The Middle East moves ever closer to a wider war. Whilst each of the major players in the region aligns itself with one side or the other, the Syrian civil war is now attracting thousands of foreign fighters. Jihadists from Jordan and Egypt are converging on Syria to join the fight against President Bashar-al-Assad and his ally Hezbollah. Iran’s Revolutionary Guard is already inside Syria and has been operating in support of the regime for some time. Reuters reported in February that Iranian officials, as well as a Syrian rebel commander, had announced the death of a Revolutionary Guard commander, who was killed when his vehicle was ambushed by rebels. He had been returning to Lebanon at the time of the attack.
Sunni Islamist groups in a number of countries are now urging young men to join the battle against the Syrian regime. Egypt’s President Morsi, embroiled in continuing unrest at home, has given his blessing to Egyptians who want to fight alongside the Free Syrian Army, an umbrella term for the various rebel factions fighting to overthrow Assad.
Just as Soviet-occupied Afghanistan became a gathering-point for Islamist fighters, including one Osama bin Laden, so it appears that Syria may be the next big crusade for international Sunni extremism. Security officials in the region recently estimated that as many as 2,500 Egyptians had already made the journey north. It is generally believed they are being trained in Jordan, although the Jordanian government is trying to prevent its own citizens from joining the war; earlier this month, a military tribunal in that country jailed three men for trying to join the rebel Nusra Front in Syria. Jordan shares a border with its war-torn neighbor and is highly sensitive to the possibility of being exposed to Syrian aggression.
According to a report in Al Arabiya, an unnamed expert on Islamist extremism stated that he would not be surprised if the civil war in Syria attracts up to 30,000 foreign fighters within the next few months. According to a BBC report, Syrian-American industrialist, Khaled Mahjoub, said “More than 42 countries are now sending fighters to cause bloodshed in Syria.” In addition, fighters from Europe are believed to be traveling through Turkey to join the rebels. Videos uploaded to the internet indicate that the European jihadists have been joined by others from Pakistan, Chechnya, Libya and Iraq.
Recently, a group of mothers and fathers traveled to Damascus from Tunisia, in an effort to locate their sons who had entered the war in Syria. A Syrian opposition group has called upon all foreign fighters – regardless of which side they are aligned with – to leave the country immediately. The opposition is made up of Sunni Muslims, battling to topple the Shia-dominated regime of Bashar-al-Assad. Shias make up around 15 to 20 percent of Muslims, worldwide – mostly concentrated in Iraq, Iran and Syria. The reason why the Syrian war will continue attracting thousands of foreign fighters is that it represents another escalation in the struggle for hegemony, in the Muslim world, between the two principal factions; the Sunnis and the Shias. This convergence of jihadists will be of enormous concern to several other Middle Eastern countries, such as Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan and – not least – Israel. Also, however, it spells danger for Europe and North Africa. As the United States prepares to involve itself, there is little hope of predicting how far the Syrian war will spread.
Written by Graham J Noble