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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America’s domestic terrorists: why there’s no such thing as a “lone wolf”

After the latest attack on Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs, America must confront the violence escalating at its heart.

First things first: let’s not pretend this is about life.

Three people have died and nine were injured on Friday in the latest attack on a women’s health clinic in the United States. Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs was besieged by a gunman whose motives remain unclear, but right-to-lifers—who should really be called “forced birth advocates”—have already taken up their keyboards to defend his actions, claiming that women seeking an abortion, or doctors providing them, are never “innocent”. 

This was not unexpected. Abortion providers have been shot and killed before in the United States. The recent book Living in the Crosshairs by David S Cohen and Krysten Connon describes in sanguine detail the extent of domestic terrorism against women’s healthcare facilities, which is increasing as the American right-wing goes into meltdown over women’s continued insistence on having some measure of control over their own damn bodies. As Slate reports

In July, employees at a clinic in the Chicago suburb of Aurora, Illinois, reported an attempted arson. In August, firefighters found half a burning car at the construction site of a future clinic in New Orleans. On Sept. 4, a clinic in Pullman, Washington, was set ablaze at 3:30 a.m., and on Sept. 30, someone broke a window at a Thousand Oaks, California, clinic and threw a makeshift bomb inside.

The real horror here is not just that a forced-birth fanatic attacked a clinic, but that abortion providers across America are obliged to work as if they might, at any time, be attacked by forced-birth fanatics whose right to own a small arsenal of firearms is protected by Congress. 

The United States is bristling with heavily armed right-wingers who believe the law applies to everyone but them. This is the second act of domestic terrorism in America in a week. On Monday, racists shouting the n-word opened fire at a Black Lives Matter protest in Minneapolis, injuring three. This time, the killer is a white man in his 50s. Most American domestic terrorists are white men, which may explain why they are not treated as political agents, and instead dismissed as “lone wolves” and “madmen”.

Terrorism is violence against civilians in the service of ideology. By anyone’s sights, these killers are terrorists, and by the numbers, these terrorists pose substantially more of a threat to American citizens than foreign terrorism—but nobody is calling for background checks on white men, or for members of the republican party to wear ID tags. In America, like many other western nations, people only get to be “terrorists” when they are “outsiders” who go against the political consensus. And there is a significant political consensus behind this bigotry, including within Washington itself. That consensus plays out every time a Republican candidate or Fox news hatebot expresses sorrow for the victims of murder whilst supporting both the motives and the methods of the murderers. If that sounds extreme, let’s remind ourselves that the same politicians who declare that abortion is murder are also telling their constituents that any attempt to prevent them owning and using firearms is an attack on their human rights. 

Take Planned Parenthood. For months now, systematic attempts in Washington to defund the organisation have swamped the nation with anti-choice, anti-woman rhetoric. Donald Trump, the tangerine-tanned tycoon who has managed to become the frontrunner in the republican presidential race not in spite of his swivel-eyed, stage-managed, tub-thumping bigotry but because of it, recently called Planned Parenthood an “abortion factory” and demanded that it be stripped of all state support. Trump, in fact, held a pro-choice position not long ago, but like many US republicans, he is far smarter than he plays. Trump understands that what works for the American public right now, in an absence of real hope, is fanaticism. 

Donald Trump, like many republican candidates, is happy to play the anti-woman, anti-immigrant, racist fanatic in order to pander to white, fundamentalist Christian voters who just want to hear someone tell it like it is. Who just want to hear someone say that all Muslims should be made to wear ID cards, that Black protesters deserve to be “roughed up”, that water-boarding is acceptable even if it doesn’t work because “they deserve it”. Who just want something to believe in, and when the future is a terrifying blank space, the only voice that makes sense anymore is the ugly, violent whisper in the part of your heart that hates humanity, and goddamn but it’s a relief to hear someone speaking that way in a legitimate political forum. Otherwise you might be crazy.

American domestic terrorists are not “lone wolves”. They are entrepreneurial. They may work alone or in small groups, but they are merely the extreme expression of a political system in meltdown. Republican politicians are careful not to alienate voters who might think these shooters had the right idea when they condemn the violence, which they occasionally forget to do right away. In August, a homeless Hispanic man was allegedly beaten to a pulp by two Bostonians, one of whom told the police that he was inspired by Donald Trump’s call for the deportation of “illegals”. Trump responded to the incident by explaining that “people who are following me are very passionate. They love this country and they want this country to be great again.”

But that’s not even the real problem with Donald Trump. The real problem with Donald Trump is that he makes everyone standing just to the left of him look sane. All but one republican governor has declared that refugees from Syria are unwelcome in their states. Across the nation, red states are voting in laws preventing women from accessing abortion, contraception and reproductive healthcare. Earlier this year, as congressmen discussed defunding Planned Parenthood, 300 ‘pro-life’ protesters demonstrated outside the same Colorado clinic where three people died this weekend. On a daily basis, the women who seek treatment at the clinic are apparently forced to face down cohorts of shouting fanatics just to get in the door. To refuse any connection between these daily threats and the gunman who took the violence to its logical extreme is not merely illogical—it is dangerous.

If terrorism is the murder of civilians in the service of a political ideology, the United States is a nation in the grip of a wave of domestic terrorism. It cannot properly be named as such because its logic draws directly from the political consensus of the popular right. If the killers were not white American men, we would be able to call them what they are—and politicians might be obligated to come up with a response beyond “these things happen.”

These things don’t just “happen”. These things happen with escalating, terrifying frequency, and for a reason. The reason is that America is a nation descending into political chaos, unwilling to confront the violent bigotry at its heart, stoked to frenzy by politicians all too willing to feed the violence if it consolidates their own power. It is a political choice, and it demands a political response.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.