Foreign Jihadists Gaining Power In Syrian Opposition

Via Reuters comes news that the Syrian opposition forces are becoming more and more dominated by foreign jihadists, some of which may have links to groups like al Qaeda:

(Reuters) – Foreign Islamists intent on turning Syriainto an autocratic theocracy have swollen the ranks of rebels fighting to topple President Bashar al-Assad and think they are waging a “holy war”, a French surgeon who treated fighters in Aleppo has said.

Jacques Beres, co-founder of medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres, returned from Syria on Friday evening after spending two weeks working clandestinely in a hospital in the besieged northern Syrian city.

In an interview with Reuters in his central Paris apartment on Saturday, the 71-year-old said that contrary to his previous visits to Homs and Idlib earlier this year about 60 percent of those he had treated this time had been rebel fighters and that at least half of them had been non-Syrian.

“It’s really something strange to see. They are directly saying that they aren’t interested in Bashar al-Assad’s fall, but are thinking about how to take power afterwards and set up an Islamic state with sharia law to become part of the world Emirate,” the doctor said.

The foreign jihadists included young Frenchmen who said they were inspired by Mohammed Merah, a self-styled Islamist militant from Toulouse, who killed seven people in March in the name of al-Qaeda.


The doctor’s account corroborates other anecdotal evidence that the struggle against Assad appears to be drawing ever greater numbers of fellow Arabs and other Muslims, many driven by a sense of religious duty to perform jihad (holy war) and a readiness to suffer for Islam.

But while some are professional “jihadists”, veterans of Iraq, Afghanistan, Chechnya or Libya who bring combat and bomb-making skills with them that alarm the Western and Arab governments which have cheered the rebels on, many have little to offer Syrians but their goodwill and prayers.

Beres described treating dozens of such jihadists from other Arab countries, but also at least two young Frenchmen.

“Some of them were French and completely fanatical about the future,” he said. “They are very cautious people, even to the doctor who treated them. They didn’t trust me, but for instance they told me that Mohammed Merah was an example to follow.”

Walter Russell Mead argues that stories like this point out the dangers of the non-interventionist argument in Syria, but I think it does just the opposite. If we were to put our thumb on the scale for the Syrian rebels at this point, there seems to be a very good chance that the we’d be aiding people whose long term desire is to turn Syria into an Islamist state. If they were to succeed, then the prospects for that country would be grim indeed. The nation’s Christian and Alawaite minorities would be vulnerable to attack, and the nation itself may be forced into civil war as various ethnic groups bid to protect themselves and perhaps even try to break up the country into separate enclaves. Lebanon would be vulnerable to the spill over effects of a civil war and jihadist movement, as would, potentially, Turkey and Jordan. Then, of course, there’s Israel, which is unlikely to look at the prospect of an Islamist state on its northern border with much delight, especially given the current goings on in Egypt. Why would we want to put ourselves in the middle of that mess?

FILED UNDER: Middle East, Quick Takes, World Politics,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. michael reynolds says:

    I agree this is one we stay out of. The fact is, Shia regimes have been generally gentler with Christian and Jewish minorities than Sunni regimes. Obviously we can’t back Assad because he’s an animal. But we can’t back the opposition because they may actually be worse — which would take some doing. (The notion that arms sales necessarily give us control over a faction was pretty effectively disproven in Afghanistan.) I think we should let Turkey take the lead on this, they’re a NATO member, a democracy, and a regional power. This is their turf. Not everything has to be our war.

  2. stonetools says:

    I’m sure the neo cons will blame this on Obama, because we had intervened forcefully earlier, the jihadists would have never gained influence, or something.

    Sometimes stuff happens in the world, and it just isn’t America’s business.

    If you are a neocon , though, then of course you view Israel as the 51st state and this is a border conflict, and therefore is a direct threat to the USA. .

    Yet another reason to re-elect Obama, instead of voting for Romney, with his team of neo con foreign policy advisors.

  3. Scott says:

    I think we have proven over and over again (Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt, Iran) that we cannot control the consequences of our actions. The lesson to be learned (which I think we are finally learning) is to stay out of what are largely internal, civil wars.