Great uncertainty continues to shroud the ideological composition of the insurgency that is raging across Syria. The motivations of the rank-and-file of the Free Syrian Army (FSA – the armed wing of the Syrian National Council [SNC] opposition movement) and the constellation of factions that claim to be fighting under its auspices, are provoking serious concern. Displays of sectarianism, expressions of Salafist dogma and a spate of improvised explosive device (IED) and suicide attacks redolent of al-Qaeda that are occurring with growing frequency in Syrian cities, validate fears of the presence of radical Islamists within the armed opposition. Islamist militants fighting under the FSA banner or with Syrian organizations harboring expressly radical Islamist agendas such as Jabhat al-Nusrah and Kataib al-Ahrar al-Sham are making their presence felt in the insurgency (al-Akhbar [Beirut], August 6). 
Allegations that foreign-born radical Islamist militants hailing from around the globe are streaming into Syria, are appearing with increasing regularity in media accounts of the conflict in Syria (al-Jazeera [Doha], August 23; al-Akhbar, July 26). Since the start of the uprising, influential radical Islamist ideologues as diverse as al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, exiled Syrian Salafist cleric Sheikh Adnan al-Arour and Lebanon’s Dai al-Islam al-Shahhal have appealed to Muslims to travel to Syria to fight the Ba’athist regime (al-Arabiya [Dubai], February 12; Daily Star [Beirut], April 16). Al-Qaeda’s Iraq-based affiliate, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), and the Algeria-based al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) have also interjected themselves into the campaign by publicly declaring their solidarity with the insurgency. AQIM commander Abu Musab Abd al-Wadoud (a.k.a. Abdelmalek Droukdel) issued a video statement in August lamenting the Algerian government’s position on the crisis in Syria and the predicament of Syrian refugees in Algeria (Al-Andalus Media Foundation, August 27) Abu Hussam al-Shami (a.k.a. Abd al-Aziz al-Kourkli), the commander of the Khilafah Brigades of Lebanon’s Fatah al-Islam militant group, was killed near Damascus earlier this month (OnlyLebanon.net [Beirut], September 8).
Foreign fighters from Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, and Kuwait who have been killed on the battlefield have been lionized on radical Islamist websites and chat room forums as martyrs (al-Jazeera, September 4; Al-Arabiya, February 12). Despite his movement’s formal renunciation of violence, a spokesman for Egypt’s al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya admitted that three of its members have been killed in fighting in Syria in September and that other Egyptians are eager to join the insurgency (al-Masry al-Youm [Cairo], September 11). The insurgent al-Furqan Battalion that is operating in Syria’s northern Idlib Province announced that a number of Algerians and Moroccans have been killed in the violence (El-Khabar [Algiers], September 10). There are also indications that a cohort of non-Arab fighters has made its way to Syria that includes Turks, Pakistanis, Afghanis, and Somalis (Radikal [Istanbul], August 22). Europeans, including British-born militants of South Asian extraction, are also said to be fighting in Syria (Daily Times [Lahore], July 30). While providing critical medical treatment to victims of the conflict during a secret humanitarian mission in Syria’s northern city of Aleppo, Dr. Jacques Beres, co-founder of the medical charity Doctors Without Borders, observed that about 60 percent of his patients were insurgents, and that at least half were foreign fighters (Reuters, September 8; Daily Star, September 10).
Much like Afghanistan and Iraq before it, Syria is emerging as a jihadist battlefield for both aspiring and hardened militants. The Liwa’a al-Ummah movement, a band of largely Syrian militants led by Libyan veterans of the anti-Qaddafi campaign, has been active in Syria since May.  Mahdi al-Harati, one of Liwa’a al-Ummah’s commanders, is a Libyan-born Irish citizen who helped lead the Tripoli Brigade in Libya. Liwa’a al-Ummah, which claims no affiliation with the FSA, has enlisted the support of a number of Libyan and other foreign volunteers in its drive to topple the Ba’athist regime in Syria (al-Akhbar, August 6; Irish Times [Dublin], August 1).
Despite the presence of foreign fighters in Liwa’a al-Ummah, most of the foreign fighters that fill the ranks of the insurgency appear to be attaching themselves to various disparate factions, including ones that profess to operate as part of the FSA. FSA leaders categorically reject all charges that implicate the armed opposition with radical Islam.  Nevertheless, there is ample evidence to indicate that a number of FSA-affiliated factions adhere to ultraconservative Salafist or similarly hardline worldviews. Led by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, Islamists of various persuasions also occupy a dominant role within the SNC. The leading role played by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states (the GCC is a leading supporter of ultraconservative Salafist movements globally) in sustaining the opposition to the Ba’athist regime is also illustrative of the ideological trajectory of the insurgency. The sectarian makeup of the insurgents – the FSA is overwhelmingly composed of Sunni Arab defectors and civilian volunteers from Syria’s Sunni Arab majority – is also cause for consternation. The dominant role played by the Alawite minority in Syria’s existing power structures is a source of bitterness among conservative Sunnis opposed to the Ba’athist regime. Many orthodox Muslims, especially Salafists, consider Alawites to be heretics, a perspective that is aggravating sectarianism in Syria.
Reliable assessments of the numbers of foreign fighters active in Syria do not exist. At this stage, their overall numbers are likely to be relatively small in relation to the broader insurgency. Nevertheless, the implications of the emergence of foreign fighter movements in Syria extend beyond quantitative estimates. As the experiences of Afghanistan and Iraq have demonstrated, foreign fighters tend to be among the most ideologically determined actors on the battlefield. Seasoned militants often provide invaluable tactical and operational expertise in critical areas as varied as constructing and deploying IEDs to engaging in light arms skirmishes, skills possibly learned while fighting U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq or participating in other campaigns. Foreign fighters typically serve as force multipliers on the battlefield by offering veteran leadership and confidence to struggling insurgencies; alternatively, the presence of foreign fighters can also undermine the legitimacy of political and armed opposition movements while acting to further destabilize fragile polities. In light of mounting reports of foreign support for the insurgency, it is these same factors that raise troubling concerns over the presence of foreign fighters in Syria. Considering the avowed Salafist and radical Islamist orientation of the majority of the foreign fighters in Syria, including many with allegiances to al-Qaeda, their presence in that country most certainly signals an attempt to exploit the conflict to serve a broader, global agenda that extends beyond controlling Damascus.
1. The official website and Twitter page of Jabhat al-Nusrah li-Ahl al-Sham min Mujahedeen al-Sham fi Sahat al-Jihad (The Support Front for the People of the Levant by the Levantine Mujahedeen on the Battlefields of Jihad) are available at: https://ansaralsham.blogspot.com/ and https://twitter.com/JbhatALnusra, respectively. The official website, Facebook, and Twitter pages of Kataib al-Ahrar al-Sham (Battalion of Free Syria) are available at: https://www.ahraralsham.com/, https://www.facebook.com/A.Alsham.Army, and https://twitter.com/Ahraralsham, respectively.
2. Sheikh Adnan al-Arour’s regular public appeals to Syrians and Muslims in the Middle East to support the insurgency can be viewed on his official YouTube channel, available at: https://www.youtube.com/AdnanAlarour.
3. The official Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter pages of Liwaa al-Ummah (Banner of the Islamic Nation) are available at: https://www.facebook.com/Lewa.Alamah, https://www.youtube.com/user/Liwaalummah, and https://twitter.com/liwaalummah, respectively.
4. The FSA has become so concerned with its poor reputation that it has recently announced that it will be changing its name to the Syrian National Army.
Chris Zambelis is an analyst and researcher specializing in Middle East affairs with Helios Global, Inc., a risk management group based in the Washington, DC area. The opinions expressed here are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of Helios Global, Inc.