From the very first days of the uprising in Syria, dictator Bashar al-Assad has maintained that foreign jihadists (his version of “outside agitators” I suppose) were dominating and leading the violence and preventing the return of peace for ordinary Syrians. It remains a standard line in the propaganda of those supporting Assad. As time has gone on, however, this initially dubious claim has increasingly seemed accurate, as foreign fighters have flooded the country by the thousands.
(To be sure, President Assad can hardly deflect the qualifying facts that he played host, for years before the war, to the Baathist command structure of the Iraqi insurgency that evolved into ISIS and then intentionally allowed hundreds of foreign jihadists to join ISIS in the first three years of the civil war.)
The currently heavy foreignness of the opposition now seems evident to most observers, whatever its original composition might have been. Although it remains difficult to get accurate counts to determine the relative balance of foreign insurgents to Syrian-born rebels, it is clear the both ISIS and Nusra Front are heavily dominated by non-Syrians, particularly at the leadership level. ISIS has had effective control of the eastern anti-government forces and territory since last summer, while Nusra Front now has effective control over the main western insurgency forces in the primary conflict arena.
What then are the consequences for native Syrians of flooding Syria’s civil war with foreign combatants?
According to The Economist, the foreign leaders and low-level fighters alike have increasingly shown very little regard for the interests, desires, or welfare of Syrian civilians — insisting that this war has long since left behind its humble origins as an attempted revolution against an incumbent regime and is now about an almost messianic, darkly visionary mission to control and rule Syrian land for the future good of the world. For foreign groups and combatants, this battle is no longer about what Syrians want or need but about vying for the soul of the world at any cost:
The motives of those going to fight are as varied as their passports. In the early days of the war in Syria, foreigners wanted to help their fellow Muslims, by bringing them food and medicine, or by fighting alongside them. Governments throughout the West were saying that President Bashar Assad and his atrocities must be stopped. Doctors such as Abbas Khan, a Briton, travelled to rebel-held Aleppo—only to be killed in Syrian custody after being captured by Mr Assad’s forces.
Since then the fight has become bloodier and more sectarian. Civilians have died in the tens of thousands — the UN says at least 190,000 Syrians have been killed — and rebel crimes have become more frequent. As a result the war is drawing in more extreme types. Those who talked of defending Syrians now deny that the land belongs to the locals, says Shiraz Maher of ICSR. “Bilad al-Sham”, or Greater Syria, has a special status in Islam because it appears in end-of-time prophecies. It belongs to Allah, fighters declare. But what if Syrians do not want Islamic law? “It’s not up to them, because it’s for Islam to implement Islamic rule,” says the European fighter who says he left his home country because it was not Islamic enough. He says he wants to “educate rather than behead Syrians”.
Rarely do average citizens benefit from being ruled by apocalypse-daydreaming madmen who believe the people’s land has a higher, foretold purpose beyond the quotidian concerns of civilians just trying to live their lives in peace.
To reiterate an argument I made last month:
Is the regime viscously sectarian, as critics still maintain? Yes, but so are the opponents.
(Indeed, “sectarian” doesn’t even seem to cover it now.)
It doesn’t help, either, that so many rebels are foreign fighters. It’s hard to get exact statistics on the ratio of foreign to domestic, but the Times report quoted above seems to indicate that at the very least many domestic commanders have been trapped outside the country or relegated to the sidelines of battles, while foreign commanders control the rebel forces, including both Syrians and foreigners. Unfortunately, foreign fighters and leaders care even less about the welfare of the populations they are allegedly there to liberate than their local counterparts. People were miserable before the war, but they were alive. Now they are dying horribly (often by starvation) under siege in the war.
Bashar al-Assad may be monstrous but he has proven himself during this war to be a fairly rational, self-interested, strategic-thinking, even cost-cutting monster. And unlike essentially every foreign jihadist now fighting in Syria, Assad at the very least wishes to see a re-unified Syria remain under his control and is not interested in apocalyptic visions of boundless global expansion at the expense of Syria.
It’s not much, but it’s not nothing. To quote myself from November:
Plus, there’s not a whole lot of point in defeating a rebellion and forcibly reuniting a country if you spend all your money to win and then kill all the people who live in it after peace has been achieved. Assad has always maintained, fairly convincingly, that he genuinely viewed himself as suppressing a terrorist-supported insurrection against the integrity of the country more than a bid to remain in power. Perhaps that’s baloney, but if he believes that’s true (or at least wants to persuade everyone it’s a real belief), he has a strong incentive — yes to fight massively toward peace, but then — to ensure the peace is preserved once won.
Still, let’s be clear: There is plenty of evidence to suggest that Assad is still by no means acting in any kind of good faith toward civilians under rebel control — and more specifically that he has invested a lot of energy into trying to sway Westerners (like me) into believing “there is no alternative” and that he is the best option among various competing evils.
For example, there’s an Al Arabiya article (caveat: it’s Saudi royalist media and the royals staunchly oppose Assad) detailing President Assad’s PR strategy to win over — or at least neutralize — Western media coverage, as well as his targeted prisoner-release strategy to help build up ISIS into a force that would make him the only viable alternative as a governing authority for Syria’s future.
With that qualification in mind, as I said in December:
[…] I’m not entirely comfortable with the arguments I’m making here — but the closer I look (and with all things considered after 3 years of brutal block-by-block combat), the regime actually starts looking like a not entirely unreasonable entity that might be the better winner in the end. It really doesn’t seem all that likely that Assad is going to just straight-up murder everyone if the rebels stop fighting and end the war. I’m sure there will be retributions of various kinds, as there usually are after bitter wars, but if he starts wholesale slaughters, everyone will just pick their guns right back up again and re-start the war. There’s a built-in incentive for Assad to show some restraint after the war.
There are, I would venture, some distinct advantages for all involved to dealing with self-preservation-oriented, nationalist despots over transnational, ideological armed zealots. If nothing else, at least Assad wants the civil war to end at some point, whereas the foreign fighters don’t automatically view ending the conflict as a goal. Unfortunately, this dichotomy likely precludes much chance of a negotiated peace of any kind.