Syria's Irish fighters: 'I saw what was happening and had to do something'
Dozens of young men have left Ireland to join the Syrian and Libyan uprisings. Though most have never held a gun before, these are causes they are willing to fight and die for
NOT SO LONG AGO “Adel” was a student at an Irish university and someone who considered his life already mapped out. The son of a surgeon who had moved to Ireland from the Middle East more than a decade before, Adel was expected to follow a similar professional path.
But this summer, everything changed. Adel, an earnest 22-year-old who wears wire-rimmed spectacles, decided to leave his old life behind and join rebels battling the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
When I met Adel in a small dusty town in Syria’s restive Idlib province last month, he was dressed in military-style fatigues and boots, his head wrapped in a camouflage-print scarf to protect against the fierce sun.
As we stood among hundreds of anti-regime demonstrators who had gathered after Friday prayers, Adel raised his voice above the din and went on to frame his reasons for coming to Syria in philosophical terms: “I see my life as being about three things: searching for the truth, defending the weak against injustice and the oppressors, and helping to build peace in the world,” he said. “The battle here in Syria combines all three.”
Adel is one of an estimated 10-20 men from Ireland who have joined the Syrian uprising, not as medical or humanitarian volunteers, as others from here have done, but as armed rebels. Dozens more from Ireland took up arms during the Libyan revolution last year. One informed source says between five and 10 men from Ireland were “martyred” – or killed – while fighting Gadafy’s forces.
Many of those who have gone to Syria from Ireland are veterans of the battle to oust Gadafy, including Mehdi al-Harati, the Libyan-Irish leader of Liwa al-Umma, the rebel brigade in Syria that Adel fights with.
Back home in Dublin, where he lives with his Irish-born wife and four children, Harati teaches Arabic and is well known as a proPalestinian activist. He took part in the 2010 Gaza flotilla, which was intercepted by Israeli forces, resulting in the deaths of nine people. Last year, he founded the Tripoli Brigade, which was one of the first rebel units into the Libyan capital that August.
After the fall of Tripoli, Harati was appointed deputy head of the Tripoli Military Council, but he stepped down as commander of the brigade and as council deputy last autumn.
Around that time he became embroiled in controversy when an Irish tabloid alleged, citing anonymous sources, that he had received money from US intelligence, a claim Harati strongly denied.
He made his first trip to Syria shortly afterwards for what he says was initially humanitarian work in the country’s northern flank. Liwa al-Umma emerged earlier this year, he says, after several Syrians, aware of his experience as commander of the Tripoli Brigade, approached him about establishing a similar outfit in Syria.
According to Harati, more than 6,000 men across Syria have joined Liwa al-Umma since it came into existence, just over four months ago. More than 90 per cent of its members are Syrian, he says. He stresses that he and other foreigners within the brigade’s ranks are there only to “facilitate and train civilian rebels” using lessons from the Libyan revolution.