The foreign jihadists fighting in Syria – for Assad's regime

Iraqi fighters from the Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas brigade in Damascus.
 
Much has been written about foreign jihadists fighting in Syria, but the focus has been on those fighting with the rebels. However, less has been written about those who have decided to wage their holy war on the regime’s side.
 
The Sayyidah Zaynab mosque in the suburbs of Damascus contains the mausoleum of the Prophet Muhammad’s granddaughter, and is thus a major pilgrimage site for Shiite Muslims. As the battle between the Syrian army and rebels reached the outskirts of Damascus, some groups threatened to destroy the edifice. This prompted Shiite fighters (President Basher al-Assad is an Alawite within the Shiite branch) to take up arms to protect their sacred site. These combatants, who belong to a group called the Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas brigade, are not only Syrian: there are also Lebanese, Iraqis, and Afghans among them.
 
Iraqi fighters from the Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas brigade. 
 
Recruitment campaigns for this brigade have been taking place in southern Iraq as well as in the capital Baghdad, in part to replace fallen fighters. Videos paying tribute to foreign martyrs – including Shiite Iraqis – who died while fulfilling their “duty of jihad” are appearing increasingly often on social media networks.
 
Fighters in Bagdad getting ready to head to Syria.
 
Meanwhile, in the central Syrian region of Homs, speculation is rife as to the extent Hezbollah in Lebanon - Hezbollah are also Shiites, like Assad - has been supporting the Syrian regime’s military operations. In fact, when the conflict turned into a full blown civil war more than a year ago, the “Party of God” sent advisors on urban guerrilla warfare to consult for the Syrian army. They did not, however, send fighters. This arrangement continued for a while, but as the conflict dragged on, members of Hezbollah joined in the fighting in the border region of Qusayr in Syria.
 
Many people in Shiite villages in the Qusayr region identify themselves as Lebanese: most families and clans living there have members on both sides of the border. For them, this border only exists on paper. The president of Hezbollah’s executive council, Sheikh Nabil Kaouk, recently said that defending these people was “a national duty”.
 
For several days now, the Syrian army and Hezbollah fighters have been fighting ferocious battles against Sunni jihadists in the region. Besides Hezbollah’s goal of protecting the local population, the area is strategically important for all the parties involved in the conflict. By occupying this region, the rebels would create a junction with the areas in northern Syria under their control, while the regime would lose the junction between the capital Damascus and its stronghold along the coastline.

“The men get preliminary training in their home countries, then finish their training in Syria, where they learn urban warfare”

Aabass Rida, 20, is a Shiite fighter from the Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas brigade. He is Iraqi.
 
I was already living in Damascus before the conflict began; I came here to work in construction. When the fighting reached Damascus, certain rebel groups threatened to destroy the Sayyidah Zaynab mausoleum, and I felt it was my duty to defend this holy site.
 
Our foreign fighters come to Syria with only one goal: to protect holy sites from Sunni extremists who consider us Shiites to be renegades. There is a rotation of 1,000 fighters every month. The men get preliminary training in their home countries, then finish their training in Syria, where they learn urban warfare. Each man receives a sum of money at the beginning and again just before they return to their home countries. We’re not here to protect the Syrian regime; our operational zone is strictly limited to the Sayyidah Zaynab area.
 

“If Sunni extremists win in Syria, the next battle will take place in Lebanon”

Kassem Zein is a computer engineer in Baflay, a village in southern Lebanon. His cousin, a Hezbollah fighter, was killed in Damascus.
 
At the beginning, within every family in Baflay and in southern Lebanon in general [where the population is mainly Shiite and Hezbollah is omnipresent], there were different views about the situation in Syria. Some felt it was not the Lebanese people’s duty to go fight in Syria in support of Bashar Al-Assad [editor’s note: Al-Assad is himself Alawite, a branch of Shiite Islam].
 
But people slowly began to realise that this wasn’t the fundamental question at hand. Our young people are not fighting for Assad. Their fight is deeply related to the continuation of our history, the history of Shiite Islam. We have always been obliged to fight for our beliefs and our sacred sites.
 
The combatants are not mercenaries – they are fighting to defend their ideological and political beliefs, because if Sunni extremists win in Syria, the next battle will take place in Lebanon. Their goal is to prevent this from happening.
 
A funeral procession for Kassem Zein's cousin, Mohamed Jawad Zein, who was killed during combat in Syria.

“The goal of Hezbollah fighters is to protect the Lebanese who live between the two countries”

Hassan H. (not his real name) is an activist with close links to Hezbollah. He has friends and family members fighting in Syria.
 
The aim of Hezbollah fighters was clear from the beginning: to protect the Lebanese who live between the two countries in the border villages of Qusayr. These people are being threatened by an increasing number of Sunni extremists in the region. I’m thinking of groups such as the Al-Nusra Front, which no longer hides the fact that it is part of the terrorist group Al Qaeda. Therefore, it’s a matter of life and death for this border population.
 
The Hezbollah fighters who participate in combat in Syria do so voluntarily. We need to be realistic: even if it wanted to, the Hezbollah party couldn’t stop them. Everyone who knows the border between our two countries knows that anyone who wants to fight in Syria can do so easily without asking for permission. The men who go are experienced fighters. When they die in battle, they are entitled to official funerals organise by Hezbollah.
 
We mustn’t forget that there are extremists on both the Sunni and Shiite sides of this conflict. Both are pushing the region towards a religious war. Our fight is not against Sunnis, but against extremists who want to see us exterminated.
 
 
Post written with FRANCE 24 journalist Wassim Nasr (@SimNasr).
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