Julia Trehu is an intern in the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations.
As the civil war rages in Syria, the arrival of foreign combatants in the region has become a troubling characteristic of the opposition forces battling President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. European governments have already taken steps to directly address the issue of their citizens’ involvement in the conflict–Belgium established a network to monitor returning fighters, and the Netherlands defined the return of jihadists from Syria as a top-level security threat. A recent article documenting the flow of foreign fighters into Syria comes at a time when the United States is supplying limited arms to the opposition, an already controversial decision with concerns about ensuring that terrorists do not receive weapons. The question of foreign involvement, specifically of American citizens acting as free agents, could complicate immediate policy options in Syria, evoke potential long-term threats, and provoke debate over the targeting of American citizens in the fight against global terror networks and their affiliates.
Documenting outsiders taking part in the Syrian conflict is notoriously difficult. Current estimates suggest that there are around 6,000 total foreigners, roughly ten percent of whom hold Western passports. However, the presence of Americans is undeniably rising. In late May, Nicole Lynn Mansfield of Flint, Michigan was found dead in northern Syria. While her family claimed she was “misguided by the people who just wanted to use her because she’s American,” Syrian state-run media reported that she had been allied with the al-Qaeda affiliated al-Nusra front, one of the most high-profile radical elements of the Syrian opposition. However, a June 2013 study by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy cites only one known case of an American fighting in Syria–Eric Harroun, an American soldier currently in U.S. custody on charges of collaboration with al-Nusra. By the end of July, the New York Times reported that U.S. intelligence officials could cite about a dozen known cases.
Syria is not the first instance in which American citizens have elected to take part in overseas conflicts. Wiborg vs. U.S. established in 1896 that it is legal for citizens to enlist in a foreign army, essentially authorizing them to take part in another country’s civil war. However, the Department of State warns of “loss of U.S. nationality if an American voluntarily and with the intention of relinquishing U.S. citizenship enters or serves in foreign armed forces engaged in hostilities against the United States.” Recent statements by Manuel Valls, French foreign minister, underline that, "The fighters in Syria are not fighting France or Europe; they are fighting against the Assad regime…It’s not against French law to fight in a war, but it is a crime to participate in a terrorist organization," posing unique legal complications for the Western approach to Syria.
Militants engaged in combating the Assad regime, whether Syrian or foreign, are a diverse group. Does the fractured quality of the Syrian opposition therefore constitute a potential grey area? What should happen in cases like the ongoing arraignment of Eric Harroun, where defendants claim to have been allied with U.S.-backed forces rather than terror-affiliated opposition elements? Being that al-Nusra is a designated terrorist organization, an American who decides to take part in the Syrian conflict could be immediately suspect, regardless of his or her true aims, due to the growing internal ambiguity of the opposition. Determining the motivation and alignment of foreign citizens in Syria will be vital.
The ways in which foreign fighters have mobilized to participate in Syria pose major concerns for wartime settings. Social media represents both positive and negative aspects of the ongoing conflict, allowing studies like that from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy cited above to document otherwise murky statistics, but also facilitating terrorist recruiters’ contact with a global audience, with the potential to lead to unpredictable “self-radicalization” around the world. As Syria becomes the go-to location for radical Islamists, the war will only devolve into an increasingly sectarian conflict, pitting the numerous factions within Syria against each other and lessening prospects for post-conflict reconciliation and rebuilding. With Assad’s recent gains and increasing confidence, his argument that the regime represents the legitimate counter-force to terrorists will only be strengthened as the influx of foreign extremists further factionalizes and weakens the opposition, prolongs the fighting, and increases the violence.
With the growth of radical elements and inter-group violence within the anti-government movement, the outcome of an “opposition” victory is increasingly vague. The recent death of the Free Syrian Army’s Kamal Hamami at the hands of the al-Qaeda affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (also allied with al-Nusra) is a striking example of a growing “civil war within the civil war,” making an eventual peace agreement seem increasingly distant. These foreign arrivals may not only influence the post-conflict situation within Syria, but also pose a widely-recognized danger with major security implications for nations to which they return, battle-hardened and radicalized by exposure to terrorist organizations. The decision to provide arms to the Syrian opposition also makes Western aid more difficult to justify and efficiently distribute, juxtaposing the argument that influencing the rebel movement will hasten the war’s end with dire historical comparisons to 1980s Afghanistan, during which Western support of anti-Soviet militants eventually backfired with the rise of al-Qaeda.
What are some potential measures to address the issue of foreigners fighting in Syria as policymakers deal with potential involvement of American citizens and the immediate implementation of wartime assistance? The United States should support and encourage Turkey to strengthen its porous border in order to prevent the flow of militants into the country. Although the State Department has not operated an embassy in Damascus since February 2012 and strongly dissuades Americans from entering the country, greater awareness of Americans in Syria will both protect those who claim to be there for legitimate reasons, such as journalists, and monitor those who may be allied with terrorist factions.
Overall, the United States will not be immune to the ballooning presence of foreign fighters in Syria and the inherent dangers for the future stability of the region and long-term national security interests. If Syria continues to devolve into a hotbed of global extremism, the already contentious issue of targeting citizens involved in overseas terrorism, such as the increasingly controversial use of drones in Pakistan or Yemen, will also provoke a debate over how to address the legal ambiguities or security concerns of Americans returning from self-conscripted combat in Syria.