December 17, 2013
Up to 11,000 fighters from more than 70 nations have joined the struggle in Syria against President Bashar al-Assad, almost doubling estimates made earlier this year.
The number of individuals from western Europe taking up arms has tripled to up to 1,900 and includes up to 366 from Britain, according to research by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ISCR) at King’s College, London. The number reported from France has quadrupled while Belgium has the highest per capita rate.
Syria is becoming as big a magnet for Muslim fighters as Afghanistan was in the 1980s when an estimated 35,000 foreigners joined the mujahedeen ranks against Soviet invaders.
But the greater cause was more probably the deepening involvement in the war of Shia fighters from Lebanon and Iraq on the side of Assad, whose Alawite faith is an offshoot of Shia Islam and who is backed by Iran, the major Shia power. “For radical Sunnis, if you see this Syrian government supported by Shia Iran and Hezbollah, it becomes almost a civilizational conflict, almost as if America has intervened in the Middle East,” said Prof Neumann.
The ISCR said that from late 2011 to December 2013 between 3,300 and 11,000 individuals had gone to Syria to fight against the Assad government. It estimated that the likeliest number was 8,500. By that estimate, foreigners make up about ten per cent of the forces ranged against Assad, though other reporting has said they are among the most active in combat.