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September 26, 2017

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Foreigners join fight against Assad

BAB AL-HAWA, Syria -- In restive northwest Syria, the uprising has found an unlikely new partner in the struggle against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad: foreign Islamists who are joining the fight.

But rather than adopt the revolt's calls for democracy and the fall of a dictatorial regime, such jihadists believe the minority Alawite sect — an offshoot of Shiite Islam to which Assad's family belongs — are "apostates" and need to be fought and overthrown.

At the Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey, seized by the rebel Free Syrian Army last week, dozens of men claiming to have traveled from several Arab and Muslim countries gather.

Some say they are from Algeria, others claim to be from Morocco, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. A few say they are from even farther away, including insurgent hotbeds such as Chechnya and Somalia.

From the start of the 16-month uprising — which has grown from a peaceful revolt into an armed insurgency — the Syrian regime has claimed rebels were hosting al-Qaida fighters, and that the revolt was a foreign conspiracy.

It is unclear just how many foreign jihadist fighters have taken advantage of a growing gap in regime forces' control of the territory to enter the country.

What is clear is that Syria's rebels do not want to admit that the jihadist phenomenon exists.

In the central province of Hama, a rebel who identifies himself as Abu Ammar says he commands a 1,200-strong battalion.

"We will never let al-Qaida take root here — we'll kill them if they try," he says. "The revolution belongs to the Syrians."

But eyewitness accounts suggest those fighters are coming whether he likes it or not, some of them likely to have been spurred by militant websites urging Islamists to join the uprising.

One website, the World Jihad Network, features a call published by the Iraqi Banner of Right and Jihad in June 2012 to "volunteer for jihad in Syria."

Another carries a statement by Abu Bakr al-Husseini, identified as emir of the Islamic State of Iraq, an umbrella organization for al-Qaida and proxy groups.

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