THE BLOG

The Christian Contingent: Foreign Fighters Are Again Shown to Be More Diverse Than We Assume

22/10/2014 11:21 BST | Updated 21/12/2014 10:59 GMT

A former tank commander from the Swedish army posts a comment on the page of a man he believes to be fighting in Syria. Asking for guidance on where to travel to and which groups to join, he writes: 'I don't know who to trust'.

As the Syrian civil war has intensified over the last few years and with the more recent push of Islamic State into Iraq and Syria, we have become rapidly more familiar with the concept of 'foreign fighters', with the traffic of individuals and communications between Europe and the Middle East. A relentless stream of news stories, academic research and opinion pieces have reinforced their identity, their pattern of behaviour and their motivations.

Yet as with previous foreign fighters in earlier conflicts, their collective identity has become distilled into a few essential characteristics to create a figurine that frequently bears only a passing resemblance to actual individuals and their underlying complexities. Coverage more recently of European Kurds travelling to fight with the Peshmerga, has hinted at the more varied reality. More varied, and certainly more obscure, is news of members of a Danish biker group, 'No Surrender', going to fight against Islamic State. So we begin to see a variety of characters and motivations that reveals the situation in Syria to be somewhat closer to one author's description of an earlier set of foreign fighters, going to join the Spanish Civil War: "there were as many reasons to go to Spain as there were men who went."

Returning to the former tank commander from Sweden, the homogenising effect of the coverage on contemporary foreign fighters is made all the more obvious given his identity. Not an Islamic jihadist, disenchanted with the West's hypocrisy, and driven to fight for their Muslim brothers and sisters. Instead a European Christian, voicing concern about the threat to Syriac Christians in the region.

The man he is attempting to contact is Johan Kosar, a former sergeant in the Swiss army with Syriac Christian origins. Johan's father, Said, helped to establish the Syriac Union Party in Syria, which in turn established a Syriac fighting group called the Sutoro. Kosar has become a focal point for some Christians wanting to travel to al Hasakah province, in the North East of the country, following limited coverage by news agencies such as Agenfor Media, which established that he was involved in training the Sutoro.

Sutoru have teamed up with the Kurdish YPG in the area and more recently have adopted the same uniforms as the Kurdish police force (Asayish), their badges being their only distinguishing feature. Given the shared threat they have faced from Islamic groups in the country, there was a clear benefit from supporting one another and from learning from the significant experience that the Kurds possess.

The actual numbers of Europeans travelling to fight with Christian groups in Syria are comparatively small. Exact numbers are hard to pinpoint, in part due to the exclusive focus on Western jihadist fighters. In the same report by Agenfor Media, Lahdu Hobil of the European Syriac Union confirmed last year that 10-20 European Christians had travelled to Syria in 2012-13 in order to fight with the Sutoru, emphasising that the numbers were imprecise. Most of them seem to have travelled from Switzerland, Germany and Sweden, with some of those from Switzerland initially identified as Sunni Muslims by media and academic reports such as ICSR. It is understandably difficult to ascertain whether this number has increased since then.

What can be shown from research I undertook at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, is that there is continued interest on social media from Christians attracted to the prospect of fighting in Syria. Looking at the online activity and making direct contact with would-be fighters, revealed individuals who were hesitant as to what action they should take and unsure of how to make contact with existing networks. The relatively low numbers of Christians travelling from Europe presumably made it harder to make contact with like minded people.

Despite being comparatively small in number, the existence of Christian foreign fighters, taken alongside others from a non-Sunni Muslim background, should help to remind us that foreign fighters in Syria are a more heterogeneous lot than we tend to hear of. More pertinently, as the first wave of foreign fighters of this century begin to return to Europe, it should help to inform us of how we perceive them and respond. If they purely consisted of Sunni Muslims, we can more readily make assumptions about certain sectors of society and religions as expressed in the media: fighters motivated by a bellicose belief; of a fifth column within British society. However, these kinds of generalisations are complicated with the discovery of a more complex reality.

In fairness, this is not simply a one way process of labelling. The mainly youthful fighters are also keen to assert the origins of their actions: to protect and support their Muslim brothers and sisters against despots and an indifferent or colluding West. Yet beneath this self-authorship that tends to simplify a range of motives into a few broad and bold sounding categories, there are often a range of motivations, frequently very little to do with those grander claims. As one author noted of those going to fight in the Spanish Civil War: "Too much was at stake, many of them must have thought, to be tied down to facts and figures, or to take the time to probe the human reality. Better to shape the truth through slogans and stereotypes, and to inflate or deflate facts as opportune. Ignorance freed and fed the imagination." Fighters in that war and also the Balkan Wars, were as much in search of adventure, as they were in defence of a higher moral cause. It is increasingly being made clear that human nature has, in this respect, changed very little since then.

Elsewhere as well we can see signs of groups that challenge the prevalent orthodoxy. Most reports on foreign fighters focus on western Sunni Muslims; those going to join ISIL, Jabhat al-Nusra, or one of the other numerous groups competing in Syria and now Iraq. Yet there has been scant mainstream coverage of Shia Muslims also travelling to Syria to join with their fellow Shia. For the most part this does appear to be from the immediate region, as opposed to the West. Yet in order to gain a fuller understanding of the 'foreign fighter' phenomenon we need to keep these variations in mind, rather than fixate on readily available and digestible information.

Complex events are more easily envisaged, if in our minds eye we populate them with congruent individuals and groups. Foreign fighters from a western background, with an allegiance to Sunni Islam, are without doubt providing a much greater challenge than those Christians from the West fighting in the Middle East. The aim of highlighting the variety of foreign fighters however is not to claim they represent an equal threat. Instead, by acknowledging the breadth of fighters in Syria, we might also challenge our assumptions about their motivations. If Swedish Christians, Kurds from London, and even Dutch bikers, feel motivated to fight, then the hitherto simpler equation on cause and effect no longer holds true. Defence, violence, provocation or wanderlust are revealed not to solely be an outcome of Sunni Muslims living in the West and their frustration to events in the Middle East. In recognising the diversity of those travelling to fight in Syria, we might at the same time ask whether people's personal motivations are also not as cohesive as they first appear. Acknowledging this may in turn require us to create a more sophisticated set of responses to those currently fighting abroad, or who have already returned to the the UK.