The Syrian Conflict: Complicated
Parmila Kumari reasons that whilst reports of British nationals going to Syria to fight against the regime need to be investigated, the best we can do is not panic and overinflate the issue.
Recently, main news sources have claimed that a small number of British nationals, not exclusively of Syrian descent, have headed to Syria to fight in the conflict against the Assad regime. These news sources claim that some have been previously recruited by and linked to militant groups such as al-Qaeda, which already operate in the area.
The Syrian civil war began in March last year following protests demanding the end to Ba’ath party rule, as well as President Bashar al-Assad’s resignation. Reports are that approximately 19,000 people have been killed in the conflict.
One report seemingly proving the reality of British nationals fighting in Syria, is that of the capture of the Dutch photo journalist, Jeroen Oerlemans and British photographer John Cantlie by a group of 100-strong FSA fighters whilst crossing the Syrian border from Turkey three weeks ago. According to the pair, none of the fighters were Syrian and several (“10-15”) had recognizable Birmingham and London accents.
Birmingham MP Khalid Mahmood has bolstered these kind of claims by expressing his belief that young Britons are being influenced to go to Syria to join extremist groups as fighters. This includes Syrian –born men living in the West Midlands. The Labour MP claims:
Quite a number in Birmingham are heading out…they are not just going directly to Syria, they might go to Turkey, they might go to other areas and make their way there.
What at this point must be emphasized is that so far there have been no proven reports of British nationals going to fight in Syria. All reports have so far been based on witness claims, and academic speculation based on previous instances such as during the conflict in Afghanistan. If ( and if is to be emphasised) these reports are proved true, then the numbers going to Syria to join the uprising, especially in the U.K., are very small. The estimates are around a dozen.
However, even speculation must be thoroughly investigated and the motivations of a few community members to go to such war-torn areas examined. Why would British citizens want to travel such distances to fight against a regime of a foreign country?
Malik al-Abdeh, a Syrian journalist has reasoned that extremist Sunni Muslims might be pulled into fighting out of solidarity for the 74% Sunni Muslims in Syria, against the regime led by a figure deemed to be Shia (specifically, the Alawite sect). Thus these men are going to fight as ‘international Islamic jihadists’, rather than particularly supportive of the reasons behind the uprising in the country.
Cantile, the photographer kidnapped at the Syrian border, claims that there has been a general jihadist mentality to U.K. citizens fighting in Syria:
They were young, they were impressionable and they were united under an extremist flag in Syria. And I think the sight of genuine western hostages excited them; it fulfilled their concept of what jihad was about.
This sense of unity and community under the jihadist/extremist flag, according to Cantile, can be contrasted with the alienation felt in British society because of discrimination and lack of opportunity:
They were hostile to us, I believe, because many of these were disenchanted young men from Britain. And I believe we represented everything that they were disenchanted about.
Noman Benotman, of the anti-extremist Quilliam Foundation, supports the idea that these young men are attracted to extremist groups because they promise a sense of community that local areas at home have been unable to provide:
"It is the issue of belonging. Some people don't believe that they belong to this society, this country,"
The problem is that, if this is true, extremist groups are essentially taking advantage of the disillusionment young British Muslims feel because of the inequalities faced within local communities. Peter Neumann, professor of security studies at King's College, argues that it is with the strength of such ‘international jihadists’ that these extremist groups may be able to grow to become credible threats not only to the Syrian state structure (and Syrian people), but also to outside interests such as Britain. The Birmingham MP, Mahmood, has speculated of the security risk any such returning fighters may pose to Britain, who may have been "been brainwashed by some of the leaders out there".
Instead of building up panic and hype around unconfirmed reports, what should be learnt is that these claims may be evidence of a lack of a sense of belonging in British society by those on the margins. If understood this way, these recent reports show that there is much to do domestically to combat feelings of not belonging – which may lead to such disastrous results. The British government should start by supporting initiatives which will encourage community cohesion, address inter-ethnic tensions within local areas, tackle disadvantage and provide equality of opportunity to these people who currently do not feel as if they belong.
Whilst this will only be part of the effort against extremism and terrorism, starting at home will not only help protect the U.K. from threats abroad; such programs will also help minority communities to integrate more into British society, so that there is no chance of members feeling the need to make conflicts such as the one in Syria their personal concern.