S'poreans get sucked into Syrian conflict

S'poreans get sucked into Syrian conflict
A Free Syrian Army fighter looks ahead into the distance as he stands on a locally made weapon in the southern Idlib countryside July 8, 2014.

The conflict in Syria is no longer just a news update from a distant land.

Some Singaporeans have made their way to that convulsing country to join the civil war, said Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean in Parliament yesterday.

Among this "handful of Singaporeans" is a woman who has gone there with her foreign husband and two teenage children.

"The whole family is taking part in the conflict in various ways, either joining the terrorist groups to fight, or providing aid and support to the fighters," said DPM Teo, who is also Minister for Home Affairs.

Other Singaporeans who had expressed interest in going to the war zone were detained, and are being investigated, DPM Teo added.

The ripples from the conflict, in its third year, are being felt across the region. Across the Causeway, at least 18 Malaysians were arrested for being involved in activities related to the Syrian conflict.

More than 30 Malaysians and 56 Indonesians are said to have gone to Syria to join rebels in their fight against President Bashar al-Assad's regime.

The bigger worry is when radicalised militants return to their home countries, said DPM Teo.

"They may undertake terrorist activities in their home countries or overseas, or, at the very least, provide logistical and operational help to terrorists whom they have befriended in Syria."

He added that this had the potential to "damage our social cohesion" and cause "disquiet on the ground, and mistrust and tension between our communities".

Terrorism expert Rohan Gunaratna at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore told My Paper that this could "spur a new wave of violence in our region".

He said: "The South-east Asians will return with motivation and bring back skills and networks to organise and mount attacks...Regional counter-terrorism agencies and their partners should do more to fight this threat."

Prof Rohan suggested that governments should criminalise support and travel to conflict zones.

Muslim leaders also have a role to play "to counter the politicisation, radicalisation and mobilisation by engaging youth that Syria and Iraq are not 'lands of jihad'", he noted. He said online service providers should be held accountable for hosting terrorist and extremist propaganda.

Acknowledging how social media and the Internet is a "game changer", DPM Teo said: "Some foreigners have been lured by the sense of 'adventure' marketed by the extremists online.

"Others are attracted by the 'jihad cool' factor, with 'selfies' of fighters posing with their weapons."

While the Government will work with the community and religious leaders, DPM Teo also urged Singaporeans to look out for their loved ones and to alert the authorities early if they show signs of becoming radicalised.

Singaporeans who wish to help the Syrian civilians should go through bona fide local organisations, and check with the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore before making any donations, he said.

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