Muhammad no longer recognises his country. The 35-year-old former teacher from Idlib province says Syria has been so overrun by foreign fighters that they are the ones calling the shots.
“There are so many foreigners now – I have met guys from Uzbekistan, Ukraine, Libya. It makes me feel like it is not my country any more. Once, I was walking around my home town when a man drove up to ask me for my papers. He was Tunisian. What’s his business ordering me around in my own country, in my town?”
Muhammad’s resentment is shared by many Syrians who have been forced out of their country while foreigners flood in to wage jihad – and also to fight in the ranks of Bashar al-Assad’s regime or in the myriad other militias.
Faisal, 27, also from Idlib, has been working in a Syrian restaurant in Reyhanli, southern Turkey, for more than two years, while watching foreign jihadis travel unhindered through the border town into Syria. “There were so many of them here, all going to my country. These people have ruined us, they have destroyed Syria.”
He accuses foreign powers of supporting without question anyone fighting against Assad. “So many foreign players have their hands in Syria; they are responsible for this. I pray every day that there will be a time when the same troubles will befall them.”
A UN security council report obtained by the Guardian says at least 15,000 people from more than 80 countries have travelled to Iraq and Syria in recent years to become jihadi fighters. Armed opposition groups initially welcomed foreign fighters to Syria, but their growing influence, religious fervour and violence have alienated ordinary Syrians, many of whom feel the jihadis are part of an attempt to further destabilise the country from outside.
It is no secret that Sunni states in the region have long supported and funded armed opposition groups in Syria and Iraq, though the US vice-president, Joe Biden, speaking at Harvard in October, caused a stir between the US administration and its allies when he accused Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the UAE – previously lauded in the fight against terrorism by Barack Obama – of pushing for “a proxy Sunni-Shia war” in Syria by providing financial, military and logistical support for “the extremist elements”.
The foreigners fighting in Syria had little trouble entering the country through the 550-mile border with Turkey via what Turkish pundits called the “jihadi highway”. Working not unlike regular tour operators, traffickers ran routine – and lucrative – transfers from Turkish airports close to the Syrian border while the authorities and border guards turned a blind eye.
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