More Than 25 Countries Are Fueling Syria's War With Religious Fighers

We’ve reported on how foreign fighters are vital to the Syrian opposition, but until now there hasn’t been a definitive report on how many have fought and died during the revolution-turned-sectarian conflict in Syria.

A new report, compiled by Aaron Y. Zelin of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in collaboration with Evan F. Kohlmann and Laith al-Khouri of Flashpoint-Intel, states that fighters from at least 25 countries have joined the “Convoy of Martyrs to the Levant.”

syriaThe authors — drawing from traditional media, jihadi forums, independent researchers, and social media — credibly established that 280 individual fighters died fighting between July 2012 to May 2013.

(Notice the number of fighters from Libya, Egypt, and Tunisia — three places that mounted successful revolutions prior to Syria becoming mired in sectarian war.)

The overall breadth of foreign rebels is astonishing — it doesn’t even mention reported fighters from Yemen — but that’s not the whole story.

This data may make many people believe, as the rebels battling the regime of Bashar al-Assad has said, that “foreign-backed terrorists” make up a substantial part of the opposition.

In reality, Zelin et. al. found, “Sunni foreign fighters in Syria comprise only a minority fraction of the overall rebel force — most generously, one could estimate 10%.”

Furthermore, while foreign rebel fighters have clearly influence the conflict, the report notes that there may actually be “more foreign nationals fighting on the side of the Assad regime than with the rebels.” 

Given the heavy presence of Shias from Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and Lebanon’s Hezbollah (not to mention Russian advisors), that conclusion is not implausible.

Nevertheless, the pace of the mujahideen mobilization is impressive: “what took six years to build in Iraq at the height of the U.S. occupation may have accumulated inside Syria in less than half that time.”

And the report notes that “the lion’s share of foreign fighters who are dying in Syria are fighting with the most hardline organisation involved in the uprising: Jabhat al-Nusra,” which has pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda’s central command in Pakistan.

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