REYHANLI, Turkey (Reuters) - Abdullah bin Shamar, a Saudi student, puts a small copy of the Koran among his few belongings packed neatly in a holdall as he prepares to set off with a Libyan friend across the hilly terrain separating southern Turkey from Syria.
“It is our duty to go to the great Bilad al Sham (Syria) and defend it against the Alawite tyrants massacring its people,” said Bin Shamar, 22, a lightly bearded engineering major, who spoke to Reuters in Reyhanli, a Turkish town whose Arab inhabitants have historic links with Syria.
He and his friend are part of a small but growing influx of militant Arab Islamists determined to join the 16-month-old rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad. Their presence will alarm those in the West who have warned against al-Qaeda style militancy in Syria, whose conflict has the potential to spread sectarian strife far beyond its borders.
Bin Shamar and his Libyan friend Salloum say they are flowing the footsteps of their ancestors who fought in legions sent by the Prophet Mohammad at the dawn of Islam to liberate Greater Syria from those they regarded as Byzantine heathens.
Syria’s 21st century heathens, they say, are Assad and his cohorts in the ruling elite from the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam that has dominated the power structure of the Levantine country for the last five decades.
Sunni extremists, such as the foreign fighters now making their way to Syria, have a hatred for Assad’s Alawites, whom they regard as infidels, as well as for Shi’ite Iran, which backs the Syrian leader.
“Syria’s Muslim population has finally risen, after Assad and the Alawites pillaged Syria with the support of Iran and Hizbollah. Muslims everywhere cannot stand aside and do nothing to help the revolt,” Bin Shamar said.
The two young middle class Arab youths, who first met in the British town of Brighton several years ago while attending a language course, arrived in Turkey this week.
They sensed a landmark change in the course of the revolt after the assassination of four of Assad’s top lieutenants in Damascus on July 18, an event that encouraged bolder rebel attacks in Damascus and Aleppo, the country’s commercial hub.
In the last few months, a steady flow of Arab men, including Libyans, Kuwaitis, Saudis as well as Muslims from Britain, Belgium and the United States, have joined Free Syrian Army forces, several rebel commanders in the northwest of Syria said.
They are forming what opposition sources describe as an accelerated, but still small, inflow of foreign fighters into the country. They include young Syrians who were born in the West and whose families fled persecution under Assad’s rule.
Most have headed to the province of Hama, in central Syria, where a few Jihadists, or Muslim religious fighters, with experience in Afghanistan have been giving them rudimentary training in handling assault rifles and guerrilla warfare.
Hundreds of foreign Jihadists, opposition sources say, now operate in the city of Hama, a major centre of the anti-Assad rebellion. Some have gone to fight in Damascus, but their numbers are too small to alter a balance of power overwhelmingly in favor of Assad’s forces, rebel sources said.
Several reported massacres of Sunni villagers and the bombardment of mosques are fuelling a hatred of the Alawites that has prompted some Sunni scholars to start preaching in support of jihad, or holy struggle, in Syria.
A Western diplomat following the movement of foreign fighters to Syria likened them to the European idealists who headed to Spain in 1936 to help fight against General Francisco Franco, but were ultimately no match for the dictator’s forces.
Salloum said he fought with Libyan rebels in the battle of Zawiya, near Tripoli, before the fall of Muammar Gaddafi last year. He declined to disclose where he was going in Syria, but said it was his religious duty to help Syrians in need.
“Our Syrian brothers need any help they can get, because unlike in Libya, the international community has abandoned them.
“They welcome us and are eagerly waiting for us. We want to tell them, you are not alone in this fight to liberate this land from the tyranny of the minority,” said Salloum, 24 who said he had dropped out of Libya’s Tripoli University, where he was studying chemistry.
Salloum, who planned to join a unit called the Ahrar al-Sham brigades, said participating in jihad was one of his highest aspirations as a Muslim. Rebel sources said most of the foreign fighters had joined this unit, including Mohammad Salem al-Harbi, a young Saudi cleric who is believed to have been killed this week.
“We have been following the successes of our Syrian mujahedeen (fighters) in recent weeks. Victory comes from Allah,” he added, sitting on a mattress, where two new sets of walkie-talkies lay in a corner along with an iPhone and other communications equipment.
Rebels say the conflict in Syria has angered many Sunni Arabs, who see it as an Alawite military campaign to ethnically cleanse Syria and create a pure Alawite state stretching from the Mediterranean coast to central regions of the country.
“The Alawites are acting with vengeance. They have been fooled by Assad into believing that this is a life or death war for them and if the Sunnis win they see themselves as being doomed,” Salloum said.
“Look at their hatred,” Salloum said, referring to a video widely circulated by Syrian activists that purportedly shows Alawite pro-Assad militiamen, known as shabbiha, using a knife to slit the throat of a handcuffed young rebel male in Idlib in what Sunnis say reveals deep seated sectarian grudges.
“The Alawites have taken over everything in Syria, political power, the economy, the state jobs, and now they want to continue enslaving our Sunni brothers and sisters, they tell them your God is Assad,” said Bin Shamer.
Assad has consistently maintained that the insurgency is largely the work of those he refers to as foreign-backed terrorists and his forces are acting to restore stability.
Perhaps sensitive to the concerns of their backers in the West, Syrian rebel leaders say that while the Arab jihadists slowly trickling in are welcome, their numbers are negligible and they are motivated by idealism and piety.
Their presence will not change the complexion of the insurgency, a home-grown uprising fuelled by Syrians rebelling against years of oppression, rebel leaders say.
“They are mostly youths disgusted by the regime’s sectarian killings. They carry the banner of Islamic unity and they come to Syria as idealists, often without training or tangible combat experience,” said Younis Khader, commander of a rebel battalion called the “Grandchildren of the Prophet” in the Anadan region, west of Aleppo.
Khader cited the case of Saber al-Haji, a Libyan student of Islamic jurisprudence who joined the rebels as a fighter and was killed in Aleppo.
“We had great respect for al-Haji. He was a man of religion and his devotion to Islam is primarily why he was a model for many of us,” he said. “May God’s mercy fall on him and a place him among the martyrs.”
Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editing by Giles Elgood