West get involved in Syria’s chaos?

The news from Syria continues to get worse. The past couple of days have noted the bulldozing of homes, heavy civilian casualties and even more prescient – a flood of refugees. The New York Times reports:

More than 100,000 Syrians fled their country last month, a sudden acceleration of the exodus prompted by 18 months of conflict, the United Nations said Tuesday.

The fighting continues to get worse, but with occasional successes on the disparate parts of the FSA; a segment of which may have captured a Syrian military outpost and ADA battery in Deir el-Zour (Western Syria). Unfortunately, the U.S. position may have gotten more complicated again as a U.S. journalist and former Marine captain, Austin Tice, may be missing in Syria or detained by the Syrian government.

Tice was last heard from on Aug. 13, near Damascus. About a week later, the Czech ambassador to Syria said she had information indicating that Tice, a Georgetown University student and a former U.S. Marine Corps captain who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, is alive and being held by the Syrian government.

So, the question remains, should the U.S. start backing the rebels in Syria? Vote here and I’m posting the full results at the end of this week.

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