A group of Syrian rebels is working with embassies in Turkey to help foreign fighters defect from the Islamic State and return home. But despite some success, analysts say the effort has yet to stem the flow of foreign fighters joining the group and defections have yet to become widespread.
Thousands of foreign fighters – including huge numbers from Western European countries – have flocked to join the Islamic State and other Islamist groups among the Syrian rebels over the past three years. In an interview, Abu Shujar, a commander and spokesman for the Raqqa Revolutionaries, a moderate rebel group that was driven out of the Syrian city of Raqqa by the Islamic State, said his group has helped about 300 foreign fighters escape the Islamic State.
“If they can get in contact with us, then we help them go out,” said Abu Shujar, who used a nom de guerre for security reasons.
Abu Shujar, whose group is part of a loose-knit alliance with Syrian Kurdish fighters, said would-be Islamic State defectors are moved secretly to their embassies or consulates in Turkey, avoiding both the Turkish authorities and Islamic State members on either side of the Turkish-Syrian border. Most of the defectors are from European countries and are driven by unhappiness about the heavy losses among foreign fighters during last winter’s failed Islamic State attempt to capture the Kurdish border town of Kobani.
When we bring out a European, we always take them to the mall here in Urfa to go to KFC.
“The French and British guys all seem to want to leave after Kobani because Daash lost as much as 70 percent of the men and heavy weapons sent to that fight,” he said, using a common Arabic term for the Islamic State.
He said that was in contrast to fighters from Central Asia – the so-called “stan countries” that include Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan – and Chechnya, whom he called “the really tough foreign fighters.”
“The Europeans are usually just seeking adventure. Adventures and sex,” he said. “One French woman we helped defect said she first came because at home she couldn’t get a boyfriend. But they end up with bad food, dangerous guys trying to kill them and coalition airstrikes.”
“When we bring out a European, we always take them to the mall here in Urfa to go to KFC,” he said, laughing. Urfa is a shortened version of Sanliurfa.
Finding a way to reverse the Islamic State’s recruiting efforts has been among the top priorities of the U.S.-led coalition battling the group. Despite the harsh conditions that Islamic State recruits find in the self-declared caliphate, the disaffection remains only a minor irritant. Few of those who have left are willing to speak publicly.
“I don’t detect a significant downswing in support,” said Shiraz Maher, an analyst for the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence, a London-based think tank that studies the Islamic State.
His center on Monday published a report that detailed the testimony of 58 defectors who’ve left the Islamic State since January 2014, when the Islamic State began openly battling other groups opposed to the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Many of the defectors spoke of concerns about the group’s brutality, though two other policies – its attacks on other rebel groups as opposed to the Syrian government and the way it uses ill-trained foreign fighters in combat – were cited most frequently.
Still, analysts said the defections don’t appear to have hurt the group’s capabilities, and new recruits appear still to be flowing across the Turkish border.
Defector testimony suggests the foreign fighters are by no means monolithic in their sentiments, but this does not represent a fatal tipping point for the Islamic State.
Aymenn al Tamimi, analyst
The obstacles to defection are many, the report said. They include worries among recruits that they are deserting “true Islam” when they leave the Islamic State and concerns that discovery can mean death; dozens of executions have been reported of would-be defectors.
One of the key goals of any program to increase defections is making sure disaffected foreign fighters still with the Islamic State know others have taken the opportunity to leave and that those who do leave face little retribution when they get home, analysts say.
“Testimonies of disillusioned foreign fighters and defectors have generally not been heard as they are too afraid to speak out,” said Aymenn al Tamimi, an analyst of jihadist groups for the Middle East Forum, a Philadelphia-based think tank. “Partly this is due to the wider climate of fear and monitoring that pervades Islamic State territory, but also foreign fighters fear consequences of trying to return home and facing criminal charges.”
But Tamimi said he doubted that publishing defector tales of disaffection is likely to counter the group’s recruiting success.
“Defector testimony suggests the foreign fighters are by no means monolithic in their sentiments, but this does not represent a fatal tipping point for the Islamic State,” he said.
Prothero is a McClatchy special correspondent. Twitter: @mitchprothero