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Who Are the Syrian Rebels?

There is mounting evidence that the “Free Syrian Army” includes brigades of foreign fighters from places like Chechnya, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. These fighters have varying allegiances, religious beliefs, battle strategies, and visions of Syria’s future. Some fight for a free, democratic Syria. Some are terrorists. Some are well-armed, well-trained, and lethal; others are poor and struggle even to find pants that fit.

The picture of the Syrian civil war that emerges is a patchwork resistance where brigades struggle with everything from finding a common language to securing foreign assistance:

Hundreds of international fighters have flocked to Syria to join the war against Bashar al-Assad’s government. Some are fresh-faced idealists driven by a romantic notion of revolution or a hatred for the Assads. Others are jihadi veterans of Iraq, Yemen and Afghanistan. . . .

According to the Saudi, it was an easy walk from Turkey to the small Syrian town of Atmeh. There, in a hilly landscape flecked with olive groves, the recruits were received by a Syrian who runs a jihadi camp and organised into fighting units. Each team was assigned an Arabic speaker and given 10 days’ basic training, the point of which was not to learn how to shoot but to learn to communicate and work together.

The fighters were then dispersed among the different jihadi organisations, including Ahrar al-Sham (“the Free Men of Syria”) and Jabhat al-Nusra (“the Front for the Aid of the People of the Levant”). Some, like Abu Omar’s Chechens, were allowed to form their own units and simply referred to as the muhajiroun, or “immigrants”. The Syrians refer to the internationals collectively as the “Turkish brothers”.

The disparate levels of fighting ability among the men was immediately clear. The Chechens were older, taller, stronger and wore hiking boots and combat trousers. They carried their weapons with confidence and distanced themselves from the rest, moving around in a tight-knit unit-within-a-unit. One of the Turks was a former soldier who wore western-style webbing and equipment, while the three Tajiks and the Pakistani were evidently poor. Their trousers were too short, their shoes old and torn.

The strong Chechen presence in the rebel forces suggests a rationale behind Russia’s support for the Syrian government. Russia is wary that if successful, the Syrian rebels will then fight other enemies, like governments in the area that supported Butcher Assad. If the rebels manage to oust Assad from power, the Chechen faction (among others) might garner new credibility in their own cause, and new foreign friends and financial backers to boot.

The Syrian rebels are definitely not a bunch of democracy activists who suddenly and reluctantly picked up weapons to fight for a free and peaceful Syria. Further complications arise from the differing agendas of the rebels’ main foreign backers, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which no longer see eye-to-eye on which rebel groups should get weapons.

The bottom line: what comes out of the Syrian civil war will not be prettier—or more stable, or more accepting of American priorities, or friendlier to Israel—than the Assad regime.

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