While foreign Islamic volunteers in Syria are sometimes well-equipped and fierce fighters, organizations under their control are smaller and seen as foreign elements by most Syrians, who envision the future of their country in terms other than a global struggle, according to Laurent Vinatier (Thomas More Institute, Paris, and Small Arms Survey, Geneva). Vinatier recently presented a lecture at the French Institute of Anatolian Studies in Istanbul, which RW attended. Vinatier’s research has focused on jihadist volunteers coming from the Caucasus (his main area of research). There are currently between 600 and 1,000 jihadists — many Chechens — but others hail from other countries of the Caucasus. Beside them, there are a number of Libyan fighters, as well as jihadists from Tunisia, Egypt, Morocco, Yemen and Saudi Arabia. Some of them join local groups, while other ones have their own units.
Foreign jihadists have several motivations for fighting in Syria. All of them cite a hadith (saying) attributed to Muhammad, according to which, on the day where there will be fighting in Yemen, Iraq and Shams (i.e. the Levant, including today’s Syria), fighters will gather there and the caliphate will be (re)established. The jihadists often cite the call to correct injustices suffered by Muslim women and children as a reason for coming there. Moreover, Vinatier also found that fighting in Syria can be viewed as a continuation of a struggle in the jihadists’ home countries. For instance, for Chechens, fighting in Syria is also another way to fight against Russia.
The most important Syrian jihadist group is Ahrar al-Shams. Among foreign jihadist groups, the one that is most often quoted is the Islamic State of Irak and Shams, an Al Qaeda-connected group of Iraqi origin, which has extended its operations to neighboring Syria and includes a number of volunteers with Saudi and Yemeni backgrounds. It includes Syrian fighters, but all commanders are foreigners, which means it is perceived as foreign by the Syrian population. Moreover, the brutality of those foreign fighters and their harsh understanding of sharia (Islamic law) do not always go well along with the feelings of the local (Muslim) population. Thus there is a lack of legitimacy at this point. In addition, while anti-Shiite feelings are widespread among Syrian Sunnis, their goal is to liberate Syria, not to start a war against Hezbollah in Lebanon, Vinatier concludes.