Free Syrian Army fighters stand on alert in Damascus. (Flickr/FreedomHouse)
An investigation by BBC’s Radio4 Today programme has revealed a growing number of British men going to fight in Syria.
The report revealed that dozens of men have traveled from London and the Midlands to assist the Syrian rebels, in what some fear is a ‘theatre of jihad’.
Security Correspondent Frank Gardner was tipped off to the movement by testimony from British photographers kidnapped by the Free Syrian Army last month. The photographers reported hearing British accents among their captors. Gardner traveled to Birmingham to investigate and found that scores of young men had already made the trip.
The concept of volunteer fighters from the UK is not new. Last year saw many British based Libyans, particularly from Manchester, going to join the uprising. However, those traveling to Syria are not Syrian and have no national or ethnic connection to the struggle. Instead, Gardner suggested, they are taking part in an international jihad.
Birmingham Labour MP Khalid Mahmood worries about the long term consequences of the rebel movement, likening the conflict to British support of the Afghanistan war, which toppled the Russian invasion and led to the implementation of the Taliban.
‘I am extremely concerned at the moment because I see similar things to what has happened during the initial stages of the Afghanistan war, where we were supporting the Mujahideen against the Russians. We wanted to get the Russians out and we encouraged people, and armed people, to go out there and fight. To go and fight for the jihad,’ he told Gardner.
The British government is adamant that it is not arming anybody, and officials said they would discourage Britain thinking of fighting.
Help or hindrance?
Syrian freelance journalist Malik Al-Abdeh explained to Gardener how outsider help isn’t always welcome.
‘People inside Syria, they don’t necessarily want those people coming to fight,’ he said in an interview. ‘I head from Free Syrian Army contacts that actually we’re not in great need of foreigners coming to fight. Actually these foreigners hamper the effort inside Syria, because you’ve got language barrier, different culture, they don’t have knowledge of the local area and so on.’
Theatre of jihad
Experts now worry that the Syrian conflict could become an Al-Qaida training camp for international jihadists.
Peter Neumann, professor of Security Studies at Kings College London, told the Today Programme, ‘Certainly Al-Qaida is trying to take advantage of the situation in Syria. When the Arab revolutions first happened early last year Al-Qaida was fairly silent… it was not the sort of this that was supposed to happen, because Al-Qaida is about armed revolution and these revolutions are peaceful. Now with the situation in Syria Al-Qaida a suddenly perceives an opportunity.’
In a Russian television interview posted by the Guardian Syrian president Bashar al-Assad confirms the presence of foreign fighters saying, ‘Yes there are some foreign mercenaries, some of them are alive. They were detained and we are going to expose them.’ He goes on to explains that the Free Syrian Army is obtaining weapons from outside the country, mostly from Lebanon and Turkey, but that their governments are not necessarily involved.
Meanwhile an article in the Washington Post earlier this week examined how US economic sanctions on the Syrian government may inadvertently be harming the resistance movement. Sanctions put in place by the Obama administration have lead to many Western technology firms breaking relations with Syria. However this has also had consequences for the rebel movement as it has restricted online tools, such as e-mails, blogs and anti-tracking software that could be used to covertly coordinate rebel groups. Social media proved a key tool in many of the ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings last year.
The conflict in Syria is far from over. Bloody images of destruction, inflicted by both sides of the conflict, are hard to ignore. But the impact of foreign influence is yet to be fully seen.
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