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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 18 August 2018

Northern Syria pushes back against foreign fighters

Despite the fall of ISIS, foreign fighters have risen to key positions in other opposition groups across Syria

A wanted poster is seen in Idlib, Syria.
A wanted poster is seen in Idlib, Syria.

A group of civilian activists in Northern Syria have launched a striking campaign against foreign fighters in an effort to counter their growing influence in rebel-held areas.

Samir Mansour, an activist involved in the creation and distribution of the posters spoke to The National under a pseudonym, explaining the thinking behind them. “We are showing that these foreign fighters are not welcome in Syria, and they have been the main reason behind the international community’ attacks on these areas.

“We don’t want them to go home, we just want them to stop working with terror groups. I don’t think they can go home,” he added.

The group’s first target was a British fighter known as Abu Yusuf Al Britani, his real name is believed to be Dimitry Kaplan.

Over the last few weeks, posters adorned with Kaplan’s mug shot have appeared in cities across Idlib province, including Ma’arat Al Numan, Saraqib and Idlib city itself.

The posters allege Kaplan has also been responsible for policing internet cafes in rebel held Syria, amid Hayat Tahrir Al Sham's (HTS) increasingly authoritarian regime.

Security officials believe that Kaplan has links to ISIS, and has previously served as head of HTS’ Istishidi, or martyrdom, operations. A sign of his importance is his four-person body-guard detail, security officials told The National.

Mr Mansour, notes that the posters, which are titled “termination of contract”, are part of a wider civic-rejection of the foreign fighters in some of northern Syria’s most hardline groups.

“People are sick of foreign commanders constant intervening in local disputes”, says Mr Mansour.

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A 2017 report by the Soufan center estimated that as many as 40,000 foreign fighters flocked to to Syria from more than 110 countries. Many joined ISIS, but significant cohorts were also attracted to Al Qaeda linked groups such as HTS and Haras Al Deen, both of which retain a significant presence in Northern Syria.

Despite ISIS loss of Raqqa, and the vast majority of its territory, foreign fighters continue to play key roles in other groups.

This is not the first example of Idlib’s civilian population pushing back against the foreign fighters. Last Wednesday civilian’s protested against a group of Uzbek fighters attempting to establish a new headquarters in a civilian building central Idlib, amid fears the building would be targeted by airstrikes.

“When they are seeking refuge in civilian areas, they are endangering Syrian lives,” warns Mr Mansour.

The campaign is not without risk. Mr Mansour is aware that if caught he could face arrest, torture – even execution, but that threat does not stop him.

“There is no bigger threat at the moment than that posed by HTS, Daesh – who have come back to the area and Ansar Al Deen – all of them have foreign fighters with them. Instead of one threat, we have three.

“The regime is a threat on the frontlines, but in our areas, it’s the foreign fighters.

"Here, they are the real threat – that’s why we fighting back.”

A security source told The National that the campaign “highlights the real attitude that many Syrians – whether in the Opposition or HTS or Daesh – have towards these outsiders.

“They’re unwelcome, and the majority of Syrians have never really welcomed them. Foreign fighters therefore have often formed their own cadres within groups and remained isolated from the locals. This has simply accentuated the differences between them and the locals.”

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