A recent report in the UK Telegraph puts the number of British citizens traveling to Syria to fight alongside jihadist groups in the hundreds–the largest for all Europeans–and highlights an alarming trend of Europeans flocking to the war zone to further inflame the violence.
According to the Telegraph, around 300 Britons have moved from the UK to Syria to fight against moderate Islamic and Christian groups, as well as the government of Bashar al-Assad. Scotland Yard told the publication that “children as young as 16” are traveling to Syria and fighting alongside associates of al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups, a major concern for the UK. According to one source quoted in the report, the British government fears that once the war in Syria is completed, “they will try to return home and wage jihad on the streets of Britain.”
The UK is not the only country to face this challenge. The Telegraph reports that Western jihadist volunteers have come from a wide array of countries–including 200 who are believed to have traveled from Australia. In total, the Associated Press estimates upwards of a thousand volunteers associating with radical Islamist groups in the country from Europe, with France, Germany, Belgium, and Sweden having the biggest increase in travelers to Syria in recent months. German media believes around 200 of the nation’s citizens have flocked to Syria since the civil war escalated.
Nor is this a particularly recent phenomenon, though the numbers have surged since the international media stopped following the Syria story as closely. Back in April, the AP reported that European mayors were attempting to find legal means to stop their citizens from traveling to Syria. Belgium in particular attempted to “sweep” through neighborhoods and target potential jihadists, though it is still currently fighting that uphill battle. In June, similar reports arose of Russian citizens from Chechnya taking up arms with the Syrian rebels.
At the height of the the Syrian civil war’s popularity as an American media story, the focus centered around Bashar al-Assad’s potential use of chemical weapons on his people. Few denied that this occurred, and Assad himself eventually admitted to having chemical weapons that he would be willing to discard. The Obama administration threatened military action and failed to get much support internationally, instead yielding to the diplomatic efforts of Vladimir Putin. Putin’s public relations efforts on the matter– from a New York Times op-ed to speaking directly with Assad— caught the White House flat-footed, and the resulting deal between Russia and the Syrian government was heralded a success internationally, if only because America wasn’t involved. Polls showed Americans themselves seemed to think Putin acted more effectively than President Obama on this issue.
The American media lost interest at that point; Putin was regarded a peacemaker and pushed as a potential Nobel Prize nominee and Syria was saved from its bloodthirsty president. Except Bashar al-Assad is still there, and the war continues.
While American media moved on to the government shutdown and the failed launch of Obamacare, Islamist rebels continued their mission to kill Christians and federal leaders in Syria. Rebel forces kidnapped and executed a Syrian legislator just last month. Meanwhile, Islamist rebel forces’ latest outrage against Christians is the taking hostage of 12 nuns at a monastery in the town of Maalula. Reports of an al-Qaeda resurgence in the country continue, especially pronounced given the number of non-native Syrian rebels entering the country to fight against the regime. Despite the attack and lack of media attention, Christian Syrians have in large part remained in their country, holding on tightly to their faith.
Al-Assad has barely been behaving better, accused of using Russian-made weapons against the rebels and assorted innocents that happen to be in the way and furthering the violence. Saudi Arabia is rumored to be attempting to plan an intervention after President Obama’s plans flopped, and even the UN is wagging its finger at the Syrian leader yet again.
Without America’s leadership on ending the Syrian civil war, it has become clear that Russia, the major player stepping into our shoes, used the suffering of the Syrian people for PR reasons without doing much to resolve the actual conflict. And while the international community must never stand and watch mass violence erupt without denouncing and trying to stop genocide and persecution, the problem has become as much a European as a Middle Eastern one.
Europe in particular has a responsibility to act because Europeans are flooding Syria for the express purpose of furthering the violence there–whether the alarming reports of Islamic fundamentalists migrating to the war zone will alarm the international community into the action they never got around to taking in September remains to be seen.