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.

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Locals without borders: governments are using diasporas to shape the migration crisis

Governments of countries key to the migration crisis are tapping diaspora influence more than ever before.

Last month, on 21 June, thousands of Eritreans descended on Geneva and marched across the city, finally stopping at the Place des Nations in front of the UN. The demonstrators had come from across Europe: Italy, Germany, London, and a young man who looked blankly at my French and English questions before exclaiming “Svenska!” (“Swedish!”).

They were here to denounce a recent report by the UN Human Rights Council condemning widespread violations of basic rights in Eritrea. According to the protesters, the report was based on shoddy research and is biased and politically-motivated: “Stop regime change agendas!” said one banner.

Two days later, a similarly sized group of Eritreans marched in the same direction, for the opposite reason. This contingent, 10,000-strong according to the organisers, wanted to show their backing for the report, which highlights many of the problems that led them to leave the Horn of Africa in the first place. Forced conscription, extrajudicial killings, and official impunity, all pinpointed by the UN inquiry, have driven a mass exodus to the surrounding region and beyond. In 2015 alone, 47,025 Eritreans crossed the Mediterranean to request asylum in Europe.

Two things stood out. First was the sharp polarisation of the Eritrean diaspora community in Europe, which muddies the waters for outsiders trying to make sense of the situation: how can one side say everything is fine while the other claims massive abuses of rights?

Second was the sheer engagement of this diaspora, some of whom may never have set foot in Eritrea. They had come from across Europe, with or without the help of funding, to stand on a rainy square and fight for the narrative of their nation.

As an Irishman abroad, would I have the commitment to jump on a plane for a political protest with no certain outcome? I probably wouldn’t, but then again my country is not just 25 years old and still struggling to define itself on the international stage.

Individual stakes are also much higher for people like Abraham, an Eritrean in Switzerland who told me how he was forced into the army for seven years before managing to escape via Sudan two years ago. With two children still in Asmara, he has significant skin in the game.

As for the naysayers, they are also under certain pressure. Some reports suggest that the government in Asmara exercises extensive power in certain diaspora circles, threatening to cancel the citizenship of those who denounce the regime or refuse to pay 2 per cent income tax each year.

Ultimately, such a situation can only lead to a committed kind of polarisation where pro-government supporters need to publicly demonstrate their backing, and the anti-government kind have nothing left to lose.

But on a more benign level, the idea of states systematically harnessing the power of the diaspora for domestic gains has also been growing elsewhere – including in Ireland. Historically a nation of emigrants, Ireland has seen its diaspora swell even further following the economic downturn: OECD figures estimate that one in six Irish-born people now live abroad.

In an age of networks and soft power, this represents a sizeable demographic, and a well-educated and well-off one to boot. The government has clearly recognized this. In 2009, the first Global Irish Economic Forum was held to tap into the business know-how of expats, and has since taken place biannually.

More importantly, two years ago the first Minister for the Diaspora was appointed, tasked with taking overall charge of engagement efforts: no longer simply cultural ambassadors operating Irish bars abroad, emigrants are economic and political seeds to be cultivated. A referendum is planned next year on whether to grant them the right to vote from abroad in presidential elections.

Elsewhere, in Germany, the 3m-strong Turkish population has attracted renewed interest from the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan in recent years. According to a 2014 paper by think tank SWP, Ankara now explicitly designates these Turks abroad as a “diaspora” rather than a scattered group, and adopts clear public diplomacy efforts, channelled through cultural centres, to tap their influence.

This has sometimes rankled in Berlin: although Ankara’s diaspora policy encourages citizens to learn German and integrate into German society, the underlying motivation is one of Turkish self-interest rather than benign assimilation. In a battle for the front-foot, German immigration policy clashes with Turkish emigration policy.

Intra-EU movements, largely unhampered by visa questions, have also become substantial enough to warrant attention. For example, hit hard by the economic downturn and austerity measures, many educated Spaniards and Portuguese have flocked to Northern European cities to seek employment.

London, a melting pot of diasporas from all over the world, is reportedly home to more French people than Bordeaux: together they would make up the sixth largest city in France. As countries continue to rebuild following the financial crisis, forging a connection to the skills and political power of such emigrants is a policy imperative.

And if no other EU country, aside from Ireland, has introduced a dedicated minister for this, the growing economic potentials may spur them to do so.

Diasporas have been around for millennia. Why are governments getting so interested now? And what does it mean for the future of citizenship, nationality, and identity?

Technology is one obvious game-changer. Diasporas not only have more options to keep in touch with their home country, but with so much of daily life now happening on virtual platforms, they also have less reason to integrate in their host society.

It is now almost feasible to ignore the surrounding communities and live quite comfortably in a bubble of media and connections from back home. This then works both ways, with governments increasingly willing to use such communications to maintain links. The “imagined spaces” of nations are morphing into “virtual spaces”, with unpredictable consequences for traditional models of integration.

Marco Funk, a researcher at the EU Institute for Security Studies in Brussels, says that the growing ease of mobility compounds the idea of “people moving from one country to another and staying there” as simply out-of-date.

The coming years, he says, will be marked by patterns of “circular migration”, where citizens hop from one country to another as whim and economic opportunity arise. Governments, especially in an increasingly stagnant Europe, will likely try to beef up links with this mobile generation, especially since it is often pulled from the more educated classes.

Fearing a “brain drain”, yet unable to keep the talent at home, they may foster a more fluid system of “brain exchange”: the diaspora as a mobile resource rather than physical loss.

Of course, none of this will be straightforward, especially at a time when a major fault-line around the world is the future of globalisation and migration. An uptick in nationalist tendencies may mean that diasporas will find themselves (once again) unwilling pawns on a political chessboard, protected or manipulated by governments back home while scapegoated by segments of their host societies.

But one thing is sure: even as walls are rebuilt, diasporas will not disappear, and governments are recognising their power. All politics may remain local, but the local now knows no bounds.