Over the past year, Syria’s foreign fighters have become an important focus of the conflict in the international media, as well as a huge security headache for governments around the world. Thousands of young men—although no one can be sure just how many thousands—have flocked into Syria to fight. To reach the country they travel through an international network that starts with recruitment in their country of origin, and ends in a journey to the border with men like Abu Hussein.
In the summer of 2012, "Abu Hussein the Russian" began escorting foreign mujahideen fighters to Syria to join the war against Bashar al Assad’s regime. He was the jihadists’ transporter, responsible for meeting them at the airport in Istanbul and taking them on the 15-hour bus journey down to the Syrian border.
When I met him in Akçakale—a Turkish town on the border with Syria—he whipped out his passport. “Want to see this?” he asked. Page after page was covered in Turkish entry and exit stamps, each of them representing a foreign fighter that he had helped to bring into his country. He escorted them one by one, traveling up to Istanbul by plane from the border region of Hatay, and then travelling back down by bus to avoid the attentions of the security services. At the border he would deliver his new companion to another contact, who would then smuggle them in over the border. The whole journey, there and back, took less than 24 hours. “Like fast food!” Abu Hussein quipped.
This wasn’t what Abu Hussein had imagined he would end up doing when he returned to his native Syria in 2011. He had been living in the Ukrainian capital Kiev for six years, working as a driver and loving the life he had built for himself there. “You know the life in Ukraine, it is good,” he said.
But when the Syrian uprising began in 2011, he instantly decided to leave it all behind, to return to his homeland and join in the fight against Assad. First he participated in peaceful protests, and then he fought in the fledgling Free Syrian Army. By the middle of 2012, the rebels had captured the Bab al Hawa and Bab as Salaama border crossings with Turkey, which meant that the fighters with passports could cross in and out of the country officially, rather than going by the difficult and dangerous illegal routes. It was around that time that he was approached for his first special mission. “Someone recommended me—I was loaned out like a professional football player!” he said.
Two things landed Abu Hussein the job of escorting the foreign fighters—he had a passport, and he could speak Russian and English. As well as picking up young men from other Arab States, he also met Chechens and Brits. “I brought my first British fighter to Syria about 18 months ago,” he said. In the months that followed, he says he brought about ten more British men to Syria. One joined the Free Syrian Army’s Farouq Brigade, while others went to fight in Aleppo with a different group. He has kept in touch with two of them. “Now they are in Aleppo City, and one of them has married a Syrian woman,” he said. “He has a car and a house there now.”
The good thing about the Brits, said Abu Hussein, was that they had money. One of them gave him his Apple laptop before he went into Syria. It was a far cry from the 18-year-old Tunisian he met. “The first thing he said when I met him was that he had no dollars,” he laughed. But his favourites were the Chechens. “They are strong fighters; they have good experience,” he said. “They are the ones who are training the other fighters there.”
But now, in an ironic twist, Abu Hussein has fallen victim to some of the very same fighters he helped on their journey into Syria. Over the past nine months, many of the foreign jihadists who came to Syria to fight alongside the local rebels have left the brigades that they originally signed up with to join an al Qaeda-linked group called the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS). Over the past month, ISIS has put more far more effort into attacking other opposition groups than into fighting against the Syrian regime, and on January 11th they attacked Abu Hussein’s hometown of Tel Abyad. His own brigade, the Syrian-dominated Ahrar al Sham, was pushed out of the town. The Ahrar al Sham rebels fled over the border into the Turkish town of Akçakale when it became clear that they had lost control of the town. At least, the lucky ones did—ISIS captured and then executed over a hundred who were not so fortunate.
It was in Akçakale that I met Abu Hussein, standing near the border fence and looking over it into Syria towards his old home. His new home is a sparse top-floor flat that he shares with his wife and extended family. There is barely any furniture in it because everything he owns is still in Tel Abyad, and he has a feeling that it won’t be there when—or if—he goes back. He knows that at least one of the Tunisians he escorted to the border is now part of ISIS in Tel Abyad. “Maybe he is sleeping in my house,” he said. “Maybe he will steal my LCD television.”
And yet his feelings about the role he played in bringing those fighters to Syria are still mixed. He insists he doesn’t regret it, despite everything that is happening now. “If they hadn’t come the situation would be worse,” he said. “They are very good fighters. It’s only the ones who are in ISIS who are the problem.”
But at other points the enormity of what had happened seemed to hit him. “Shame on me,” he said at one point, as he laughed and shook his head sadly.
It has been more than a year now since Abu Hussein escorted his last jihadist to the border. Since then everything has changed in Syria. A conflict that used to be simple—the rebels against the regime—has turned into a confusing and messy quagmire where everyone seems to be fighting each other.
He believes that the flow of foreign fighters into Syria has already reached its peak, and is now ebbing. Some may even be returning, crossing back into Turkey to make the return journey home. “Some of those guys, they left their personal stuff and their documents in a safe place here in Turkey, because they don’t want to lose them in Syria,” he said. “I think a lot of the fighters are leaving now.”
Later on, in the car, we had a tentative conversation that seemed to confirm what he was saying.
“Hannah?” he asked, as if he’d just summoned up the courage to ask a question he’d been thinking of for a while. “Do you think that if these British fighters want to leave, your government will help them to go back home?”
I paused for a moment.
“No,” I replied. “No, I don’t think they will.”