Friday, 26 July 2013

SYRIA: The Danger of European Jihadists

To fully understand the European Union's role in the Syrian crisis, a small thought experiment could prove helpful. If you were a party in the civil war in Syria, which of the following actors would you most like to have as an ally? The Russians, who deliver military supplies and demand political influence and a warm-water port in return? The rulers in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, who guarantee an endless supply of weapons in exchange for ideological compliance? Or perhaps the Americans, who remain hesitant to become involved but are nonetheless the world's most influential political and economic power? One thing is clear : Europe is not on top of the list. Why?

The western governments say they are in favor of toppling Assad but become increasingly reluctant to drag themselves in to this everlasting conflict. One of the reasons behind this ''change of heart'' attitude is the rise in number of European jihadists among the Syrian rebels. They fear that these jihadists will one day return to Europe, equipped with deadly military skills, trained in the tradecraft of international terrorism, and steeped in the extremist anti-Western ideology of al Qaeda and its Syrian brethren, the al-Nusra Front.

There are now as many as 1,000 European fighters from 14 European countries, representing more than 10 percent of foreign fighters in Syria. The profile of the fighters changes from country to country. In Ireland, Muslim leaders have compared the country's fighters to the international brigades that fought the Spanish fascists in the 1930s. Valls, the French interior minister, has portrayed his country's fighters as social misfits, "marginalized … juvenile delinquents. It's often people who were criminals before.

French Interior Minister Vallis describes the situation as '' a ticking time bomb''. Tallies of these European fighters vary. But by Valls' count, there are more than 600 of them involved in the Syrian war, including 140 French citizens, 100 Brits, 75 Spaniards, 87 Germans, 106 Belgians and 94 from Netherlands. This new generation of fighters forms a kind of European Union of jihadists, hailing from the traditionally Christian cities and villages of Austria, Belgium, Britain, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Norway, Spain, and Sweden. Most are young men from Muslim families, about 80 percent, with the remainder being French converts to Islam. "Some go for humanitarian reasons," he said. "Some go to fight against Bashar."

The perceived threat of the returning jihadists varies from country to country. The Netherlands, for one, has designated Syrian blowback as among its top international security threats. On July 1, the Netherlands' National Coordinator for Security and Counterterrorism, which claims that 50 to 100 Dutch jihadists has travelled to Syria, warned in a statement that "one of the most salient potential threats to the Netherlands is posed by jihadist[s] travelling to Syria and their potential return to the Netherlands."

In Belgium, law enforcement authorities have set up a network of national and local security units to track returning jihadists. "The Belgian authorities have lately been confronted with the departure of Belgian citizens -- or people residing in Belgium -- who go to Syria in order to join the armed opposition," according to a confidential memo sent by Belgium to the European Union's 28 member states. "It has appeared that many of these individuals join radical Islamic groups."

The memo noted that Belgian law enforcement authorities carry out raids on suspected extremists and that they're establishing Syria cells in each of the country's main police zones. On April 16, police carried out "48 searches and several arrests," the culmination of a yearlong anti-terrorism investigation. "At the end of this investigation indications appeared that young Belgian citizens were incited to go to Syria to fight against the regime."

Now European officials and independent experts say the flow of European fighters to Syria far outpaces the path of earlier generations of youth who went off to fight in previous wars in Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia and Iraq.

The blunt truth is there are more people associated with al Qaeda and al Qaeda-associated organizations now operating in Syria than there have ever been before and they are close to Europe and operating with an intensity that is unparalleled since events in Iraq in 2006.

The European fighters participating in the conflict in Syria bear similarities with the international Arab fighters who supported the Afghan mujahideen in the 1980s in Afghanistan, the birthplace of al Qaeda. At the time, Osama bin Laden and other Arab fighters' interests coincided with those of the United States and its Western allies, which were seeking to drive the Soviets back. Over time, however, their interests diverged, and those close networks that were established in Afghanistan -- and that received political, military, and financial help from the United States -- went on to form the backbone of a global battle against the West.

Similarly, European officials fear shared interests will split once the focus on Syria ebbs. Already, Western efforts to put down Islamist insurgencies in places like Somalia and Mali have served to highlight those differences. Egypt's recent military coup, which marked the downfall of Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi, may ultimately provide a point of friction between young European militants fighting alongside Islamists groups in Syria and their Western governments, which have done little to support Morsi's claim to the presidency.

Facing with this great dilemma, calls from United Kingdom and France to arm the rebels now seem likely to fall on deaf ears. Apart from the fact that establishing a no-fly would be tantamount to a declaration of war on Damascus, the possibility that sophisticated Western weaponry might fall into the hands of Islamist militants has been sufficient to dissuade most Western governments for pursuing that particular course.

The result is that the rebels are now accusing the West of betrayal. It is now simply a question of time before Assad declares victory, and the rebels are left to lick their wounds. Consequently, the time has now come for Western leaders to get their collective heads around the idea that a political solution is the only way forward.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist
World Affairs Analyst

Photo-Credit: AFP-Syrian rebels of al-Nusra Front fraction