Tunis, Asharq Al-Awsat – Commander of the rebel “Liwaa al-Umma” group in Syria, Libyan revolutionary Mahdi al-Harati, appeared in Tripoli, confirming reports that he was no longer present on Syrian territory. Al-Harati, who played a prominent role in the Libyan revolution that toppled Colonel Gaddafi’s rule, serving as co-commander of the Tripoli Brigade, had initially travelled to Syria on a fact-finding mission. Following discussions with members of the Syrian opposition, the Libyan commander took the decision to form Liwaa al-Umma [Banner of the Nation] and join the Syrian revolution. His appearance in Syria had served as a source of major controversy regarding the presence of foreign fighters in the ranks of the Syrian revolutionaries.
In an exclusive interview with Asharq Al-Awsat from Tripoli, Mahdi al-Harati played down the presence of foreign fighters on Syrian soil, stressing that “99 percent of Liwaa al-Umma are Syrian nationals.”
This comes at a time that a leading Free Syrian Army [FSA] officer in Idlib, utilizing the nom de guerre “Abu Huraira” claimed that the rebel army was capable of “defeating” pro-regime forces. The rebel officer, speaking via Skype, also revealed that the FSA rejected the presence of “Arab volunteers” in the Syrian revolution, particularly as this issue had been the subject of differences of opinion amongst the FSA leadership.
Al-Harati previously served as deputy to Abdul Hakim Belhadj, head of the Tripoli Military Council, before this organization was disbanded following the ouster of Gaddafi. Al-Harati’s presence in Syria had sparked controversy, particularly after he appeared in a video on YouTube in the midst of Syrian and Libyan rebel fighters. Al-Harati’s presence, along with other Libyan revolutionaries, appeared to give some credence to Syrian President al-Assad’s claims that foreign fighters were participating in the uprising against him.
In his first interview since returning from his adventures in Syria, al-Harati revealed that he has been back in his home country for the past two weeks. The Libyan commander spoke to Asharq Al-Awsat at a Tripoli hotel overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, and he spoke indirectly about the difficulty of his returning to Syria to rejoin the revolution. He asserted that the reason for his return to Libya was to undergo surgery, adding that this and the Turkish authorities’ reluctance to allow him to enter their territory makes it unlikely that he will return to Syria.
As for whether arms are being smuggled to the FSA and Syrian rebels via the border, Mahdi al-Harati asserted that “in general, weapons come from inside [Syria]…from the defectors’ stressing that “these are the arms that are present at home.” He added “as for arms coming from abroad, it is very difficult because Turkey has imposed a ban on this sort of activity.”
Whilst the Libyan revolution enjoyed wide-spread international support, including an arms embargo on the Gaddafi regime and a NATO-imposed no-fly zone and air support, the Syrian revolution has lacked any concrete foreign support. For his part, Mahdi al-Harati asserted that the conditions enjoyed by the Libyan revolution are “very difficult” to impose in Syria, despite the fact that the al-Assad regime is “massacring” the Syrian people. Indeed, the Libyan commander stressed that this is the only thing that the Syrian regime can do now, saying “all that it can do is slaughter innocent people and kill and destroy…but despite this it cannot destroy the FSA.”
In response to whether he had witnessed al-Assad regime forces utilizing internationally banned weaponry, such as chemical weapons, during his time in Syria, Mahdi al-Harati said “I did not see any chemical weapons during the war, but the force being used by the al-Assad regime is enough to kill innocent people.” He added that the al-Assad regime’s fate is sealed, but the speed of its ouster will depend on the actions and reactions of the international community.
He said “if the revolution is provided with support, then the collapse of the Syrian regime will happen very quickly…and if a no-fly zone is imposed, then this will be much quicker than you imagine.”
FSA officer Abu Huraira, speaking from Aleppo via Skype, asserted that the FSA leadership is split regarding the presence of “Arab volunteers” amongst the ranks of the Syrian rebels. He said that the presence of volunteers from Egypt, Libya and elsewhere has caused “divisions” that the FSA leadership does not require at this time, instead calling on anybody who wants to support the Syrian revolution to send weapons.
Commenting on the FSA’s rejection of non-Syrian nationals, Mahdi al-Harati told Asharq Al-Awsat that “firstly, we went [to Syria] in response to the call of the Syrian, Arab and Muslim people. We met with a very strong response from the [Syrian] people” adding “we have a very good relationship with the FSA and the Syrian Military Council, and our movements [in Syria] were in arrangements and coordination with the FSA and Military Council.”
He also stressed that 99 percent of Liwaa al-Umma, the rebel group he formed in Syria, were Syrian nationals. Al-Harati said “all the officers and cadres present in Liwaa al-Umma were present in the FSA and Syrian Military Council…namely full affiliation. As for the role played by the Libyans, this was limited to training and organization, providing any help for the factions, including playing a combat role and providing our Syrian brothers with our experience of the Libyan revolution.”
Without providing any specific figures or statistics regarding the number of Libyan or foreign volunteers amongst the ranks of the Syrian revolution, al-Harati acknowledged that many Arab fighters were present in Syria, but stressed this was not in any organized or formal manner. He said these “Arab volunteers” came from many countries to take part in the revolution, but added that the lack of organization regarding their presence in Syria “will certainly result in future problems.”
Responding to a question as to whether Al Qaeda is present on Syrian soil, al-Harati told Asharq Al-Awsat that “there may be some [Al Qaeda] elements, but not in the size that the media is talking about.” He added “what is happening in Syria is a revolution that has exceeded groups. Even if we assume that Al Qaeda is present, the revolution is beyond all groups or organizations.”
As for whether he is thinking of returning to Syria to rejoin the fight against Bashar al-Assad, the Libyan commander said “I underwent major spinal surgery, and am awaiting another operation” before adding “I hope to communicate with the Syrians.”