The Syrian Civil War has demonstrated the influx of foreign fighters on both the pro Assad regime and Rebels. Regional countries play significant roles supporting either side, influencing political settlement in a conflict that will continue for years to come.
The Assad Regime Regional Supporters
The Iraqi Nuri Al Maliki government has been facilitating the transfer of weapons from Iran to al-Assad’s forces through its borders. Shia militants, pro Shia regime supporters and groups from Iraq have been flooding into Syria to support the Assad regime. Some of the main groups are Liwa Abu al-Fadhal al-Abbas brigade, Badr Organization, and the Promised Day Brigade. Syria is an essential pillar of Iran’s grand strategy and its support to Syria is unquestionable. Iran’s strong support of the al-Assad regime is driven less by historical precedent and cultural affinity and more by realpolitik realities. As a result, Iran’s commitment to al-Assad remains steadfast and it is willing to spend significant blood and treasure to prevent a Sunni replacement government from taking root in Damascus. In order for Iran to achieve its strategic outreach, it sent in members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) to Syria along with its special branch of the Quds forces (an Iranian cross between the CIA and the Special Forces, whose main concern is to help Assad win the civil war in Syria). The Quds Force Commander is Qassem Suleimani and reports directly to the Ayatollah Khamenei, not to President Rouhani. Iran is doing what it can to keep Assad in power by means of finances, money, training, intelligence and equipment. The Iranians and Syrians also depend on the Lebanese Shia Hezbollah group involved with the Assad regime; Hezbollah fighters have the experience, the structure, the discipline and the ideological motivation, control and unity of command.
Russia has been backing the Syrian regime of Assad and has stepped up its military support for the Syrian government by supplying new armored vehicles, surveillance equipment, radars, electronic warfare systems, spare parts for helicopters, and various weapons including guided bombs for planes. Russian military advisers were sent to Syria, manning some of the anti-aircraft defenses sent by Russia.
The Opposition Movement
The opposition movement in Syria has been fragmented from defectors of the Syrian army forming rebel groups under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army in July 2011. In addition, Kurds from Iraq, Turkey, and the diaspora have gone to fight with their Syrian Kurdish brethren in the People's Protection Units militia, the armed wing of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, that’s affiliated with the Free Syrian Army. Ultimately, the Kurds seek international recognition for its plan to form a transitional Kurdish government in northern Syria.
An estimated 1200 rebel groups are currently fighting against the Syrian government. These factions first emerged out of a narrow local context within Sunni villages and neighborhoods. Over time, many have merged into bigger formations and connected across provincial boundaries creating alliances. Lack of unity has made coordination difficult on the battle field and limited effectiveness of the rebel operations as well as reducing the rebel’s ability to garner international support and backing.
Islamist rebels announced the creation of the Islamic front, gathering some of the largest factions in the Syrian Civil War (est. 45,000-50,000 fighters). Meeting in Turkey, they confronted the general staff of the westerns backed SMC (Syrian Military Council) demanding greater representation in any joint rebel leadership, arguing that it should be dominated by the force on the ground. The meetings were preceded by talks with Qatar’s Foreign Minister, Khaled Al-Attiyah. Due to the stance of the SMC against the Islamist group, the Islamist leaders declared their own rival body. Their main objective is resisting the Assad regime and forming an Islamic state.
This announcement led to the dissolution of the Syrian Islamic Front (SIF) and resulted in the break-up of the SMC-aligned Syrian Islamic Liberation Front (SILF). This move has undermined the SMC, and the SIF announced that it had withdrawn from the SMC's command. Its fighters drove out SMC-aligned forces from their headquarters and warehouses at the Bab Al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey, prompting the US and UK to suspend "non-lethal" assistance for rebel groups in northern Syria. In December, Islamic Front fighters took control of facilities and equipment belonging to the U.S.-backed SMC, including some U.S.-supplied materiel. This incident, along with the Front’s continued rejection of the U.S.-preferred strategy of negotiation and the group’s long-term goal of establishing an Islamic state in Syria, raise fundamental questions about whether and how the United States and the Western countries should engage with the Front, despite its capabilities and prominence.
In November 2013, seven Islamist groups - Harakat Ahrar Al-Sham al-Islamiyya, Jaysh Al-Islam, Suqour Al-Sham, Liwa al-Tawhid, Liwa Al-Haqq, Ansar Al-Sham and the Kurdish Islamic Front - declared that they were forming the largest rebel alliance yet in the Syrian conflict, with an estimated 45,000 fighters. They said the new Islamic Front was an "independent political, military and social formation" that aimed to "topple the Assad regime completely and build an Islamic state". They outlined a new command structure, with key roles shared between the seven groups, and said they would work towards a "gradual merger". The Islamic Front does not include al-Qaeda affiliates like the Al-Nusra Front, or other independent expanding groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS). The Islamic front’s charter welcomes foreign fighters as "brothers who supported us in jihad", suggesting it is willing to co-operate with them.
The Syrian Jihad Dynamics
Europeans and Arabs continue to represent the bulk of foreign fighters (up to 80 per cent), and individuals from Southeast Asia, North America, Australia, and (non-Arab) Africa have been identified. It is believed that residents and citizens from at least 74 countries have joined militant opposition groups in Syria. Foreign fighters are also attracted to Syria by the Islamic significance of the Levant. Aided by fatwas (religious edicts) from prominent Sunni clerics such as Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi – a widely read and followed theologian – in late July, in which fighting in Syria was deemed a “fard” ( a duty ) from late 2011 to December 2013 -- between 3,300 and 11,000 individuals have gone to Syria to fight against the Assad government.
Qatar has sent funds and most of the weapons to the Syrian rebels since 2011 and since 2013 Saudi Arabia has emerged as the main group in financing and arming the rebels. Providing air defense weapons will enable the rebels to encounter the Syrian Army's air superiority. Turkey has seized one opportunity from the conflict in Syria and that is to solve the Kurdish problem giving it leverage in the situation in Northern Syria.
Post Conflict Bearings
The same dynamics of the post Anti-Soviet Jihad in Afghanistan may emerge in the aftermath of the Syrian conflict. Foreign fighters hailing from Western countries, the Middle East and North Africa will return to their home countries hardened by battle and empowered by an extremist ideology. They may conduct attacks in their home countries or use their Syrian experience to export violence to other countries.
Low-level violence has already spilled over into Lebanon and Turkey, and conditions that could ignite an escalation of the conflict are present. This is especially true as the Lebanese Hezbollah has ignored the Lebanese government’s policy of non-intervention in the Syrian conflict. Jordan, Turkey and Iraq are facing problems with Syrian refugees and have significant concerns about violence spilling across their borders. Turkey has struggled to manage a massive influx of refugees from Syria. Additionally, Ankara’s alleged support of Sunni rebel groups, both in and outside its borders, has heightened ethnic tensions at home. Jordan, although it overtly backs rebel groups fighting against Al-Assad’s forces, is highly concerned about the concentration of Islamist extremist groups with ties to Al-Qaeda fighting along its border in southern Syria. Moreover, sectarian strife that has plagued Iraq over the last decade is now being exported to the Syrian conflict.
The Assad regime is able to consolidate the areas to which it has control – they don’t want to overstretch themselves and have firmly seized the momentum capturing one rebel strong hold after another. Sectarian violence may be the defining features of the Syrian Civil War. The extended period of the situation in Syria, in case of humanitarian issues and war conflict is up for years to come. The side that is able to conduct influential winnings in the battlefield and capable of gaining international recognition and support will dominate any current and future political resolution.
Mohammed Salama is Research Analyst – Egypt & MENA Region, in the International Affairs Division at the Center of International Relations and member of the geopolitical consultancy Wikistrat.