Analysts offer mixed views on why the U.S. hasn’t done more to block the jihadist routes. They argue that the pipelines are less of a priority for the administration because the jihadists aren’t targeting Americans – as they were in Iraq – that U.S. diplomats want to avoid confronting the Turks on the issue because they need Turkey’s help on other urgent regional matters and, perhaps most importantly, that the battle-skilled jihadists are a necessary evil to hasten the U.S. goal of ousting Assad.
“It’s kind of like Lincoln talking about Grant: I don’t care if he’s a drinker, he fights,” said a former senior U.S. government official with extensive experience in the Middle East, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the political sensitivity of the Syrian crisis.
Plus, analysts agreed, the Obama administration simply was slow in general to acknowledge the extremist infiltration of the Syrian uprising, which Washington sought to portray as nonviolent and pro-democracy long after evidence emerged of armed attacks on pro-regime forces and a growing presence of Syrian and foreign fighters whose stated goal was to replace Assad’s dictatorship with ultraconservative Islamist rule.
“For a long time there was undue optimism that the rebellion in Syria would result in a progressive, democratic-leaning movement. Frankly, they didn’t see the jihadi movement,” said Brian Fishman, a counter-terrorism expert at the Washington-based New America Foundation, a public policy institute based in Washington, who conducted extensive research on the jihadist pipelines of the Iraq War.
“There was a willful ignorance of reality there because we wanted Syria to be simpler than it is,” Fishman added. “The reality is that the situation in Syria raises tremendous policy questions and moral questions.”
Jihadist media outlets advertise locations in Turkey or just inside Syria where volunteer fighters may connect with handlers who offer shelter and match them with fighting groups, including the Nusra Front. Foreign fighters slip easily across the border, often without so much as having their passports examined.
While some join the more moderate or secular rebel brigades, many seek to connect with Nusra or an allied group, Ahrar al Sham.
A 37-year-old Egyptian father of two who goes by the nom de guerre Abu Rami said he’d crossed into Syria four times in the past year, mostly to fight but also to offer lessons on Islamic law, which he’s formally studied.
Abu Rami said he’d never had to sneak in and had never experienced any hindrance from Egyptian or Turkish authorities. He easily obtains a Turkish visa in Egypt and then makes his way to the Bab al Hawa crossing, where he links up with a Syrian comrade who guides him to a rebel unit. The whole trip, he said, costs no more than 1,500 Egyptian pounds, roughly $220.
“The majority of Egyptian jihadists in Syria aren’t affiliated with political parties or the Islamist movement in Egypt,” Abu Rami said. “They’re mostly independent, well-educated people with no financial or social problems, and come from good families. But their motivation is based on true jihad that knows no borders.”
Another Egyptian fighter, a British-educated father who goes by the pseudonym Abu Ahmed, said he’d chatted with Syrian rebels for months via the video teleconferencing service Skype before deciding he was ready for battle in January. He, too, entered without incident via Bab al Hawa.