Aron Lund is a Swedish researcher who writes on Syrian jihadists for the Swedish Institute for International Affairs. He is also one of the best-informed observers of the insurgency in Syria. Here, he speaks to Syria Live.
Syria Live: Is it possible to put a figure on the number of foreign fighters in Syria today? Are foreign fighters a serious threat to regional stability?
Aron Lund: It is possible to put a figure on foreign fighters though not an exact one. Aaron Zelin recently authored a report for a British think tank and calculated between 2,000 and 5,500 foreign fighters, which, or course, is a big discrepancy. Most are from the region: Lebanon, Egypt, Libya.
Of course they are a threat to regional security. The reason Syria has such a problem with Jabhat al-Nusra – the Syrian al-Qaeda wing – is because many fighters went into Iraq after the 2003 invasion and built up exactly the type of infrastructure we see in Syria today.
For Western countries foreign fighters are a danger. Thomas Hegghammer in Norway has written about this and calculated that about half of all terrorist plots in Europe since the 1990s involved at least one person who had been training or fighting in a foreign jihadi conflict.
We should be concerned about this but on the other hand I don’t think any kind of policy can really affect peoples’ desire to go to Syria [and fight] at this point. It’s a bad idea to let that colour [a government’s] Syria policy. It’s an outcome of the conflict. The conflict in Algeria during in the 1990s had a horrible effect in France – but it wasn’t something the French government could prevent. There’s no obvious policy conclusion.
Q: Why does the political opposition appear to have little influence over rebels on the ground?
A: They’ve developed out of completely different contexts. Most opposition figures are a mix of established figures from before the revolution. They have little in common with people who lead the armed movement in Syria.
But the people who lead the conflict in Syria now have been recruited during the war. They have picked up arms – and an ideology – as the war has gone on, as their friends were killed and as their cities were invaded.
It remains to be seen whether opposition figures from outside Syria will attach themselves to armed groups or whether the armed groups will put forward their own spokesmen. I think the only way around that is if the foreign-based political opposition acquire enough financial muscle to buy their way into Syria.
So far they haven’t had that. I don’t think there’s any foreign power that trusts the opposition enough with money because it appears to be inefficient, corrupt and they don’t know where the money will end up. They would prefer to just fund groups by themselves.
Q: Your response to David Ignatius’ recent article outlining Syrian fighters was instructive. Why, for many outside viewers, is there such a skewed understanding of who exactly the fighters in Syria are?
A: Well, the confusion stems from the fact that it is a very confusing subject. The rebel movement is incredibly complex, made up of lots of groups, which are constantly falling apart or merging with each other, while new ones are being formed. It's a huge, sprawling, rapidly-changing movement, shrouded in secrecy and misinformation, and I don't think anyone really understands it. Not rebel leaders themselves, not the Syrian government, not the U.S., Russia, or anyone else.
The use of the term ‘Free Syrian Army’ to refer to all sorts of groups, including by the groups themselves, has obfuscated the real diversity of the revolutionary movement. It's getting better slowly, but it's still an obstacle to understanding who does what and where.
Of course, there's also a measure of laziness involved on the part of many journalists, and a lack of resources available to investigate statements and claims to the extent needed. And then, to top it off, there has been lots of deliberately misleading propaganda from all sides.
Q: Are there clear ideological differences between rebel groups? If so, what’s the reason for this?
A: There are some noticeable ideological differences, but in general the armed movement seems to suffer much more from the lack of a well-defined ideology.
I think that's partially why Islamist rhetoric has spread so much. Populist religion is an effective discourse available to everyone, even if you have no political background whatsoever, and even if your group is in fact fighting for some narrow cause which you don't really want to brag about. Whatever you're arguing about, God is a winning argument.
Also, since Sunni Islam is the main common cultural denominator for the armed opposition, of course you're going to stress your credentials in that regard. The dynamics of this war favour hawkish Islamist rhetoric over pragmatism and tolerance. It's a tragedy, but it's no different from any other war of its kind.
That said, there are some truly ideological groups, mainly on the extreme jihadist fringe, like Jabhat al-Nusra. You also have more moderate factions with a distinct ideology, like the Muslim Brotherhood with their own brand of more pragmatic conservative Islamism. In the non-military political opposition, you can find leftists and liberals of various stripes, but there are virtually no armed groups that have declared in favour of secular ideologies.