Like moths to a flame: the effect of the Syrian war on Britons

One of the interesting side effects of the Syrian uprising is the effect it has had on non-Syrians

H.A. Hellyer

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One of the interesting side effects of the Syrian uprising is the effect it has had on non-Syrians. Not on a political level – obviously, many countries in the region and internationally have engaged with the issue. But on a social level, the conflict has had repercussions – even as far afield as the UK. Last month, Charles Farr, the director general of the Office for Security and Counter Terrorism, suggested that more than 200 “UK-linked” individuals had gone to fight in Syria against the brutal Assad regime. He declared it with some alarm – and he is not the only one. Many in the UK, and more broadly in Europe and the West, are worried about this trend – and it has provoked a serious response from the political and security establishments. Is there something to be worried about? What is the appropriate response to such a tendency developing?

In the contemporary age, it is common to find a conflict drawing in members of other non-associated nationalities. Modern modes of communication ensure that details of such conflicts spread far and wide – no less so than today, where Syria-watchers in London might know specifics about an attack in Homs before others do in Syria itself. In the Spanish civil war in the 1930s, the famed writer George Orwell left England to fight, without being directed as part of the British armed forces. In Bosnia, many Europeans and Americans fought without being part of national armies; the same had happened in Afghanistan in the 1980s. During the revolt in Libya, there were also fighters from Europe and the United States.

The religious component

Most (although not all) of these fighters going to Muslim countries were, and are, themselves Muslim, and fought, as most of the foreign fighters in Syria today now do, due to what they consider to be a religious obligation to assist their oppressed brethren against a tyrannical regime. For Western governments and security services, that is the main difference between these fighters, and those who went to Spain in the 1930s and elsewhere – the religious component. The fear is quite simple: is this religious obligation part of a wider religious ideology, which will then translate into these fighters engaging in hostilities against Western countries, if they ever return home?

Rapists, murderers and paedophiles do not have their citizenship removed from them – they are charged, judged, and sentenced, but they remain British

H.A. Hellyer

It’s a concern that warrants careful attention. From what we know about the brigades that Western fighters are joining, they are often made up of radical extremists who support an al-Qaeda style neo-religious fanaticism. Pretending that they are all simply pro-revolutionary freedom fighters would be naïve beyond measure. Nevertheless, given the scarcity of knowledge about these fighters, it is also important not to automatically jump to conclusions about each of them. In the last few decades, there were many Muslim Westerners who went abroad to fight in what they considered to be just (and religiously warranted) struggles, and returned back home to the West (and elsewhere) without any disturbance.

Careful attention, however, ought to be just that – careful attention. Careful attention means, for example, a public official interviewing, and debriefing, such individuals upon arrival back in the UK – if, indeed, they return. Many go on such missions to Syria expecting never to return, with no intention of ever returning. Those that do ought to be interviewed upon returning to the UK, with decisions about follow-ups to continue afterwards. Such debriefs take place with any soldier in the British Army upon returning to the UK, or at a station before coming home – it ought to be the same for any non-British Army fighters.

Legally barred

What is not, however, “careful attention” is what is currently being considered. There have been multiple reports of Britons who have travelled to Syria being legally barred from returning to the UK altogether, and having their citizenship stripped from them. If such an eventuality were not bad enough, such procedures have been known to take place without even notifying the Briton in question. The British state ought to make it clear: British citizenship is not something the state is permitted to remove from the citizen, even while it reserves the right to investigate its citizens, under the law. The Crown is the guarantor of the law for all citizens – whether he or she is a criminal sentenced to life imprisonment, or the highest noble in the land. The government serves at the Crown’s pleasure – and as such ought to guarantee citizenship, always, to the citizens of the United Kingdom. If they are suspected of a crime, then they should be investigated, and if guilty, convicted. But summarily stripping their citizenship is another matter entirely.

Rapists, murderers and paedophiles do not have their citizenship removed from them – they are charged, judged, and sentenced, but they remain British. Why should fighters who go to Syria be treated differently? If the Briton in question is a security threat, then he ought to be accorded the same due process that any Briton receives. At the very least, if there are deeply extenuating circumstances that require the removal of citizenship, such circumstances ought to be made abundantly clear in a transparent court of law – not via an executive decision that may or may not be revealed.

Resolving concerns

There are, of course, solutions to resolving these concerns. The first is to ensure that Turkish authorities recognise those concerns, and co-ordinate with European allies on when fighters return. The second is to establish a transparent and open system that debriefs fighters when they return home, and keeps in touch with (or tabs on) them, should that be deemed necessary. If executive action of any sort is deemed to be necessary, then it ought to be carried out after openly applying in court, with full legal measures applying. It is not that such returning fighters ought not to be treated with a degree of initial suspicion – but suspicion ought to mean an investigation. Not an executive decree without due process.

Finally: none of these fighters would be going to Syria at all, were the international community not failing the Syrian people so abysmally. The quickest way to ensure that no British and Western citizens travel to Syria to fight with, or on the same side, as radical extremists, is simply to ensure they have no reason to. That, incidentally, would solve quite a few problems – including the tens of thousands of innocent Syrians that continue to pay the price for this brutal conflict.


Dr. H.A. Hellyer, non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, the Royal United Services Institute, and ISPU, previously held senior posts at Gallup and Warwick University. Follow him on Twitter at @hahellyer.

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