How many foreign fighters are there in Syria?

While some regions in the world witnessed a significant increase in the number of foreign fighters, some other regions witnessed a relative stagnation.

November 1, 2016 20:53
3 minute read.
Nour al-Din al-Zinki

Nour al-Din al-Zinki ‏Syrian rebel group. (photo credit: ARAB MEDIA)


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It is estimated that between 27,000 and 31,000 foreign fighters have flocked to Iraq and Syria since the breakout of the war in 2011. Data provided by the Soufan Group in 2014 estimated that the identifiable number of foreign fighters in Syria was approximately 12,000, from 81 countries.

It was also believed that the number of foreign jihadists coming form Western countries did not exceed 3000: “Around 2,500 are from Western countries, including most members of the European Union, the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand,” according to Soufan’s initial report on foreign fighters in Syria. Now the number exceeds 27,000 foreign fighters from at least 86 countries.

While the number of foreign fighters in Syria is difficult to verify, as is the number returning to their home countries, CIA spokesman Ryan Trapani said: “This new total reflects an increase in members because of stronger recruitment since June [2014] following battlefield successes and the declaration of a caliphate, greater battlefield activity, and additional intelligence.”

The Soufan Group said that “despite sustained international effort to contain the Islamic State and stem the flow of militants traveling to Syria, the number of foreign fighters has more than doubled.”

This shows that the impact of these increased efforts to contain the flow of foreign recruits to extremist groups in Syria is limited.

While some regions in the world witnessed a significant increase in the number of foreign fighters, some other regions witnessed a relative stagnation.

For instance, unlike North America, the number in Western Europe has more than doubled since June 2014. However, according to Soufan Group data the number of foreign fighters has increased in all regions in the world:

•in Western Europe from approximately 2,000 in 2014 to 5000 in 2015;
• in former Soviet republics from approximately 1,000 in 2014 to almost 5000 in 2015;
• in The Maghreb from approximately 5,000 in 2014 to 8,000 in 2015;
• in North America from a couple of hundreds in 2014 to almost 1,000 in 2015;
• in the Middle East from approximately 3000 in 2014 to 8,500 in 2015;
• in Southeast Asia from nearly 100 in 2014 to almost 1,000 in 2015 and in the Balkans from a couple of hundred to over 1,000 in 2015.

While Tunisians (6,000), Saudis (2,500) and Jordanians (2,000) in the Middle East and the Maghreb continue to outnumber other national contingents, Russians (2,400) and Turks (2,100) remain at the top of the list.

According to the same report, the average rate of returnees to Western countries is now at around 20-30 percent. This poses new security challenges. But what the report also concludes is that “the motivation for people to join violent extremist groups in Syria and Iraq remains more personal than political.”

The Syrian civil war, according to the report, “will not end soon,” and although Islamic State (ISIS) is under more pressure than it was in June 2014, “it is likely to survive in some form for a considerable time to come.”

While the report focuses solely on foreign fighters joining extremist groups in Syria and Iraq, there are also thousands of foreign fighters joining the Assad regime coming from Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan.

Should future investigations estimate approximate numbers of foreign fighters joining all conflicting parties in Syria and Iraq, the numbers could skyrocket to not only outnumber the foreign fighters in the Afghan war but even doubling them.

The author is a political scientist who works as a lecturer for politics and culture of the Middle East, intercultural communication and journalism at the Fulda University of Applied Sciences and Phillips University Marburg. HE is a PhD candidate in political science, with a focus on the struggle over ideological power in the Middle East and the link thereof to democracy, at the University of Duisburg-Essen, and the editor-in-chief of the Mashreq Politics and Culture Journal (MPC Journal).

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