Syrian rebel leaders in their own words

Abdul Salam Abul-Ezz from Palestine who is a contributor for the Revolution Observer analyses the recent interviews by Al-Jazeera with the leaders of the main armed groups fighting the government of Bashar Al-Assad in Syria.

In the second and third weeks of June 2013, Al-Jazeera aired a series of interviews (in Arabic) with leaders of the main armed groups fighting against Al-Assad. Six interviews in total were conducted by Al-Jazeera correspondent Tayseer Allouni, a native Syrian who gained international fame for his exclusive interview with al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden following the 9/11 attacks.

Allouni was later jailed in Spain for seven years on charges of aiding al-Qaeda, which he denied. The recent interviews with Syrian rebel leaders appear to have taken place in the rebel-held northern areas of Syria.

The importance of these interviews is in the fact that the world hasn’t heard much of the views of field commanders or actual fighters on the ground. The Syrian revolution has thus far been represented by political figures from the “National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces” (Etilaf).

Most fighters on the ground do not regard the coalition as a true representative of the revolution since most of its members have been in exile for many years (some for over 30 years). The political figures have been living in European and Arab hotels while the fighters and the people inside Syria suffered the crimes of the Assad regime. The same sentiment was expressed in most of the interviews that are discussed further.

The rebel commanders interviewed were:

  1. Hassan Abboud, leader of Ahrar al-Sham (Freemen of Levant), and Secretary General of the Islamic Syrian Front. Ahrar al-Sham has been described in Western media as “an Islamic fundamentalist brigade home to many foreign jihadis.”
  2. Abdel-Basit Taweeleh, leader of the “North command” in the Free Syrian Army (FSA).
  3. Ahmad Eissa, leader of Suqur al-Sham (Falcons of Levant) based in Idlib, and Secretary General of the Islamic Syrian Liberation Front (ISLF).
  4. Abdel-Qader Saleh, leader of Al-Tawheed brigade based in Aleppo, which is a component of ISLF.
  5. Osama Junaidi, leader of Al-Farooq battalions based in Homs, a component of ISLF.
  6. Zahran Alloush, leader of Al-Islam brigade based in the countryside of Damascus, also a component of ISLF.

It is worth noting that Jabhat al-Nusra (JN), the al-Qaeda affiliated group, was not represented in these interviews, although the commanders were asked about their position towards JN. JN is known to be smaller in size than any one of the groups mentioned above, even before it split into a group that follows the local leader, Joulani, and those who follow the Iraqi branch led by Baghdadi.

Common ground

The interviews revealed common grounds between the rebel commanders which can be summarized as the following:

  1. The Syrian revolution started after the regime’s clamp down on the peaceful demonstrations. The world stood by watching the atrocities and the young activists realised, that they had to counter the regime’s terror with acts of defence and deterrence.
  2. There can be no negotiations with the regime or any remnants of it. There must be full accounting and punishment for all acts of atrocity committed by the regime’s forces.
  3. The future system in Syria must be dominated by the Muslim Sunnis since they represent the majority of the Syrian people. All minorities will have proper representation and will not be harmed under the new system. In addition, the laws of the land must be (in one form or another) based on the Islamic Shariah.
  4. The future regime will not be friendly with countries or entities that supported Assad and his regime, such as Iran and Hezbollah, and will have good relations with the countries that lent support to the revolution. With regard to Israel, all interviewees considered it an enemy, although some deferred to the future government when asked about the way to deal with Israel. One interviewee, Hassan Abboud, expressed a yearning towards the abolishment of the Sykes-Picot regional borders and resuming political unity across the region.
  5. Most interviewees acknowledged having tactical cooperation with Jabhat al-Nusra fighters, and some commended their fierce fighting and readiness to sacrifice. Others said that cooperation with JN did not occur simply because Nusra fighters were not present in their areas.

Whilst there was agreement on the above points, there were also variances in the expressed views. For instance, when asked where they get their weapons and monetary support, most commanders acknowledged receiving support from foreign states, although some of them considered it miniscule when compared to the support from Syrian individuals either inside or outside the country.

The West and the SNC

Hassan Abboud, leader of Ahrar al-Sham, was the only commander who explicitly denied receiving any support from foreign governments. Nevertheless, there was a bitter sentiment expressed by Abdel-Basit Taweeleh; the only interviewed commander who wasn’t an Islamist that the US intentionally regulated the weapon supply to the rebels in order to prolong the revolution and hence, delay the fall of Assad. When asked about the perceived reason for that, he attributed it to protecting the state of Israel from an unknown future government in Syria.

Another point of variance was whether the rebel commanders anticipated having a role in the future government. Some commanders expressed a desire to go back to their former jobs, civilian or military, while others emphatically demanded a role in deciding the future of the country rather than leaving it to the exiled figures represented by the Syrian National Coalition (SNC). They felt that the fighters on the ground must have a greater role in shaping the future Syria than the hotel dwellers.

All in all, the interviews showed a unique perspective from inside the Syrian revolution rarely portrayed in the media. Many attitudes displayed Islamic sentiments held amongst the majority of the rebels, and the desire to have a future Syria that is independent of Western interference or influence. The most important factor was the unanimous rejection of any negotiations with any elements from Al-Assad’s government, a stark divergence from the “flexible” attitudes expressed by “representatives” of the revolution based outside of Syria.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of the 5 Pillarz editorial board.

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