It’s a remarkable story. He was on the verge of accepting a promotion in the city, when, Harry, known as Macer Gifford, decided to travel to Syria to fight against ISIS. It is hard to imagine a more radical change in circumstances.
Harry, 28, has spent much of his life in Oundle; he went to a nearby private school and has many relatives who are at the school. In many ways he is just like you or me, yet he did something I doubt any of us could imagine.
He said his motivation to join the fight was based on a feeling that he ‘had to do something to halt the barbaric rise of the Islamic state, a rise which had shocked me to the core’.
He and the many other foreign fighters that he joined were all united by a shared revulsion of IS and a desire to defend democracy and the people of Syria.
After watching the rise of IS through the news reports, Harry considered his options. Charity was one form. However, Harry also did not feel that the British government was doing enough to resolve the conflict and thus he had a fundamental desire to alter policy.
From there he decided that direct involvement in the conflict was the only means by which this could be achieved.
‘By going there I could stand in solidarity with the Kurds, and more importantly when I came home I could use my experiences to alter our perception of the conflict’.
Travelling to Syria was not difficult, nor was it illegal. He contactedthe lions of Rajhada, the organisation which facilitates the transfer of people to Syria, expressed an interest and flew to Iraq. Within three days he had crossed the border into Syria and was in the midst of a vicious conflict.
In Syria, Harry joined up with the YPG, the Kurdish militia group created in response to IS, consisting of roughly 75,000 men and also the remarkable female division, the YPJ.
Harry views the Kurds as our natural ally in Syria. In stark contrast to many of the attitudes within Syria, the Kurds adopt religious and political attitudes largely in tune with western ideals, such as a belief in secular democracy and equality for women.
What perhaps renders Harry’s story more remarkable is his relative lack of army experience. He describes how fellow Britons and Americans had the ability and skills to clear IEDs and provide on-the-ground medical treatment. In contrast, Harry had just basic knowledge of how to strip and load AK-47s, gained from his brief time in the Territorial Army.
Harry was in Syria for five and a half months. When he arrived, the county was overrun by ISIS. His arrival, though, coincided with an undoubted shift in momentum.
Major operations to capture Til hamas and Til barack, which Harry was involved in, proved to be remarkable successes. These operations were critical in securing support from America, as they demonstrated the strength and also the effectiveness of the Kurdish resistance. Such was its impact, that when Harry left, round-the-clock air support was in place.
Harry describes the conflict as ‘horribly dangerous’. However, there is sense that even this description does not accurately illustrate the level of violence present in the country. In just a few weeks of fighting in Syria, more lives are lost than during Britain’s entire engagement in Afghanistan.
‘It is a war from a different era, with mass casualties and very ineffectual medical treatment. People die from merely being shot in the leg.’
‘Living standards are incredibly harsh as well. Sometimes you will not be fed for days, I lost two stone while I was there,’ Harry said.
Harry is very critical of the British and American response to the conflict.
‘The current policy of the US and British government policy is hopelessly flawed. David Cameron is fundamentally a domestic PM, he is therefore far more concerned with domestic affairs than dealing with the threat of IS. Obama is similarly not concerned, he would far rather secure a lasting legacy in a deal with Iran than expend significant political capital to deal with ISIS.’
Part of the reason that Harry ultimately went to Syria was his desire to alter this policy. After nearly six months in Syria, he felt that he would be of far greater use to the Kurdish cause by returning to the UK and using his experiences to achieve this ultimate aim.
Harry has now set up a permanent office near parliament. With the support of a number of MPs, Harry is lobbying the government to maintain support for the Kurds.
‘In order to resolve the conflict we need to unite elements of Syrian army and wipe out ISIS. The future of Syria lies in a federated democracy where diverse cultures are accepted and represented. Above all, we can’t allow another community to dominate others, as is common in the Middle East.’
Harry is increasingly concerned by recent developments. ‘Western powers are not working together. Individuals are primarily concerned by self-interest. Russia is using the fight against IS to legitimise the wholly undemocratic Assad regime, this is in turn is forcing temporary British support of Assad. We cannot start a civil war with an Assad dictatorship. The 250,000 lives that have been lost would be entirely in vain.’
‘There is scarcely an Arab family that hasn’t lost a mother, a father, a brother in face of the Assad regime.We cannot bow to foreign powers.’
In the future Harry will undoubtedly maintain his full commitment to the Khurdish cause. Of course if one just takes a brief look at the situation in Syria it would appear that the end of IS and a lasting peace settlement founded in democracy appear distant and frankly unachievable goals.
Harry, however, has faith that these goals are achievable. It is this attitude that must persist in face of all the conflict and terror.
By Thomas Lambton