Colonel Abdul Jabbar al-Oqaidi is one of the most recognizable commanders in the Free Syrian Army. Formerly the head of the Amr bin al-Aas brigade in Aleppo, he now controls that province’s Military Council, a perch from which he has helped unite disparate factions of the FSA in the north. Most important, Oqaidi sits on the arms committee for the Supreme Military Command, the umbrella organization – as much a political mechanism as a military coordination council – which has been supported by the United States and other Western powers as a credible rebel consortium. Yet Oqaidi’s success is not without controversy. In recent weeks, as the presence of al-Qaeda franchise the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant has grown in north Syria, the FSA’s open cooperation with its Salafist-jihadist extremists has thrown Western plans for arming the opposition into doubt. Though most analysts agree that this cooperation is rooted in battlefield pragmatism and not ideology, it poses a serious challenge to building a cohesive and trustworthy Syrian military counterpart to Bashar al-Assad’s military.
NOW reached Col. Oqaidi on August 15 via Skype to discuss the latest rebel victories in the north and where he sees the conflict headed.
NOW: How are things in Aleppo now?
There has been a major shift in the power in favor of the Free Syrian Army on many fronts, and the northern front, the western front, in Minnah air base which has been recently under the control of the rebels. And indeed, in southern Aleppo where regime supplies have been cut -- in Khan al-Asaal, the regime has been trying to send support to its forces and that support has been stopped. We’ve successfully halted the transfer of weapons as well as made advances in Salaheddine and Rashdeen.
NOW: How are efforts going to create and control civil governance structures, from courts to medical facilities to food distribution networks? How much of those on the ground are being administered by the Free Syrian Army?
Colonel Abdul Jabbar al-Oqaidi: We are very supportive of the civil authorities. You have seen my trips with Mr. Yahia Nanaa, the head of the local council in Aleppo. We have full coordination; we provide them with full support and protection. We are looking forward after the fall of the regime to hand them the local authority so they can work on preserving security and forming the police forces and distributing humanitarian relief aid.
NOW: Having now taken Khan al-Assal, will your forces allow the UN chemical weapons inspectors to tour this site, which is where the regime allegedly used chemical weapons in February of this year?
Oqaidi: Indeed. We welcome the UN inspectors in areas that have been targeted by chemical weapons. We want the truth to get out the world. We have nothing to hide and will welcome any step that uncovers the truth. However, it has been a long time since the chemical attack has happened. We doubt that they can find any more evidence, but they are still welcome at any time.
NOW: You were videoed and photographed with Abu Jandal, an emir of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, after the fall of Minnagh airbase, causing many in the West to worry that the FSA is happily partnering with al-Qaeda in Aleppo. Why did you appear with him, and what role did al-Qaeda play in the taking of the airbase?
Oqaidi: In this specific operation, this group took the lead in taking over the airport. This group [is] a reality on the ground.
NOW: But Colonel, what is the relationship between the FSA and al-Qaeda in the north, and do you not foresee a future confrontation between moderate rebels and jihadis seeking to establish an Islamic emirate in Syria?
Oqaidi: The main conflict now is the regime. Once the regime has fallen, then the Syrian people will take control of the country. These people are great and free and strong. They will not allow anybody to control their country. They are the only ones who decide the shape of the new government.
NOW: A lot of these fighters, however, are not Syrian. They are foreign mujahideen who have come in and do not have Syria’s best interest at heart. Do you not see how they will pose a long-term threat to any attempt to create a free Syria after Assad falls?
Oqaidi: Currently the major problem for the Syrian people are the regime and its allies from the Iranian militias and Hezbollah militia. Once these forces have been defeated, the only one who will determine the future Syria are the Syrian people. We will not allow any foreign intervention or forcing their views or their will on the Syrian people. It’s the will of the Syrian people only.
NOW: Let’s talk about what is happening in the Kurdish regions, in places such as Ras al-Ain and Tel Abayd. Fighting between rebels and YPG militias (the official armed wing of the Kurdish Supreme Committee) has included not only al-Qaeda fighters but also FSA battalions including Liwa al-Tawhid, the largest FSA battalion in Aleppo. Where do you see this conflict-within-a-conflict going? Are there attempts to try and resolve it peacefully?
Oqaidi: I would like to clarify first that the problem is not with Liwa al-Tawhid, but the whole Free Syrian Army. This problem was generated by the PKK and PYD (the Democratic Union of Kurdistan) against the Free Syrian Army. We have no problem with the Kurdish people. We have Kurdish fighters and battalions that are fighting alongside with the FSA. However, this conflict has been forced on us and we have to deal with it on the ground. We wish that we can solve it peacefully and not to see it escalate. But we have to deal with it. The PYD and PKK is an extension of the regime militias and they’re fighting on their behalf.
NOW: Liwa al-Tawhid is part of the Supreme Military Command, of which you’re a member, but there is a great deal of ambiguity as to how much control the SMC actually has over your battalion or other FSA battalions. Can you articulate the relationship for me? If the SMC gives an instruction, is it implemented on the ground?
Oqaidi: We in the military councils all over Syria, we answer to the chief of staff’s office [headed by Salim Idriss]. This is the hierarchy that we follow.
NOW: Are any new weapons arriving from outside of Syria?
Oqaidi: We have not received any weapons at all. So the situation is still the same.
Read this article in Arabic