British author and journalist Yvonne Ridley is offering to go to war-torn Syria in an effort to secure the release of Londoner Tauqir Sharif. The aid worker was kidnapped by the rebel group controlling Idlib, Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS).
Ridley, who lives in Scotland, is understood to be in direct dialogue with the group in an attempt to break the deadlock between HTS and Sharif’s family, friends and supporters. “I am doing what the British government should have been doing from the moment that Sharif was taken, but he has been abandoned by the authorities ever since they stripped him of his citizenship,” she said.
The British-born Sharif was arrested by around 15 HTS heavily armed and masked men last month. Eyewitnesses have confirmed reports that he was struck several times on the head with the butt of a gun and was bleeding when he was taken away from his family home near the Atmeh refugee camp close to the Turkish border.
Sharif, 31, was born in Walthamstow. He lives and works in north-west Syria with around 200 other British ex-pats, some of whom have also had their citizenship revoked. Ridley pointed out that this happened to him in 2017 when his daughter was also refused a passport. “Under normal circumstances, the Foreign Office in his home city of London would be involved in negotiations for his release, but he has been disowned by the British government on the most spurious of grounds.”
The aid worker is said to be hugely popular in Idlib among locals and refugees alike after raising hundreds of thousands of pounds in aid through social media, television fundraisers and other crowdfunding charity appeals. Campaigns for his release have been launched in Idlib, predominantly among the widows and orphans who rely on his charity for essential humanitarian aid, and back in Britain, where he is known affectionately as Tox by his friends.
“I have asked HTS to agree to a welfare visit from myself,” explained Ridley. “Someone has to represent Sharif and stand up for his human rights. If the British government won’t do it, then I will.” The well-known journalist has experience of hostage negotiations and protecting the rights and welfare of prisoners overseas.
She is highly critical of the Home Office’s decision to revoke the British citizenship for workers engaged in humanitarian projects in war and conflict zones, not least because some cases rely heavily upon the use of secret evidence in secret legal proceedings. After it emerged that his citizenship had been revoked, Sharif accused the British government of “making it a crime to care” and also criticised the secret court system.
Ridley says that delivering aid in Syria is fraught with difficulties, but humanitarian workers on the ground are usually allowed by HTS to move about relatively freely. “I visited Idlib last year and although the journey was risky I am prepared to do it again. I don’t want to play the blame game; I just want to make sure that Sharif’s human rights and welfare are being protected.”
A video appeal has been posted by Yvonne Ridley on social media. In it, she reminds HTS that she was once a prisoner of the then ruling Taliban in Afghanistan and was treated with courtesy and respect before she was released on humanitarian grounds. Two years later she embraced Islam.
“I’m hoping that my personal experience will resonate with those holding Sharif, which is why I’ve referenced it in the video. It has helped me secure the release of other hostages on previous occasions.”
Sharif and his British wife Racquell Hayden-Best have been in Syria since 2012 when he acted as the logistics leader for the first aid convoys from Britain to the war-torn country, using ambulances to take in food and medical supplies. He stayed behind to set up makeshift schools and launch his own aid organisation.
Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham was formed in January 2017 after a merger between Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham, Ansar Al-Din Front, Jaysh Al-Sunna, Liwa Al-Haqq and the Nour Al-Din Al-Zenki Movement. There are concerns that the group has become lawless and authoritarian as Idlib slides into further chaos under attack from Assad regime forces, the Russians and Iranian-backed militias.
Idlib is regarded as the last major stronghold for anti-Assad government rebels and jihadist groups in Syria. While pro-Assad government troops and allied Russian and Iranian forces have captured parts of the province, rebels and Islamist fighters still control strategic areas. HTS is the main Islamist group operating in Idlib.
*Yvonne Ridley is a columnist for MEMO.