Deconstructing the idea of foreign fighters in Syria

Blaming religion for Middle East violence ignores nuance and absolves governments of their responsibility
7 min read
21 Jul, 2017
Comment: Facile interpretations of jihadist motivations are dangerous and counterproductive, writes Tristan Dunning.
A focus on an ideological war condemns us to repeat history, writes Dunning [AFP]
As the Islamic State group's territorial project slowly but inexorably comes to an end in Iraq and Syria, the White House is once again trotting out the twin rationales of foreign fighters and the impending apocalypse to absolve itself of any responsibility for the rise and spread of extremist militant Islam.  

Last week, US Special Presidential Envoy Brett McGurk revealed that the US-led coalition was compiling a database of foreign jihadists fighting for IS, thereby signalling that the White House may be preparing to shift the focus of its operations from the ongoing recruitment bazaars of Iraq and Syria, to the putative eschatological battle against extremist militant Islam on a global level. 

In similar vein, White House Deputy Assistant to the President Sebastian Gorka asserted earlier this year that IS propagated the idea that Judgement Day was nigh and that now was the last chance to engage in jihad and thereby ascend to Paradise.  

Invocations of such rationales as official explanations for the rise and persistence of extremist militant Islam are not only misleading, but also potentially counterproductive and dangerous. There are a variety of other more mundane reasons at play aside from supposed religious dogma.

Indeed, many of the Western fighters drawn to entities like IS and al-Qaeda, whether in Syria and Iraq or in terms of perpetuating "lone wolf" attacks, are recent converts to Islam, possess criminal backgrounds and exhibit, at best, a tenuous grasp of the faith's core precepts.

First, the presence of foreign fighters is hardly a unique phenomenon. There are various instances throughout history - for instance, the Spanish Civil War - where young people have travelled to a foreign field to fight and die in what they view as an idealistic cause. The poet Lord Byron died fighting in the Greek War of Independence against Ottoman rule. Moreover, one might apply a similar interpretation to almost any war where combatants participate voluntarily. 

It's important to remember that IS markets itself as fighting against tyranny, foreign occupation, imperialism and injustice. Ironically, a variety of Western leaders may have initially helped to encourage individuals to join the jihadists in Syria by repeatedly depicting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as an embodiment of evil. Recently, we were treated to the spectacle of (now former) White House Spokesman Sean Spicer apparently asserting that Assad was worse than Hitler.

It's also worth noting that IS and al-Qaeda are not the only armed groups that foreigners are fighting for. Westerners, for example, are fighting alongside the People's Protection Units of the Syrian Kurds against the forces of evil'

As such, it is entirely possible that, by inviting such comparisons, Western governments may have unwittingly motivated disaffected youth to join the battle against "such evil" - represented first by the Assad regime and now by jihadist groups such as IS and al-Qaeda.

It's also worth noting that IS and al-Qaeda are not the only armed groups that foreigners are fighting for. Westerners, for example, are fighting alongside the People's Protection Units of the Syrian Kurds against the forces of "evil". The question is why? In what might perhaps be interpreted as a quintessentially French viewpoint on the matter, French scholar Olivier Roy points to a crisis of modern life characterised by boredom, disillusionment and alienation - or ennui, as it were.

This is not even to mention the foreign fighters or mercenaries fighting on behalf of various governments including private armies such as the mercenary corporation formerly known as Blackwater, which fought on behalf of the US in Iraq, Chechens fighting for Russia in Syria, Iranian-backed Afghan and Iraqi Shia fighting alongside the Assad regime, and the Lebanese Hizballah, just to name a few. 

In the case of mercenaries, the reasons are far from idealistic, but more prosaically based around remuneration.

International volunteers, including former British infantryman Tony Ginnings (R), and a former Norwegian soldier (L), are fighting alongside Kurdish troops in northern Syria against the Islamc State group [Getty]

Even if we accept the numbers of foreign fighters provided by governments who have a vested interested in inflating them - predicted by the White House to number 36,000 overall with 6000 from the "West" - the staying power of the insurgencies entailing almost fifteen years in Iraq and six in Syria indicates that the majority of those fighting the Iraqi and Syrian governments are of local extraction. 

For these fighters, state tyranny and foreign occupation, alongside the promise of a wage in an environment characterised by a lack of employment opportunities, undoubtedly prompted many to take up arms.

Second, whether purveyors of views postulating an eschatological conflict between Islam and the rest are aware of it or not - and especially those positioned at the highest echelons of society - such rhetoric serves to propagate and reify the jihadist narrative.

Third, such lazy, generalised and ahistorical analyses will be seized upon and exploited by unscrupulous individuals in both politics and the media - among others - to further their own agendas by ratcheting up anti-Muslim sentiment.  Again, ironically, this validates the IS narrative, asserting that Muslims will never be welcome outside of an Islamic state. 

One of IS' strategies is to eliminate the "grey zones" of coexistence in the West and elsewhere, where Muslims and non-Muslims live in relative harmony. Through its actions, whether these be atrocities in Iraq and Syria or London and Paris, IS wants to provoke an anti-Muslim backlash that validates its narrative regarding the oppression and humiliation of Muslims.

The focus on the idea of religious dogma and foreign fighters is aimed at absolving a variety of governments in the Middle East and elsewhere of their responsibility

As such, those who most vociferously condemn Islam as a whole, rather than the specific salafi-jihadist narrative propagated by IS, al-Qaeda and the like, are actually fuelling the alienation and disillusionment that has caused people to gravitate towards such movements.

Fourth, the focus on the idea of religious dogma and foreign fighters is aimed at absolving a variety of governments in the Middle East and elsewhere of their responsibility in helping to foster the conditions that enabled the rise of al-Qaeda and then IS in the first place.

In brief, if we posit that the essence of the problem is religion itself, then we can forget about the Sykes-Picot agreement between the French and the British 100 years ago, dividing the failing Ottoman Empire into artificial states according to imperial rather than local interests.

It allows us to avoid the issue of US meddling in the region, including the disastrous invasion and destruction of the Iraqi state in 2003, which created a security vacuum facilitating the rise of al-Qaeda in Iraq and the subsequent emergence of IS.

It absolves the failures of the post-2003 Iraqi government to build a functioning state and the political elite's unashamed peddling of sectarian policies, which alienated the Sunni population so much that IS fighters were initially welcomed as liberators in Fallujah, Mosul and Ramadi in 2014.  

It elides the Assad regime's deliberate militarisation of the civil unrest in Syria in 2011, which turned the government's claim of fighting extreme Islam into a self-fulfilling prophecy, and thus validated the subsequent brutality that the regime and its Russian allies unleashed in densely populated areas such as Aleppo. 

It ignores the fact that Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states transferred arms and weapons to extremists in Syria to provoke a virulent regional proxy war between ostensible Sunni- (Saudi) and Shia- (Iran) backed entities, and thereby nix any chance of the democratic spirit of the 2011 Arab uprisings from spreading and succeeding.

Fixating on foreign fighters and eschatological conflict misidentifies the root causes of conflict in Iraq, Syria and the "war on terror" in general. This, in turn, has led to a variety of poorly informed and counterproductive policy decisions since 11 September 2001.  

Until we recognise the practical roles that governments have played, both in the Middle East and elsewhere, in fomenting and perpetuating the conditions that facilitate the rise and persistence of groups such as IS and al-Qaeda, then we are doomed to make the same mistakes again and the currently seemingly endless cycle of international violence will continue unabated.  

Dr Tristan Dunning is an adjunct research fellow in the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies at the University of Queensland in Australia.  He is the author of Hamas, Jihad and Popular Legitimacy: Reinterpreting Resistance in Palestine published as part of Routledge’s Critical Terrorism Studies Series in February 2016. Follow him on Twitter: @trisdunning

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.