ALEPPO, Syria (Reuters) - Talal Mohammad is a long way from Tennessee, and he’s out of his depth.
In an olive grove a few miles from the frontlines of Aleppo, he’s at a loss to explain to a battle-hardened bunch of Syrian rebels what exactly this prosperous, U.S.-trained Saudi dentist is doing there - and what he can offer to their cause.
“Why have you come?” asked one of his new comrades, sharply, as they shared a traditional evening meal, the iftar to break the Ramadan fast, in the twilight of a makeshift training camp.
“Don’t get us wrong,” the man adds quickly, anxious to show due respect to a guest at this solemn ritual of shared faith in Islam. “We appreciate your solidarity. But if you’d brought us money and weapons, that would have been much better.”
Syrians’ war to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad seems to be drawing ever greater numbers of fellow Arabs and other Muslims to the battlefield, many driven by a sense of religious duty to perform jihad, a readiness to suffer for Islam.
But while some are professional “jihadists”, veterans of Iraq or Afghanistan, Chechnya or Libya, who bring combat and bomb-making skills that alarm the Western and Arab governments which have cheered the rebels on, many of these foreigners have little to offer Syrians but their goodwill and prayers, and plenty have ended up floundering well beyond their comfort zone.
For some rebel commanders, they are just getting in the way.
“It’s very different on the ground,” Talal Mohammad conceded as he shouldered his laptop and prepared for the short trek to the Turkish border and then a flight back home to Saudi Arabia and the wife and two young daughters he had left behind three weeks earlier, expecting to take part in a swift rebel victory.
“I was going to Syria thinking the liberation was a step or two away,” said Mohammad, who spent a decade studying in the United States. Instead, he found a bitter, grinding, bloody struggle in which his dental qualifications from Tennessee and a willingness to do his bit proved to be of little interest to ill-armed rebels facing Assad’s tanks, artillery and warplanes.
Senior fighters around Aleppo say it is a common story:
“This week alone, I have welcomed to Syria two doctors, a lawyer, a karate trainer and a social worker from Britain,” said one who goes by the name Abu Mohammed and who leads a formation known as the Soqour al-Sham, or Falcon of Syria, Brigade.
“We have no shortage of men at all,” he added. But some are more trouble than they’re worth.
“I realise it’s a religious duty to come to Syria for many of our brothers,” said Abu Mohammed. “But those who come with no idea how they can help beyond their faith can be a burden.”
In conversations with foreign volunteers encountered this month around northwestern Syria, in rebel-held territories between Aleppo and Idlib, a pattern was evident: of piety stimulated into action by graphic coverage of civilian death and suffering on Arab satellite news channels - many controlled by Assad’s enemies; and of a sense of dismay among these visiting jihadists at the scale of the task facing the opposition forces.
For some, being in Syria - a historic cultural focus for the Arab world - had more to do with their personal relationship with God than practical aid for the locals. Many Syrian fighters have little time for theology, even as the conflict takes on a sectarian cast between the mainly Sunni Muslim rebels and an army dominated by Assad’s Shi’ite-aligned Alawite minority.
Commanders say their rear lines are already awash with clerics eager to bolster the faith of their young warriors, but that did not stop another imam, Abu Anas, leaving his flock at his mosque in the Egyptian city of Assiut to preach to rebels in the town of Binnish, near Idlib: “I am here to perform jihad for the sake of God,” the 60-year-old preacher said. “I am doing this for God, not for any gain or prestige, only to please God.”
Jihad, he pointed out, was a sacred duty for Muslims but was not only about going into battle. All had their part to play.
For the Manchester-educated Kuwaiti oil engineer who calls himself Abu Hareth, it was television images of children slain in May in the village of Houla which prompted him to leave behind affluent suburban comforts and head for Syria via the rough journey over the frontier from Turkey.
“I felt I would be held responsible before God if I allowed the blood of Muslims to continue to be spilled like this,” he said. Though past fighting age, he had assured himself a welcome by arranging some $2 million in charity for bereaved families.
Assad says he is the target of a foreign-orchestrated plot. Sunni Islamists have long despised the ruling family; Assad’s secular, nominally socialist, father massacred thousands of Muslim Brotherhood rebels in the 1980s. Religious fighters form only a part of the present uprising, though Islamists tend to dominate among the hundreds of foreigners volunteering in Syria.
For some, underlying a desire to help fellow Muslims - who are after all dying at the hands of people who say they are of the same faith - lurks the wider sectarian confrontation across the Middle East, between the Sunni rulers of powerful Arab states and a Shi’ite camp led by Assad’s ally in non-Arab Iran.
“If what is happening to Sunnis in Syria is not ethnic cleansing by the Alawites, whose hearts are filled with sectarian hatred, what is it?” asked Abu Hareth, taking a swipe at “hypocrisy” among his own Shi’ite neighbours in the Gulf, who have long complained of Sunni oppression, in Bahrain and Iraq.
Among those volunteering for the frontline was a young Iraqi from Falluja, a bastion of the Sunni insurgency against U.S. occupation and Shi’ite-led governments that followed the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003: “For me, it’s the same battle,” said the man, who gave his first name as Jawad.
Though he had written his will and was ready for martyrdom, he said, he also did not want any trouble if he did return to his regular job - as an accountant for a Japanese firm in Dubai.
“America planted its Shi’ite stooges in Iraq, and America and Israel are now keeping Assad in power to stifle the awakening of the Sunnis,” asserted Jawad, who said his infant sister had died in a U.S. raid in Falluja in 2004 and an elder brother was tortured to death by suspected Shi’ite militiamen.
“I am here,” he said, “To avenge my sister and brother.”
Though leaders of the revolt insist they can avoid a repeat of the sectarian and ethnic blood-letting seen in Iraq next door, an influx of Sunni fighters from there and elsewhere, and the mounting bitterness against not just Assad but all Alawites as the war goes on, means some Syrians now fear the worst.
Parisian physiotherapist Ahmad, 42, said a religion rooted in his Moroccan family prompted him to join the Syrian struggle and he now put his faith in the “wisdom” of clerical leaders to hold back the tide of anger: “They won’t allow the Syrian people and the country to become another Afghanistan,” he insisted.
But another Moroccan, Abu Qutada, a lawyer educated in Italy, said two weeks around Aleppo had convinced him the war would not end as soon as he had expected. Chatting at a rebel base near the Turkish border, he said: “Rivers of Sunni blood will flow before Syria is liberated from Assad’s tyranny.”
Those foreign volunteers venturing into the country have often been shocked by what they find. Ahmad Bouzyan, a medical student from Sousse in Tunisia, said he was stunned by casualty counts each day that often surpassed the entire death toll for his own country’s pioneering Arab Spring revolution last year.
“Every day as we sat at iftar, one or two more would be absent,” he said of his comrades in arms, while preparing to return to his studies after a summer spent on the frontline around the town of Jabal al-Zawya. Only faith had kept him going when friends were killed: “We would touch the blood of a martyr and smell a fragrance and a smile would shine from his face.”
Others were simply surprised at themselves.
A Saudi schoolteacher receiving his first lessons in firing a rifle could not contain his astonishment at what he was doing: “Allahu akbar!” (God is greatest) yelped the 39-year-old from Taif after loosing off a couple of rounds under instruction from a Syrian rebel who barked: “Shoulders back. Don’t be scared.”
Giving his family name as Otaibi, the bearded teacher said he had kept his personal jihad from people back home, where the Saudi state is wary of home-grown Islamist militants despite its sympathy for the anti-Assad rebellion. In any case, few would guess where he was now: “Last time I was in Syria,” he confided, “Was on vacation with a bunch of guys to have fun in Damascus.”
For some, the greatest shock, however, remained how little the Syrians were interested in their foreign allies’ presence and how much more pressing was the desperate need for weaponry.
Sari Oeib, a 23-year-old Libyan who saw action last year in his prosperous home city of Misrata, recalled as prepared to fly home for a break his astonishment at the price he had to pay for his rifle once in Syria - a mark of its scarcity - and how coveted his gun was by ill-armed locals fighting alongside him.
“I had to buy my AK-47 for $3,000,” he said - easily 10 times the cost of such a weapon in much of the Middle East.
“And sometimes,” Oeib said, “I’d feel my Syrian comrades were just waiting for me to die - to get hold of my weapon.”
Editing by Alastair Macdonald