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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After his latest reshuffle, who’s who on Donald Trump’s campaign team?

Following a number of personnel shake-ups, here is a guide to who’s in and who’s out of the Republican candidate’s campaign team.

Donald Trump’s campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, stepped down last week. A man as controversial as Trump himself, he has departed following the announcement last Wednesday of a new campaign manager and CEO for Team Trump. Manafort had only been in the post for two months, following another campaign team reshuffle by Trump back in June.

In order to keep up with the cast changes within Team Trump, here’s the low-down of who is who in the Republican candidate’s camp, and who-was-who before they, for one reason or another, fell out of favour.

IN

Kellyanne Conway, campaign manager

Kellyane Conway is a Republican campaign manager with a history of clients who do a line in outlandish statements. Former Missouri Congressman Todd Akin, whose campaign Conway managed in 2012, is infamous for his comments on “legitimate rape”.

Despite losing that campaign, Conway’s experiences with outspoken male candidates should stand her in good stead to run Trump’s bid. She is already credited with somewhat tempering his rhetoric, through the use of pre-written speeches, teleprompters and his recent apology, although he has since walked that back.

Conway is described as an expert in delivering messages to female voters and has had her own polling outfit, The Polling Firm/WomanTrend for over 20 years and supported Ted Cruz’s campaign before he was vanquished by Trump in May. Her strategy will include praising Trump on TV and trying to craft an image of him as a dependable candidate without diminishing his outlier appeal.

She recently told MSNBC, “I think you should judge people by their actions, not just their words on a campaign trail”. Given that Trump’s campaign pledges, particularly those on immigration, veer towards the completely unworkable, one wonders what else besides words he actually has to offer.

Perhaps Conway, with her experience of attempting to repackage gaffes will be the one to tell us. Conway also told TIME magazine that there is “no question” that Trump is a better candidate than Hillary Clinton. Given Trump’s frightening comments on abortion, to name just one issue, it’s difficult to see how this would prove true.

Stephen Bannon, campaign CEO

While Conway may bring a more thoughtful, considered touch to Trump’s hitherto frenetic campaigning, Stephen Bannon promises to bring just the opposite.

Bannon is executive chairman of right-wing media outlet Breitbart, also the online home of British alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos. Once described by Bloomberg as “the most dangerous political operative in America”, the ex-Goldman Sachs banker can only be expected to want to up Trump’s rhetoric as the election approaches to maintain his radical edge.

Trump has explicitly stated that: “I don’t wanna change. I mean, you have to be you. If you start pivoting, you’re not being honest with people”.

As Bannon leads a news site with sometimes as outlandish and insensitive views as Trump himself, one can safely assume that Bannon will have no problem letting Trump “be himself”.

The Trump Brood, advisers

While his employed advisers come and go, the people that have been unwaveringly loyal to Trump, and play key advisory roles, are his four adult children: Donald Jr, 38, Ivanka, 34, Erik 22 and Tiffany, 22. With personalities as colourful as their father’s, the Trump children have been close to the campaign since its inception.

Donald Jr personally delivered the bad news to Lewandowski, the younger Trumps describing him as a “control freak”. Although it’s common for the offspring of politicians to take part in their parent’s campaigns (see Chelsea Clinton), in Trump’s case the influence of his children goes undiluted by swathes of professionals. This, despite his actual employed campaign directors being experienced establishment figures, adds credence to the image of Trump’s brand as family-based and folksy, furthering also his criticism of Hillary Clinton as being “crookedly” in the sway of bankers and elites.

Lewandowski’s ultimate downfall has been attributed to his attempts to spread negative stories in the media about Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and husband of Ivanka. Ivanka and Kushner were long-time critics of Lewandowski for his indulgence and encouragement of Trump’s most divisive instincts, and apparently they were integral to his firing.

Whether any good came from this is hard to discern, as Trump still managed to insult the Muslim community all over again with his comments last month about the late solider Humayun Khan, also insulting veterans and “gold star” families in the process.

OUT

Paul Manafort, former national campaign chair

Although Trump called his departing campaign manager “a true professional”, Manafort has recently been beset by personal controversy and criticised for failing to deliver results. Manafort has taken the blame for the poor polling results that have followed Trump’s awful last few weeks, with Trump’s recent (lacklustre and unspecific) apology representing a complete change of tack.

Despite his many years of experience in politics, Manafort fell out of favour with Trump partly because of his spending on media, such as a $4 radio appearance in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida and North Carolina. Trump was judging these investments worthwhile.

Manafort’s personal cachet was also diminished by his dodgy links to ex-clients including Ukrainian former prime minister, the pro-Russian Victor Yanukovych. As Trump has already racked up a number of Russia-related gaffes, continued association was Manafort would have likely proven electorally unwise.

Corey Lewandowski, former campaign manager

Campaign manager until Trump’s team shake-up in June this year, Lewandowski was not the picture of a calm and collected operative. With a list of antics behind him such as bringing a gun to work and then suing when it was taken away from him and lacking the experience of ever having directed a national race, Lewandowski was a divisive figure from the start of Trump’s bid for the nomination.

Although Lewandowski most often accompanied Trump on the nomination campaign trail, it was Manafort, even then, who was in charge of most of the campaign’s logistics, making use of his 40 plus years of experience to do so.

Trump was clearly taken with Lewandowski’s aggressive campaign techniques, as he stood by him even when Lewandowski was charged with battery against former Breitbart reporter Michelle Fields. Although the charges were later dropped, these kind of stories do not bode well for Conway’s hopes for a more women-friendly Trump.

***

Perhaps this latest round of hiring and firing will do him some good, but with only three weeks to go until absentee voting begins in some states, the new team doesn’t have much time.