Can I join the Free Syrian Army?
October 5, 2012 2:49 PM   Subscribe

Can I join the Free Syrian Army?

Thousands of US citizens joined the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War, fighting alongside rebels or providing direct support to armed groups. Could US citizens do the same in the Syrian civil war? What legal consequences would one face for joining a foreign nonstate armed force like the Free Syrian Army? How has domestic law regarding this changed since 1936? What about private citizens funding foreign armed groups?

I don't mean to draw any more comparisons than necessary between Spain and Syria. They are very different conflicts involving very different groups of people in very different historical circumstances.

Also, this question is motivated only by my own curiosity. I promise I'm not planning to fly to Antakya and join up.
posted by ecmendenhall to Law & Government (10 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
The main difference is that groups outside Spain were organizing regiments to coordinate with groups in country, resulting in something like a legitimate fighting force.

I guess you could start up an initiative like that, but I don't think that even in Spain in the 30's you could just show up in Barcelona all, "Hey so how can I get involved in this war?"
posted by Sara C. at 2:51 PM on October 5, 2012

It's not exactly the same situation as Syria, but you might be interested in the few Americans who tried this last year in Libya, for various reasons and with differing results. (There may be more examples, those were just the first articles to come up in a search.)
posted by DestinationUnknown at 3:02 PM on October 5, 2012 [3 favorites]

Some elements of the Syrian opposition are aligned with or could be seem to be aligned with al Qaeda (seeing this as a Sunni opportunity to displace the Alawite-led and Shiite-and-Christian backed Assad regime). That could go poorly for an American. (See John Walker Lindh.)

(The Abraham Lincoln Brigades were Communist-led and their members were branded Reds with serious consequences for the next 20+ years ...)
posted by MattD at 3:50 PM on October 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

When applying for tourist visas, a lot of countries ask about involvement in armed groups. I am not speaking from experience, but my hunch is that involvement in such a group unrelated to your nationality would be a bright red flag for "mercenary", which can be grounds for denying you entry. Perhaps that might be an issue to look into?
posted by anonymisc at 5:14 PM on October 5, 2012

It is fraught with peril. All other things aside, you would probably be a choice kidnapping target for your chosen enemies.
posted by gjc at 5:33 PM on October 5, 2012

Most Armies welcome volunteers with open arms. Hitler himself was a draft dodger in Austria, yet a volunteer fighter in the German Reich in World War I.

Besides "health" risk you may take into consideration that many nations don't accept you wearing a uniform and bearing arms for another country. It could lead to loss of citizenship and/or prison time.
posted by yoyo_nyc at 5:44 PM on October 5, 2012

I would think that if you did show up in Syria you would be met with extreme suspicion by the resistance fighters.
posted by LarryC at 6:27 PM on October 5, 2012

Thanks, everyone! Let's stipulate that joining a foreign rebel army is an ill-advised and dangerous idea, and that volunteers might be suspicious or unwelcome. The question is more about the law. Yoyo_nyc's link is a good start.
posted by ecmendenhall at 6:38 PM on October 5, 2012

US Department of State: Advice about Possible Loss of US Citizenship and Foreign Military Service.

That document covers the enlistment of US citizens in a foreign nation's army, rather than a resistance group. But if the resistance group wins the conflict and then declares that all of the fighters are now citizens of the new country it could become relevant.

A possibly more serious risk is that the Free Syrian Army could somehow find itself declared a Foreign Terrorist Organization. This may not seem likely now, but could come to pass in the future due to careful political wrangling on the part of the current Syrian government.

Another conflict to investigate is the breakup of Yugoslavia. It seems like every faction that was involved in the conflict was at some time seen as honorable and then at another time as perpetrators of unspeakable crimes. I'm not familiar enough with either conflict to draw parallels, but the case of Yugoslavia does illustrate that public opinion can change radically over the course of a conflict.

It is probably also worth delving into the various Geneva Conventions.
posted by b1tr0t at 7:28 PM on October 5, 2012

The legal consequences depend considerably on whether the foreign nonstate armed group is (tacitly or explicitly) supported by your own country. If it isn't, then you are like the British and American citizens who went to fight with the Taliban in Afghanistan before 2001 (some of whom also fought with the Bosnian Muslims in that war in the 1990s) for example Abu Hamza. So, you could be declared a terrorist, and face years in jail.

And the chances are excellent that whichever side in any conflict you joined, your own country would take against them at some point, regardless of the rights and wrongs. Mostly because international politics favours pragmatism over idealism.

Even if that doesn't happen, as others have said you would likely face problems travelling in future.
posted by plonkee at 1:22 AM on October 6, 2012

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