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Michael Weiss

Eastern promises

An interview with the FSA's commander in Deir Ezzor, Hasakah, and Raqqa

Lt. Col. Mohammed al-Abboud, picture on the right.

ANTAKYA, Turkey – “Vwee gavoreetye po Russky?” “Nimnoga.” “Harashoe!” 

 

My smiling questioner, who with that brief exchange more or less exhausted my store of serviceable spoken Russian, was Lieutenant Colonel Mohammed al-Abboud of the Supreme Military Command of the Free Syrian Army. Like a lot of Syrian engineers, Abboud was trained in Moscow which means he’s fluent in the language of the country that’s been helping the regime kill his comrades. We were sitting in the clothier’s workshop where uniforms for the FSA are daily stitched together, each with individual brigade or battalion logos. Abboud had just placed a moderate-sized order hours before a scheduled trip to Ankara with other leaders of the SMC.

 

Given his CV, I was eager to hear what he thought of the new Russian-hatched initiative to eliminate Assad’s chemical stockpiles. “We reject this initiative, which will change nothing in reality,” he said. “We are not being killed by chemical weapons alone; rather, we are being killed using surface-to-surface missiles, explosive barrels. Tomorrow Assad will blow up the Euphrates dam, which, if destroyed, will wipe out al-Raqqa, Deir Ezzor, and Bou Kamal.”

 

Short, stocky, and balding, Abboud doesn’t strike one as a man tasked with supervising one of the most parlous territories in rebel-held Syria. In addition to being the current deputy chief of staff of the Supreme Military Command, serving just under Salim Idriss, he is also commander of the eastern front, covering Deir Ezzor, Hasakah, and Raqqa provinces. “Our command extends beyond some 15,000 fighters, and we currently have about six companies in Deir Ezzor, one company in Hasakah, and two companies in Raqqa.” And how big are those? “The number varies because I must say that our organization is not the same as regular companies or armies. A company may include 2,000 men or 600 men.”

 

Of all SMC commanders, Abboud is in the most unenviable position because Raqqa, the only fully “liberated” province in Syria, also happens to be the one where the al-Qaeda affiliate the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant is most visible as a de facto governing body. It administers food, medicine, even toys for tots – all as Bin Ladenist dawa, or social outreach, aims at laying the foundation for a future emirate and eventual caliphate. In the stale cant of our time, al-Qaeda is playing at “winning hearts and minds” and trying to improve on the self-destructive legacy of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the man who founded the franchise in Iraq a decade ago. Unsurprisingly, however, al-Qaeda is also exploding hearts and blowing brains out. Lately, the Islamic State has taken to assassinating prominent FSA leaders, kidnapping civilians including the pro-revolution Jesuit priest Father Paolo Dall’Oglio who is now presumed dead, battling PYD militias in the Kurdish areas of Aleppo and Hasakah, and holding ritualized public executions, some of the victims of which have been children – evidently those not susceptible to the kindly offerings from the faithful. In one town, al-Dana, the group’s men, led by Emir Abu Usamah al-Tunisi, stands accused of molesting minors, shooting unarmed protestors, and cutting off limbs. The FSA had warned over a year ago that, absent any meaningful Western support, it would make a deal with the devil to destroy the regime. It has.

 

The Islamic State’s prominence on the ground, unmissable to foreign correspondents and nervous US policymakers, has become a dire complication in a two-and-a-half-year war that doesn’t lack for dire complications. Now here’s another: There isn’t one al-Qaeda group in Syria, there are two, the other being Jabhat al-Nusra, a homegrown movement outfitted with more native Syrians than foreign muhajireen. Al-Nusra, as the Guardian’s Martin Chulov reported recently from Aleppo, has been greatly depleted in number and morale by the Islamic State, an imported franchise that has overshadowed the Syrian one owing to its decade-long battlefield experience and global jihadist network which fields recruits from the US, Europe, and other parts of the Middle East.

 

In spite of the growing hostility between SMC-aligned rebels and blacklisted and black-clad takfiri extremists, both still theoretically find themselves on the same “side” against the regime. I asked Abboud about the Islamic State’s ownership of Raqqa, and whether media reports gave an accurate rendering of the extent of its reach. He said that it’s true that the group controls the city but “when you look at the military positions, the FSA is manning them. In contrast, the Islamic State does not fight against the regime. They erect roadblocks in liberated areas.” But the lieutenant colonel didn’t deny open collaboration with other extremists. “On the battlefield, each objective is divided into sectors and Ahrar Ash-Sham [a Salafist brigade exclusive of the SMC], al-Nusra Front and the FSA each take one sector. There are no conflicts on the battlefield as we are united by a common enemy.”

 

How long this will last is questionable because a single war has devolved into a series of smaller but significant internecine conflicts. The problem that Abboud and his men face is simple: they cannot fight Assad and al-Qaeda at the same time – at least not yet. And so, he told me, the way of dealing with the latter is to try and foment popular rejection of it through non-martial means. “We want [the Islamic State] to be foiled on the civilian level. Protests are already being held in Mayadin against them.” But the prospect of asking al-Qaeda to pack it up and leave without direct military force is dim indeed.

 

Moreover, the germs of an eventual physical confrontation with such elements are everywhere in Syria now, as conditions “off the battlefield,” as Abboud put it, amply attest. A day before this interview was conducted, there was a gunfight in Deir Ezzor and Hasaka between Ahfad ar-Rasoul Brigades and the Islamic State, which had weeks earlier expelled the former from Raqqa. Ahfad ar-Rasoul fighters have been fighting the al-Qaeda movement a lot, even allegedly capturing a number of militants whom they say confessed to being agents of Iran and the regime. Some point to the US Treasury Department’s recent sanctioning of Iran-based al-Qaeda network as evidence that Assad’s strongest ally is also in league with his supposed strongest enemy.

 

This is a near universal accusation by the FSA and plenty of activists made against the Islamic State now, namely that the upper echelons of the movement are infiltrated by the Syrian mukhabarat who once hosted and enabled emirs and foreign recruits for al-Qaeda in Iraq when their common enemy was American and coalition forces. The goal, FSA rebels say, is for these regime sleepers to purposefully steer rank-and-file fighters away from crucial battlefields in the north and instead focus their energies on maintaining oil wells and running administrative bodies such as sharia courts.

 

Nevertheless, it is still the case that the Islamic State participates in many military operations against regime installations, such as Minnagh air base, which fell in August after jihadists blew up a vehicle (and themselves) laden with explosives. The group also took credit for a more recent sacking of another air base and ammunitions depot in Hama.

 

“The Islamic State are definitely traitors, especially in our region,” Abboud said. “But they appear as Islamists. I told you, we have people in the FSA who are very religious and want to fight the regime. Some of them do not realize what they are going into. They join the Islamic State and a minority of them honestly fights. Many of them discover later the Islamic State’s ties and recant their loyalty. We are not generalizing here. The Islamic State’s leaders are 100 percent traitors but not everyone who fights with them is. This holds especially true in al-Raqqa.”

 

Given that the SMC is more of a political and aid-dispensing body rather than a cohesive military organization with command and control of localized or regionalized forces on the ground, its long-term difficulty remains uniting around a common strategy, be it one for use against the regime or any unwanted successors to regime rule. So why was the FSA still more of a concept than a reality? The answer, Abboud said, was money. “The FSA staff has great field efficiency. On the domestic front, most fighters – even those within the al-Nusra Front – lean toward us. The Syrian people are moderate by nature. However, support for the FSA staff runs low compared to the support going to the remaining factions, such as the al-Tawhid Brigade [the largest rebel group in Aleppo], Ahrar ash-Sham [an independent Salafist brigade that leads the Syrian Islamic Front], the al-Nusra Front, [and] Islamic State. They are getting great financial support. For instance, they have salaries, which we do not have. Many fighters go to the al-Nusra Front, the Ahrar, etc. for the salary and food. We always ask the countries that support us and that wish for a truly regular army in Syria to support us with ammunition, weapons, and money. We want to give fighters salaries, even as low as $50. Had they done it, we’d change reality in a month.”

 

This is no doubt an exaggeration, but Abboud’s mention of the Tawhid Brigade as part of his litany of flush rivals was telling because Tawhid is nominally linked up with the SMC and therefore should be subject to the same woebegone circumstances. In actuality, Abboud said, the group is funded by “private” parties, the identities of which he claimed not to know.

 

Isn’t it true, though, that the SMC has in fact received weapons from the Gulf states, and now even from the United States? Days after the Ghouta chemical attack, Reuters reported that 400 tons of khaleeji-bought weapons, “mostly ammunition for shoulder-fired weapons and anti-aircraft machine guns,” arrived in Syria through Hatay.

 

“Everyone knows that Gulf countries – particularly Saudi Arabia and Qatar – provide us with weapons,” Abboud said. But he added that the supply chain was not constant and contrasted it with the much more efficient one in the south – i.e. from Jordan to Deraa and Rif Dimashq. Conveying weapons through Turkey, he added, “is met with many hardships.” Abboud declined to go into specifics.

 

Desperation for greater support has led the SMC, or high-ranking members of it anyway, to resort to agitprop aimed at the West that can look a lot like blackmail. On August 22, a day after the Ghouta atrocity, Abboud and three other commanders of the SMC appeared in a video in which they threatened to resign from the body and starting working “with all forces fighting in Syria.” They cited the “false promises” of Western materiel which had yet to be delivered.

 

I asked him about the intention of that threat and Abboud confirmed that it was essentially a passive-aggressive put-up-or-shut-up statement. Why didn’t he resign? Because “the United States adopted a tough stance a few days later when the US almost decided a strike against the regime. Now we notice some backtracking.” This is to put it mildly, as the possibility of airstrikes has all but been foreclosed upon.

 

The SMC had, like everyone else, been watching the Congressional hearings on what was, only days earlier, the likelihood of direct US intervention in Syria. And Abboud was deeply troubled by the American perception of his forces. “The regime is paying millions to distort the image of the revolution. The rebels want stability, a state with a civil government. We do have an Islamic character, which we do not deny but we are no extremists or fanatics.” Turkey or Malaysia were his preferred paradigms for statehood.

 

If Washington wasn’t interested in eliminating Assad, he said, then it should at least be worried about some of the alternatives it was allowing to coalesce through inaction. “We told our brothers in the US, Europe, and Arab [states] of an upcoming danger from the East. If you do not support us and provide us with speedy aid, danger does exist. We call for support now or else when the regime falls, we shall have a major problem.”

 

Our interview over, and his uniform order successfully processed, Abboud thanked me in Russian (“bolshoe spasiba, Michael”), and I escorted him out of the warehouse and into the dark Antakya night.

A recent YouTube video by the FSA's Supreme Military Command. Lt. Col. Mohammed al-Abboud is pictured on the right. (YouTube)

"'The regime is paying millions to distort the image of the revolution. The rebels want stability, a state with a civil government. We do have an Islamic character, which we do not deny but we are no extremists or fanatics.'"