Most international attention on Sunni foreign fighters in Syria looks at the Islamic State aspect behind the phenomenon, exploring questions like whether fighters of various nationalities who joined the Islamic State should be stripped of their original citizenship and whether they should face trial in their home countries. Further controversies surround the fate of Islamic State fighters' wives and children, many of whom are now kept in a special section of an IDP camp in the Ain Issa area of Raqqa province (in May 2018, I visited that section of the camp, about which I will write subsequently).
However, there are still many Sunni foreign fighters in the northwestern part of Syria who joined groups besides the Islamic State, and the question of their own future is now all the more relevant in light of talk of an imminent Syrian government offensive to recapture greater Idlib and its environs.
Of these foreign fighters in northwestern Syria, some are determined to continue what they see as a legitimate and just jihad, but at least some others have become disillusioned, as is the case with Abu Osaid, originally from Tajikistan and the interviewee of this post. Abu Osaid, born in Tajikistan in 1988, currently resides in Idlib with his Tajik wife whom he brought with him to Syria (though for security reasons, their exact location in Idlib cannot be revealed). Above all, he would like to flee to Turkey.
On account of his somewhat limited Arabic and fear of retribution at the hands of Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham and others, his answers here are somewhat terse. This interview was conducted on 6 September 2018 and has been condensed for clarity. Any parenthetical insertions for explanations of terms and completing the sense of certain phrases and questions are in square brackets.
Q: How did you come to Bilad al-Sham [Syria]?
A: I heard the Muslims in al-Sham were oppressed. I made hijra [migration] to help them.
Q: Yes. In what year did you make hijra to Bilad al-Sham?
A: Two years ago.
Q: Meaning 2016?
Q: After you entered Syria, did you join Jabhat al-Nusra first?
A: No. I saw here that there are many factions. I did not enter.
Q: With which group were you in the beginning?
A: At first I did not enter into any group.
Q: So in the beginning you were an independent muhajir?
A: I dwelt in Idlib.
Q: Yes. And in the beginning you were not with any faction.
A: Yes. Afterwards the Jabha [Jabhat al-Nusra] detained me in prison.
Q: You mean Jabhat al-Nusra?
A: Yes. Afterwards I entered with the Turkestan [Uyghurs].
Q: Why did Jabhat al-Nusra imprison you?
A: I was not with them.
Q: Was there a problem between you and Jabhat al-Nusra?
A: No. They wanted me to join with them but I did not want to at first.
Q: Yes. So you were in the prisons of Jabhat al-Nusra because you rejected entering into Jabhat al-Nusra?
Q: For how many days were you in the prisons of Jabhat al-Nusra?
A: 8 months.
Q: By God, and after you got out of the prisons of Jabhat al-Nusra, you joined the Turkestan Islamic Party?
Q: Did you joined the Turkestan Islamic Party because it protects muhajireen?
A: This question, God willing, when I have come to Turkey afterwards, I will tell you. Okay?
Q: Okay. How many months were you in the Turkestan Islamic Party?
Q: And after this you joined Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham?
A: I am no longer with any of them.* I do not want their problem. I only want to go to Turkey, that's all. But I don't have enough money.
Q: Yes. [You want to go to Turkey] because the situation in Idlib is not good?
A: Yes, this, and other problems.
Q: Do you want to return to Tajikistan?
A: Do I want to return to Tajikistan? No. If I go to Tajikistan, much prison. I want to go to another country.
Q: For example you want to stay in Turkey?
A: Maybe in Turkey, or I go to Europe.
Q: Before your hijra to Tajikistan what did you for a job? Were you an engineer for example?
A: I was a businessman, and student of 'Ilm.
Q: Were you a shop-owner?
A: Yes, and sending clothes to Russia from Turkey.
Q: Yes. You don't like the government in Tajikistan?
A: No no, not at all.
Q: Because the government is against Islam?
A: Yes. Very much oppression. It's not allowed to pray or [wear] hijab: everything is forbidden.
Q: Yes. Were you a Salafi before you made hijra to Bilad al-Sham?
A: No. I am an ordinary Muslim.
Q: Yes. And the government in Tajikistan is Taghut [idolatrous tyranny]?
A: Yes. If they don't want Muslims, who are they?
Q: Yes. Are there many people from Tajikistan who have made hijra to Bilad al-Sham?
A: Yes, many.
Q: Most of them are in Idlib with the Turkestan Islamic Party?
A: No. Most with Da'esh [Islamic State], and also there are people with the Jabha [Jabhat al-Nusra/Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham].
Q: Yes. So some of them are with Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham.
Q: Yes. I expect you did not join Islamic State because you thought that Da'esh are Khawarij?
A: There is much oppression there. I only came to help the Muslims, but I have not seen honest factions.
Q: All the factions in Syria are oppressors?
A: God knows best. They love money.
Q: Yes, correct. And most of the people in Idlib don't like the factions?
A: They don't like them.
Q: They think the factions are corrupt?
Q: So you thought there were jihad and defending Islam, but it's not like that on the ground?
A: Yes. Most of them declare takfir on whoever they like.
Q: So they declare takfir on the people they don't like?
Q: And they are dealers in blood and money?
A: Yes. Now there is no place for women and children. Very bad.
Q: You mean the situation for the women and children is very bad?
A: Yes. Very much bombing. Yesterday in Jisr al-Shughur 5 aircraft struck the town and the peripheries of the town. Now in Hama there is intense fighting. And in Idlib as well, bombs.
Q: Yes. If you come to Europe for example, what do you want to do there? Do you want ordinary work?
A: Studies and English language. Afterwards I look for a good job, God willing. Ordinary [work], yes.
Q: Yes.So you don't want to fight at all.
A: No, no. But going out from here is very difficult.
Q: Currently you are not with any faction?
A: No. They are all liars. They say what they do not do.
Q: In which areas did you fight when you were in the factions?
A: I was in Jabal al-Turkoman.
Q: You were in Jabal al-Turkoman when you were in the Turkestan Islamic Party?
Q: There are people who say that the jihad must continue in Syria. What do you say to these people?
A: If there are no honest factions. With whom [do you wage] jihad?
*(Update 8 September 2018): in this part he expressed in broken Arabic: "كولوهم ما بعظ" (with correct spelling: "كلهم مع بعض"). On reflection, the more likely meaning he intended is that "they [the factions] are all together[or 'with each other/like each other']," and for this reason he is no longer involved with any of them.