It's about politics, not faith
Self-radicalised S'poreans who want to fight in Syria do not realise real context of conflict, say experts
It is a civil war, not a religious one.
That is what Dr Mohamed Ali wants Muslims in Singapore to know about the armed struggle in Syria.
"There is no obligation for Singaporean Muslims to go to Syria to fight. The context of the problem is that it is a Syrian problem, not a Singaporean one," said Dr Mohamed, a research fellow with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) at Nanyang Technological University.
He said a "very small" number of self-radicalised individuals who think of going to Syria to take part in the armed conflict do so because of "lack of knowledge of Islam and lack of understanding of the situation there".
One person allegedly did make the trip.
The Government said in March that it was investigating allegations against former Indian national Haja Fakkurudeen Usman Ali.
He had allegedly travelled to Syria with the intention of being a fighter. Haja, 37, who had obtained his Singapore citizenship in 2008, had worked as a supermarket manager.
Governments around the world are concerned that their citizens have been drawn into the conflict in the belief that it is a religious obligation.
Since the conflict erupted in March 2011, the number of foreigners who have joined the Sunni side (rebel forces) is estimated to be around 10,000.
A similar number of foreigners are believed to have joined the Shia (pro-Government) side, according to a December 2013 paper published in the Carnegie Middle East Center journal.
Why have these foreigners joined the conflict?
Blame religious extremist ideologues, said security analyst Associate Professor Kumar Ramakrishna of RSIS.
He said: "They argue that the Syrian conflict is the start of the end-times, the apocalyptic struggle between the forces of good - represented by the Mahdi (the prophesied redeemer of Islam who will rule before the Day of Judgment and rid the world of evil) - and evil, represented by the (Syrian president Bashar-al) Assad regime.
"Hence, they argue that it is the religious duty of Muslims, and if they can do so, to go and join the fight to defeat the Assad regime and help usher in the final victory for Islam.
"So this is a political message couched in religious terms - and (it) could have potent emotional appeal."
Prof Kumar said thatsenior and respected Muslim scholars here and overseas should debunk the extremist ideological narrative.
But those watching the conflict closely can also consult the Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG).
He said the group comprises leading progressive Muslim scholars and counsellors and has had much experience countering the violent extremist ideology of Jemaah Islamiah, the South-east Asian militant terrorist organisation.
That advice is echoed by Dr Mohamed, who added that Muslims can also seek religious guidance from reliable teachers and practitioners, and from the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis).
"They can approach Muis, the RRG and Islamic and other religious centres for more information that will help them understand the real context of the Syrian conflict, especially the fact that this is a civil war, not a religious one.
"So their prayers, and their financial and humanitarian contributions are already the best that they can do."
Dr Mohamed said Muslims here can make meaningful contributions towards the Syrian war by contributing humanitarian and financial aid through Muis, or praying for the afflicted parties.
Prof Kumar said Muslim charity organisations here would let people know of established channels so they can contribute towards the humanitarian effort.
One such effort to help Syrian refugees involved raising funds through the Singapore Muslim community's special collection in aid of Syrian refugees.
Donation boxes were placed in 69 mosques here with the aim of raising $500,000. The drive ended on April 10.
Said Prof Kumar: "Making generous contributions to established charity outfits would make a material contribution to alleviate human suffering in Syria.
"It would also prevent Singaporeans from getting hurt or killed in the conflict zone, causing untold distress to loved ones."
There is no obligation for Singaporean Muslims to go to Syria to fight. The context of the problem is that it is a Syrian problem, not a Singaporean one.
- Dr Mohamed Ali, a research fellow at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies
Kidnapping, bombs more common now
Foreigners thinking of joining the conflict in Syria are likely to face a new threat - kidnapping.
That is according to a report last year by defence consultancy IHS Jane's.
The threat of kidnapping has risen substantially since the beginning of the civil war in 2011.
Insurgent groups and pro-government militia are resorting to kidnapping-for-ransom to fund their activities.
They also use it to facilitate prisoner exchanges with rival groups.
According to an IHS report in September, "pro-government militias' pay had been cut, increasing the likelihood that they will turn to kidnapping".
IHS is a global information company with expertise in areas including geopolitical risk.
Opposition supporters had kidnapped Iranian workers who were, they claimed, helping government forces.
The IHS report stated that opposition supporters are likely to target individuals from Lebanon, Russia, China and Venezuela, due to their governments' support for President Bashar al-Assad.
Even civilians have not been spared.
Reports have suggested that 120 Kurds have been kidnapped by rebel groups linked to terror group Al-Qaeda. Their status is not known.
Besides kidnapping, new threats have emerged, with both sides turning to larger and more sophisticated improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
According to a US State Department report dated April 10, jihadist groups have demonstrated sophisticated IED capability, using multiple bombs in concert with personal arms and mortars to attack security forces.
The rebels, whose ranks increasingly include militants with fighting experience in Iraq, are using more sophisticated and better coordinated IEDs.
They are also using heavier weaponry captured from government forces to attack government buildings and energy, water and transportation infrastructure in government-held territory.
The IHS Jane's report stated that pro-government and Christian neighbourhoods are likely targets.
Civilian airports, many of which are being used by the military, are also likely to be attacked with small arms, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars.
Vehicle-borne IEDs will probably be used to break through perimeter defences in urban centres, followed by larger devices to inflict maximum damage and casualties.
IHS sources report that government and opposition supporters are targeting one another's commercial assets and activities, such as shops, factories and commercial vehicles, by engaging in shootings, IED attacks, looting and arson.
Not just 2 sides
The proverbial two sides of a conflict does not exist in Syria.
Instead, it is a conflict mired in confusion and self-interest with opportunists using the battleground to recruit radicalised individuals from around the world.
Since the unrest began in Syria in March 2011, many new jihadist groups have emerged, according to a report from defence analysis firm IHS Jane's.
The most prominent and militarily capable of these are the Jabhat al-Nusra li-ahl al-Sham, the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil), and the Islamic Front.
Independent jihadist groups drawing in foreign fighters are also increasing in number, and are likely to pose a threat to Syria's neighbours.
Then there are splinter groups.
Sunnis do not only wage battle with the other major Muslim denomination Shias - some Al-Qaeda-linked Sunnis are now locked in armed conflict with fellow Sunnis who have split from the terrorist organisation.
There are no winners. But the losers in the conflict are the ordinary citizens.
It is estimated that more than 2.7 million people have fled Syria.
And more than 160,000 people, including fighters on all sides of the conflict, have been killed.