Syrian minds focused on likely outcome at Aleppo


As things intensify in the population hub of Aleppo, many fighters declare their willingness to go to the city to assist in a vital chapter of their struggle

THE END of Friday prayers brings hundreds of men spilling onto a square in this town in Idlib province, filling the humid air with chants of freedom, justice, and war.

Some 70km to the north lies Syria’s most populous city, Aleppo, now cowering ahead of what many here believe will be a decisive battle in the 16-month uprising against president Bashar al-Assad. Aleppo is on everyone’s mind in this dusty, predominantly Sunni hamlet where residents say more than 180 homes have been burned by regime forces in recent months.

A skinny young man dressed in jeans and T-shirt stands on a platform and yells “Where is our flag of independence? Where is the flag of our revolution?” The three-starred green, white and black standard adopted by Syria’s opposition flutters in the wind before him. The speaker’s voice grows hoarse as he dares the Syrian army to come to his town again. “We need to keep our strength and unity as revolutionaries,” he urges. “Ya Allah [O God] we have no one but you. Help us to stand on the head of Bashar.” The gathered men pump their fists in the air, roaring “Allahu Akbar” in response.

Maher Dugaib, an engineer and father of three, looked on. “Everyone is thinking of Aleppo now because the city is very important,” he said. “What happens in Aleppo will decide much about the future of Bashar and the future of our country.”

Another local man, who gives his name as Abu Mahmoud, is part of a brigade established about three months ago and led by a Libyan-born naturalised Irish citizen Mehdi al-Harati.

“Our town was one of the first to come out and protest against Bashar last year,” says Abu Mahmoud. “We are willing to go to help our brothers in Aleppo at any stage.”

Of the town’s 18,000 residents, 30 have died so far in the uprising – most during helicopter attacks by regime forces – and more than 1,000 men of fighting age have joined the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the loosely organised grouping of military defectors and civilian volunteers.

Mehdi al-Harati’s brigade, known as Liwa al-Umma (Banner of the Nation), is separate to the FSA and its units are scattered throughout the country.

According to Harati, who first came to Syria some 10 months ago for what he says was initially humanitarian work, the brigade emerged after Syrians approached him due to his experience as commander of the Tripoli Brigade in Libya last year. The Tripoli Brigade was one of the first rebel units into the Libyan capital last August.

Liwa al-Umma is made up of more than 6,000 men, 90 per cent of whom are Syrian. The rest are mostly Libyans and other Arabs, including several who live in Ireland.

“We couldn’t stand by in the face of such horror,” said one 21-year-old from Dublin, explaining why he decided to come and fight.

During yesterday’s demonstration, another Irish citizen, Hossam al-Najjar, joined the Syrian speaker on stage. Draped in the flags of both the Syrian and Libyan revolutions, the two men chanted slogans against Assad.

Najjar, who is Harati’s Irish-born brother-in-law, was also a leading member of the Tripoli Brigade.

“We’re here to facilitate and train civilian rebels in Syria – many of whom are doctors, engineers and teachers – using our experience during the Libyan revolution,” Harati told The Irish Times. “We are a group of civilians brought together for a cause. Asked why he decided to join Harati’s brigade instead of the FSA, Abdel Fatouh Dughaim, a local trader, replied: “Liwa al-Umma is fighting for truth and justice with an Islamic background.” Another younger man said he was drawn to Liwa al-Umma because it was well-organised and disciplined.

Yesterday morning, activists used loudspeakers at the town’s mosques to issue urgent requests for doctors and nurses to come treat fighters wounded during clashes between government troops and rebel forces less than 10km away.

According to Harati, a recent four-hour battle involving Liwa al-Umma fighters and regime forces at the same location resulted in the deaths of 63 Syrian soldiers and three rebels.

Syria’s opposition forces remain poorly equipped compared to Assad’s formidable army but Harati said recent developments, including the rebels’ takeover of several border posts, meant that “new and improved” weapons were now more easily available.

“It’s still a very unbalanced war,” he said.

“And it’s a fight that could go on for much longer although, as we have seen in this region over the past 18 months, regimes can collapse suddenly over just a few days.”