Extremist fighters are only a fraction of the rebels fighting in Syria

Recent media coverage would have us believe Syria is now flooded with foreign extremists. On the ground, Toby Muse finds something quite different.

Recent media coverage of Syria’s uprising has fixated on the role of extremist fighters arriving from other parts of the Middle East and Europe.

After long ignoring the role of foreign fighters in Syria’s rebel ranks, the pendulum has swung to the other extreme – now the rebels are depicted as solely made up of zealots.

It made me think of a recent episode.

The car sped along a lonely highway in northern Syria. Government jets were daily strafing and bombing cars. Our driver, and the few other vehicles on the road, was flooring it.

Out the window, it was an unchanging landscape of desert and dirt. The only break to this scenery was the occasional impoverished hamlet we raced through.

We arrived to a rebel checkpoint. The driver explained we were journalists to a lone young fighter, who boredly played with his Kalashnikov. Uninterested, he waved us along.

Some meters behind the fighter appeared another older man, dressed in camouflage with a big beard. He was moving quickly to our car as we drove off.

Through the rear windscreen I saw the big man angrily gesturing at our car and shouting at the younger fighter.

A lucky escape, I thought. Extremist fighters - known for their flowing beards – are not always welcoming to cars full of western journalists. The most radical of fighters, many of whom are from outside of Syria, view westerners as spies and enemies of Islam.

Settling in for the rest of the journey, suddenly there was a blaring horn.

Behind the car was the large bearded man on the back of a motorbike. The bike pulled up alongside us, then cut us off in less than 10 seconds. With his machine gun, he pointed to the side of the road and the driver came to stop.

The man got off the motorbike and gestured for the car to reverse further off the highway in to the shade.

Up and down that highway, it was empty of anything and anyone.

The driver got out to talk to the fighter. He started to call a local commander who could vouch for us. Approaching the car, the rebel impatiently waved to hang up the phone. The driver did so. The man came closer to the car.

I prepared for the interrogation: what were we doing, where were we from, for which spy agency did we work to destroy Islam.

The man slung his gun over his shoulder and explained that a plane was bombing the highway a short distance ahead of us. He had been angry with the younger rebel for not telling us this, potentially sending us in to the crosshairs of a fighter jet.

He had moved the car to the shade in case the airplane appeared.

The man stood by the car, checking in on his walkie-talkie every minute until he received word the jet had gone.

He told us it was now safe to continue and wished us well.

Everyone who’s visited a frontline has met foreign fighters who mostly view the west with contempt. One fighter said that the west was “the enemy of Islam” and that all western foreigners in Syria were spies. He became increasingly agitated by my presence, more focused on me than the army mortars coming down. It was only the intervention of a group of Syrian fighters that stopped the situation spiraling out of control.

But these extremist fighters are a fraction of the people who are involved in the uprising. Most of the Syrians I’ve met working to bring down the government are as devout as the average American churchgoer: praying daily, but with zero interest in a theocracy.

Most of the Syrians disqualify themselves from being too religious simply by the breath-taking number of cigarettes they smoke, which is best counted in terms of cartons rather than packs. Late in to the night, they show each other pictures of their girlfriends on their mobile phones.

One activist said: “The world doesn’t help us, and then tells us we are all jihadis because some extremists come to help us. We would do a deal with the devil now to fight this government.”

The foreign extremists are a minority and their influence is limited - for the time being. But the longer this conflict rages, the deeper the despair of hospitals filled with dead children, the more the Syrians might just listen to the extremists.

A rebel fighter rides a motorbike along a road on the outskirts of the northern city of Aleppo. Photograph: Getty Images

Toby Muse is a journalist and documentary film-maker who has just returned from Aleppo, Syria.

ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images
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Unlikely sisters in the Gaza Strip

A former Jewish settler in Gaza recalls her childhood friendship with a young Palestinian.

It was well after midnight, one summer night in 1995, when Inbar Rozy, a 13-year-old living in the former Israeli settlement of Alei Sinai in the northern Gaza Strip, heard her parents answer the phone. Sitting up in bed, surrounded by potted plants, candles and fairy dolls lit by shafts of light from a nearby security outpost, Inbar listened closely.

“I could hear everyone talking around me, making calls,” Inbar said when we met recently in Nitzan, southern Israel. When she got up to find out what was happening, her parents told her to make up a second mattress. As dawn broke, they led into the room a young woman carrying a small bag and wearing a black shirt and jeans. “She had shoulder-length dark hair dyed with red henna and beautiful eyes – big, black with thick eyelashes,” Inbar told me, smiling. “[She was] quiet. She looked scared.”

The woman was Rina (her surname cannot be given for security reasons), a talented artist in her early twenties studying at a local art college, where she had fallen in love with a Christian boy. For Rina, coming from a traditional family, marrying a non-Muslim would be strictly forbidden.

When her parents found out, they were furious and forbade her from seeing her boyfriend. But her male cousins felt this wasn’t enough. Earlier on the day the girls first met, Rina’s cousins had attempted to kill her in retribution for her perceived “honour crime”. Seeing that another attempt on her life was likely, Rina’s father called a relative, who in turn called Inbar’s father, Yossef, a friend of many years. There was no doubt she had to leave. Ironically, a Jewish settlement protected by the Israel Defence Forces was the safest place in Gaza for her to be.

In 1967, Israel seized the Gaza Strip from Egypt during the Six Day War. In time, it settled 21 communities on a third of the land, with a population of 8,000 by 2005. Soldiers guarded the settlements from 1.5 million displaced Palestinians, tens of thousands of whom were displaced in 1967 and moved to live in nearby refugee camps. In Gaza, before Israel’s ultimate withdrawal from the Strip in 2005, relationships between Israeli settlers and Palestinians were fraught. True, many Palestinians worked in Israeli settlements, earning wages higher than elsewhere in the Strip, but the two communities lived largely separate lives.

In the mid-1990s, even after the Oslo Accords, violence was simmering. Israeli military incursions increased with the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000. Thousands of home-made Qassam rockets were launched by Palestinian militants at settlers and those living in southern Israel. Security measures hardened. The veteran Israeli journalist Amira Hass, who spent several years living in Gaza, describes neighbourhoods that were “turned into jails behind barbed-wire fences, closed gates, IDF surveillance, tanks and entry-permit red tape”.

And yet, in spite of the forced segregation, Inbar’s family enjoyed close links with their Palestinian neighbours. Inbar’s father worked as an ambulance driver, and on several occasions he helped transport those who lived nearby for emergency medical treatment in Israel. “Every Tuesday, my father’s Jewish and Arab friends would come to our house and we’d eat lunch together,” Inbar remembered.

Given the gravity of Rina’s situation, she couldn’t leave the house. Secrecy was paramount. The girls spent weeks together indoors, Inbar said, chatting, watching TV and drawing. “I’m not sure that as a child I actually understood it for real,” she said. “She taught me how to paint and sketch a face from sight.”

Almost as soon as Rina arrived, Inbar’s family began receiving anonymous phone calls asking about her. “My dad told me, ‘Don’t mention anything about Rina. Say you don’t know what they’re talking about – because otherwise they’ll come and kill us,’” Inbar said.

While the girls got to know each other, Inbar’s mother, Brigitte, found a women’s shelter in East Jerusalem for Rina. Whereas today Gaza is closed off by a military border under heavy surveillance, at that time it was porous. Brigitte drove Rina in to the capital, where she was given a new name and identity that would enable her to begin a new life, on condition that she contact no one in Gaza.

Today Inbar, who is 33, works at the Gush Katif centre in Nitzan – a museum dedicated to the memory of the Israeli settlements in Gaza. Despite her parents’ objections, the family was evacuated in 2005. Unlike most settlers in Gaza, some residents of Alei Sinai were determined to stay on, even if that meant forfeiting their Israeli citizenship. “I have no problem with living as a minority in a Palestinian state,” one of Alei Sinai’s inhabitants, Avi Farhan, told the Israeli daily Haaretz at the time.

Inbar now lives in Ashkelon, a city of 140,000 in southern Israel, and finds the big city alienating, especially when she recalls the warm relationships that once existed in Gaza. “I’ve never felt less secure,” she told me.

Years later, she learned that Rina had developed cancer and died. “The day before Rina left . . . she drew a portrait of me,” she said, describing how her friend had outlined, in charcoal strokes, the features of the teenager. Her parents packed the portrait with all their belongings in a shipping container the day they left Gaza. Soon after, the container was destroyed in a fire.

“I think if people had given it a chance . . . they would have had these kinds of friendships,” Inbar said, looking back. “We’d get along fairly well if we didn’t look at others as the monsters over the wall.” 

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism