In the last few months, violence in Syria has escalated into a more conventional civil war. The early manifestations of Syria’s revolution—large public protests across the country—have been replaced by a diverse and fragmented armed opposition fighting an insurgency against what is increasingly viewed as a government that is running out of time and ideas. International support to this opposition has taken a myriad of forms providing legitimacy, money and arms to the rebel fighters.

In June 2012, for example, the Saudi government reportedly agreed to fund Free Syrian Army (FSA)[1] salaries. Both Saudi Arabia and Qatar are leading the supply of weapons to the opposition through Turkey.[2] The Times of London reported the scale of such supplies in September as a ship from Libya arrived in Turkey carrying more than 400 tons of cargo including SAM-7 surface-to-air anti-aircraft missiles and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), described by a member of the FSA as “the largest single delivery of assistance to the rebel fighting units we have received.”[3]

These financial and weapons transfers are not without risks. Although the FSA is comprised of secular militias, there are also hard-line Salafi-jihadi fighters among the rebel ranks, and reports increasingly suggest that they are receiving some of the outside financial and weapons aid. Western policymakers worry that a marriage of convenience between secular and Salafi-jihadi fighters against the Bashar al-Assad regime could lead to a bloody divorce along the lines of the Afghan mujahidin in the 1980s. Such a development would add to the instability in the Middle East as Salafi-jihadi fighters could use sophisticated weapons, such as surface-to-air missiles, against other targets in the region.

This article reviews the jihadist presence among the rebel ranks, examines how Syria’s unsecured borders are allowing money, weapons and foreign fighters to filter into the country, and finally warns that supplying weapons to Syrian rebels may destabilize the region further if these weapons are smuggled outside of Syria’s borders.

Jihadist Elements in Syria
Fighters publicly pursuing a more secular platform dominate the rebel movement in Syria. There is clear evidence, however, that Salafi-jihadis also fight among the rebel ranks. These Salafi-jihadi fighters are concentrated in a number of different groups or militias, the most prominent of which is Jabhat al-Nusra.

In one of the most detailed examinations of the operational capacity of jihadist elements in Syria, Bilal Saab identified a handful of small jihadist groups, saying that the Syrian battlefield is “awash with al-Qa`ida-linked jihadist cells.”[4] These cells, Saab argued, are disorganized and lack a charismatic leader capable of unifying them.[5] Other media reports describe radical fringe elements operating within a diverse setup that is still dominated by Syrian nationalists rather than transnational ideologues. In arguably the most comprehensive study so far, an International Crisis Group report in October outlined how “the presence of a powerful Salafi strand among Syria’s rebels has become irrefutable.”[6]

The relatively large focus on the numbers and exact role of extremist elements in the Syria conflict is stoked by the Syrian regime’s continual emphasis of the pivotal role played by jihadists. Following meetings with al-Assad in September, UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi reported that the Syrian government estimates that there are 5,000 foreign fighters in the country.[7] Al-Assad’s government has regularly accused Western and Arab countries of exacerbating the violence by sending weapons and facilitating foreign fighter travel. In September, the Syrian ambassador to the UN Human Rights Council, Faysal Khabbaz Hamoui, told the council that the opposition was conducting “a jihad or holy war against Damascus…the mercenaries are a time bomb that will explode later in the country and in the countries supporting them after they finish their terrorist mission in Syria.”[8]

British officials involved in supporting the opposition, however, see al-Qa`ida as a “very small minority” of the opposition,[9] while Noman Benotman’s research of extremist websites estimates the number of foreign fighters “between 1,200-1,500 members”[10] compared to the FSA’s estimated strength of tens of thousands of armed men.[11]

Although the exact number of foreign fighters is in dispute, it is clear that Salafi-jihadi groups are operating in Syria today. As with previous conflicts in the region, when state authority shrinks, new groups move into the less contested spaces. In Syria, the geography of the country and its history as a thoroughfare for state-sanctioned armed groups—whether Hamas and Hizb Allah to the west, the increasingly lawless Sinai to the south or the active al-Qa`ida affiliate in Iraq that has longstanding logistical capabilities in the country—leave it particularly vulnerable to foreign fighters joining the conflict.

Increasingly Unsecured Borders
For the past 40 years, Syria has used its foreign policy to back proxy groups in Lebanon, Iraq and Palestine. Yet prior to the outbreak of protests in March 2011, Syria was already experiencing a low level terrorist threat from the Salafi-jihadi group Jund al-Sham, which claimed responsibility for numerous attacks in the country including one on the U.S. Embassy in Damascus in 2006.[12] It is also suspected of targeting a Syrian intelligence building in Damascus in September 2008, which killed approximately 17 people.[13] After the outbreak of violence across Syria and the deployment of the military against the protestors in 2011, a number of militant groups have exploited the new operating space created by the conflict.

The state of flux across the North Africa region caused by the fall of Mu`ammar Qadhafi, Hosni Mubarak and Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali has weakened traditionally strong state security forces and affected the entire Levant. Today, the Syrian state has lost control over a number of its border crossings and large swathes of the country. UN officials have reported how both Humvees and surface-to-air missiles have moved from Libya through the now contested Sinai Peninsula to the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.[14] Syria’s border with Lebanon has historically been largely un-demarcated due to Syria’s pre-colonial claims to the territory. It is crisscrossed with smuggling routes, and despite laying minefields along sensitive areas the Syrian regime has found it impossible to prevent weapons and people moving in either direction.[15]

The BBC reported in September 2012 how Egyptians were traveling to Syria under the guise of a “relief convoy” organized by an ultra-orthodox Islamic group with contacts in Egypt and Lebanon.[16] Likewise, the long desert border with Iraq has been largely abandoned as a result of opposition attacks and the regime concentrating its forces around large urban centers. In July, the regime lost control of the major crossings of Bab al-Hawa and Bab al-Salam on the border with Turkey and the main Abu Kamal post on the border with Iraq. Following Syrian artillery strikes on locations inside Turkey in October, the Syrian regime instructed its military to keep aircraft at least six miles from Turkey’s border, another example of the regime’s diminished sovereignty.

Weapons Proliferation
The lack of border security creates the risk that weapons intended for the secular Syrian opposition could end up in the hands of new jihadist groups in the region that have emerged in the last 19 months, as well as to more established groups such as al-Qa`ida in Iraq (AQI). In the case of AQI, the group has a number of smuggling routes that cross the Syria-Iraq border. In the past decade, these routes have been used to move weapons and other supplies from Syria into Iraq to support AQI’s insurgency. With the influx of weapons to Syria’s rebels, there is the real possibility that arms will be smuggled out of Syria to Iraqi insurgents. AQI’s access to deadly weapons such as SAMs could be used with great effectiveness against Iraq’s Shi`a-led government. If such weapons were smuggled out of the Middle East to Europe or beyond, the effects could be devastating. In the hands of al-Qa`ida, SAMs could be used against civilian airliners, a tactic al-Qa`ida already employed during the terrorist attacks in Mombasa, Kenya, in 2002.

British officials have highlighted how equipment supplied by Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia has already been “leaked” to other groups.[17] U.S. officials relayed this issue to the New York Times, claiming, “the opposition groups that are receiving the most of the lethal aid are exactly the ones we don’t want to have it.”[18] The bottom-up nature of the organized resistance, the changing and competitive networks of patronage, as well as constantly shifting frontlines make it difficult for outside state supporters to transfer weapons to the “right hands.” There is also the issue of weaponry captured from the Syrian regime itself; opposition ground forces have already overrun numerous air defense bases and airports.

The rebel uprising in Libya is a pertinent example of how arms intended for one conflict can quickly cause unintended developments elsewhere. Following the collapse of the Qadhafi regime, an authoritarian state’s tight control of weaponry suddenly became a source of regional supply. A New York Times investigation in June 2012 identified “persistent reports of smuggling—to dealers, insurgents or terrorists in Algeria, Chad, Egypt, Lebanon, Mali, Syria, Tunisia, the Palestinian territories and elsewhere.”[19] Some analysts argue that al-Qa`ida in the Islamic Maghreb’s control of northern Mali was a direct result of Libyan arms being redeployed to ethno-nationalists and religious extremists in North Africa.

Considering Syria’s direct proximity to the Middle East’s numerous flashpoints, Washington will want to avoid a repeat of the weapons proliferation that occurred in the Libya conflict. U.S. officials have acknowledged off the record that they are sending more intelligence officers and diplomats to both advise the rebel forces against the Syrian regime and crucially to also watch “for al-Qaeda’s infiltration of rebel ranks.”[20] Meanwhile, the British government, which is providing $8 million worth of non-lethal support to opposition[21] fighters who “share our values,”[22] are conscious of the dangers of giving direct aid to an opposition that can be divisive.

Moving Forward
With Western powers unwilling to deploy more advisers on the ground in Syria’s “liberated areas,” Turkey will remain the critical player in the careful balance of responsible support to the opposition that the West is looking to provide. Governments in the United States and United Kingdom will likely continue to pursue the parallel strategy of providing greater support to Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, while working to unify the Syrian opposition and isolate foreign fighters.

Against the October backdrop of Syrian artillery attacks and the worst violence in Turkey’s Kurdish southern areas in a decade, Turkish intelligence continues to play a key role as a gatekeeper of weapons allowed into northern Syria.[23] When Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu warned that his country is willing to risk war to establish safe zones for refugees in northern Syria,[24] Washington and European capitals must realize that a “hands-off” strategy toward the Syrian opposition causes regional powers to lead the way. This could have unpredictable consequences for Western interests.

James Denselow is a Middle East Security Analyst based at King’s College London.

[1] Martin Chulov, Ewen MacAskill, and John Densky, “Saudi Arabia Plans to Fund Syria Rebel Army,” Guardian, June 22, 2012.

[2] David E. Sanger, “Rebel Arms Flow is Said to Benefit Jihadists in Syria,” New York Times, October 14, 2012.

[3] “Syrian Rebels Squabble over Weapons as Biggest Shipload Arrives from Libya,” The Times, September 15, 2012.

[4] Bilal Y. Saab, “Unpacking Al-Qaeda’s Presence in Syria,” Jane’s Islamic Affairs Analyst, September 27, 2012.

[5] Ibid.

[6] “Tentative Jihad: Syria’s Fundamentalist Opposition,” International Crisis Group, October 11, 2012.

[7] “Assad Wants to Return to ‘The Old Syria,’ Says U.N. Envoy Brahimi,” al-Arabiya, September 24, 2012.

[8] “Syrian War Crimes List Drawn Up,” Irish Times, September 17, 2012.

[9] Personal interviews, anonymous officials, UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office, London, September 14, 2012.

[10] Noman Benotman and Emad Naseraldin, “The Jihadist Network in the Syrian Revolution: A Strategic Briefing,” Quilliam Foundation, September 2012.

[11] Personal interview, Michael Weiss, research director of The Henry Jackson Society, London, October 2, 2012.

[12] Beirut-based al-Akhbar reported in June that elements of Jund al-Sham and Fatah al-Islam had left Palestinian camps in Lebanon and joined Jabhat al-Nusra.

[13] Rafid Fadhil Ali, “Terrorism Comes to Damascus: Syria Faces its Own Islamist Threat,” Terrorism Monitor 6:20 (2008).

[14] Personal interview, anonymous UN officials, October 4, 2012.

[15] In March 2012, Human Rights Watch reported Syrian opposition activists disarming PMN-2 anti-personnel mines and TMN-46 anti-vehicle mines.

[16] “Egyptian Jihadist’s Path to Syria,” BBC, September 25, 2012.

[17] Personal interviews, anonymous officials, UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office, London, September 14, 2012.

[18] Sanger.

[19] C.J. Chivers, “Death Illustrates Issues With Loose Weapons Stockpiles in Libya,” New York Times, June 13, 2012.

[20] Kimberly Dozier, “Syria Crisis: U.S. Border Presence Grows,” Associated Press, September 9, 2012.

[21] Non-lethal support includes training, communications equipment and body armor.

[22] Personal interviews, anonymous officials, UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office, London, September 14, 2012.

[23] Michael Weiss, “Syrian Rebels Say Turkey is Arming and Training Them,” Telegraph, May 21, 2012.

[24] “Davutoglu Says War Risk Worth Taking in Syria,” Today’s Zaman, September 28, 2012.

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