How countries are keeping their citizens from fighting in Syria

Europe has a romanticized history of lone figures joining "the cause" in war-torn foreign countries — from Lord Byron’s death fighting for Greek independence to George Orwell’s storied participation in the Spanish Civil War. But tales of Europeans joining Syrian rebels on the frontlines haven’t exactly been met with enthusiasm. "Not all of them are ...

MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP/Getty Images
MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP/Getty Images
MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP/Getty Images

Europe has a romanticized history of lone figures joining "the cause" in war-torn foreign countries -- from Lord Byron's death fighting for Greek independence to George Orwell's storied participation in the Spanish Civil War. But tales of Europeans joining Syrian rebels on the frontlines haven't exactly been met with enthusiasm.

"Not all of them are radical when they leave, but most likely many of them will be radicalised" in Syria, the EU's anti-terror chief, Gilles de Kerchove, told the BBC on Wednesday, noting that an estimated 500 Europeans are fighting in Syria's civil war, where they could come under the influence of al Qaeda-linked groups like the al-Nusra Front.

Governments from Australia to the United States share these concerns, but the apprehension is less about the impact of this cadre of foreign fighters on Syria's conflict -- who, as we noted recently, form a tiny fraction of the resistance -- and more about what could happen when these citizens return home.

Europe has a romanticized history of lone figures joining "the cause" in war-torn foreign countries — from Lord Byron’s death fighting for Greek independence to George Orwell’s storied participation in the Spanish Civil War. But tales of Europeans joining Syrian rebels on the frontlines haven’t exactly been met with enthusiasm.

"Not all of them are radical when they leave, but most likely many of them will be radicalised" in Syria, the EU’s anti-terror chief, Gilles de Kerchove, told the BBC on Wednesday, noting that an estimated 500 Europeans are fighting in Syria’s civil war, where they could come under the influence of al Qaeda-linked groups like the al-Nusra Front.

Governments from Australia to the United States share these concerns, but the apprehension is less about the impact of this cadre of foreign fighters on Syria’s conflict — who, as we noted recently, form a tiny fraction of the resistance — and more about what could happen when these citizens return home.

Australia, which has seen around 200 of its residents join the action in Syria, has made it clear that anyone fighting in the conflict is breaking Australian law. The Australian Federal Police have distributed flyers with the following statement:

Australia has imposed an arms embargo on Syria. This means it is illegal for any person in Australia, or any Australian citizen (including dual citizen), anywhere in the world, to provide any kind of support to any armed group in Syria – Government or opposition; Syrian or foreign.

Interestingly enough, another country that has weighed in on the legality of foreign participation is Saudi Arabia. Though the kingdom has a strategic interest in encouraging the rebellion against Bashar al-Assad, it is apparently illegal for Saudi citizens to join in the combat. As NPR reports, the official line may be more diplomatic than dogmatic:

Fighting with the rebels in Syria is illegal, declared Maj. Gen. Mansour al-Turki, a spokesman for the Ministry of Interior. "Anybody who wants to travel outside Saudi Arabia in order to get involved in such conflict will be arrested and prosecuted," he said. "But only if we have the evidence before he leaves the country."

NPR goes on to quote Mohammad Fahad al-Qahtani, a Saudi professor and human rights activist as saying this amounts to a "don’t ask, don’t tell policy."

The United States is also taking a variety of legal approaches to address the issue. As my colleague Josh Keating noted back when an American joined the Libyan rebels, it’s generally legal for Americans to fight in another country’s army — so long as they’re not fighting against America:

According to the U.S. code, any citizen who "enlists or enters himself, or hires or retains another to enlist or enter himself, or to go beyond the jurisdiction of the United States with intent to be enlisted or entered in the service of any foreign prince, state, colony, district, or people as a soldier or as a marine or seaman … shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than three years, or both." But a court ruling from 1896 involving U.S. citizens who fought with Cuban revolutionaries against Spanish colonial rule interpreted this to mean that it was only illegal for citizens to be recruited for a foreign army in the United States, not to simply fight in one….

A few caveats: If an American joins an army engaged in hostilities against the United States, that’s considered an act of treason and punishable by death. The law also, obviously, doesn’t sanction membership in designated terrorist organizations…

Just last Friday, the FBI arrested Abdella Ahmad Tounisi, an 18-year-old from Aurora, Ill., at O’Hare Airport before he boarded a flight to Istanbul. The Chicago Tribune reports that Tounisi told an undercover FBI agent he intended to join the al-Nusra Front. He now faces up to 15 years in federal prison for the felony charge of "attempting to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization."

And in late March, when Eric Harroun, the U.S. citizen who trained and fought with the al-Nusra Front, returned to the United States, he was oddly enough charged for conspiring to use weapons of mass destruction — specifically rocket-propelled grenades.

The European Union, meanwhile, has yet to make a concerted legal effort to bar citizens from joining the fight in Syria. While one man was detained last week in Belgium for allegedly recruiting residents to go to Syria, efforts have largely focused on curbing the effects of radicalization. As the BBC reports, the EU is "pushing to bring in a Europe-wide passenger database for air-travel which in future could help track individuals down."

It’s a thorny problem to solve. As de Kerchove, the EU anti-terror chief, reminds us, "[n]ot all of them are radical when they leave."

Marya Hannun is a Ph.D. student in Arabic and Islamic studies at Georgetown University. Follow her on Twitter at: @mrhannun.
Tag: Syria

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.
An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.

Is Cold War Inevitable?

A new biography of George Kennan, the father of containment, raises questions about whether the old Cold War—and the emerging one with China—could have been avoided.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.

So You Want to Buy an Ambassadorship

The United States is the only Western government that routinely rewards mega-donors with top diplomatic posts.

Chinese President Xi jinping  toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi jinping toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.

Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?

Why Beijing’s foreign-policy reset will—or won’t—work out.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.

Turkey’s Problem Isn’t Sweden. It’s the United States.

Erdogan has focused on Stockholm’s stance toward Kurdish exile groups, but Ankara’s real demand is the end of U.S. support for Kurds in Syria.