Skip to main content

Libyan fighting in Syria symbolizes fears

By Nick Paton Walsh and James Foley
September 21, 2012 -- Updated 0333 GMT (1133 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Foreign fighters with Syrian rebels
  • One such Libyan fighter tells CNN he is a freedom fighter, not an Islamist
  • Experts differ on how many foreign fighters are in Syria, their aims when fighting ends

(CNN) -- Feras races across a dusty crossroads, firing his AK-47 wildly at regime forces somewhere down the road ahead of him. This is Aleppo, and he is one of many rebel fighters there, slogging it out street by street, often not seeing their enemy or much progress for weeks.

But Feras is different in a way that has sparked great fears and controversy. Feras is Libyan. He is one of Syria's "foreign fighters."

The presence of foreigners among the ranks of Syria's rebels has been seized on by nearly all sides to suit their purposes.

The Syrian government says they are proof the rebels are extremists and terrorists. The rebels sometimes point to them as a sign that they haven't had the outside help NATO gave their Libyan counterparts and have instead had to rely on foreign militants with genuine experience of battle, and sometimes let in people who they would not normally have asked to fight alongside.

Libyan PM: Prepared to handle situation

Among the rebel ranks are, according to whom you listen to, al Qaeda, foreign jihadis, Salafis seeking a radical Islamist state, and then plain old freedom fighters -- Muslims seeking to support their Arab brothers in this brutal battle.

Syria finding tranquility amid turmoil
Syrian TV host: 'I felt like a murderer'
In this photo provided by the anti-government activist group Aleppo Media Center, Syrian men help survivors out of a building in Aleppo after it was bombed, allegedly by a Syrian regime warplane on Saturday, February 8. The United Nations estimates more than 100,000 people have been killed since the Syrian conflict began in March 2011. Click through to see the most compelling images taken during the conflict, which is now a civil war: In this photo provided by the anti-government activist group Aleppo Media Center, Syrian men help survivors out of a building in Aleppo after it was bombed, allegedly by a Syrian regime warplane on Saturday, February 8. The United Nations estimates more than 100,000 people have been killed since the Syrian conflict began in March 2011. Click through to see the most compelling images taken during the conflict, which is now a civil war:
Syrian civil war in photos
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
>
>>
Syrian civil war in photos Syrian civil war in photos

Feras says he is in the last category. He arrived a few months ago after meeting a Syrian in Tripoli.

Christians in Syria fear uncertain future

His motivation was simple, he told journalist James Foley: "We lived this moment, we felt this moment, so as it was in Libya. You cannot say this is not freedom fighters. They protested to get free. You know this moment. Like it was in Libya."

He was strongly dismissive of the western response to Syria's revolution, saying they had dismissed the Syrian rebel movement as a militia.

"The governments around the world... I don't know why they only watch, they don't give support. They don't give a no fly zone."

He staunchly rejected claims that foreign fighters are radicals or have links to al Qaeda. "I'm only a student. I left my money, my student, my family. We are not al Qaeda. We are not coming to break this country, we're coming to help."

He says his politics are simple. He wants an Islamic government for Syria but only, he says, because most of its people are Muslim anyway.

This is for him a fight to help another people, after which he wants to return home to Libya. And he rejects the more radical ideology of Salafists.

He knows about loss himself. His brother was killed in Libya's civil war, and he still wears his black shirt. And since he has been in Syria, a Libyan friend of his has also been killed in the fighting.

Ducking in and out of Aleppo's ruins, and narrowly missing being hit by a tank shell, it's clear he is willing to endure great risk to this end. In fact, he tells Foley he is willing to die for this cause.

Experts differ on how serious the threat from these foreign militants is.

Professor Ahmad Moussalli, an expert on Islamic movements from the American University of Beirut, said he believed they were radical, often had links to al Qaeda, and were a serious threat.

He said he did not think the rebels had "any benefit in having them, but I think at this point because of their weaker training and weaponry they may need them to fight against the Syrian regular army."

But his concerns were for the dividend that these foreigners would seek when the fighting ends.

"If you assume the fighting is going to finish, they are there to stay and what we might witness is something like Yemen where the foreign fighters will be able to control certain areas or cities," he said.

The United Nations' International Commission of Inquiry on Monday stated it believed there was "an increasing presence of foreign elements, including Jihadist militants, in Syria," and intimated they were having a radicalizing effect on the rebel movement.

Residents in Syria's 'stuck in the middle' as civil war closes in

Yet other analysts said their role was less seminal. Emile Hokayem, Senior Fellow for Regional Security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said he believed the foreign militants remained marginal in their influence and were still left out of some of the more complex rebel operations.

"They are realistically about 2,000-3,000 in number. Foreign fighter does not equate with jihadi. Not everyone is driven by jihadi ideology."

He added that the rebel movement was itself increasingly aware of being tarred by the brush of extremism. "The Syrian rebels are aware of the political downside of jihadis in these groups", he said.

Veteran Syria analyst Joshua Landis said one of the most important roles that these foreign elements had played so far was that of "scaring the Gulf states and the USA from further involvement. An obvious thing to do [to help the rebels] is to send Stinger [surface to air] missiles. That would change the balance of power but nobody wants to do that," he said, citing concerns such potent weaponry could fall into the wrong hands.

But he added fears of radicalism were also being used by foreign powers to excuse a lack of intervention.

"It is cover for a lot of other things. Syria is a poor broken down country, a swamp. Obama is clear is that he does not want to get into Syria. They are reaching for every pretext under the sun. They do not want to get into another major nation building project. So they are cutting Syria off."

As dust from explosions fills the street, Feras can be seen talking calmly into a walkie-talkie. He has spent much of his 20s surrounded by civil war, the Arab world's upheaval that will affect his generation.

But he says he is not radicalized, and in fact rejects the militancy that held sway over his teenage years.

The question for Syria is how long will the moderates among the foreigners remain, and, as the brutality continues and Western intervention eludes Syria, how swiftly will extremism blossom?

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
Syrian crisis
September 9, 2014 -- Updated 1448 GMT (2248 HKT)
As a 10-year-old, this boy first hit the headlines in 1982 when he saved his cat from a fire. This year, he was reported to be a suicide bomber.
September 5, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Aqsa Mahmood,19, would listen to Coldplay and read Harry Potter books. Then this Glasgow girl became an ISIS bride.
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0823 GMT (1623 HKT)
The little boy looks barely old enough to walk, let alone understand the dark world he's now inhabiting.
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0422 GMT (1222 HKT)
ISIS has released video of the aftermath of a mass execution. Another video shows alleged captured Peshmerga soldiers.
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 0933 GMT (1733 HKT)
The number of people who have fled Syria and registered as refugees amid the country's civil war will surpass 3 million Friday.
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
Douglas McAuthur McCain, 33, grew up in the Minneapolis area, but died more than 6,000 miles away in Syria, fighting for ISIS.
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 2054 GMT (0454 HKT)
If the United States is serious about thoroughly defeating ISIS, it must, somehow, go through Syria.
June 26, 2014 -- Updated 1243 GMT (2043 HKT)
Jihadists have kidnapped over 140 Kurdish boys to "brainwash" them. But a few boys made a daring escape.
June 26, 2014 -- Updated 1248 GMT (2048 HKT)
Reports that Syrian warplanes carried out a cross-border attack on Iraqi towns is further evidence of the blurring of the two countries' borders.
June 24, 2014 -- Updated 2133 GMT (0533 HKT)
CNN's Atika Shubert speaks to a father whose teenage son joined the Jihad movement in Syria.
June 23, 2014 -- Updated 1141 GMT (1941 HKT)
At the start of Syria's civil unrest, Omar would rally against the government alongside his schoolmates, later taking to the streets in his hometown of Salqin.
June 23, 2014 -- Updated 2117 GMT (0517 HKT)
Atika Shubert looks at the rise of European jihadists traveling to Syria and whether they soon could join ISIS in Iraq.
June 23, 2014 -- Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT)
The final stockpile of Syria's chemical weapons has been shipped out of the country, according to the OPCW, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
June 25, 2014 -- Updated 2025 GMT (0425 HKT)
The US isn't doing airstrikes in Iraq. Is there a vacuum for Syria and Iran to step in? CNN's Fareed Zakaria weighs in.
June 10, 2014 -- Updated 0804 GMT (1604 HKT)
CNN's Nick Paton Walsh reports on Syrian rebels using underground explosions against the better-equipped regime.
June 9, 2014 -- Updated 1151 GMT (1951 HKT)
CNN's Nick Paton Walsh returns to the besieged rebel areas of Aleppo, a pale skeleton of a city that has had the life bombed out of it.
June 2, 2014 -- Updated 1151 GMT (1951 HKT)
Syria may be embroiled in a brutal three-year civil war, but that's not stopping the government from holding presidential elections.
June 3, 2014 -- Updated 1123 GMT (1923 HKT)
CNN's Nick Paton Walsh meets an ISIS defector in hiding and gets a rare look into the group's recruitment process.
June 5, 2014 -- Updated 1610 GMT (0010 HKT)
Over a thousand Syrian refugees have turned an abandoned shopping mall in Lebanon into makeshift living quarters.
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1053 GMT (1853 HKT)
More than 100,000 people reportedly have been killed in Syria since a popular uprising in 2011 spiraled into a civil war.
ADVERTISEMENT