Foreign Fighters Flood Both Sides In Syrian War

When peace talks open in Switzerland, one common concern between the West and Syria is expected to be the threat of Islamist extremists and the rise of al-Qaida-linked militias. Thousands of Sunni militants from around the world have joined the rebel groups in Syria, but there are other groups of militant foreign fighters who support the Syrian regime. Iraqi Shiites are being recruited in the thousands to bolster Syria's armed forces. Recruiting billboards and social media help portray the fight as an existential battle between Sunnis and Muslims.

Copyright © 2014 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. Syria's bloody civil war is not just being fought by Syrians. Thousands of foreign fighters have poured into the country, too. Many are Sunni militants waging war against government. That includes Islamist extremists and al-Qaida-linked militias.

There are also those who support the regime of Bashar al-Assad: Shiite extremists from Lebanon, Iran and increasingly from Iraq are joining the fight. NPR's Deborah Amos has our report from Beirut.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Speaking foreign language)

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: This video is part of a recruitment drive aimed at Iraqi Shiites. The video combines powerful symbols: a sacred Shiite shrine, Sayyidah Zaynab near Damascus, a place of pilgrimage for Shiite Muslims for generations. The defenders: Shiite militias armed to protect the shrine and their faith. In Iraq, the message is reinforced in the mosques. Shiite Islam is under threat from Sunni extremists. Iraq's Shia are obliged to fight.

PHILLIP SMYTH: This is a holy war. You have to go here. If you don't do so, you're disobeying God. This is how they've presented it.

AMOS: That's Phillip Smyth, a researcher at the University of Maryland. He says militants from Iraq began to cross the border last year. Now, he says, there are thousands of Iraqi fighters in Syria.

SMYTH: There's been increased attempts to recruit in Iraq. I mean, there are billboards up in Najaf and Karbala that are trying to recruit people.

AMOS: These are Shiite holy cities where each recruit gets $500 a month, he says, and free military training.

SMYTH: There are training programs that are in Lebanon. There are also programs in Iran, and the programs in Iran are far more extensive for the Iraqi Shia.

AMOS: This didn't start out as a sectarian war. The Syrian revolt began as an uprising against the government. But the majority of Syrians are Sunni Muslims while top officers in the Syrian army, top officials in the government, including President Bashar al-Assad, are Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. What began as a rebellion has deliberately been transformed by both sides into a sectarian battle.

The latest wave of combatants are Iraqi Shiites, says activist Abu Qatada(ph), who has seen them on the front lines. He spoke via Skype from Gutah(ph), a besieged suburb near Damascus.

ABU QATADA: (Speaking foreign language)

AMOS: Each Iraqi brigade has its own flag and distinctive slogan, he says. We also recognize them by their accents. He rarely see Syrian soldiers anymore, he says. In his town, rebels mainly face Iraqis and Lebanese Shiite fighters from Hezbollah. And Phillip Smyth says Iraqi units are now fighting across Syria.

SMYTH: These Shia Islamist forces, which are being used in Syria, are generally all over the country. In a number of these key battle fronts, if they weren't there, Assad would not be able to launch a number of main offensives.

AMOS: The latest offensive is near the Lebanese border, where a video emerged of three Iraqi fighters captured, then interviewed, by Hadi Abdullah(ph), a Syrian activist.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Speaking foreign language)

AMOS: The Iraqis say they are part of an organized militia, paid to fight, trained in Iran. But when the activist accuses the men of coming to Syria to kill Syrians, one of them starts to cry.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Speaking foreign language)

AMOS: Now you cry and regret it, says the activist. The families of those you killed are watching this, he adds. Let's see if your tears are any use to those who sent you here. The video has been downloaded more than 100,000 times, mostly in Iraq, says Smyth.

SMYTH: It's spread all over social media.

AMOS: The interview, the exchange, is a rare moment of human contact, he says, in a very brutal war.

SMYTH: When both sides believe they are fighting a war to not just protect themselves, not just protect families, it's to protect a way of life, to protect their belief in a religious system, when you have both sides like that, then the enemy has been completely reduced and dehumanized.

AMOS: This sectarian hatred is spreading across the region, says Smyth, even as international diplomats are urging Syria's warring sides to settle their differences at a peace conference in Switzerland. Deborah Amos, NPR News, Beirut.

Copyright © 2014 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.