Muhammad no longer recognises his country. The 35-year-old former teacher from Idlib province says Syria
has been so overrun by foreign fighters that they are the ones calling the shots. “There are so many foreigners now – I have met guys from Uzbekistan, Ukraine, Libya. It makes me feel like it is not my country any more.
Once, I was walking around my home town when a man drove up to ask me for my papers. He was Tunisian. What’s his business ordering me around in my own country, in my town?”
Faisal, 27, also from Idlib, has been working in a Syrian restaurant in Reyhanli, southern Turkey
, for more than two years, while watching foreign jihadis travel unhindered through the border town into Syria. “There were so many of them here, all going to my country. These people have ruined us, they have destroyed Syria.”
The foreigners fighting in Syria had little trouble entering the country through the 550-mile border with Turkey via what Turkish pundits called the “jihadi highway”
. Working not unlike regular tour operators, traffickers ran routine – and lucrative – transfers from Turkish airports close to the Syrian border while the authorities and border guards turned a blind eye.
“For the first two years of the conflict in Syria there was virtually no border,
” says Ahmet, a smuggler and lifelong resident of a border village in Hatay province. “We pretty much came and went as we pleased. The Turkish government didn’t seem to mind.”
The unease is global. This year, the UN security council passed a number of resolutions urging member states to step up screening measures and border patrols aimed at stemming the flow of foreign fighters to Iraqi and Syrian battlefields. Muhammad, the teacher from Idlib, scoffs at such international efforts. “Without foreign support, these groups would never have grown this powerful in Syria,”
Abu Nour, 35, a primary school teacher and former fighter for the jihadi Ahrar al-Sham from Aleppo, says all foreign combatants were initially welcomed by the armed opposition, but no longer: “They provided decisive support in many battles. We were desperate for anyone to help us, but nobody – not the UN, not Nato, not even other Arab states – stepped up to do so. So the foreigners came. Some of them are good, they want to fight Assad and help us, but many have turned bad. They come for the money, for women. They destroyed the revolution.
“These people don’t know Syria, and don’t understand it,” he says. “Why should our women suddenly be dressed all in black?”