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 Article 50 is triggered, what happens next?

Theresa May says Article 50 will be triggered on 29 March. The UK must prepare for years, if not decades, of negotiating. 

Back in June, when Europe woke to the news of Brexit, the response was muted. “When I first emerged from my haze to go to the European Parliament there was a big sign saying ‘We will miss you’, which was sweet,” Labour MEP Seb Dance remembered at a European Parliament event in London. “The German car industry said we don’t want any disruption of trade.”

But according to Dance – best known for holding up a “He’s Lying” sign behind Nigel Farage’s head – the mood has hardened with the passing months.

The UK is seen as demanding. The Prime Minister’s repeated refusal to guarantee EU citizens’ rights is viewed as toxic. The German car manufacturers now say the EU is more important than British trade. “I am afraid that bonhomie has evaporated,” Dance said. 

On Wednesday 29 March the UK will trigger Article 50. Doing so will end our period of national soul-searching and begin the formal process of divorce. So what next?

The European Parliament will have its say

In the EU, just as in the UK, the European Parliament will not be the lead negotiator. But it is nevertheless very powerful, because MEPs can vote on the final Brexit deal, and wield, in effect, a veto.

The Parliament’s chief negotiator is Guy Verhofstadt, a committed European who has previously given Remoaners hope with a plan to offer them EU passports. Expect them to tune in en masse to watch when this idea is revived in April (it’s unlikely to succeed, but MEPs want to discuss the principle). 

After Article 50 is triggered, Dance expects MEPs to draw up a resolution setting out its red lines in the Brexit negotiations, and present this to the European Commission.

The European Commission will spearhead negotiations

Although the Parliament may provide the most drama, it is the European Commission, which manages the day-to-day business of the EU, which will lead negotiations. The EU’s chief negotiator is Michel Barnier. 

Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Jean-Claude Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He has said of the negotiations: “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

This will be a “deal” of two halves

The Brexit divorce is expected to take 16 to 18 months from March (although this is simply guesswork), which could mean Britain officially Brexits at the start of 2019.

But here’s the thing. The divorce is likely to focus on settling up bills and – hopefully – agreeing a transitional arrangement. This is because the real deal that will shape Britain’s future outside the EU is the trade deal. And there’s no deadline on that. 

As Dance put it: “The duration of that trade agreement will exceed the life of the current Parliament, and might exceed the life of the next as well.”

The trade agreement may look a bit like Ceta

The European Parliament has just approved the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (Ceta) with Canada, a mammoth trade deal which has taken eight years to negotiate. 

One of the main stumbling points in trade deals is agreeing on similar regulatory standards. The UK currently shares regulations with the rest of the UK, so this should speed up the process.

But another obstacle is that national or regional parliaments can vote against a trade deal. In October, the rebellious Belgian region of Wallonia nearly destroyed Ceta. An EU-UK deal would be far more politically sensitive. 

The only way is forward

Lawyers working for the campaign group The People’s Challenge have argued that it will legally be possible for the UK Parliament to revoke Article 50 if the choice is between a terrible deal and no deal at all. 

But other constitutional experts think this is highly unlikely to work – unless a penitent Britain can persuade the rest of the EU to agree to turn back the clock. 

Davor Jancic, who lectures on EU law at Queen Mary University of London, believes Article 50 is irrevocable. 

Jeff King, a professor of law at University College London, is also doubtful, but has this kernel of hope for all the Remainers out there:

“No EU law scholar has suggested that with the agreement of the other 27 member states you cannot allow a member state to withdraw its notice.”

Good luck chanting that at a march. 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.