Dr Ilyas Mohammed writes how Bashar al-Assad has foreign battalions from Eastern Europe and the United States fighting on his side against the Syrian rebels.
Until now, the common wisdom has been that only Sunni Muslims from the West are travelling to Syria to fight against the Assad regime. Western countries, along with their security agencies and think tanks have produced countless reports documenting the threat posed by returning Jihadists.
Worryingly, little attention has been paid to westerners from other religions and ideologies travelling to Syria and fighting alongside Assad’s army.
In March 2014, media outlets in the US reported that two American Armenians (Syrian Christians) have travelled to Syria and are fighting against the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the various jihadist brigades. The report only names two individuals but a higher number of volunteers cannot be ruled out.
Aram Hamparian, the executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America said, “the Armenian community is a non-combatant community, a civilian community caught in a much larger struggle, the actions of any individual does not reflect the views of the Armenian American community or the wishes of Armenians in Syria, which are for an end to the fighting, and a return to peace”.
In a similar way to their jihadi counterparts, the two men uploaded a video on social media networks, announcing to the world their reasons for fighting alongside Assad. One man, identified as Kilajyan claims to be part of the Californian street gang called “Armenian Power”. In a comment posted on the Facebook video, Kilajyan wrote, “I do anything to protect my ppl”. Their motivation, like their Western jihadi counterparts indicates that they were morally compelled to defend their co-religionists because of the suffering endured by Syrian Christians.
Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Oklahoma in a media interview said that “the general Christian community in Syria has supported the Assad regime because they fear Islamic fundamentalism, and that the Islamists would take over and then treat them as second-class citizens. The Armenians have that fear in spades, or have that fear in a much more augmented form, because of their persecution in Anatolia and because [of] the holocaust”.
Syria also seems to have attracted European neo-Nazis. In 2013, the Polish far-right group Falange travelled to Damascus to offer their support to Assad.
There are also reports dating back to last year, which suggests the Greek neo-Nazi group, Black Lily has members fighting for Assad. In media interviews they have stated that “they have a platoon fighting in Syria and that thousands of Russians, Ukrainians and Polish nationalists have declared themselves ready to defend Assad…and are part of the European Solidarity Front for Syria. The ESFS is a group that has organised protests and rallies in support of Assad from all parts of Europe”. In Berlin, neo-Nazis have been “heckling Syrian refugees”.
There is no evidence to suggest that far-right groups from the UK have travelled to Syria, or are part of the ESFS coalition. In 2011 Nick Griffin, the leader of the British National Party (BNP), while visiting Syria, met with officials and rallied against the FSA.
The motivations of European neo-Nazis seem to be unclear but it is plausible that they have allied themselves with Assad because of his anti-Israeli stance. Or they are using the conflict as a proxy to battle harden themselves, so that they can start a race war in Europe.
In security language this would be called blow back.