Salafist Extremists Returning Home from Syria Exercise Ground: Outlook and Consequences

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Farzad Ramezani Bonesh
Researcher and Expert on Regional Issues

Various dimensions of presence of Salafist foreigners in Syria

Due to the involvement of foreign Salafist and radical warriors, the ongoing war in Syria has turned into the world’s biggest battleground for foreign mercenary militants after the experience of jihad in Afghanistan [against the occupation of the country by the Soviet Union forces] in 1980s. Some sources have noted that foreign warriors now involved in the Syria conflict come from 60 different nationalities. Of course, different figures and analyses have been given on this issue. Some other sources have noted that extremist and radical militants have flocked to Syria from more than 100 countries. If this process continues over a long period of time, there is the possibility that Syria will gradually turn into another Somalia, Afghanistan or Pakistan as a result of the presence of Salafists and other radical foreign militants who have gone to Syria to engage in both jihad and military training. The Salafist and radical militants fighting in Syria can be divided into a number of groups as follows.

The first group consists of Salafist and radical elements hailing from Arab countries of the region. This group of Salafist and radical elements cover a wide range and mostly have their origins in the member states of the (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council [(P)GCC] as well as the Middle Eastern and North African countries. During the past three years that the conflict in Syria has been going on, they have gone to the Arab country on the basis of various ideological motivations resulting from religious fatwas (edicts) issued by certain clerics in those countries. Of course, economic incentives resulting from financial backing of the Arab and Western countries for the foreign militants in Syria have provided them with higher motivations as well. The common goal of all of them, however, is to fight against the Syrian government in order to overthrow it.

The second group of Salafist and radical elements in Syria come from Russia and its allies in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. In this group, there are militants coming from such countries as China, Russia, and former republics of the Soviet Union, who are now fighting against the government in Damascus. In the early months after the beginning of the armed insurgency against the Syrian government, foreign militants affiliated with the Wahhabi insurgents in North Caucasus were present in Syria. Apart from them, there are militants and radical Salafist elements that have gone to Syria from such countries as Afghanistan, Pakistan and China. In fact, Pakistan, and to a lesser extent, Afghanistan, which were already playing host to a large number of Salafist and jihadist militants, have currently turned into a source from which such radical forces and jihadist Salafists are exported to Syria. The support accorded to the incumbent Syrian government by certain member states of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (notably, China and Russia) and the neutral position taken by other countries in addition to the dire economic situation in some countries from where militants set off for Syria, are major incentives that attract radical forces to the war-wracked Arab country. To the above list should be added the ideological and at times economic motivations which have prompted a great number of Salafi radicals to end up in Syria. Some of them have even set off for Syria to learn Islamic sciences and Arabic language despite the fact that Egypt and Saudi Arabia were previously traditional destinations for such a purpose.

The third group of Salafists and radical elements present in Syria comes from European and other Western countries. Although Salafist and radical forces originating from European and Western countries do not account for a large number of militants in the war-torn country, but even this small group has been able to draw attention from many quarters. Some of the European and Western Salafist and extremist forces, who are citizens of their own countries, are sometimes of Arabic and Muslim origins. Some of them come from the former republics of the Soviet Union. Others are still local Muslim youths or new converts to Islam who have been influenced by the propaganda campaign launched by preachers or satellite networks in their countries as a result of which they have left their original countries for the Middle East – Turkey in particular – from where they are dispatched to Syria.

The problem of getting back from Syria exercise ground

During the past two years, encouraging the presence of radical Salafist forces in Syria was considered a tactic and a factor that would bring about the overthrow of the Syrian government. However, since the Al-Qaeda-affiliated group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant has become more powerful, the problem created by the presence of the foreign radical militants in Syria has assumed new dimensions. At present, more attention is paid to the issue of the return of the Salafist militants and radical elements to their countries of origin. In fact, as the crisis in Syria escalates many countries in Europe and other parts of the world have become aware that the current situation is, by no means, to their benefit as Syria may gradually turn into another Somalia, Pakistan and even Afghanistan. The question now facing them is how they can possibly head off the consequences of the return of their Salafist citizens and how these governments can restrict their capabilities and influence? Let’s not forget that these forces have already become more radical through participation in Syria conflict and, additionally, they now know how to make bombs and have become more consolidated and united compared to the past.

Concerns resulting from return of militants from Syria exercise ground

As a result of their contacts with Al-Qaeda militants, Salafist radicals have become even more radical and they may carry with them the extremist ideas to European countries. Although not all militants returning from Syria are radicals, those who have traveled to Syria on the basis of powerful motivations and are also citizens of the Western countries, can take their terrorist operations right back into the heart of their own countries. It is also possible that they would decide to take advantage of the experience they have gained in Syria in order to embark on more terrorist operations in that country. In the meantime, following the relative subsidence of the crisis in Syria as a result of a recent agreement between the United States and Russia, pressure on the militant groups have been increasing and it is quite possible that many militants may decide to go back to their countries. There is another concern about the fate of these militants. Considering the support provided by the Western and Arab intelligence services to radical Salafist forces present in Syria, now the member states of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and their allies are really concerned that the West may redirect the militants that are fighting in Syria toward Russia and its allies within the SCO. On the other hand, now that pressures on the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad are in decline and his government is becoming more stable, it seems that the Arab countries of the region are also more worried about the return of the radical elements to their own countries.

It is for sure that the exercise ground provided to radical Salafist and jihadist forces in Syria can provide further grounds for bigger and more consolidated games which will be played by them in the Western countries, their allies, and the Arab states of the region. At any rate, if the diverse variables, which are currently at work, contribute to the exit of more Salafi and radical forces from Syria, their countries of origin should expect those radical Salafist and Takfiri forces to start playing a more pronounced role in their own countries after they have had enough exercise in Syria.

Key Words: Salafist Extremists, Syria, Shanghai Cooperation Organization, Russia, China, Europe, Western Countries, Al-Qaeda, Ramezani Bonesh

Source: Fars News Agency
Translated By: Iran