On December 10, 2013, Foreign Policy Magazine reported that the number of foreign fighters participating in the fight against Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad has eclipsed the number of jihadists who fought side-by-side in Afghanistan in the 1980s. “At this rate,” according to Foreign Policy’s Thomas Hegghammer, “the foreign fighter flow into Syria looks set to extend the life of the jihadi movement by a generation.” In July 2013, Hegghammer claimed that “about 5,000 Sunni fighters from more than 60 different countries have joined the Syrian rebels since the uprising began in 2011,” and he believes that number exceeds the number of foreign fighters in Afghanistan at any one time in the 1980s.
What makes Syria such an appealing destination for foreign fighters, in Hegghammer’s view, is the fact that the country is logistically easy to reach and enter, and it is relatively safe for first-time jihadists. Vast portions of the country’s east and north are under the control of Sunni rebels, and well-established facilitators have been operating networks of safe houses on Syria’s borders with Turkey and Iraq since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Not only is it easy for aspiring jihadists to get established in Syria, but there are enough safe areas on the back lines that fighters can engage government forces at their own pace before retreating and recuperating, even outside Syria if necessary. Such a permissive environment for jihadists abroad has not been seen since the 1980s in Afghanistan, where, according to Hegghammer, “risk-averse volunteers could hang out in Peshawar, stick their toe into Afghanistan, and then go home claiming to have waged jihad.” For this reason, Hegghammer expects foreign fighters in Syria to overtake the Afghanistan total within two years.
While the sheer number of foreign fighters does not specifically confound Western policy-makers, the fast-moving dynamics of group formation, merging, and rebranding makes it difficult to keep track of who the “moderates” are. The U.S. finds itself in a situation reminiscent of the 1980s inasmuch as the legions of anti-Assad fighters are officially acting in accord with the U.S. position on Syria, which is to have Assad leave office once and for all. Yet while the number of jihadist volunteers is exploding, the U.S. must be sure to disaggregate groups of foreign fighters in a way it never had to in Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda’s legacy casts a dark shadow over the Syrian situation, and there are many groups that bear some familiar features. While paranoia over the past causes many policymakers in the U.S. and abroad to expect a repeat of history, the type of fight going on in Syria has very little to do with traditional “al-Qaeda” ideology.
The deluge of Sunni Islamist fighters into Syria – along with their diverse backgrounds and affiliations – is definitive proof for some analysts that the jihadist ideology of al-Qaeda no longer resounds with the new generation of jihadists. Although al-Qaeda’s leadership were never as ideologically homogenous as many policy-makers assumed, the attacks of September 11, 2001 and the familiar rhetorical tropes of “near enemy” and “far enemy” – characteristic of the bin Laden era – allowed many al-Qaeda scholars to make an authoritative claim about Sunni jihad in the 21st Century. The target for Sunni jihad, in their view, was the United States first and foremost, and by extension, its authoritarian proxies in Cairo and Riyadh. However, since the emergence of a cliquish Shi’i-led regime in Iraq, and in response to Assad’s abhorrent treatment of his own population in Syria, the “sectarian jihad” against Shi’i domination has been a much more persuasive call to arms for Sunni youth around the world.
When Abu Musab al-Zarqawi focused so much of his attention on attacking Iraq’s Shi’i population, he drew the ire of al-Qaeda’s senior leadership. In 2005, U.S. troops in Iraq intercepted a letter from Ayman al-Zawahiri in which he rebuked Zarqawi for alienating the majority of Iraqis by attacking fellow Muslims. With Zarqawi’s death in 2006, and a successful U.S. campaign to engage the Sunni tribes of western Iraq starting around 2007, security forces stemmed the tide of rampant sectarian violence. But thus far in 2013, civilian deaths in the country – mainly the result of attacks on Shi’i targets – have eclipsed 8,000. Zawahiri’s message to refrain from killing fellow Muslims is less relevant to Sunni jihadists today than ever before. In conflict with Zawahiri’s vision, attacking Shi’i civilians and security forces in Iraq and Syria is now the singular focus for a new generation of Sunni jihadists. Not coincidentally, Zawahiri went so far as to “abolish” the al-Qaeda protégé Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) for its rogue behavior in Syria last month.
While there appears to be a more unified agenda for Sunni jihadists in Iraq and the Levant, the shared enemy is really the only thing these diverse groups have in common. Their alleged solidarity, in other words, is a pretense for policymakers determined to ostracize militant Islamist groups in Syria. On December 10, 2013, American media reported that the U.S. “suspended nonlethal aid to northern Syria after a new alliance of Islamist rebels [The Islamic Front] took over warehouses belonging to a Western-back rebel council [The Supreme Military Council].” The Wall Street Journal reported that The Islamic Front “excludes the two main al Qaeda-linked rebel groups,” but this distinction will not be enough to allay policymakers’ fears about the group’s “Islamist” baggage. As a result, communication between the U.S. and the most unified Syrian rebel group seems to be lost. On December 18, American Ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, announced that The Islamic Front refused to meet with the Americans in preparation for the “Geneva 2” conference on Syria scheduled for January 22, 2014.
As the situation becomes more convoluted and policy decisions more difficult, the knee-jerk reaction for many in the West will be to treat the Sunni jihad in Syria as monolithic, just as many policy-makers did with al-Qaeda in the years leading up to and following 9/11. In the near term, however, the evolving identity of global Sunni jihad will bear an ever-lessening resemblance to the “comfortable” familiarities of the old al-Qaeda, even while the number of foreign fighters in Syria increases dramatically.