Reuters) - Abdullah bin Shamar, a Saudi student, puts a small copy of the Koran among his few belongings packed neatly in a holdall as he prepares to set off with a Libyan friend across the hilly terrain separating southern Turkey from Syria.
"It is our duty to go to the great Bilad al Sham (Syria) and defend it against the Alawite tyrants massacring its people," said Bin Shamar, 22, a lightly bearded engineering major, who spoke to Reuters in Reyhanli, a Turkish town whose Arab inhabitants have historic links with Syria.
He and his friend are part of a small but growing influx of militant Arab Islamists determined to join the 16-month-old rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad. Their presence will alarm those in the West who have warned against al-Qaeda style militancy in Syria, whose conflict has the potential to spread sectarian strife far beyond its borders.
Bin Shamar and his Libyan friend Salloum say they are following in the footsteps of their ancestors who fought in legions sent by the Prophet Mohammad at the dawn of Islam to liberate Greater Syria from those they regarded as Byzantine heathens.
Syria’s 21st century heathens, they say, are Assad and his cohorts in the ruling elite from the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam that has dominated the power structure of the Levantine country for the last five decades.
Sunni extremists, such as the foreign fighters now making their way to Syria, have a hatred for Assad’s Alawites, whom they regard as infidels, as well as for Shi’ite Iran, which backs the Syrian leader.
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cf: Byzantine-Arab Wars (lasted from 6th century to 11 th century)
Arab/Muslim conquests of Levant area - around 630s AD. Muhammad dies in the way and Abu Bakr inherits the leadership -
In late 620s Muhammad had already managed to conquer and unify much ofArabia under Muslim rule, and it was under his leadership that the first Muslim-Byzantine skirmishes took place. Just a few months after Heraclius and the Persian general Shahrbaraz agreed on terms for the withdrawal of Persian troops from occupied Byzantine eastern provinces in 629, Arab and Byzantine troops confronted each other at the Mu’tah. Muhammad died in 632 and was succeeded by Abu Bakr, the first Caliph with undisputed control of the entire Arab peninsula after the successful Ridda Wars, which resulted in the consolidation of a powerful Muslim state throughout the peninsula.
In the Levant, the invading Rashidun army were engaged by a Byzantine army composed of imperial troops as well as local levies. According to Islamic historians Monophysites and Jews throughout Syria welcomed the Arab invaders, as they were discontented with Byzantine rule. The Arabian tribes also had significant economic, cultural and familial ties with predominantly Arab citizens of the Fertile Crescent.
The Roman Emperor Heraclius had fallen ill and was unable to personally lead his armies to resist the Arab conquests of Syria and Palestine in 634. In a battlefought near Ajnadayn in the summer of 634, the Rashidun Caliphate armyachieved a decisive victory. After their victory at the Fahl, Muslim forcesconquered Damascus in 634 under the command of Khalid ibn Walid. Byzantine response involved the collection and dispatch of the maximum number of available troops under major commanders, including Theodore Trithyrius and the Armenian general Vahan, to eject the Muslims from their newly won territories.
At the Battle of Yarmouk in 636, however, the Muslims, having studied the ground in detail, lured the Byzantines into pitched battle, which the Byzantines usually avoided, and into a series of costly assaults, before turning the deep valleys and cliffs into a catastrophic death-trap. Heraclius’ farewell exclamation (according to the 9th-century historian Al-Baladhuri) while departing Antioch for Constantinople, is expressive of his disappointment: “Peace unto thee, O Syria, and what an excellent country this is for the enemy!” The impact of Syria’s loss on the Byzantines is illustrated by Joannes Zonaras' words: “[…] since then [after the fall of Syria] the race of the Ishmaelites did not cease from invading and plundering the entire territory of the Romans”.