Westerners with Syrian ties trickle in to help rebels

J. David Goodman / New York Times News Service /

Published Oct 9, 2012 at 05:00AM

The night before leaving his parents’ home in Wayne, Texas, to join the rebels trying to overthrow President Bashar Assad in Syria, Obaida Hitto left a bouquet of white roses for his mother, with a sterling silver locket and a note: “You’ve made me what I am. But now I need to go and do what I need to do.”

Hitto, 25, a former high school football player, deferred his plans for law school to sneak into Syria to assist the rebels by making videos and spreading information on the Internet to help their cause.

“I’m one of them,” Hitto said proudly during a recent telephone interview.

Since the early days of the uprising, Syrian rebel forces have filled their ranks with army defectors and civilians. But as the war has dragged on, and the government has made it much harder for soldiers to defect, two other groups have contributed to the opposition. There has been a rise in the number of foreign fighters, many of them Islamist extremists. But there has also been a small, though noticeable, number of men like Hitto, of Syrian descent and with Western passports, who have made the journey to join the Free Syrian Army. Experts estimate they number roughly a hundred and come from the United States, Britain, France and Canada.

Their presence is not enough to shift the tide of the battle, but they add another element of determination and complexity to a bloody landscape where loyalties and ambitions are often unclear.

“Even though he’s not fighting on the front lines, I would consider him a foreign fighter,” Aaron Zelin, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said of Hitto. Zelin keeps a rough tally of foreign fighters in Syria based on news reports and Islamist postings and said the two groups together number in the thousands.

Hitto, who has extended family in Damascus, has spent five months posting videos and photographs from Deir al-Zour, sometimes very near the fighting, many marked by billowing plumes of thick smoke, the clack of gunfire and narrations that shake with an activist’s conviction and anger, delivered in an American accent. “All around us there is shooting,” he said in an Aug. 1 clip of a burning building. “The world seems to not care.”

Few in Hitto’s position have made the decision to stay as long as he has, especially as residents have fled areas of fighting.

“Eighty-five percent of the civilian population has left the city,” Hitto said in a Skype interview last month from Deir al-Zour. “If people only saw what was really happening to the people here they might do the same thing I did.”

The State Department does not keep a count of Americans entering Syria and has discouraged all travel to the country. Those who enter do so illegally; they are smuggled over the border from Turkey by Syrian activists, and huddle with trusted contacts in areas of the country controlled by the Free Syrian Army. Some have gone for brief trips to rebel-controlled areas in the north, providing noncombat assistance. The overland trek across the border, often on foot or under cover of darkness, can be harrowing.

Abdullah Aldahhan, 24, a medical student from Detroit, spent three weeks in the northern province of Idlib this summer, delivering medical supplies to makeshift clinics in a dozen cities for the American aid group Muslims Without Borders.

Those Aldahhan met in Syria asked why he had wanted to leave his comfortable life in the United States to assist their fight. “I explained to them that this was my country, too,” he said in a telephone interview from Detroit, adding that he planned to go back.

Ranya Sabbagh, 39, said she made a weeklong trip to her native Syria in August to the town of Jebel al-Zawiya in Idlib, the hometown of a friend who helped get her into the country. “It’s not something I would recommend to others,” she said. “I got an hour and a half of sleep at night. I’m from Dallas, I’m not used to hearing gunshots except maybe hunting.”

Cross-border salvos

a message to Turkey

BEIRUT — Syria’s cross-border attacks on Turkey in the past week look increasingly like they could be an intentional escalation meant to send a clear message to Ankara and beyond, that the crisis is simply too explosive to risk foreign military intervention.

With Turkey eager to defuse the crisis, the spillover of fighting is giving new life to a longshot political solution, with the Turks floating the idea of making President Bashar Assad’s longtime vice president, Farouk al-Sharaa, interim leader if the president steps aside.

A military option — which would involve foreign powers that already have expressed a deep reluctance to getting involved in the crisis — is still not on the table, analysts say, despite six consecutive days of Turkish retaliation against bombardment from inside Syria.

“Syria is aware that Turkey cannot go a step further,” said Ali Tekin, assistant professor of International Relations at Ankara’s Bilkent University. “The Turkish people don’t want a war and there are no vital national interests at stake to warrant a war. Syria sees this.”

The Syrian conflict has taken a prominent role in the U.S. presidential election at a time when the U.S. and its allies have shown little appetite for getting involved.

On Monday, Republican candidate Mitt Romney said the U.S. should work with other countries to arm the Syrian rebels, allowing the rebels to drive Assad from power themselves. Romney did not call for the U.S. to directly arm the Syrian rebels.

The most recent flare-up between Syria and Turkey started Wednesday, when a shell fired from Syria slammed into a house in the Turkish border village of Akcakale, killing two women and three children. That set off the most serious and prolonged eruption of violence along the frontier since the uprising began nearly 19 months ago.

Although it was not clear whether Wednesday’s shelling was intentional, Turkey responded swiftly by firing back and convening parliament for a vote that authorized further cross-border military operations if necessary.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan cautioned Damascus not to test Turkey’s “limits and determination.” But the Syrian shelling has continued every day — leading many observers to conclude the acts are intentional provocation.

— The Associated Press