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Who brought foreign fighters into Syria?

Fear of regionally reviving organizations like al-Qaeda does not only threaten Syria but it also threatens countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan

Abdulrahman al-Rashed

Published: Updated:

Iran’s Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani once defended his country's intervention in Syria by stating that they only intervened after fighters were “200 meters” away from Damascus. However, my topic today is not about Iran's intervention as its aims are widely known, but is instead about Syrian rebels who arrived in Damascus long before extremists entered Syria.

Around two years ago, there were only a few hundred extremist fighters in Syria and most of them were present in southern areas close to Iraq.

It is known that the oppositional Free Syrian Army (FSA) was created in 2011, following peaceful protests in Daraa and Damascus, for the purpose of confronting the brutality of the Syrian regime. The FSA quickly expanded in Aleppo, Hama and other governorates but it did not raise sectarian or religious slogans. Its demands were purely patriotic.

Most of those who joined it were citizens from different social classes. Their motive was to get rid of terrifying security institutions and to end the practices of the inside circle linked to the president which resorted to thuggery and persecution.

Two years later, the FSA had seized several areas. However, during this phase, media campaigns were launched against it and against those who supported it. These campaigns doubted the FSA's patriotic intentions and raised questions over its loyalty to Western countries, as well as the funding it received and its leaders. Truth be told, the arming and support of the FSA was carried out under the knowledge of the international community and supervision from several parties in what was known as "military rooms" in which representatives of Western countries were also involved. But unfortunately, as the FSA progressed, two significant developments changed the power struggle.

Creating an opposition

Competitive motives, narrow interests and the idea that Damascus' fall was near, lead to increased competition. This is why some countries attempted to create an opposition that was loyal to them. They therefore supported the establishment of local extremist organizations and encouraged foreign extremists to enter Syria to fight. Meanwhile, when Iran saw the FSA fighting around Damascus, it did the same thing and sent Hezbollah militias there. It also assigned generals from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards to establish similar extremist groups from Iraqi and Afghan organizations, among others, and sent them to Syria. This is how Syria became the arena for the biggest war among terrorists in the region.

Fear of regionally reviving organizations like al-Qaeda does not only threaten Syria but it also threatens countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan

Abdulrahman al-Rashed

Any cooperation with extremist groups in the confrontation against Assad’s regime thugs and Iran's militias was a huge mistake, because ISIS had already considered all parties to be its enemy and it even fought the FSA more fiercely than it fought Assad's forces. Those who supported extremist groups thought that ISIS and al-Nusra Front were a useful, destructive weapon against Assad and a convenient means to follow the FSA to Damascus.

Unfortunately, this strategy is being repeated in Libya where extremists were depended on for the same reason. The result is one and the same: riding on the back of the beast does not make beast obedient.

Other political parties who sympathize with the Syrian people were alarmed at an early phase and voiced their concerns about the FSA and the leadership of Syrian National Coalition, which includes all sects and ethnicities.

Fear of regionally reviving organizations like al-Qaeda does not only threaten Syria but it also threatens countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. A Saudi source told me that Riyadh has issued warnings to citizens traveling to Syria, adding that high-ranking Muslim scholars were asked to cancel calls regarding the obligation of "jihad" for Muslims. He added that concerns have reached the extent of Saudi Arabia informing Turk officials that they can arrest any Saudi citizen who crosses the 36th parallel north circle of latitude, as there are no touristic or commercial areas there, and those who cross that point most probably want to sneak into northern Syria.

Saving and rehabilitating the Assad regime is impossible and has become a faraway prospect; however, the regime has succeeded at one thing, which is to destroy the post-Assad era in Syria. The Syrian regime is not the only party to blame. Those who were dragged behind misconceptions and behind unrealistic and illogical theorists and visionaries are also to blame.


This article first appeared in Asharq al-Awsat on Nov. 24, 2015.

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Abdulrahman al-Rashed is the former General Manager of Al Arabiya News Channel. A veteran and internationally acclaimed journalist, he is a former editor-in-chief of the London-based leading Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat, where he still regularly writes a political column. He has also served as the editor of Asharq al-Awsat’s sister publication, al-Majalla. Throughout his career, Rashed has interviewed several world leaders, with his articles garnering worldwide recognition, and he has successfully led Al Arabiya to the highly regarded, thriving and influential position it is in today

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.