The War College

This morning, I read a heartbreaking story on Al Jazeera America about a mother who is bewildered by the death of her son in Syria. As the report goes, her son, an orthopedic surgeon from the UK, went to Syria to help with the humanitarian crisis there. On a routine trip to change money, he was detained by Syrian forces and disappeared. His mother, a Briton of Indian descent, launched a personal campaign to get answers and find her son. After moving to Syria and spending thousands of dollars, and months, hounding corrupt government officials, she found her son in the custody of Bashar al-Assad’s secretive police. She saw him in a Syrian court, was assured that he would be released, and then was given his body and told that he had committed suicide. The mother is now traveling the globe, conducting outreach, sharing this story of injustice and demanding answers from anybody who will listen. She has a possible audience with Obama.

What this and other stories of naive, young men and women venturing off to fight or provide humanitarian support in Syria for the last few years, proves is that the battlefield in Syria isn’t painted in black or white. More recently, Western governments like the Netherlands and France have forbidden their citizens from traveling to Syria, with the fear that they may return radicalized, trained and ready to commit heinous acts at home.

Syria is unlike any other Jihadist camp by many accounts. In the words and analysis of activists, fighters and the intelligence community, more self-identified Muslims have traveled to Syria to fight, than those of yesteryears who traveled to Afghanistan, Bosnia, Iraq and Yemen to defend their brethren. The reason for the larger numbers is pretty straightforward. Getting to Syria is as easy as taking a comfortable flight to Southern Turkey and then trekking or driving to the border. Most of these expeditions are organized through sympathetic agencies. Others, like a young man from the UK who just showed up at a Free Syrian Army checkpoint with a credit card, appear in Syria with a willingness to defend the oppressed.

The situation in Syria has deteriorated in the last three years of the “revolution.” What started on the heels of the Arab Spring, has no resolution in sight. Assad isn’t going anywhere. That part is clear. The origin of the resistance is basic. A lot of Syrians were pissed off and wanted reform, especially within the security forces, and a peaceful resolution. In the beginning, it was all peaceful. The state was armed and the resistance was unarmed. But then peaceful activists started getting shot at, kidnapped, tortured and murdered. This turned many in the Syrian Army, including top brass, against their leader. That is how the Free Syrian Army started. A call by defecting officers for others in the Syrian military, police and civilian population, to fight for freedom against the tyranny of Assad.

What progressed, and is progressing, is a very complicated civil war. The Free Syrian Army was Syrian. It was the people of that country fighting injustice. And as such, there was a good deal of support for them from other nations. In fact, when chemical weapons started being used and civilians killed as a result, the international community was up in arms and, the US in particular, was ready to go to war with Syria. Later investigations pointed to a U.S. trained-Saudi special forces team that had allegedly tried to manufacture a reason for the West to retaliate and for Assad to be forced from his position of power. In other words, the Saudis did it. The Syrians and Saudis have long had beef. And if it wasn’t for Putin’s intervention and an alternative to rid the Syrians of their chemical weapons, there would be yet another war going on right now.

But then the international fighters, the jihadists, started showing up. They came from Indonesia, Pakistan, Yemen, but also from France, Spain, Germany and the United States. Most recently, France reported four hundred French citizens having traveled to Syria to participate in the war. This is where the fighting, and the narrative, became complicated. Other groups, like the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, started springing up. They are primarily made up of hardline Islamists, whose goal is not just the overthrow of the Assad regime, but the institution of an alternative, but equally oppressive, system of governance, based on Sharia Law. By most accounts, their financial support comes from wealthy Saudis who would like nothing more than another Wahhabi regime in the region. This stunt caused some rift between the Saudis and the Americans. Word is that the only real friend Saudi Arabia has left are the Israelis. One source reported that Saudi intelligence officers paid a visit to their counterparts in Israel and toured one of their facilities.

With the various armed groups on the Syrian resistance, there is constant infighting. There is no one, unified fight against Assad. There are many fights. At this point, it seems less a war against a fascist government, and more a battle for power and control over towns and resources. In fact, even Al Qaeda has disowned some of these fundamentalist groups, since they won’t follow the traditional hierarchy of an armed resistance. There are no good guys and bad guys anymore. There are all shadows of gray.

In this array of chaos, the only group who knows exactly what they want, and have been fighting for autonomy for generations, is the Kurds. Unlike the other patriarchal groups of international jihadists, the Kurds have a strong female-presenting armed presence among their ranks. They aren’t driven by religious zeal, but rather the right for self-determination for a people who don’t identify within the confines of national terms like Turkic or Syrian.

This brings us back to the question that many think-tanks have been trying to answer. Exactly why are so many young, disillusioned, Muslim men willing to leave the relative convenience and comfort of the Western world, and travel to the trenches of Syria? They are certainly enthused, as evident by the photos posted by many of them, posing with their Kalashnikovs, on their Facebook page. Numerous have died and many more are at risk for disease, malnutrition and capture by rival groups and the government. It may be too late for them to return home while flying under the radar. If they haven’t already been identified, they likely will be on their return home, and then detained under obscure terrorism laws and held for an indefinite period. Many come from poor communities, like the ones from France. But many, like the hippies, are just disgruntled youth of privilege who may simply be rebelling. Well, that’s one helluva rebellion! Going hippie and moving into a bus is one thing, but using religion to justify the thrill of going off to fight in a land that isn’t yours, and a culture that may not be understood by you, is unjustified.

Every nation and every community within those nations has room for improvement. To spend hundreds or thousands on flying across the globe to fight in the name of god doesn’t translate well to those outside of radical ideology. If you decide to participate in a revolution at home, where you know and understand the local culture, that’s one thing. But to intervene in the fight of people whom you don’t necessarily identify with, bears no fruit, and is just as pointless as nations invading one another to assert control and “spread democracy.” If you want to improve the lives of others, look no further than your own community. This community need not be defined by the boundaries of faith or race, but simply those who live around you and whose life you can affect directly, without an NGO intermediary.

Change can sometimes be as simple as that.


Members of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) walk together in Al-Rmelan, Qamshli province, Syria. November 11, 2013 (Reuters / Stringer)

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