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14 Jul, 2013 19:42

Pakistani Taliban sent hundreds to Syria to fight shoulder-to-shoulder with rebels

A Pakistani branch of the Taliban has sent hundreds of men to Syria to fight alongside rebels in the battle to topple President Assad. The militant organization has reportedly set up camps, aiming to foster ties with al-Qaeda’s central leadership.
Pakistani Taliban sent hundreds to Syria to fight shoulder-to-shoulder with rebels

Taliban commanders told Reuters on Sunday that they decided to join the cause in Syria in order to fight alongside their “Mujahedeen friends.”

“When our brothers needed our help, we sent hundreds of fighters along with our Arab friends,”
one senior commander said, mentioning that his group would be providing the general public with videos of their “victories” in Syria.

One commander told the agency that the help was sent at the request of “Arab friends.”

“We have established our own camps in Syria. Some of our people go and then return after spending some time fighting there,”
a Pakistani Taliban commander said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“Since our Arab brothers have come here for our support, we are bound to help them in their respective countries and that is what we did in Syria,”
he added.

Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is known for its affiliation with the al Nusra front, recognized as a branch of al-Qaeda. The majority of Pakistani Taliban groups work under the banner of the TTP.

They operate in Pakistan's insurgency-plagued areas along the Afghan border, seeking to topple Pakistan’s government and install its own branch of Islam.

Taliban factions are motivated to fight by religion in Syria, working under the belief that Sunni Muslims - who are a majority in Syria - are being oppressed by the Shia government.

Foreign Sunni fighters now flock to Syria from countries such as Tunisia and Libya, in order to wage a holy war against perceived Shia oppressors.

Prominent Pakistani author and Taliban expert Ahmed Rashid told Reuters that sending Taliban fighters would be regarded as an act of loyalty by al-Qaeda.

“The Pakistani Taliban has remained a sort surrogate of al-Qaeda. We've got all these foreigners up there in Federally Administered Tribal Areas who are being looked after or trained by the Pakistani Taliban,”
said Rashid. He explained that the fighters are like global jihadists, and drew the conclusion that they are aiming to “cement relationships with the Syrian militant groups.” 

Syrian rebels head to the town of Bsankol in the northwestern province of Idlib to join comrades fighting regime forces for the control of the highway that connects Idlib with Latakia on July 11, 2013. (AFP Photo / Daniel Leal Olivas)

Risk of heightened extremism

The relationship between Islamists and the Free Syrian Army is already fragile, and thousands of people have died in the year-long armed conflict. Violence erupted again on Thursday after an al-Qaeda linked group assassinated one of the Free Syrian Army’s most senior commanders in Latakia.

“Recent credible reports show that there are approximately 29 nationalities of foreign fighters engaged in terrorism activities within Syria’s borders,” Assad told Argentinian media in May. A UN report published earlier this year mentioned the same number, stating that the majority were extreme Salafists.  

US Secretary of State John Kerry met with foreign ministers from European and Arab nations on Saturday, underlining that military support to rebels would need to increase “in order to have an impact on the ground.”

Congress appeared to prevent that plan from taking place on Wednesday. Lawmakers moved to block increased military aid, fearing that weapons would fall into the hands of terrorist groups. US analysts are particularly concerned over the strengthening of the Syrian al-Qaeda-affiliated group al-Nusra Front, also known as Jabhat al-Nusra.

European countries have opted not to extend an arms embargo, which means member states now are allowed to arm the Syrian rebels.