Syria and Sweden: A distant conflict with serious consequences at home

MIN READFeb 17, 2015 | 17:51 GMT

by Karl Lallerstedt in Stockholm Free World Forum


The conflict in Syria is made possible by covert state support and a criminal “terror economy” which are sustaining the warring parties. Despite the fact that Damascus lies over 3,000 kilometers away from Stockholm, Syria’s civil war is closer than ever. A large number of Swedish citizens are fighting for terrorist organizations in Syria; some of these combatants are very likely to commit acts of terror upon their return. In 2014 alone, fleeing Syrians representing over half a percent of Sweden’s population applied for permanent residence.

The smuggling and human trafficking networks behind this not only account for billions of Swedish kronor, but also pave the way for illegal trade in contraband goods and weapons. The situation in Sweden also heightens the risk for terror attacks and other crime in our neighboring countries.

Even though Damascus lies over 3,000 kilometers away from Stockholm, the Syrian civil war arguably presents a more widespread threat to Sweden than any conflict since the Second World War.

Since the fighting began, an estimated 250-300 Swedish citizens have traveled to Syria and Iraq in order to join al-Qaida-inspired organizations. Many have died. Some of those who survive could potentially commit acts of terror upon their return.

During this ongoing humanitarian catastrophe, which has seen over 9 million people driven from their homes, the Swedish government implemented a unique asylum policy resulting in a third of all EU-bound Syrian refugees ending up in Sweden. As there are no legal means for these refugees to make the journey to Sweden, they are forced to turn for assistance to migrant smugglers.

Human smuggling from Syria to Sweden is a brutal operation, generating billions and killing hundreds of its desperate “customers.” Moreover, it strengthens criminal organizations and contributes to drug smuggling and other offences in Sweden.

This report summarizes the economic forces behind the war and what effects they have in Sweden.

PART 1: Covert support, weapon deliveries and the illicit terror economy

Two factors primarily facilitate the continuation of the conflict—namely, support from foreign states to different sides of the conflict, and the emergence of a potent illicit economy in Syria.

The conflict in Syria is characterized by its opaqueness. Foreign support to the different parties facilitates the continuation of the conflict, but this is, by-and-large, secret or covert. Meanwhile, criminal activities make up a significant source of financing for rebel and terrorist groups. The first part of this report will illuminate some of these murkier aspects – for example, how certain foreign states, terror groups and illicit trade play an important role in the protracting and worsening of the conflict.

Overview of the protagonists of the conflict

Actors who support Assad


Iran is Syria’s most important ally and supports the regime both militarily and economically. Iran has troops on the ground who have, among other things, trained and supported militia forces, and fostered and assisted foreign Shia militia (an estimated 7-8,000 troops who came primarily from Iraq earlier this year ) to fight on the side of the Syrian government. Iran delivers military supplies and provides intelligence. Despite the fact that Iran is subject to a UN weapons embargo prohibiting exports from the country, it is clear that the Iran has been a supplier of weapons to Syria, and there is speculation that Iran also partially finances the delivery of Russian weapons. Syria is also important for Iran’s ties to Hezbollah in Lebanon, allowing for logistical support to reach the organization via Syria.      


Intimately allied with Syria and Iran, the terrorist organization has played a leading role in the conflict. Thousands of Hezbollah soldiers support the Assad regime and have been involved in heavy fighting, including against al-Nusra. According to the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Center, Hezbollah has thousands of soldiers in Syria, of whom an estimated 360 had been killed by 1 April 2014.  There have been reports of Syrian weapons deliveries to Hezbollah, in addition to speculation about whether Syria delivers coveted weapons to Hezbollah in return for their support.

Hezbollah has been accused of being partially responsible for several acts of terror, including suicide bombings. The organization also stands accused of profiting from narcotics trafficking and other illicit trade, including cigarette smuggling.   Hezbollah has active Swedish members, such as Hossam Taleb Yacoub, who was sentenced to prison by a Cypriot court in 2013. He had mapped the arrival times of flights from Israel to Cyprus, probably in preparation for terrorist attacks. This only a short time after a 2012 suicide bombing that targeted Israeli tourists within the EU’s borders, killing seven people and injuring 32 in Bulgaria.

According to a Lebanese Member of Parliament, Syria has transferred missiles capable of bearing chemical weapons to Hezbollah. Defectors have also claimed that, in order to avoid their destruction, Syria has transferred chemical weapons and their production capacity to Lebanon and Iraq.


Syria is one of Russia’s closest allies, and was one of the eleven countries which voted against the UN General Assembly’s condemnation of the annexation of the Crimea. Since 1971, first the Soviet Union and then Russia have maintained a small naval base on the peninsula. In 2012 it was reported that 30,000 Russians lived in Syria .There is also significant Russian investment in the country.  Russia plays a critical role as Syria’s largest supplier of weapons, something that has continued since the start of the civil war. Russia also acts as Assad’s protector at the UN Security Council, where it has veto rights. Additionally, Russia has a base in Syria where it analyses satellite images that provide the Assad regime with insight into rebel troop movements. According to Jane’s International Defence Review, this is being financed by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. At the beginning of October, Free Syrian Army (FSA) troops took over a spy signals base in southern Syria which had previously been used by the Russian military’s intelligence service, GRU, and the Syrian intelligence service. It is, however, unclear when Russia left that base.

The comprehensive cooperation agreement signed by Russia and Syria at the end of 2013 for the exploitation of energy resources in the Mediterranean is possibly “payment” for Russia’s support.


Together with Russia, China has protected Syria in the UN Security Council. China has also historically been both a weapons supplier and important trade partner to Syria.

North Korea

North Korea and Syria have a lengthy history of good relations. North Korea helped build a secret nuclear reactor which was bombed by Israel in 2007, and in 2009 Greek authorities raided a North Korean ship bound for Syria, confiscating 14,000 chemical weapon protection suits.  Syria’s missile program has been developed with North Korean assistance. In 2013, Michael Flynn, the head of the United States’ Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), testified that Syria’s Scud B-, C- and D-missile programs were dependent on foreign assistance, primarily from North Korea.  In 2012, South Korean authorities confiscated North Korean graphite cylinders on a Chinese ship bound for Syria. The cargo had been declared as lead pipes, but there are suspicions that these were in fact missile components.  The two countries have long conducted a military exchange program, and it has been speculated that North Korean military advisors are assisting the Assad regime, although North Korea has denied it.

Assad’s opposition

The majority of the global community officially supports the view that the Syrian opposition, the National Coalition for Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces, is the legitimate representative of the aspirations of the Syrian people, and many states have explicitly called for Assad to step down.

Direct intervention against the Assad regime has yet to take place; sanctions and support to rebel forces have instead been employed in an attempt to affect the outcome of the civil war. But there is no united front. Different states support different rebel groups, and at different scales. The unexpected emergence of IS last summer has, however, shaken things up, unlocking a door to previously unforeseen alliances.

Already in August of last year the UK’s Chairman of the Parliament’s Security and Intelligence Committee proposed that the West ought to partner with Iran in facing off against IS.  Even earlier, at the beginning of last year, Syria’s Deputy Foreign Minister had claimed that many Western intelligence services had visited Damascus in order to discuss the containment of radical Islamist groups, something confirmed also by the British intelligence services.


Turkey is the country that has offered the strongest support to rebel groups. Jonathan Schanzer at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies said to Al-Jazeera:

“The eastern Turkish frontier has become the gateway to the Syria jihad. Some have gone so far as to deem it the Peshawar of this generation of jihadists. This is not an exaggeration. Turkey has allowed this territory to become a safe haven, a logistics and planning base, and a zone of terrorism finance. It cannot be understated how important this is to the continued growth of the various jihadi factions fighting in Syria.”

During a visit to Stockholm in 2013, former Turkish Prime Minister (now President) Erdogan claimed that groups like al-Nusra and al-Qaida were not being protected by Turkey. But it was only in June last year that Turkey decided to brand al-Nusra (al-Qaida in Syria) a terrorist organization. Several European states share the view that Turkey has not done enough to stop jihadists from crossing the border into Syria, and its intelligence service, MIT, has not been regarded as cooperative in this context.

Prime Minister Davutoglu, for many years a significant role-player in Turkish foreign policy, has described the borders of the Middle East as artificial colonial constructs which shall be broken down. Turkey’s central role in supporting Islamist groups in Syria is part of a wider Turkish engagement to support a political Islam. In his earlier academic writings Davutoglu wrote, “according to an objective foreign policy assessment, the most advantageous option enabling Turkey to become influential in the Middle East is the rise of Islamic movements.” That Turkey has opened up its territory to armed fundamentalist groups and, together with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, given these groups protection, assistance and weapons must be seen within this context.   President Erdogan’s personal invitation to meet Hamas’ political leader in 2013 can be interpreted as yet another indication that Turkey’s view of terror organizations departs markedly from that of the EU and the US. The Iraqi intelligence services suspect that the Turkish military intelligence might have been deeply involved in supporting IS during its restructuring in 2011, according to Middle East correspondent Patrick Cockburn.  Whether these allegations are true or not, it is likely that Turkey has grown increasingly concerned over IS, as it has evolved into the world’s most notorious terrorist organization.

The Rebels

The Free Syrian Army, founded by officers who had defected from Assad’s army, was previously the most powerful military rebel group in Syria. But the Islamist-focused groups within the resistance movement have increased in relative strength, probably thanks to foreign support and more effective organizational abilities.

The Islamic Front is the largest of the Islamist coalitions, with Saudi Arabia as its chief sponsor. The Islamic Front wants to establish an Islamic state within the borders of Syria, governed by Sharia law. In interviews with the Front’s members, a majority stated that rival rebel groups constitute a larger threat to the Front than Assad’s forces, and that even if Assad were defeated, they would have to continue battling rival rebels.

Al-Nusra (al-Qaida in Syria), listed as a terrorist organization by both the EU and the US, has joined a wider coalition against Assad’s forces. It was originally allied with IS, although this is no longer the case. Al-Nusra’s stated goal is to create an Islamic caliphate that stretches beyond Syria’s borders. When government forces, in conjunction with Hezbollah soldiers, drove al-Nusra out of the city of Yabrud in March 2014, they found workshops for the production and installation of car bombs intended for suicide attacks.

The Islamic State (IS)

The Islamic State has its origins in al-Qaida, even though the relationship has since been formally broken. The organization often referred to as al-Qaida in Iraq declared itself the Islamic State in Iraq already in 2006. Upon expansion to Syria, the group took the name the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, before changing simply to the Islamic State last summer.

Structurally, the organization is like a disciplined and well-organized army, which acts to establish control over sprawling territories. Coming up with exact estimates of the extent of territorial control is difficult, but cited estimates posit that the Islamic State controls one-third of Syria’s territory, even though the degree of control probably varies from one place to the next.

It is also difficult to estimate how many fighting jihadists belong to the organization. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights told Al-Jazeera in mid-August 2014 that IS had 50,000 fighters in Syria, with a further 6,000 fresh recruits (including 1,000 foreigners) having joined up in the month of July alone. This surge in new recruits apparently stemmed from IS’s notable successes.  The CIA’s estimate in September 2014 was that IS could mobilize 20,000-31,500 men in both Syria and Iraq, while earlier American estimates were much lower, putting the number at about 10,000 men.

It is clear that a deep war chest is required to finance such an enterprise, with ambitions to govern the land it controls. Various media outlets have stated that IS holds assets in excess of US$2 billion.  While it is impossible to confirm that figure, the value of military equipment confiscated from the Iraqi army must be very high all by itself. The organization has a strong, growing economy, profiting from a diverse range of activities, including the control of oil fields. IS also makes money from smuggling and runs protection operations. (See “Criminal Economy” below).

Despite setbacks during US attacks on Iraq in August 2014, IS has had a few successes in Syria. Towards the end of August, the IS government’s last flight base in the eastern region of the country was taken. When IS took Mosul in the summer, it was reported that two Iraqi divisions – approximately 30,000 men – had turned and run in the face of just 800 attacking IS soldiers.  But heavy air strikes against IS, setbacks at the Mosul Dam and difficulties taking Kobane raise questions about the sustainability of the organization’s progress.

In July 2014, it was reported that IS had seized 40 kilograms of radioactive material from Mosul University. Iraq’s Ambassador to the United Nations warned in a letter to the UN Secretary General that these substances could potentially be used in a terror attack.  Commentators have, however, judged the risk to be small that these stolen goods could constitute a serious danger. The same month, IS took over an older chemical weapons facility where 2,500 dismantled sarin rockets were housed. This, too, was not considered a serious threat. Seen together, however, what the events do show is the organization’s interest in acquiring weapons of mass destruction.

IS’s interest in weapons of mass destruction has been further confirmed by the contents of a computer confiscated from an IS member who had studied university-level chemistry and physics. The computer contained instructions for the production and use of the bubonic plague in an attack. It also contained a fatwa, issued by the Saudi cleric Nasir al-Fahd, expressly supporting the use of weapons of mass destruction against non-believers, “even if it kills them all and eliminates their descendants from the surface of the earth.” Terrorism expert Magnus Ranstorp at Sweden’s Defense University says that “the challenge with all these weapons (of mass destruction) … (is) to actually have a working distribution system which kills many [people]. But the production of quite scary weapons is definitely within the scope of (ISIS) abilities.”

In recent months, IS appears to have actually used chemical weapons. In September, eleven Iraqi policemen were injured in a chlorine gas attack, according to the country’s authorities. The following month, it was reported that Kurdish troops who were fighting against IS in Kobane had been exposed to unknown chemicals, with speculation that this could have been mustard gas.

The role of the illegal economy in a conflict

Finance is a precondition for maintaining and winning a conflict. It is expensive to have soldiers in combat: salaries, food, weapons, fuel, ammunition, and other equipment are constant costs. In order to buy or maintain loyalty among the civilian population, a working infrastructure is needed. Food, clothing and other supplies become strategic resources. Economic power is a precondition for military and political power, and a party attempting battle without economic resources is a guaranteed loser.

A detailed presentation for sources of income for IS and other groups is comprised in the report here

PART 2: How the conflict affects Swedish Interests

Refugee streams to Sweden

Sweden has an open refugee policy, and is the first European country to offer permanent residence to all Syrian refugees it accepts. The ramifications of this policy became clear in 2013, when statistics showed that Sweden offered asylum to more Syrians than any other EU member state.  Even though the country consists of less than 2 percent of the EU population, it took in 20 percent of total asylum-seekers within the entire Union. By the first half of 2014, this had risen to 22 percent. Such an open-arms policy makes Sweden relatively sensitive to international refugee streams.

In his 2014 summer speech, then-Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt addressed the question of what a forecasted increase in the number of asylum seekers would mean in terms of increased costs. The Swedish immigration authorities had forecast a cost increase of 48 billion Swedish kronor (US$5.8 billion) over the coming four years. Because of the ongoing conflict, more asylum-seekers come to Sweden from Syria than from any other country. By the end of 2013, 24,800 Syrians had sought refuge in Sweden.

That trend continued in 2014. According to the Swedish Migration Board, 30,583 Syrians and 7,863 stateless people, mostly from Syria, sought asylum in Sweden during 2014.  A further 14,471 Syrians and 5,287 stateless individuals sought permanent residence on the grounds of family ties to those who had already been offered asylum.

Over 45,000 Syrians applied for permanent Swedish residency in 2014, as did 13,150 stateless persons, the majority of whom came from Syria. This totals over 50,000 people, or over one-half of one percent of Sweden’s current population: a significant figure for a single year, and not comparable to any other country in the European Union.   

Over and above the budgetary burden, this also has practical consequences at the local level where concentrations of refugees are received. The drain on local healthcare services, childcare facilities and schools will increase, while housing deficiencies will be accentuated. There is also the risk of increased public health concerns. Healthcare and vaccination programs suffer in a conflict zone. For example, while Syria had been free of polio for 14 years before the conflict began, the World Health Organization declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern amid a resurgence of polio in Syria in May 2014. 

Political consequences in Sweden

Sweden has escaped violent demonstrations, unlike Germany, where hundreds of IS sympathizers armed with baseball bats, knives and machetes have attacked people they considered opponents.  This in turn has fuelled violent forces, primarily “Hooligans against Salafists,” who mobilized right-wing extremists and football hooligans. At the end of October 2014, 44 policemen were injured during a “Hooligans against Salafists” demonstration of 4,000 participants from across Germany.   By contrast, the non-violent incident in Halmstad, Sweden, when Kurdish demonstrators forced their way into a public service radio station was the most dramatic incident to have happened in Sweden, and is nowhere near comparable to the violent events in Germany.  Depending on how the conflict develops, though, and because more and more Syrians are establishing themselves in Sweden, the risk that tensions in Syria could escalate this situation in Sweden, leading to violent incidents there as well, cannot be ruled out. 

An indirect political consequence of the conflict will most likely be a strengthening of xenophobic forces in Sweden. Syrians make up by the far the largest portion of refugees in Sweden – over 47 percent, if one counts both Syrians and the stateless (the bulk of whom come from Syria).  It can therefore be assumed that tensions brought about by increased asylum acceptance will contribute to the strengthening of xenophobic forces in Sweden. Should Sweden become a victim of Islamist terrorist acts, both xenophobia and Islamophobia will further accelerate in society. Unfortunately, acts of terror are not an improbable scenario.

Terror threats against Sweden

People with Swedish roots have long been active within the global jihad movement. Up until now, their main focus has been directed toward distant places. The exceptions were one suicide bomber who planned a mass attack on the popular shopping street Drottninggatan, the Swedish terrorists who planned a massacre at the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, and those who planned to assassinate Swedish artist Lars Vilks. The Swedish security service, Säpo, has also disclosed that it has successfully headed off two further planned acts of terror against Swedish targets.

According to the Swedish Security Service, violent Islamist extremism constitutes Sweden’s most serious security threat today.

That Swedish Islamists travel abroad in order to fight is nothing new. “Guantanamo Swede” Mehdi Ghezali, whose release Swedish politicians and the Foreign Ministry worked hard to obtain, was probably Sweden’s first Islamist “celebrity.” Abu Qaswarah, al-Qaida’s second-in-command in Iraq, who was killed in 2008, has until now been the most senior person within an al-Qaida related organization disclosed as Swedish. In 2013, after the Westgate Mall attack in Kenya, US Navy SEALs killed a Swedish Somali belonging to the al-Qaida-connected al-Shabab.

IS’s predecessor al-Qaida in Iraq put a price of US$50,000 on the head of Swedish artist Lars Vilks—double that if his head was cut off.

What differentiates travel to Syria today from earlier Swedish travel to war zones is the sheer number of people who go. According to Säpo’s Director General Anders Thornberg, travel to Syria has taken on totally new dimensions. Swedes have gone to Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia and other countries over a number of years, but in the last two years alone more have travelled to Syria than to previous conflict zones in their entirety.

According to Säpo, violent Islamist extremism is the most serious security threat that Sweden faces today.  On 22 October 2014, Säpo confirmed 100 cases of Swedish citizens joining al-Qaida-inspired organizations in Syria and Iraq. The total figure is, however, significantly higher: 250-300 Swedes have travelled to Syria and Iraq to fight. 

Those who return from conflict zones are considered to constitute the most serious threat because they come back more radicalized and in possession of practical battle training. Already last year Gilles de Kerchove, the EU’s Counter-Terrorism Coordinator, warned that it is “highly probable that ISIS…is preparing, training, and steering some of its foreign soldiers to conduct attacks in Europe, or outside of Europe.”  He believed that there would be a high probability of further attacks like the shooting which killed four people at the Jewish Museum in Brussels ahead of European elections. 

The Paris terrorist attacks in January and subsequent law enforcement actions confirm de Kerchove’s fears. Although al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula claimed responsibility for the attack against the Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris, Amedy Coulibaly, who carried out the attack against the kosher market, had declared his loyalty to IS in a video recording.  Later in January, following the attacks, Belgian police arrested 13 and killed two suspected terrorists. The suspects were said to be returnee foreign fighters plotting to massacre policemen. The following day it was reported that suspected terrorists thought to be under IS command were also apprehended in Germany and France.     

Las year a high-level official told the UK-based Financial Times that more than half of MI5’s cases revolve around threats from Brits who return from Syria. A planned, Mumbai-style attack against targets in a large city has already been headed off.  On a per-capita basis, Sweden is one of the European countries with the biggest travel contingent to Syria. Extremist terror groups IS and the al-Nusra Front attract the largest number of foreign jihadists travelling to Syria. According to media reviews, the lion’s share of Swedish jihadists is likely fighting for IS.

More about the consequences for Sweden in the report here

Policy Recommendations

  1. Engage the EU to introduce the practice of zero tolerance for ransom payments in return for the release of hostages.
  2. Encourage more transparent and registered deliveries of weapons to moderate Syrian rebel factions, as an alternative to supplying them with black-market weapons.
  3. Analyse the illegal trade connected to Syria and Iraq and, if problems are identified, examine the possibilities to cut down on the trade in, for example, narcotics, weapons, antiquities and equipment which can be used for the purposes of terror.
  4. Proposals to reduce the risk from combatants who travel abroad:
  • Alternatives to simple prohibition against people fighting abroad that are more thoroughly thought out than those previously proposed by certain politicians. The effects of prohibition alone are likely to be limited, especially for jihadists who are prepared to sacrifice their lives.
  • Membership in terror groups ought to be criminalized and laws amended to allow increased surveillance of people who are suspected to be in danger of traveling abroad to fight for extremist groups. 
  • Investigate whether there is practical value in current European attempts to deradicalize and integrate returning combatants.
  1. Preventative work to “win hearts and minds” for a long-term reduction of radicalization. This is a very broad operation, where both ‘blocking’ and ‘planting’ of content in social media ought to be important components.
  • Investigate whether there are more humane alternatives to the current Swedish refugee policy. The current side effects mean a billion-kronor market for criminal and dangerous human trafficking, while exposing Sweden and its neighbors to increased risk of terrorism and crime.
  • Preparations against kidnapping and brutally violent terror attacks on Swedish soil.


Karl Lallerstedt is the co-founder of Black Market Watch (, the Program Director for illicit trade, economic and financial crime at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime ( and a member of the OECD’s Task Force on Charting Illicit Trade. He has previously worked in fields related to illicit trade within the private sector, and as a political and economic analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit and Oxford Analytica.


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