'The most shocking thing was the deliberate killing of children'


An Irish soldier who was in Syria on the ill-fated UN mission talks to MARY FITZGERALD, Foreign Affairs Correspondent

AN IRISH soldier who served with the recently disbanded UN observer mission in Syria has said the most shocking element of the conflict for him was the targeted killing of children by forces loyal to the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

Cmdt Mark Hearns spent four months stationed in the restive Homs governorate in central Syria. The region includes Houla, where more than 100 civilians, more than half of them children, were killed in May in a massacre the UN recently concluded was carried out by Syrian government forces and the pro-Assad militia known as shabiha.

“The most shocking thing was the deliberate, targeted killing of innocent children, particularly at Houla,” says Hearns. “It was probably the most heinous activity we encountered. The scale of the killing at Houla was particularly staggering. I didn’t personally see the dead children there but my colleagues did.”

Hearns, whose previous overseas experience includes tours in Afghanistan, Liberia and Lebanon, says the Syria mission, which initially consisted of 300 unarmed observers, six of whom were from Ireland, was the most challenging. “It is probably the most complex and dangerous environment I have operated in. The environment was so volatile and ambiguous, and there were so many things that we didn’t know. Danger was always lurking around the corner.”

These difficulties were compounded by the complexity of the Assad regime’s security apparatus and by the fragmented nature of the opposition.

“As an unarmed peacekeeper, you are reliant on the goodwill of the actors involved and their knowledge of who you are and what you are doing. The problem in Syria is that on the government side there are many actors, many agencies – you have the army and the various intelligence services – with all of them acting in a not necessarily co-ordinated way,” says Hearns.

“On the other side, it’s highly fractured. You can’t really talk about an opposition, you’re talking about oppositions. When you dig deeper . . . you realise that the only thing many of these groups had in common was their opposition to the government.”

The ill-fated mission suspended most of its activity on June 16th.

“There were just too many incidents where we were being shot at . . . the pattern and frequency with which that happened just built up to a stage where it was no longer acceptable to take that risk. I would be very careful about pointing fingers. We know both sides, government and opposition, did it.”

Hearns says a vehicle belonging to colleagues was shot at by a Syrian army tank. He and other observers were shot at by opposition forces in the town of Talbisah. “The reason for that was not quite clear. It may have been confusion as to who we were, it may have been a lack of communication, it may have been frustration, we don’t know.”

The Syrian regime, which, according to the plan drawn up by former UN and Arab League envoy Kofi Annan, was required to provide for the observers’ security, tried to restrict movement. “We were in an unusual relationship with the government in that, although they were party to the conflict, they were also the guarantor of our security. I think we did a good job, in the circumstances, of asserting ourselves and maintaining our freedom of movement.”

Relations with opposition forces were fraught at times. “Sometimes there was a question mark over what we were doing when the [government] violence, particularly the use of heavy weapons, was continuing. Around early June the government stated explicitly that it was going back on the offensive . . . This caused a lot frustration among the opposition, which was frequently taken out on us in the form of verbal abuse.”

The observers withdrew from Syria completely late last month.

“The problem with this mission was that the parties to the conflict did not comply with the agreement made by Annan. We did everything we could,” says Hearns.

He believes the solution to the conflict must come from inside Syria. “What happened has been a tragedy for ordinary Syrians. The vast majority of people I met were not interested in conflict and simply wanted it to end. What happens from here is entirely in the hands of the Syrian people.

“Some kind of strong leadership has to emerge on both sides, people who can find a way to stop the violence and develop some sort of system for negotiating with their opponents towards a peaceful future.”