When an internal conflict morphs into one with regional interests and implications, it shouldn't come as a surprise when the conflict turns into a proxy war, as we are seeing in Syria, and have seen in places like Iraq in the past decade, Afghanistan in the 1980s, and even Spain in the 1930s. On one side, Russia and Iran are backing the Syrian government through arms shipments, while the opposition has now evolved into an international Islamist force with the number of foreign fighters increasing by the day, particularly from the West. The Daily Beast reports that at least a dozen American citizens (with some estimates putting the number as high as 60) have joined the fight against the government of Bashar al-Assad via Al-Qaeda's recruiting network. One such combatant, Nicole Lynn Mansfield, has been killed in combat.
The United States government isn't in much of a position to cry foul over the reports of Americans fighting on the side of Al-Qaeda, as the CIA has been shipping weapons to the rebels for the past several weeks, and these arms will undoubtedly fall into the hands of jihadists. The fate of these fighters is and will remain unknown for the foreseeable future. From a motivational perspective, one can assume that these recruits believe they are fighting against a regime intent on repressing Islam. Whether they will even return to the United States or even commit acts of terror against the U.S. is anyone's guess.
To travel thousands of miles to fight in a country most of these recruits probably have little to no connection to means that whatever their reasons, they are motivated by the recruiters' call to jihad, at the very least, for Syria. Nevertheless, it would then behoove the FBI to keep abreast of the status of American jihadists in Syria, lest they drop the ball as they did in the case of Tamerlan Tsarnaev.
However, America isn't the only Western country with known combatants fighting for the opposition. In June reports emerged from Bosnia of at least nine Bosnian nationals who were heading to Syria to fight for the Islamist opposition, and a report from Euronews states that the number of combatants coming from Europe has grown to at least 600, particularly from Belgium and the Netherlands. European politicians and policymakers are raising concerns that these newly minted jihadists will return to their home countries and commit terrorist acts throughout Europe. The number of jihadist recruits outweighs even the highest U.S. estimates of American fighters by at least 10:1.
Fighting a proxy war inevitably leads to a series of groups jockeying for a leadership position. With groups like Al-Qaeda and Al-Nusra winning that battle, they are using their worldwide recruitment network in order to strengthen their numbers, and that even includes Westerners, and even the United States government. Whether this comes back to the U.S. in the form of blowback remains to be seen.