With the Syrian conflict having passed its two year last month, the casualty count is mounting. An estimated 75000 people have died, and about 2.6 million refugees have been displaced. As the Syrian Free Army struggles to displace Bashar Al-Assad’s powerful minority government, the international community seemingly remains hesitant in its desire to involve itself directly in the brutal civil war. However, a closer look at the situation yields a different result. The United States has allegedly been training rebels in Jordan, and Secretary of State John Kerry recently announced large non-lethal aid packages to the rebels.
As concerns continue to build regarding the composition and the loyalties of the large, fragmented rebel forces, recent reports depict an Afghan mujahideen-like situation playing out in Syria. The foreign fighter contingent in Syria is estimated to be between 2000 and 5000 people. This include Muslims from countries across Europe and Asia, including Austria, UK, Spain, Sweden, Denmark and even China. British Secretary of State William Hague expressed his concern that “a substantial number” of British citizens have participated in the war, a concern reinforced by a King’s College study that estimated about 100 British citizens have participated since the beginning of the conflict in 2011.
A recent NPR report details the accounts of several young Saudi fighters that have entered into the Syrian conflict. Hoping to “weaken their regional competitor Iran”, Sunni extremists are fighting the Iranian backed Assad regime. Often funded by “rich Saudis”, the warriors largely fight for the Al-Nusra Front: a key rebel force that recently announced its alliance with Ayman Al Zawahiri’s Al Qaeda. While the actual foreign fighter composition still remains low as a percentage of the total number of rebel forces, the conflict in Syria shows no signs of slowing down.
A similar rebel situation was created in Afghanistan in the war against the Soviet Union. Hoping to nip the advance of Communism in the bud, the US and the CIA poured funds into the Mujahideen- eventually creating a monstrous network that would bite the hand that fed it. The growth of a post-Mujahideen pool of terrorists across North Africa, Kashmir, Bosnia, the Phillippines and Chechnya was exacerbated by the extensive, free reign funding of the United States. Just like the influx of Saudi Arabians into Syria, Arab warriors flooded the mountains of Afghanistan in the 1970s, largely led by Osama bin Laden, an influx of foreign warriors into the region risks creating an extremely dangerous, radicalized pool of Muslims across the world.
The lessons to be learned from Afghanistan are extensive. So far, the US has tread cautiously in its involvement with Syria. As the conflict in Syria comes to a head, it is essential that the United States continues to exercise utmost caution in pursuing its regional agenda, lest it create a situation akin to Afghanistan.