Blood and a Propaganda War
Leader of the Free Syrian Army, Riyad Al-Assaad: All Will Be Over In Three Months
The crisis in Syria continues to be the focus of foreign governments who are anxious of the humanitarian situation, but doubtless also worried about the political fallout and destabilising effects of a potential full-blown civil war.
Although domestic protests in Moscow have deflected a little of Russia’s interest and involvement in Middle East affairs for now, China has reportedly urged the Syrian government to cooperate with international aid agencies, allow access to problem areas and cease all violence immediately.
This message is line with consistent noises coming from Washington, Paris and London, which stress that a diplomatic resolution to the crisis is preferred. However, the US, France and the UK have each recalled their ambassadors from Damascus and called for Bashar Al-Assad to step down. All reasonable steps to take, but they do not bode well for a negotiated end to the problems facing Syria.
With President Barack Obama having asked the Pentagon to examine military options for Syria, it seems that the debate around the merits and shortcomings of foreign military intervention has become a perennial one.
Despite the dearth of examples of a wholly positive outcome from any such action in the past, the debate is not likely to disappear—especially given the fact that certain members (but by no means all) of the multiform Syrian opposition are actively calling for foreign arms. The Free Syrian Army (FSA) is one such branch of the opposition that calls for military help.
Recently The Majalla spoke with the leader of the FSA, Riyad Al-Assaad. The former Colonel in the Syrian Air force discussed the goals and strategies of the FSA, and was bullish about overthrowing the current regime. His answers often reflect the fractured nature of those opposed to Assad’s regime inside Syria, and also demonstrate the mounting war of rhetoric and propaganda that has become a hallmark of uprisings in the Arab World since December 2010.
Official state media in Syria have predictably sought to paint the armed opposition as extremist terrorists, but controversy over the treatment of foreign journalists—and the ideals of armed groups generally—has hindered FSA attempts to allay the numerous fears of the Syrian population and expatriate Syrians abroad. The main concern is exactly what kind of government might emerge if Assad does fall, particularly if his ouster is marked by a violence to match the President’s own efforts.
Today, the reported resignation of deputy oil minister, Abdo Hussameddin—the most high-profile civilian government defection so far—is another step in the disintegration of the Syrian state and is being hailed in some quarters as further evidence that complete breakdown cannot be far away
The Majalla: What is your present strategy?
Our goal is to overthrow the regime. We have devised cohesive plans to achieve this goal. Our strategy is currently being applied in Syria via the various divisions of the Free [Syrian] Army (FSA), which are present in all Syrian regions. Operations will be massively increased until one region in Syria has been liberated. This region will then become a starting point for the liberation of the remaining regions from the brutal regime. Our strategy is clear. If the international community fail to provide us with international protection and to find a buffer zone, then we shall oblige it to do so by force. We are capable of establishing this buffer zone in the near future.
Q: What is the current size of the FSA?
The number of officers exceeds 200, in addition to over 1,500 officers detained in Syrian prisons. There are also over 50,000 dissident officers, non-commissioned officers and soldiers and the number is rising.
Q: There are reports of Arab and international volunteers in the FSA. How true is this?
We deny this, completely. This information had been fabricated by the regime. No non-Syrian Arab, or any person of any other nationality, has joined our ranks. No non-Syrian militant organisation has entered Syria, thus far. All fighters are Syrians who have defected from the [regular] Syrian Army.
However, if non-Syrian entities are found in Syria, then those would be of Hezbollah or from Iran. Their mission is to lead and direct oppressive operations against the protest movement and to carry out the killing and assassination of peaceful demonstrators.
Q: How do you respond to concerns raised by the liberals towards the names of the various divisions, most of which – according to the liberals – have Islamic connotations, the thing that made them suspicious of Islamic-oriented influence over the army?
This is attributed to repression and injustice which lasted over four decades, especially with regards to religion. All that was deemed related to religion was repressed by the regime, which made some young enthusiasts apply names and designations found in Islamic history to some military divisions. This does not arise from an Islamic orientation or Islamic politics or tendencies, but is a result of an emotional reaction.
Q: Are there any Kurdish dissidents? How true is it that you exclude certain dissidents due to their ethnicity or sectarian affiliations?
On the contrary, the Kurds are our brothers and we are all one, within Syria, our homeland. We do not side in favour of one sect against the other. Our hopes are for all sects to defect from the Syrian Army. We are all united in our aim to bring down this brutal regime which oppresses the various Christian, Alawi, Sunni and Kurdish denominations and sects. There is a number of Kurdish and Druze dissidents amongst our ranks. We regret that there is no Alawi dissent from within the [regular] Syrian Army. We hope that the Alawites would take a stance against the regime. Ultimately, the regime does not represent any race or sect.
Q: What is your attitude towards foreign intervention?
We support foreign intervention. We anticipate that the West and the international community shall stand by the Syrian people and supply us with logistical support until we are capable of liberating our country from these thugs. We have men who are capable of bringing down this regime. We call for a limited international intervention and serious political stances.
Q: Do you support proposals for military intervention in Syria?
We do not accept a military intervention similar to the one that took place in Iraq. We need the international community to supply us with arms.
Q: What if Rifaat Al-Assad returns and a deal is struck with him to depose of Bashar Al-Assad?
Never. Rifaat Al-Assad is a criminal and shall be tried, as well as Bashar Al-Assad, his affiliates and all those with blood on their hands. The Syrian people will not accept Rifaat Al-Assad in any circumstances.
Q: You were accused of killing French journalist, Gilles Jacquier.
The regime was responsible for Gilles Jacquier’s death. We sent a message of condolence to President Sarkozy of France and mentioned in the letter that martyr Jacquier is a blood brother to the Syrians killed in the field.
The French journalist was in a pro-regime area with a heavy security presence on the day. A few minutes before his death, Jacquier remained with no company on site, while the camera of the Syrian National Television prepared to capture his death. Then, the shelling started which led to his death. We have confirmed information from members of the army before their defection – who where present at the time of the incident…The aim was to cause a shift in French popular support of the Syrian Revolution while deluding the French people into believing that there are militant groups that target journalists. The aim was also to place pressure on the French government to end its support of the revolution through manipulating and creating a sensitive situation.
Also, the FSA does not possess any mortars. Both the Free Army and the Syrian people welcome journalists and provide them with protection, as we understand that by preserving their lives we are preserving the means to convey the truth and the reality in Syria.
Q: How do you describe your relationship with the political opposition?
The National Council is a political coalition while we are an armed force. Naturally, we would coordinate all matters with the council. Also, the Free Army has pledged to not interfere in politics or support any political party and to leave politics to the politicians. The future Syria will be a truly democratic country and an equal to European countries in development and democracy. The military’s role is to provide security to the country and the people and shall not join any political organisation or be involved in politics in the future.
Q: How satisfied are you with the Council?
I do not feel positive concerning the National Council as it still does not live up to the Syrian people’s ambitions and expectations. The Syrian people have been quite reliant on the National Council, but, so far, the council has not risen to the required level to fulfil the people’s needs. We hope that the council will reconsider its position, reconsider its strategies, take a more serious stance towards people’s demands, and cease keeping up appearances that yield no results.
Q: The US has been in contact with the Syrian National Council (SNC). Does the FSA have contact with the US?
Thus far, there hasn’t been any contact between us and the Americans or with any other western or Arab countries. We are disappointed with their positions towards us. However, we are appreciative of the Gulf States’ supportive positions towards the Arab initiative and for their withdrawal of their observers from the mission. We are especially appreciative of the bold position of Saudi Arabia.
Q: Some fear the opposition will plunge Syria into chaos. What are your thoughts on the matter?
Some members of the opposition are megaphones for the regime. The [FSA] has prevented strife from occurring amongst the opposition in Syria and the creation of any militant organisations, a likely threat in the absence of the [FSA].
Q: Currently, there are efforts made by the United Nations towards resolving the Syrian crisis. What results do you expect of these efforts? Would you accept a decision towards a dialogue with the regime?
The Syrian people will not accept any form of dialogue with this criminal regime. The Syrian people want to bring this regime down and will never give it another chance.
Q: How do you secure the weapons and acquire them without funds? Also, how do you deliver these weapons to the FSA in Syria?
Normally, the weapons are acquired with financial aid provided by Syrian individuals. All support we receive comes from Syrians. We also acquire small arms by seizing them from the regime army. 90% of our weapons are provided to our formations internally in Syria. There is no smuggling of weapons, not through Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan or Iraq as the Syrian people are under tight blockade. In addition, we disarm the regime through purchasing weapons – a large portion of our total weapons acquisition – from soldiers and officers serving in the regime’s army. We even purchase large quantities of weapons from the Alawites.
Q: How coherent is the Syrian army at the moment?
Not coherent at all. The regime army has completely collapsed. Many of the regime’s soldiers ask us to shoot them, following our operations, to justify them fleeing from duty or, at least, to find an excuse for not participating in shooting their Syrian brothers. Also, many intelligence officers had fled service by taking medical leave. Everyone knows now that the Syrian regime Army is dilapidated and negligent.
Q: Is it true that the Alawite villages are being armed by the regime?
We have received some reports that state that a number of military bases were established in some Alawite localities, including Qardaha. We hope that these reports are incorrect as we do not wish the Alawites to be dragged into a sectarian conflict or to give them the impression that this conflict is being imposed by the other sects. We do hope that the Alawites will adhere to the national fabric. We hope that their leaders and those honourable amongst them realise that Syria is a home for all and does not belong to the Assad family, and that the regime is fleeting, but the homeland and people will last.
Q: Were you pressured by Turkey to join the National Council?
This is not true…Turkey does not interfere in any of our political or military affairs and has stated, on several occasions, its respect towards the rights of the Syrian people to make their own decisions. It has supported the Syrian people more than the Arab countries did in humanitarian aid.
Q: Why do you have to be granted approval from the Turkish Foreign Ministry every time you are to hold or participate in a dialogue, especially after statements you declared to a TV channel? Some say that the Free Army is a Turkish hostage.
We are not hostages. We have freedom of movement in Turkey. We are grateful to the Turkish government for being a good host and for providing humanitarian aid to the Syrian refugees. However, every country has its set of rules…We respect the rules and regulations of our host country.
From the very beginning of our stay in Turkey, a decision was made by the Turkish government that obliges journalists to obtain the consent of the Turkish Foreign Ministry when applying for an interview or dialogue with us. We are also obliged to inform the government of any request. This is the government’s natural right and we respect that. At the end of the day, we are guests in Turkey. These procedures may also be for our personal protection.
Q: Do you receive financial support from the Brotherhood?
No. Our receipt of financial support is not contingent on the Brotherhood. I have previously mentioned that we have the support of the Syrian people and we are proud of Syrians from all opposition groups, regardless of their political affiliation. We are on the verge of establishing a civilian and democratic country and as such, we welcome all views. We hope that every individual will obtain their natural rights. At the end of the day, it is the populace who decides who will rule and who will step down.
We have not received full support of any one political party. The Free Army is supported by Syrian citizens, whether in Syria or abroad.
Q: When do you expect the regime to collapse?
With our humble capabilities, we expect the regime to fall within three months. We have not received any support from any country in the world, either Arab or international, financial or military. However, if we are provided with logistical support, then we expect to bring the regime down within a month.
Interview conducted by Roshan Kasem