Mehdi al-Harati, leader of the Liwa al-Umma brigade, and his fighters are under no illusions about the challenges they face, writes MARY FITZGERALD, Foreign Affairs Correspondent in northern Syria
EARLIER THIS summer Housam Najjair was in Dublin watching gruesome videos of some of the most violent episodes of the 16-month revolt against Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad.
“The horror of what I saw was enough for me to decide something must be done,” he says. Now Najjair, a 33-year-old building contractor with a Libyan father and Irish mother, is hunkered down in a corner of northern Syria with his Libyan-born brother-in-law Mehdi al-Harati, leader of a recently established conglomeration of rebel brigades under the name Liwa al-Umma, meaning Banner of the Nation.
Najjair had never picked up a gun until last year, when he joined the Tripoli Brigade formed and led by Harati during the Libyan revolution.
Theirs was one of the first rebel units to enter the Libyan capital last August. Now Najjair and Harati say they want to transfer the lessons learned during the Libyan revolution to Syrians hoping to achieve their own. “We feel as if we are their brothers,” says Najjair, sitting on the floor of a safe house with his gun by his side. “We want to assist in whatever way we can.”
Liwa al-Umma, which was established three months ago, is made up of more than 6,000 men, 90 per cent of whom are Syrian. The rest are mostly Libyans and other Arabs. It is separate to the rebel Free Syrian Army and its units are scattered throughout the country. Recent YouTube videos show a number of Syrian rebel groupings announcing they have joined Liwa al-Umma.
“We couldn’t understand why the world was failing to respond to the plight of the Syrian people,” says Najjair. “When they didn’t take a stand, we decided to act.” With Harati, a naturalised Irish citizen whose family lives in Dublin, and Najjair are several others from Ireland. They include an engineer who is helping Liwa al-Umma register all its members before distributing ID cards, and two men in their early 20s who are experiencing war for the first time.
One, a thoughtful, bespectacled 22-year-old whose father is a surgeon in Ireland, admits his parents were concerned when he announced he wanted to go fight in Syria. “They respect and trust Sheikh Mehdi so when they learned I was coming to join him here, they felt a little better,” he says. “But, yes, they are still worried for my safety out here.”
He frames 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. The battle here in Syria combines all three.”
A 21-year-old with a wispy beard and strong Dublin accent explains why he decided to make the dangerous journey into Syria, despite never handling weapons in his life. “It is impossible to just sit back and watch Assad killing innocent people,” he says. “The slaughter of children in particular struck at my heart. I felt I just had to do something.”
The fighters from Ireland keep in contact with loved ones back home through snatched conversations on satellite phones or emails and Facebook whenever they get internet access. Najjair’s mother, Joanna, an Irish convert to Islam, leaves messages on his Facebook wall, telling him how proud she is of both he and Harati, and wishing they return home safely. Najjair, meanwhile, posts messages on Facebook that reflect his anger at what he sees as the world’s dithering over the escalating crisis.
“Where is the world’s conscience?,” he wrote in a recent post. “I can’t believe they can stand back and watch???.... well.... that’s ok!!!...we will not forget you people of Syria. We will fight with you until the end..when injustice becomes law, resistance becomes a duty.” Najjair complains about the Assad regime’s attempts to portray foreign fighters like him as extremists linked to al-Qaeda. “This is not an al-Qaeda jihad, this is a people’s revolution and we want to help.”
None of the fighters from Ireland are under any illusions over the challenges ahead. “Here there are so many different factions, objectives, and ideologies,” says Najjair. Harati nods in agreement. “The complexity of the situation here makes me feel like we were just playing games in Libya last year,” he says.
Follow Mary Fitzgerald on Twitter: @MaryFitzgerldIT