Foreign Policy Blogs

Bad moon rising again, this time over Syria

Bad moon rising again, this time over Syria

There were many dangers faced by reporters during the four-year Bosnia war. Gunfire. Freezing. Food poisoning. Checkpoints manned by drugged out crazies. Yet one fear stood out, and it was usually away from the fighting.

That was going to Zenica, a city in the central part of the area controlled by the Bosnian government. The danger was something new – and a harbinger of things to come. Zenica was the bastion of the radical Muslim extremists who came to Bosnia to help their beleaguered Muslim brothers – or at least, on paper that was the reason. The real reason, as we all learned, was to get a new beachhead in their effort to purify Islam and the world.  They quickly took over Zenica and made it clear that any outsiders, especially western media, were extremely unwelcome.

This less than pleasant memory rears back into the mind as reports continue to filter in about more and more “foreign fighters” entering the fray in Syria. That will certainly mean one thing: any resolution of the conflict in Syria will immediately become even more complicated – and any tentative peace that may stumble from a settlement will be constantly pockmarked by these elements.

That harbinger of things to come is real.

Four weeks into the cease-fire that never really ceased, those in the outside world hoping to seek change in Syria are once again frustrated and befuddled. To many it seems clear that Syrian President Assad has no desire to yield anything, anywhere. The cease-fire seemed more like a pause to reload, regroup and relocate his churning offensive strategy.

The longer it takes for the west or the Arab League or the U.N. or anyone to find the determination to stop the carnage and try and have change happen, the more time the “foreign fighters” flowing into Syria will have to take root and become a festering, ongoing problem.

They fight for their causes. That is the only thing they believe in. Neither side should cheer their arrival.

Between 1996 and 2001, many of the former fighters occupied Bocinja, a town near Zenica, which had been a Serbian village in central Bosnia. The fighters lived there under Sharia law until they were evicted by the government, and they dispersed throughout central Bosnia.

Why were they permitted to come in the first place? Because no one else would help the Bosnians. An arms embargo only hurt them and the diplomatic niceties and timidity kept the Bosnians at a severe military disadvantage.

Sound familiar?

Many of these 3,000 to 4,000 foreign fighters who went to Bosnia were veterans of the war in Afghanistan and were wanted in their own countries. They were linked to violent Islamic groups struggling to overthrow the governments in Egypt, Algeria, Saudi Arabia and Yemen. In their zeal to enforce a militant form of Islam that most Bosnian Muslims themselves did not espouse, the fighters, distinctive in their flowing black beards, forced United Nations vehicles off the road, smashed bottles of alcohol in shop windows and warned Christian families at gunpoint to leave Bosnia.

It was so dangerous that British aid workers had their homes attacked and spray-painted with Arabic slogans, forcing most to leave left Zenica — – which was populated by some who later went on to greater roles in Al Qaeda.

Ancient history? Hardly. Last month prosecutors in Bosnia charged three men with terrorism over an attack on the U.S. embassy in the capital Sarajevo last year that raised questions over the threat from radical Islam in the Balkans. They still have their own agenda.

What does that mean for Syria and the region?

As the anti-Assad forces seek help, the same story is replaying. Syria has become a magnet for foreign fighters coming from Iraq, the rebel forces of the Libyan city of Misrata, from Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Lebanon. International media and numerous experts have attributed this massive affluence of foreign fighters to Al Qaeda’s call on Muslims to join the Syrian revolution and fight against Assad’s regime.

Syria is ripe for their picking. One year after the fighting started Syrians continue to die and Assad remains in power. The international community seems helpless. This is all very fertile ground for lawless foreign fighters. They do not need any ceasefire to enter.

Be clear, this is not the Spanish Civil War, where the Abraham Lincoln Brigade will leave when the war is over. In the end, both sides in Syria will pay the price.

From Bosnia to Chechnya to Afghanistan to the Middle East, the “foreign fighters” well trod road. Here is one chunk of food for thought for those in the Middle East: where do these fighters go next? Right down the street no doubt. That may finally motivate the Arab League to act.

(Sana / AFP / Getty Images)




Tom Squitieri

Tom Squitieri has spent more than three decades as a journalist, reporting overseas for the Lowell (Mass.) Sun, the Boston Herald and USA TODAY. He won three Overseas Press Club awards and three White House Correspondents' Association awards for his reporting from Haiti, Bosnia, and Burundi. He is a newly-elected board member of the Overseas Press Club.

In academics, Squitieri was invited to create and then teach a unique college course that combines journalism, public affairs, ethics, philosophy, current affairs and war zone survival skills into a practical application to broaden thinking and day-to-day success. The class "Your 15 Minutes: Navigating the Checkpoints in Life" has a waiting list each year.

Born in Pittsburgh and raised in western Pennsylvania, Squitieri has been on all seven continents and in dozens of places he intends to keep secret.