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.

Hamzah al Zobi
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Meet the Syrians using education to escape the refugee camps

On the bus to university with Syrian refugees in Jordan. 

The bus to Zarqa University leaves Jordan’s largest refugee camp at 7am sharp. The journey is one of the day’s highlights for the Syrian students who ride this route - a chance to plan weekend get-togethers, bemoan heavy course loads and even enjoy the occasional school-bus style sing-along. It’s also their daily ticket out of Za’atari camp and a means of escaping the dreary realities of refugee life.

“We are the lucky ones. Most had to give up their dreams of higher education” says 19-year-old Reema Nasser Al Hamad, whose family fled to Jordan five years ago when bombs destroyed her home in Dara’a, Syria. She shudders to think of the alternatives: aimless days spent sitting in a crowded caravan, or early marriage. “After the war, students in Syria lost their cities, their opportunities and their futures, so many of the girls just married when they got here. There’s a huge difference between the lives of those who study and those who don’t.”

Despite missing two years of school, Reema (pictured below) was able to pass her exams before securing a Saudi-funded scholarship to study Pharmacy at Zaraq’ University. “In Syria, I’d planned to do medicine and be a doctor because I always had high grades. There are fewer choices for us here but I’m happy to be studying at all,” she says. Hamza al Zobi, who’s studying Pharmacy on an the EU-funded EDU-Syria programnme, says young Syrians are hungry to learn. “We all have friends and relatives who didn’t get this chance and we feel so upset for them. If they’re not well educated, how can they go back and do the right thing for our country?”

More than a quarter of 18-24 year olds in Syria were enrolled in higher education when the war broke out. “Based on data provided by UNHCR we assess that around 20,000 young Syrians in Jordan would qualify for vocational education and higher education,” says Job Arts, Programme Manager Education and Youth, EU Delegation to Jordan, which is supporting some 1800 Syrians and disadvantaged Jordanians on degree courses in Jordan.

“While the number of places for Syrian students to pursue their education has increased dramatically over the past few years, there are still many more interested students than spaces available for study,” says Sarah Dryden-Peterson, non-resident Fellow at the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution. “Without these possibilities, young Syrians will lose the kind of hope that is essential to productive futures.”

According to the Jordan Response Platform for the Syria Crisis, 1,250 Syrian youth were in higher education in Jordan in 2016. Building on commitments made by the international community at the London Conference on Syria last year, the Jordanian government hopes to secure funding to increase access to tertiary education and vocational training at the upcoming conference in Brussels this April.

“Jordan views higher education from a strategic point of view, specifically in terms of providing the Syrian youth with the education, skill and knowledge that will allow the opportunity to be part of rebuilding their country once the current situation comes to an end,” says Feda Gharaibeh, Director, Humanitarian Relief Coordination Unit at the Jordanian Ministry of Planning & International Cooperation.

Reema plans to return to Syria when the war is over. “After graduation a lot of students want to go to Europe. That would be fine for me too if it’s just to do a masters or doctorate, but then I want to go back to Syria and use what I’ve learnt to help my people.” Now four semesters into her course, she is making good progress but says adapting to the Jordanian education system was a challenge. “It’s really difficult for us. Classes are taught in English and the teaching style is different. They also have a lot more exams here.”

Only the brightest stand a chance of securing a scholarship but many young Syrians have seen their grades plummet after missing years of schooling. For, some, it’s too late to catch up. Accountancy student Ibrahim Mohammed, 23, came to Jordan in 2013 with his younger brother Khalil, now 19, who works in a print shop. “He stopped studying when he was 14. He didn’t even have a chance to get his high school certificate,” says Ibrahim.

Attempts to bridge the gap through open and distance learning programmes aren’t always effective. “It’s not a tool that is frequently used in the education environment in the Middle East,” explains Arts. Refugee students' access to electricity, internet connections, computers and space to study can be in short supply. Moreover, many students seek the escapism that a university education offers. “In our dialogue with parents and students, we often hear the phrase ‘being normal again’,” Arts adds.

Hamzah tries to help fellow students achieve this in his role as representative for the Syrian community at Zarqa University. He and Reema are part of a team that offers advice to new students and support for those from poorer families living in the camps. “There are 900 Syrian students here and each one has a different story of suffering,” says Hamzah, who organises group trips to restaurants and fairgrounds, helping to create a sense of regular student life. “It makes us forget what we are,” explains Reema.

During term time, she prefers to stay with her uncle in Mafraq, a city nearby. It’s hard to study in Za’atari. As soon as the power comes on at 5pm, her brothers switch on the TV, making it difficult to concentrate in the cramped caravan they share. There’s nowhere else to go; the camp is dangerous at night, particularly for young women. It’s even more crowded since the arrival of her baby sister. Reema remembers how her mother sobbed when she learned of the pregnancy, worried about bringing another child into the makeshift world of the camp.

But in five years a lot has changed. “In Syria, I had never left my village; now I feel there is another world to know,” says Reema. Like many Syrian students, she worries about life after university, particularly if they stay in Jordan where employment opportunities remain restricted for Syrian refugees. “It seems like work is forbidden to us Syrians and without a job we can’t take control of our lives. We’re studying hard but with no prospects,” says Hamzah. Few can see beyond graduation. “The future is opaque for us,” he adds, “We’re just living day by day.”

To date, the Jordanian government has issued some 39,000 works permits out of the 200,000 it pledged to make available for Syrians during the London Conference last February. However, with these opportunities built around low-income roles, primarily in the construction, agriculture, and textile manufacture sectors, the way for Syrian university graduates in Jordan still seems barred.

“Jordan is a small country with limited job opportunities,” says Ghaith Rababah Head of Projects & International Cooperation Unit (PICU) at the Ministry of Higher Education & Scientific Research. “Maybe the market will be better able to absorb educated Syrians at a later stage.”

In the meantime, higher education offers young Syrians a semblance of the security and stability their lives otherwise lack, Rababah continues. Given the opportunity to “use their talents for something good”, he adds, young people placed in difficult situations are less likely to fall prey to extremist ideologies and be “tricked into committing terrorist acts".