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.
Harati says the brigade relies on a network of private donors in Syria and across the Middle East and north Africa for financing. Its Facebook page, a mix of battle updates, photographs of training sessions, and grainy clips of operations, includes several expressions of thanks to named benefactors in Kuwait. “These are individual people who feel very strongly about the slaughter happening in Syria,” said Harati. “We receive no money from any governments.”
Those who have spent time with Harati in Syria include his Irish-born brother-in-law Housam Najjair, a 33-year-old building contractor with a Libyan father and Irish mother. Najjair, who had never picked up a gun until last year, was also a prominent member of the Tripoli Brigade; some of his fellow fighters dubbed him the Dublin sniper.
Now back in Ireland, where he is writing a book about his experiences in Libya, Najjair says he felt compelled to go to Syria after watching emotive TV reports about the uprising. “I remember seeing the most gruesome footage of what was happening there and thinking I must do something. Guilt was the main motivating factor for me. I will never forget the image of a Syrian woman screaming, ‘Where is the world? Where is the world?’ ”
Others in Liwa al-Umma from Ireland include an engineer who is helping with administrative work and a 21-year-old student who, like Adel, is experiencing war for the first time. Najjair says the brigade has been inundated with requests from people in Libya, other Arab countries and Ireland who want to join the fight against Assad.
Last month, I witnessed Harati taking a phone call from a middle-aged father in Dublin who, despite his wife’s concerns, was adamant about going to Syria, even though he had never handled weapons. “I feel it is my duty because of the horror of what is happening there,” the man told me over a crackly line. He was eventually persuaded that he could make a more valuable contribution through fundraising and campaigning for Syria at home.
“These people’s intentions are really heartfelt, but we warn them that the situation is more dangerous and complex than they might realise,” says Najjair. “When he was in Libya recently, Mehdi came out publicly to say Syria is not in need of more men; it is in need of donations and prayers. I totally agree with that.”
DR ALI SELIM, a theologian at the Islamic Cultural Centre of Ireland, in Clonskeagh in Dublin, compares those who flocked to Libya last year and Syria today to the International Brigade during the Spanish Civil War. “They see it as a battle against injustice that transcends nationality,” he says. The prospect of “martyrdom” is also a strong motivation, he adds. “Many of them, before they leave here, say, ‘Make prayers for me; I want to be martyred,’ because they understand that, in Islam, martyrdom is the way to eternal life,” he says. “If they die as martyrs, they will be held in high esteem. If they survive and come back, they will also be held in high regard, because they have performed a very important duty.”
Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, an influential Muslim Brotherhood-linked Egyptian religious scholar with strong connections to the cultural centre, recently called via Twitter for people to go to fight in Syria or send weapons there, describing such assistance as obligatory.
In a recent report by the London-based think-tank the Quilliam Foundation, the former Libyan militant Noman Benotman estimated that 1,200-1,500 foreign fighters are in Syria. Benotman, who was 19 when he joined the mujahideen in Afghanistan in 1989, believes that, for now, most of the younger fighters are less motivated by ideology than his generation was.
“The Arab Spring and the idea of overthrowing dictators to bring freedom and democracy is a more powerful driver for them than a specifically religious ideology,” he says. “Although that may change as the conflict grinds on.” Some of those who have left Ireland to fight in Libya and Syria are very young.
A source told me he had recently encountered teenagers of Arab origin speaking with strong Irish accents among the rebel fighters in northern Syria. The youngest “martyr” from Ireland in Libya last year was in his early 20s, like Adel and his friend. One source here claimed some young men have joined the rebels in Syria without informing their parents.
“If they go without telling their families, this is not the right way,” says Ali Selim of the cultural centre. “They can be misguided by their enthusiasm and their immaturity, and they don’t prepare themselves properly. That is dangerous.”
Adel says his parents were initially worried when he told them of his plans earlier this summer, but their concerns were somewhat assuaged when they learned he would be joining Harati’s brigade. “They respect and trust Sheikh Mehdi, so they felt a little better,” he told me.
“Of course families will be concerned when their young lads, who were expected to have a wonderful future here, see something like this happening in Libya or Syria, and they feel they have to go,” says Selim. “It is difficult to stop them.”
The Australian government recently announced that sanctions it had introduced against Syria in an effort to limit the conflict there make it illegal for Australian citizens to travel to the country to fight or to fund, train or recruit someone to do so; or to supply or fund weapons for either side.
Ireland is party to an EU arms embargo against Syria, but its provisions are not so explicit. More generally, the State can take action against Irish citizens who have fought in other jurisdictions if they are suspected of involvement in war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide as outlined in international law.
Housam Najjair has no plans to return to Syria for now, preferring to act as Liwa al-Umma’s spokesman from his Dublin base. “I realised there are other ways of contributing than fighting,” he says. “Getting the word out about what is happening in Syria, waking the world up to that, is worth a thousand Kalashnikovs.”