The results of new research reported by the Guardian this week on young westerners who have travelled to Syria to fight in the civil war provide some fascinating insights into their motivations, their interactions with pro-jihadi communities online, and the groups they join when they arrive in the war zone.
According to researchers at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence at King’s College London, many of these young men are driven by what, in their minds, are humanitarian concerns for their co-religionists and the Syrian people. An article by George Monbiot comparing them to volunteers in the Spanish civil war was apparently very popular among these foreign fighters. But the fact that most volunteers (among whom the British are the largest contingent) appear to be joining the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis), or Jabhat al-Nusra to a lesser extent, shows that far from helping the anti-Assad cause, they are probably helping him to stay in power, and imposing yet more suffering on the Syrian population.
A UN report into human rights abuses in Syria describes four broad categories of rebel groups: democratic nationalists, Syrian Islamists, Kurdish nationalists, and radical jihadists such as Isis and Jabhat al-Nusra. Although the regime is responsible for the vast majority of atrocities and abuses in the war, the jihadists have been the worst culprits on the rebel side. As well as committing crimes against humanity in opposition areas, Isis has displayed severe puritanical cruelty in the areas it controls, in one instance abducting two 15-year-old boys, executing them, and mutilating their bodies beyond recognition, and in another subjecting a school headmistress to public lashing for not wearing the hijab.
The emergence of these extreme groups that appear to be attracting the most western fighters has been a gift to Bashar al-Assad, supporting his narrative that he is fighting not a popular uprising but a “war on terror”. One reason that minority ethnic and religious communities who may not love the regime have still not abandoned it is reportedly their fear of sectarian reprisals at the opposition’s hands. It must be emphasised that sectarian conflict is not the default setting or innate condition of societies like Syria, but something that requires a particular set of circumstances to bring it about. Here these include the collapse of the state in many parts of the country, the divide and rule strategy of the Assad regime, the failure of the mainstream opposition to reach out to and reassure minorities, and the rise of radical jihadism. Now, even the unlikely defeat of the regime could result in little more than the reconfiguration of these same divisions and the continuation of the bloodletting on different terms.
Syrians clearly have the right to defend themselves against Assad\’s brutal response to what began as peaceful calls for democracy. And, notwithstanding the moral and practical preferability of nonviolent struggle, an argument can be made that only force could ever topple a regime with a core as formidably solid as this one. Assad\’s father Hafez spent years painstakingly constructing a fortress of a governing system that could withstand any challenge, built around his extended family and long-term close allies, very few of whom have defected over the past three years. Certainly, it would have taken a fully national uprising to overthrow the Ba’athist state, and the groups that British and western fighters have joined have played directly into Bashar al-Assad’s hands by rendering that an impossibility. There are even some in the Syrian opposition who (probably mistakenly) suspect Isis of being a regime tool, such is the damage it has done.
There is an alternative course of action for people moved by genuine concern for the plight of the Syrian people. We can start by donating to the chronically underfunded international aid effort to help the millions of refugees in neighbouring states, and displaced persons and besieged civilians within the country. This is a form of “humanitarian intervention” carrying none of the risks and dangerous consequences of armed action, and whose effect would be immediate and real.
That applies in particular to those wealthy states who were agitating for military intervention last autumn, but who have conspicuously failed since then in the far simpler task of providing Syrian refugees with the minimum resources needed for dignified survival. In general, those concerned about Syria need to tone down the violent machismo, and place more emphasis on acts of generosity and kindness. (The Guardian)