BEIRUT - Veteran fighters of last year's civil war in Libya have come to the front-line in Syria, helping to train and organise rebels under conditions far more dire than those in the battle against Muammar Gaddafi, a Libyan-Irish fighter has told Reuters.
Hussam Najjar hails from Dublin, has a Libyan father and Irish mother and goes by the name of Sam. A trained sniper, he was part of the rebel unit that stormed Gaddafi's compound in Tripoli a year ago, led by Mahdi al-Harati, a powerful militia chief from Libya's western mountains.
Harati now leads a unit in Syria, made up mainly of Syrians but also including some foreign fighters, including 20 senior members of his own Libyan rebel unit. He asked Najjar to join him from Dublin a few months ago, Najjar said.
The Libyans aiding the Syrian rebels include specialists in communications, logistics, humanitarian issues and heavy weapons, he said. They operate training bases, teaching fitness and battlefield tactics.
Najjar said he was surprised to find how poorly armed and disorganised the Syrian rebels were, describing Syria's Sunni Muslim majority as far more repressed and downtrodden under Assad than Libyans were under Gaddafi.
"I was shocked. There is nothing you are told that can prepare you for what you see. The state of the Sunni Muslims there - their state of mind, their fate - all of those things have been slowly corroded over time by the regime."
"I nearly cried for them when I saw the weapons. The guns are absolutely useless. We are being sold leftovers from the Iraqi war, leftovers from this and that," he said. "Luckily these are things that we can do for them: we know how to fix weapons, how to maintain them, find problems and fix them."
In the months since he arrived, the rebel arsenal had become"five times more powerful", he said. Fighters had obtained large calibre anti-aircraft guns and sniper rifles.
Disorganisation is a serious problem. Unlike the Libyan fighters, who enjoyed the protection of a NATO-imposed no-fly zone and were able to set up full-scale training camps, the rebels in Syria are never out of reach of Assad's air power.
"In Libya, with the no-fly zone, we were able to build up say 1,400 to 1,500 men in one place and have platoons and brigades. Here we have men scattered here, there and everywhere."