Dozens Cross the Border to Fight for Syrian Rebels
As the war to topple Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad grinds on, an increasing number of Islamist fighters are trickling across Jordan’s porous border into Syria to fight alongside rebel forces. Leaders from the Salafi movement, who adhere to strict Islamic teachings, say the fighting in Syria has become sectarian, and they must now get involved.
President Assad is a member of the Alawite movement, a branch of Shi’ite Islam, and he is being supported by Iran and Hizbullah, both Shi’ite-majority movements. The Salafis say they are helping the rebels, who represent the majority of Sunnis in Syria.
“The Shi’ite versus Sunni conflict raised the alarm among hardliners and young Salafis that the Shi’ite crescent is casting its shadow on Jordan,” Hassan Abdel Rahman, a Salafi cleric from the eastern city of Russeifa told The Media Line. “They fear the tsunami of the Iran-Syria-Iraq triangle is coming to the kingdom sooner rather than later. The war in Syria is no longer an issue of freedom; it’s an issue of existence between Sunnis and Shi’ites.”
Jordan, a monarchy, is overwhelmingly Sunni with government statistics showing a Shi’ite population of just two percent.
Several Salafi leaders have issued a fatwa, or religious decree, calling for jihad (holy war) in Syria and commanding followers to join ranks.
“Conditions of jihad have been fulfilled in Syria,” said Abu Sayaf, an influential Salafi from the southern Jordanian city of Ma’an said days after a celebration of the “martyrdom” of a Salafi fighter killed in Hama. “Those who die in Syria will be martyrs in the name of Allah.”
Abu Sayaf said he is urging his followers to cross the border into Syria and help the rebels.
“The conflict started in a peaceful manner and then became an armed conflict,” Abu Sayaf told The Media Line. Referring to reports that Iran’s proxy force, Lebanon-based Hizbullah, is now fighting alongside Al-Assad’s troops, he said that, “Now, with Iran and Hizbullah involvement, the Syrian rebels need the support of their Sunni brothers around the world.”
The Salafi said that more than 100 fighters had already traveled to fight in Syria. Jordan has stepped up security along its border with Syria and several fighters have been arrested trying to cross the border. Yet, Jordan does not seem concerned that these Salafis could pose a threat to the Jordanian government.
“We have seen fighters leaving to Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries, but they have never posed a threat to Jordan,” analyst Hassan Hanya told The Media Line. “I don’t see any difference in the Syria case.”
A former Salafi fighter, Abu Omar, told The Media Line that Jordanian authorities would prefer that Salafi fighters leave Jordan to fight abroad rather than remain in Jordan where they could be a destabilizing force. Analyst Hanya explained that Jordan is more concerned that the Salafis try to become involved in the political process in Jordan, as they have done in several other countries. In Egypt, Salafis won 20 percent of the seats in parliament in the first democratic election.
“Salafis want to emulate the experience of their compatriots in Egypt and North Africa by entering the political fighting ring and this is more worrying to authorities than security issues,” he said.
Salafis also oppose the entry of any foreign troops into the region. That is a particular challenge to Jordan, a key US ally, which hosts large numbers of foreign forces. Jordan also receives nearly one-half billion US dollars in military aid from Washington and works closely with the American government and military. Jordanian officials worry that Salafis could try to pressure the government to force American troops out of Jordan.