The Guardian reports: Scores of foreign jihadists have crossed into Syria from Turkey in the past two weeks, some of them telling Syrians that they are planning to travel to Aleppo to join a decisive battle against regime troops.
Syrian residents and a Turkish smuggler interviewed by the Guardian say many of the men have come from the Caucasus, while others had arrived from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Gulf Arab states.
According to locals who have dealt with them, the new arrivals embrace a global jihadist worldview that sets them apart from most leaders in the armed Syrian opposition and is stirring deep discontent among the rebel leadership.
Rebel leaders inside Syria say about 15-20 foreign fighters have been crossing each day since mid-July, trying to join up with an estimated 200-300 foreigners in Syria.
The New York Times reports, however: [T]here is, as yet, no significant presence of foreign combatants of any stripe in Syria, fighters and others said. The … commander [with the Free Syrian Army council in Saraqib, a strategic town on the main highway southwest from Aleppo] estimated there were maybe 50 Qaeda adherents in all of Idlib, a sprawling northwestern province that borders Turkey. The foreigners included Libyans, Algerians and one Spaniard, he said, adding that he much preferred them over homegrown jihadists. They were both less aggressive and less cagey than the locals, said the commander, interviewed in Turkey and via Skype and declining to be further identified.
An activist helping to organize the Syrian military councils said there were roughly 50,000 fighters in total, and far fewer than 1,000 were foreigners, who often have trouble gaining local support. “If there were 10,000, you would know, and less than 1,000 is nothing,” said the activist, Rami, declining for safety reasons to use more than one name.
Not all foreign fighters are jihadists, either. One Libyan-Irish fighter, Mahdi al-Harati, who helped lead the battle for Tripoli, Libya, organized a group of volunteers for Syria, noted Thomas Pierret, a lecturer in contemporary Syrian Islam at the University of Edinburgh. “He is not a jihadi; he sees himself as a Libyan revolutionary there to help the Syrian revolution,” Mr. Pierret said.
Fighters, activists and analysts say that jihadi groups are emerging now for several reasons. They generally stand apart from the Free Syrian Army, the loose national coalition of local militias made up of army defectors and civilian volunteers. Significantly, most of the money flowing to the Syrian opposition is coming from religious donors in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and elsewhere in the Persian Gulf region whose generosity hinges on Salafi teaching.
A recent report in Time magazine included the following observation about the Free Syrian Army:
Interestingly, many FSA members have taken to wearing Salafi-style beards while not adopting the ideology. “It’s just a fashion,” one person told me, by way of explanation.
Besides the fact that regular shaving probably falls very low among the priorities of men engaged in urban warfare, there may be another more compelling reason why Salafi-style beards have become fashionable in Syria. As the NYT notes, religious donors in the Gulf want to support Salafists. For groups struggling to arm themselves, the allure of the Salafi style may amount to nothing more than the desire to be better armed.