Both the Syrian government and the Syrian opposition have received support, militarily and diplomatically, from foreign countries leading the war to often be described as a proxy war.
Intelligence services and counter terrorism units have information which could be accurate or close enough to accuracy, especially those countries that are affected or follows the Syrian or Iraqi conflict. Turkey is most knowledgeable regarding this issue since they record all those fighter’s nationalities, figures and their entry date to the Syrian territories since they all came to Turkey either from its airports or ports.
Many of them enter Syria illegally by the help of Syrian smugglers at the Syrian-Turkish borders. Unlike Shiite militias that fight alongside the Syrian government forces like Hezbollah, Iraqi Shiite factions and Hazara Afghans enter to Syria in coordination with the Syrian government and Iran across many border points like Syrian-Lebanese border and Syrian-Iraqi borders and Syrian airports.
Foreign Sunni fighters
There is no exact figure for the number of opposition and jihadist fighters in Syria, whether they are part of Nusra Front, ISIS or any other factions. According to many counter-terrorism centres like London-based International Center for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence [ISCR] and Paris-based Centre of Strategic, Security and Military Studies on Syria [CSSMS] there are more than 20,000 fighters located in many areas across Syria and present in many jihadist groups. This makes the conflict in Syria and Iraq the largest mobilization of foreigner fighters in Muslim majority countries since 1945.
The number of foreigners that have joined Jihadist militant groups in the Syria and Iraq conflict continues to rise. It is estimated that the number of foreigners from Western European countries has risen to almost 4,000. The largest European countries like France, UK, and Germany, also produce the largest numbers of fighters. Relative to population size, the most heavily affected countries are Belgium, Denmark, and Sweden. With up to 12,000, the Middle East remains the dominant source of foreigners in the war with another 4,000 were from Russia and countries of the former Soviet Union.
JMWA and Nusra Front fighters in Aleppo / Twitter
The fundamental problem in those people especially the youngsters is that they are easily convinced or brainwashed, most of them are being recruited online through Social Networking sites like Facebook convincing them by misinterpreted religious texts from the Quran and Hadith which is considered the strongest tool of propaganda used by Jihadists and since most youngsters have a basic understanding of Islam especially the Europeans Muslims who lives in Europe they are most likely to believe it.
International Community has failed to intervene and to protect the civilians in Syria that are massacred by Syrian government forces and Shiite militias on daily basis, the images and videos of massacred Syrian people has encouraged many of them to pack up their bags and go there to help the Syrian people in their fight against the Syrian government without knowing who are the fighting groups in the battlefield.
Most of the people who are recruited online fly to Syria individually sometimes as groups, So when they arrive in Turkey [Istanbul] they mostly head to cities that are close to the Turkish-Syrian borders like Şanlıurfa, Gaziantep and Adana where there is a large Jihadist recruitment network [ISIS, Nusra front and Jund al-Aqsa] that sends those fighters to Syria. Main Opposition forces in Syria like Free Syrian Army and Islamic Front has not made any announcement or call for the foreigners to come and fight in Syria.
Reasons for Joining the Syrian war
Deteriorating economic situation has also played a key role in pushing a lot of people towards extremism, for example the unemployment rate in Tunisia after the Tunisian revolution in 2011 has reached up to 30% in poor areas which created a lot of frustration and disappointment among the Tunisians youth. Also successive Governments of Tunisia has failed to improve social and economic conditions of the country.
Under the deteriorating economic situation in North Africa and Middle East the Salafist\Wahhabi ideology has managed to spread rabidly among the people. The rise of extremism in Arab countries like Tunisia has pushed many of them to go to Syria and to join Jihadists groups for ideological reasons.
Many fighters are present in many Jihadist groups like 85% of them are with ISIS and 15% of them are with Nusra Front, Ansar Deen Front, Jund al-Aqsa and Ahrar Sham. Most of them are operating in Aleppo suburbs, Idlib Suburbs, Latakia Suburbs, Raqqa and Dier Zour depending where each Jihadist group is operating.
Moroccan fighters in Latakia / Facebook
Foreign Shiite fighters
It is known that the Syrian Armed Forces or Assad’s Army has lost its military capabilities in the last two years and most of the military bases and Airports have been captured by Syrian opposition forces, many of their tanks, armoured vehicles and aircraft are either destroyed or captured by Syrian rebel fighters which is a big loss to the Syrian Armed Forces. Most of his sectarian elite forces like 4th Armoured Division, Republican Guard, Intelligence security forces are among the heavy casualties of the Army that they are either dead, wounded, captured or escaped.
To recover his military loses he needed to recruit Shiite fighters from abroad to cover up the loses of his army and to have a strong assistance to his troops, some reports suggest that the numbers of foreign Shiite fighters are around 40,000 they came from around the world, but these fighters are mostly recruited from Lebanon and Iraq with other few recruits from Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen. They are being motivated religiously and politically to come to Syria to defend the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad and the Shiite holy sites in Syria, all of the Shiite foreign fighters are supported by Iranian Revolutionary Guards who pays and trains them regularly in Syria.
Iranian Revolutionary Guards officer colonel Mohammad Eskandari who was captured and executed by Nusra Front has stated from Tehran that Iran has being supportive of the Syrian Regime military by sending weapons and Shiite fighters where he says that Iranian Revolutionary Guards has formed and trained 42 Brigades and 138 Battalions to face the “enemies” in Syria and to defend the Assad Regime.
Many Shiite fighters use religious slogans such as Ya li Tharati Hussein which means “revenge for Hussein,” and Zaynab la Tusba Marratayn which means “Zaynab, you will not be held captive twice,” showing the belief that the current conflict is simultaneously a defence of Shiite holy sites and an attempt at taking revenge on the Syrians and the Sunnis for their role in the massacre at Karbala, which took place around 1,400 years ago.
They enter to Syria either from border gates or from international airports and off course under direct supervision from the Syrian intelligence service. Some of them go in groups and some as individuals but they all enter Syria as a pilgrim or a visitor to the Shiite holy places to cover themselves from the media and the people.
Lebanese Hezbollah in Yabroud / Twitter
Iran has completed the sectarian recruitment for the Shiites around the world to fight in Syria for the Assad Regime, the new recruited militia fighters underwent a fast and intensive military training course, to confined the weapons that have been supplied in the training camps under supervision of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard and with the participation of Syrian officers from the Syrian elite forces.
Sometimes those fighters are need to go to Iran where they will have to enrol on a 45 day training course in order to specialize in using weapons like AK-47, RPG-7, Dragonov Snipers and RPK machine guns after the completion of the course they will be sent to join a brigade in Syria.
The training camps are many also they are located in different countries like in Syria they have the Yarfour training camps in Rural Damascus, Sayyidah Zaynab training camp in Damascus and Zahra training camp in Aleppo. In Lebanon they train inside Hezbollah training camps in southern Lebanon and in Iraq they train in Iraqi military training camps in Baghdad in addition to Iranian revolutionary guard training camps in Iran, all of these training camps are being used to prepare the Shiite fighters militarily before sending them to Syria
Iraqi fighters from Abu Fadl al-Abbas brigade in Damascus / Twitter
Assad regime ensures the providing of supplies to its soldiers and foreign fighters, including the paying the salaries for most of them and the rest of them are being paid by Iranian and Iraqi Government. Salary range is between $500 – $2,500 depending on the front they are fighting on and the power of the militia they belong to. Not only do those militia fighters get their salaries from the Assad regime in order for them to get extra money they get involved in looting and armed robbery in public including raiding on civilian houses and stopping them in military checkpoints in order to bribe them to go through, under the pretext of dealing with so called terrorists.
Major General Qassem Suleimani leads the military operations on the ground. The presence of these militia fighters are heavily located in various Syrian territories, and that are moving from one place to another as ordered, they are unorganized and they work without cooperation from other militias but they all get orders from one military operation room led by Major General Qassem Suleimani and his Iranian officers with the assistance from the Syrian officers from the Syrian army and intelligence services.