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Faced With A Russian Onslaught, Syrian Rebels Are Calling for Help From All Muslims

Syrian rebel brigades and religious scholars have issued calls for all able-bodied Muslim men to join the fight against the Assad regime and its allies.
People pick among the debris around the bombed-out remains of a building hit in an airstrike carried out by forces allied with the Assad regime on opposition held Douma, outskirts of Damascus, Syria, December 30, 2015. (Photo by Mohammed Badra/EPA)

Russian and Iranian intervention has turned the military balance in Syria's civil war, and rebels fighting Bashar al-Assad's regime are struggling to cope. Facing an overwhelming Russian assault from the air and an offensive on multiple fronts by the Syrian military and its allied foreign militia, some rebels have decided they urgently need more men — Syrian or not.

As a consequence, the most powerful rebel coalition in northern Syria and an association of mostly jihadist religious scholars have both issued calls to arms not just to able-bodied Syrians, but to the entire Muslim world.


But while Syrians in the opposition agree the military situation is dire, they disagree on whether they want more muhajireen ("migrants," or foreign fighters) — and whether those fighters are even interested in joining factions other than the Islamic State (IS).

"Ha, as if we need more al Qaeda," said a Syrian journalist who moves between Aleppo and Turkey, and requested anonymity for his safety.

On December 26, the military council of Jaysh al-Fatah, a rebel coalition whose name translates to "Army of Conquest," announced on social media a "general call to arms" for Muslims around the world, urging the Islamic nation's scholars to rally Muslim youth to stand against what it called an Iranian expansionist design.

Jaysh al-Fatah includes a number of factions, chief among them Salafist brigade Ahrar al-Sham and Syrian al Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra. Ahrar al-Sham put out its own call for general mobilization in November.

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An association of mostly jihadist clerics and Islamic scholars called the "League of Scholars in Syria" followed the call from rebel groups with a fatwa, or religious ruling, that declared it obligatory for every able-bodied Muslim to enlist in the Syrian jihad. The fatwa's 38 signatories include independent scholars, religious officials from Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, and others. While these scholars signed in an individual capacity, they carry weight in their respective organizations and brigades.


The fatwa has since been translated into languages including English and Russian. It has been followed with a series of videos publicizing the call to arms in English, German, and Turkish.

"I asked my parents for permission to leave and kill and be killed in the cause of Allah ta'ala [the Highest], but they went angry and my dad even uttered some words that did hurt my heart," wrote a commenter under one video, torn over leaving his family to join the jihad.

Jihadist evangelist and fundraiser Abdullah al-Muheisini, a Saudi currently based in northwest Syria, seems to be at the center of this recruitment campaign. Muheisini is the Army of Conquest's chief judge and he is also among the League of Scholars' most prominent members.

Syrians themselves have answered these calls to arms by forming civilian "reserve armies" to support rebels on the front lines. "People respect what the scholars and mujahideen say," said Abu Yousef al Muhajir, a commander and spokesman for Ahrar al-Sham who, despite his nom de guerre indicating a foreign origin, is Syrian. "They know that if this wasn't a necessity, if this wasn't gravely serious, there wouldn't have been these statements."

The response from would-be foreign fighters has been more difficult to gauge.

Watch the VICE News documentary, Reclaiming Sinjar: Pushing Back the Islamic State:

In December, Muheisini opened an account on the messaging app Telegram for those who wanted to make arrangements to join the fight in Syria.


"There are lots of messages, thank God," said the operator of the Telegram hotline, who used the pseudonym Abu Muhammad, when contacted by VICE News. "The messages are coming, on average, from 50 new people a day."

Abu Muhammad ultimately begged off so he could tend to Muslim youth who wanted to make nafir — "mobilization" — or joining the jihad.

"Dear brother, please forgive us," Abu Muhammad replied to VICE News in a message. "We'll respond to you later, given the volume of messages about making nafir. We won't forget you. ^_^"

Others are skeptical of these recruitment figures. "I think that number's exaggerated," said the Syrian journalist, who also pointed to Turkey's newly rigorous border measures as obstacles to foreigners making nafir. "Anyone who wanted to come already came."

Mujahid Deiraniyyeh, an influential Syrian Islamist writer and thinker who spoke to VICE News from Saudi Arabia, agreed. "Daesh [IS] took the overwhelming majority of the likely customers for this trend outside Syria," he said. "There aren't many of them left to be attracted to appeals like this."

'If things keep going like this, we'll lose and the regime will win'

Still, those who issued these calls to arms are alarmed at regime gains on Syria's coast and south of Aleppo, and see themselves as doing what they can to help.

"The fatwa calls on the Islamic nation's able young men to aid their brothers in Syria after their enemies have pounced on them, which the entire world has witnessed," said writer Anas Khattab, a League of Scholars member currently residing in Syria and a signatory to the fatwa.


Khattab cited as a model the successful 1980s appeal by Abdullah Azzam, the man known as the "father of global jihad" and a mentor of Osama bin Laden, for fighters to join the anti-Soviet struggle in Afghanistan. "In our view, Muslims will respond to these fatwas and calls to arms as they answered others before," Khattab said.

But for many Syrians in the revolutionary mainstream, the answer is not more foreign fighters. They still remember how many in the first wave of muhajireen joined IS, and more or less went berserk.

"Most of [Syria's] factions and religious references are now convinced that the involvement of non-Syrians in the battle hurt the revolution, so they're not in favor of a general mobilization of men from outside Syria," said Islamist writer Deiraniyyeh. "It's money that's needed urgently."

Others are less sure. "With some men and some weapons, we can change the equation, God willing," Ahrar al-Sham commander Hussam Salameh said.

"Everyone who says [Syria doesn't need men] is living outside Syria," said Khattab. "How can they know that? Do they know more than those living inside Syria, those who see the battlefield firsthand and know what it needs?"

But what's really needed against Russian airpower, others say, is better weapons. And a new influx of foreign fighters could make rebels too politically toxic for their backers to provide more support, including those advanced arms.


Related: Wave of Airstrikes Said to Kill Scores of Civilians in Islamic State Territory in Syria

"If things keep going like this, we'll lose and the regime will win," said the journalist. "That's if the revolutionaries can't get advanced weaponry — anti-aircraft weapons — which won't happen with al Qaeda here."

So far these sorts of arms have been only hypothetical, however.

"We've been hearing about anti-aircraft weapons since the beginning of the revolution, but we still haven't seen anything," said Abu Yousef al-Muhajir, the Ahrar al-Sham spokesman. "At the same time, we have seen men [foreign fighters] who have aided the people of Syria and sacrificed their lives here on the path of God."

Meanwhile, many battered, exhausted Syrians in rebel-held areas appreciate whatever help they can get.

Syrians "feel abandoned by the world, so they believe that whoever comes is there to help them," said the journalist. "And that might be true. But the reality is that it doesn't do any good."

Follow Sam Heller on Twitter: @AbuJamajem