Shortly before the US war on Iraq in 2003, Saddam Hussein called on Arab volunteers willing to fight along with his soldiers against the invading US forces. Most of the volunteers were Islamist activists coming from a number of countries and members of pan-Arab groups that maintained close ties with the Saddam regime.
Most of the fighters who responded to the call later joined the Al-Qaeda terror group, which played a major role in the ensuing carnage and carried out suicide bombings and indiscriminate attacks against Iraqi civilians. The group soon morphed into the Islamic State (IS) group, which attracted thousands of foreign fighters and its model and influence spread worldwide.
As IS began rapidly losing territory and support after its military defeat in Iraq and Syria in 2017, the question of what the world should do with the thousands of foreign fighters who joined it and remain defiant is still unanswered.
While Iraq and Syria face a substantial rebuilding and stabilisation process and are still grappling with “what next” for the thousands of their citizens who fought with IS, a new challenge is emerging from the conflict in Ukraine, as reports swirl about the two warring parties courting foreign fighters to enter the conflict.
Nowhere is this challenge more evident than in the Arab world, where polarisation over the war in Ukraine has been at play. To many Arabs, calls by Russia and Ukraine to recruit foreign fighters stir up political and ideological divisions.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has given the green light for volunteers from the Middle East to be deployed alongside Russian-backed rebels to fight in the war he has unleashed against Ukraine, plunging the neighbouring nation deeper into a quagmire.
The move came in response to a suggestion by Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, who said there were 16,000 volunteers in the Middle East ready to come to fight alongside Russian-backed forces in the breakaway Donbass region of eastern Ukraine.
“If you see that there are these people who want of their own accord, not for money, to come to help the people living in Donbass, then we need to give them what they want and help them get to the conflict zone,” Putin told members of the UN Security Council via a video link from the Kremlin.
Some military observers were quick to explain that the Russian decision was meant to bolster its flagging invasion just over three weeks after Putin ordered Russian troops in by allowing Moscow to deploy battle-hardened mercenaries from conflicts such as in Syria without risking additional military casualties.
Thus far, it is not clear how many foreign fighters have joined the Russian army in Ukraine, although US defence and intelligence officials and the Syrian opposition have confirmed that Russia is seeking to recruit Syrians to fight in Ukraine.
Reports of Russian attempts to pull experienced troops from Syria have been circulating for weeks. Syria, where the Russian army has built an immense military power-base since it was deployed to defend the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad against Syrian rebels, is clearly a main source for fighters.
They could include pro-government paramilitary groups, local militias who fought in the Civil War and developed skills in urban and guerilla warfare, and pro-Iran Iraqi and Lebanese militias who fought alongside the Syrian military.
The Wall Street Journal has reported that some Syrian mercenaries are already in Russia and prepared to enter the fight in Ukraine. The Russian recruitment effort was first reported by a Syrian news website, DeirEzzor24, which said that Moscow was seeking volunteers to act as guards on six-month contracts for between $200 and $300 a month.
Other reports say that the Russian mercenary firm Wagner has been equipping its Syrian operatives, who have served in the Libyan Civil War, and that Chechen forces under Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, a close ally of Putin, have already been posted in the war zone in Ukraine.
However, the Voice of America radio station has quoted US defence sources as saying that Russia’s efforts to recruit foreign mercenaries to bolster Russian forces fighting in Ukraine do not appear to be paying off just yet. According to the officials, the US has not seen indications that Russian recruiting efforts have borne fruit and resulted in the actual arrival of foreign fighters.
On the other hand, the ongoing Russian onslaught on Ukraine has brought to the fore a similar initiative from Kyiv. On 26 February, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky went on television and asked foreign volunteers to join an “International Legion” and take up arms in his country’s defence.
There has been a surge of interest in the project around the world since, and Zelensky later announced that 16,000 people from around the world had already volunteered to join. His foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, said that volunteers had signed up from 52 countries, including Europeans and Americans.
The British magazine the Economist interviewed volunteers who said they were told to expect to fight on the frontline, where they are most needed after several days of training which include map-reading, medical skills, and practise firing on a range before they are dispatched to the front.
Ukrainian embassies in many countries have already started recruiting volunteers to the “International Legion” through online applications, regardless of military or combat experience with offers including basic training.
In several countries, the calls for volunteers to join the war have been received with apprehension and resentment. Both Nigeria and Senegal have condemned the calls and said they will not allow their nationals to join the fight in Ukraine.
Historically, enlisting foreigners has been popular for the simple reason that armies always want more troops. Some 91 states counted foreign soldiers within their ranks between 1815 and 2020, according to research by Elizabeth Grasmeder published in the International Security Journal.
Fears of Arab young people being courted to take part in the war in Ukraine are well founded and have historical echoes. To many Arabs, such calls conjure up images of how their fathers and grandfathers were enmeshed in foreign wars and how that influenced nation-building.
Arab fighters joined the British army and the French Foreign Legion in World War I against the Ottomans and Germany, and the impact on their countries’ politics and stability was immense, some of it still felt today.
In many parts of the Arab world, officers who fought with the allies were rewarded by the colonial powers with privileges in the newly born states that allowed them to keep their preponderance and maintain their supremacy.
Though generally Arabs did not participate actively in military operations in World War II, the Middle East was one of the operational theatres of the war, and many of its countries endured its impact, including sharp polarisation over the political ideologies of the warring nations.
More recently, thousands of Arab Muslims fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan under Al-Qaeda from 1997-2001 before returning home after the war where they used their acquired jihad ideology, combat skills, and radical networks to establish terrorist groups that severely impacted their countries’ security.
From Morocco and Algeria in the west to Saudi Arabia and Yemen in the east, the so-called returnees from Afghanistan in the 1990s played havoc in several Arab countries, with acts of terrorism and insurgencies representing grave challenges to state power.
The “Afghan Arabs,” as the veterans were also called, and other jihadists who fought in the Bosnia and Chechnya conflict zones continued to generate threats associated with the dispersal of fighters in the region and around the world despite concerted efforts to crack down on them.
Owing to the complex nature of the Ukraine crisis, the multiple parties involved, and the broad spectrum of political views among the Arab public on the conflict, it is unclear how this volunteer-assembling campaign will evolve.
But the participation of Arab young men in such a divisive global conflict will undoubtedly create a new breed of “foreign fighters” who will pose a dire challenge for the Arab countries that are already facing a range of security threats.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 17 March, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly