The World

Governments Struggle to Keep Their Citizens From Joining the Syrian War    

A female rebel fighter fixes the scope of her Belgium-made FAL rifle as she attends a training session in the war-battered northern Syrian city of Aleppo on Oct. 2, 2013. 

Photo by Mahmud Al-Halabi/AFP/Getty Images

Fighters from outside the Middle East are still a very small percentage of the rebels fighting against Bashar al-Assad’s government, but their numbers are growing large enough that governments are starting to take measures to keep their citizens from heading to Syria.

French President François Hollande announced this week that his government is institututing a number of new policies including “a plan to stop minors leaving France without parental consent, increased surveillance of Islamist websites that recruit fighters and a system to encourage parents to signal suspicious behavior in their children.” The move follows the return of four French journalists, who had been held hostage in Syria for 10 months and said that some of their captors had been fluent French speakers.

Britain, whose citizens are estimated to make up the largest group of non-Middle Eastern fighters in Syria, passed a law last year to make it easier for authorities to confiscate the passports of anyone suspected of heading off to join the Jihad. Australia has had similar policies in place since 2012.

A King’s College London report last month estimated that up to 600 Europeans from 14 countries have taken part in the conflict—between 7 and 11 percent of the total number of foreign fighters who have joined. Britain, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands were the most common countries of origin.

The majority of these fighters are Muslim-born European citizens with family links to the Arab world, but up to a third may be converts with no such previous connections.

This month also brought news that Eric Harroun, the Lebanese-American fighter who became known as the “American Jihadist” after he was discovered by the global media, then arrested by U.S. authorities in 2013, died of a drug overdose at his family’s home in Arizona.

Along with Harroun, U.S. officials believe about 50 Americans have joined anti-Assad extremist groups in Syria. There’s theoretically nothing illegal about Americans going off to fight in another country’s war, and there’s a long history of it. However, many foreigners who make their way to Syria wind up fighting with groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaida-linked organization designated as a terrorist group by the United States. That, obviously, is illegal.

Harroun, who fought mostly with the Western-supported Free Syrian Army, but also acknowleged spending time with Nusra, was somewhat bizarrely charged with using a “weapon of mass destruction”—a rocket-propelled grenade. He eventually pleaded to a lesser charge.

The foreign fighters may be a small fraction of those involved in Syria, but their presence highlights the somewhat contradictory position Western governments are in when it comes to Syria. Though the U.S. and European countries still theoretically support efforts to overthrow Assad, they’re so uncomfortable with many of the groups involved in the effort that they’ll throw their own citizens in jail or confiscate their passports to keep them out of the fight.