“When our uprising started, we chanted ‘Syria is for all’, meaning that it’s for all Syrians. But it became for all the people around the globe. Mostly the bad ones, too. They misunderstood us”, Ahed Festuk told me. She is a 28-year-old pioneer activist who worked in the rebel-held east of Aleppo for more than five years.
There are no accurate statistics on the number of foreign fighters who have invaded Syria over the last six years, but it is estimated that between 27,000 and 31,000 foreign fighters have entered Syria and Iraq since the Syrian uprising started in 2011. Data provided by the Soufan Group, a strategic consultancy firm, in 2014 said that the identifiable number of foreign fighters was approximately 12,000 from 81 countries.
Yazan, an activist from the city of Idlib, wrote on his Facebook page recently: “Six years ago, if I found a foreigner visiting my town I would have taken a picture with him as a souvenir! Now foreigners are the ones who should be taking pictures with me, because I am the only Syrian in my neighbourhood!” Yazan lives in a neighbourhood that is mostly inhabited by international jihadists and their families.
As the borders between Syria and Iraq have been removed it is difficult to tell how the fighters are distributed between the two countries. In Syria, most of the fighters have joined the self-styled ‘Islamic State’ group, or Daesh, and have been living with their families in its territories in eastern Syria and the northern suburbs of Aleppo.
“The worst humanitarian crisis of our time has contributed to the worldwide rise of extremism”
But these are not the only newcomers storming Syria. A head of one of the rebel groups told me last year, after their battle against Syrian government regime forces in Retian, in northern Aleppo: “To call what is going on in Syria a civil war, aren’t we supposed to be fighting other fellow Syrians? Well, in this battle alone, we have captured ten fighters attacking our city. None of them are Syrian! They are Afghan refugees from Iran, and Lebanese fighters.”
Researchers Vincent Beshara and Cody Roche concluded that 53 foreign militias are fighting on the side of the Syrian government regime. They are mostly Shia Muslims. Iran alone commands a force of around 25,000 Shia Muslim militants in Syria, mostly made up of recruits from Afghanistan and Pakistan. While 61% of Syria’s population fled their war-torn homes, thousands arrived in Syria from Iran, Pakistan, the Gulf states, Iraq, Russia, Chechnya, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Tunisia, Europe, the United States and the United Kingdom.
Syria did not previously host such a variety of nationalities even in its peak tourism seasons. Now there are regular reports of American soldiers being killed while doing ‘consultancy’ work in the Kurdish areas of northern Syria; it is common to see videos of Turkish flags and soldiers in other rebel-held areas as part of their ‘Euphrates Shield’ operation.
There are now dozens of single-nationality militias that don’t allow Syrians to join, each using their own flags, leaders, territories and bases. There are so many conquerors that Syrians can’t keep up with their languages and cultures.
Suddenly Syrians are getting local news from the Russian media and news agencies. The Russian Defence Minister announced the details of the Aleppo forced-evacuation deal. The President of Russia is speaking on behalf of the Syrian army and state. Iranian Revolutionary Guard Commander Qassem Soleimani is held up as an example of the success of the Syrian Arab Army.
“Some analysts have even referred to the Syrian crisis as the reason behind Brexit and Russia’s increasing international power.”
“I passed the Russian checkpoint; in front of me is the bad Lebanese Shiites’ one, then the Iranians’. Both are moody and don’t respect the deal, so I am still terrified”, wrote Ola, an activist from Aleppo, to her sister as she was evacuated from Aleppo in December 2016.
Despite reaching an agreement with the Russians, the Iranian and Lebanese militias attacked the first convoy trying to leave the city, halting the evacuation process until their conditions were met. Russia, who granted the deal, even announced that they would be fire back on anyone targeting the convoys. The Russians livestreamed the process using drones.
Syria became the land of international complications. And Syrians have exported these complications to the rest of the world. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 4.8 million Syrians have fled to Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Iraq, and around one million have requested asylum in Europe.
Germany, with more than 300,000 applications, and Sweden, with 100,000, are the European Union’s top receiving countries. This number excludes all the family-reunion applications that allow a minor and one parent to bring the rest of the family to join them.
The worst humanitarian crisis of our time has contributed to the rise of extremism in all parts in the world. We feature in western parliamentary discussions and election debates, used by the left and the right to frighten those who do not support them.
Some analysts have even referred to the Syrian crisis as the reason behind Brexit and Russia’s increasing international power.
“We have wrecked the world”, I wrote after the UK’s EU referendum. A British friend of mine replied: “This is how I would define our karma for leaving Syrians to suffer alone for six years, being killed by all kind of internationally forbidden weapons, breaking every single decree in international human rights law. We Europeans are paying the price”.
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