As fighting rages in Syria, a commander of Syria’s rebel fighters has told Al Jazeera that the Free Syrian Army is splitting into factions. Colonel Riad al-Assad spoke about the situation in Syria with Al Jazeera’s Anita McNaught on October 8.
Anita McNaught: What do you think of the gains that the Free Army has made on the ground in this past week? Are they sustainable?
Riad al-Assad: After setting up the FSA, we decided we should make the military work straightforward, and make it correct… Now we’ve captured some areas and we want to create a buffer zone but we see the international community doesn’t help Syrians. We put a plan together, and last week there were special operations. We made gains on the ground and now we are on the outskirts of Jisr al Shughour. There are other plans for Idlib, Azmarin [and others] We are now controlling a lot of blocks [formely] belonging to the regime and we are following this plan.
AM: What strategic errors has the FSA made in the past?
RA: There were no mistakes – there were obstacles. We suffered a lot from these obstacles. Because of the lack of weapons, we’ve been cut off from the people – even from Syrians. Those who isolated us, they considered themselves to be the ones who are in charge in this revolution. They tried to cut off the weapons supply. Everyone tried to take weapons for their own side.
On creating a buffer zone
AM:: Why does it matter to capture villages around Jisr Al Shughour? Why is this important?
RA: For some of the Syrian/Turkish border crossings – Tal Abyat, Bab al Hawa, Bab al Salami – we want to push forward to this area, because Jisr Al Shughour is near the border. Even Harem – now we are working on it.
All of this is to make a buffer zone. We will make it happen, regardless of whether the international community helps us or not. And it will include Jebel Akhrad and Jebel Turkman, which are near the Syrian coast. Because there are a lot of places that have been liberated. And we have another strategic military reason… in the next few days you’ll see results, especially concerning Aleppo.
AM: How close are you, do you think, to creating a safe area along the Turkish border for the Syrian people?
RA: It is not far off. It’s close. But now we can’t announce a buffer zone because there are aircraft and we can’t stop them flying.
AM: Is it close or not?
RA: It is very close. Now we are taking advantage of the winter and the rain, because their aircraft can’t fly in these conditions. It will help us make a buffer zone.
“We had hoped the Turkish government would take a bigger step and help us, especially with weapons and arming us. So we could move forward and end the battle fast”
– Riad al-Assad
AM: Do you think that the Turkish role is changing now? After the shelling in Akcakale when Turkey got so angry, do you think that Turkey is giving more help to the opposition fighters?
RA: We hope so. We thank Turkey for their humanitarian assistance. [But] we had hoped the Turkish government would take a bigger step and help us, especially with weapons, so we could move forward and end the battle fast. Every day there are more casualties and more destruction of our cities – it’s costing us a lot.
AM: My question was, after Akcakale, after the shelling by the Syrian army on the Turkish side, they sent more weapons to the border, including more anti-aircraft weapons. Is this helping you? Is this keeping the Syrian airforce planes away from you?
RA: I wish that the Syrian planes wouldn’t get close, but we don’t see anything serious from Turkish side. Even after the Turkish troops got close to the border, the regime’s air craft bombed Salkin and Azmarin which are close to the borders.
AM: I thought the Turkish army was keeping the Syrian airforce away?
RA: It’s the business of Turkey – I can’t answer that question.
AM: Do you think the Syrian army is afraid of the Turkish Army?
RA: The regime army is terrified, even by the rebels. Its spirits are at rock bottom. And the biggest evidence is from the last two days.. they just ran away, so we liberated more than three districts very fast.. Now they are trying to drag Turkey into the war to give Iran a reason to interfere. That’s what we think…
AM: So you think Turkey is smart to stay out of things?
RA: Until now, Turkey has managed to avoid this. There have been a lot of violations by the regime’s army against Turkish territory. It’s not the first time. It’s ongoing… We predict that Turkey will maintain its smart position, and not do anything…
AM: I think the major Western powers were rather hoping Turkey would do something on its own?
RA: Turkey is a member of NATO. I expect if America wants to do any thing, it would put Turkey in front, with America working from behind.
And neither America nor Europe want Turkey to be a strong country in Middle East.
AM: Why have you come here [into Syria] at this moment? Why did you decide to come inside today, or this week?
RA: There were some obstacles preventing me from entering Syria that I can’t mention now…The revolution must be put back on the right track. We are making a new plan for the military revolution. So we took the decision to be on the ground and see the reality for ourselves. And change how things are going, to make the regime fall.
From the moment I arrived here, very good operations have been carried out… Some people – even Syrian people – try to put obstacles in the face of FSA. The fighters are aware of this. And this was what I had to change. We think the revolution is on the right track now… it’s on the right track.
On splits in the FSA
AM: I know you’ve been doing a lot of work on trying to unify the command. How is that work going?
RA: From the beginning when we established the Free Syrian Army, our goal was to unify the fighters. It has a great name and we kept working on it – we did a really good job… Until recent months, when some people appeared and tried to hijack the revolution or use it… We really don’t know what their aim was.
So they accused us, and tried to cut off all our support from the outside, but thank god they couldn’t cut it… We are calling for unity. We are the ones who want unity. If anybody wants unity, it’s the Free Syrian Army.
We wish the others all the best. But the Syrian people are aware of what’s going on. They know who are the honest ones and they know who’s trying to turn things to his advantage…
AM: How are relations with Mustafa al-Sheikh [a former Syrian army General who defected] these days? Are you together or apart?
RA: There is no dispute, just differences of opinion. We are always trying to unify everyone, ideally. We’re on good terms with everybody. We are working, co-operating with everybody regardless of who they are.
AM: Is it a marriage or a divorce? Are you marrying or divorcing?
RA: No no no. We are together. You know the situation on the ground. We are working with each other.. there is total co-ordination between us.
AM: Who has the more support?M ustafa al-Sheikh or you, among the fighters and the people who supply the money and the weapons?
RA: I don’t know. As far as we’re concerned we haven’t had enough weapons supplies for four months. Four months…! You can’t even call it support.
AM: What about the entry of [Salafi preacher] Sheikh Adnan al-Arour back into Syria [from Saudi Arabia]? How do you feel about this religious leader who has been so instrumental in frightening the Alawites and creating lines of fear and sectarian tension?
RA: I can’t answer this question. al-Arour should answer it.
AM: It strikes me that one of the goals of the Free Syria Army is to have a revolution for all Syrians and you have Christian fighters, Druze fighters.. I just wondered if you found al-Arour appearing at this moment helpful, or unhelpful?
RA: We can’t answer this question .. we just can’t.
AM: What is your feeling
RA: My feeling is that the Syrian people be as they were in the 1950s & 60s. A community that respected everybody. We are all one, We didn’t discriminate on the basis of religion. It didn’t matter if you were Christian or Muslim or Alawite. We should build a government on these principles.
We don’t want to see anyone suffer injustice. We want a democratic state, with the leader elected by all the people, and who is capable of leading. Whoever he might be.
“The battle in Aleppo is costing us a lot – It was the wrong decision by the people who took it. “
– Colonel Riad al-Assad
AM: Let’s talk about the fighting in Aleppo, because I was in Aleppo several times in August. was in Rief Halep and Halep Medina. The fighting is terrible – the city is being destroyed. Between opposition fighters and the Syrian army, the city is losing. How long can this go on? There won’t be an Aleppo at the end of this, if this fighting continues.
RA: From the beginning, we weren’t happy about involving Aleppo in the fight. Unfortunately… There are things we can’t talk about now, but time will reveal them. The battle in Aleppo is costing us a lot – It was the wrong decision by the people who took it. We are trying to change the military operation in Aleppo, and trying to finish it as soon as possible, to stop bleeding and destruction… We wish that Aleppo hadn’t been involved in this battle. And I will try with the brigades that I lead, to finish the battle in Aleppo fast.
On the FSA’s leadership
AM: It underscores a deeper problem, doesn’t it? This Aleppo situation shows that there isn’t just one leadership of the Free Army. They made you the face on the stamp, the face on the bank note, but actually on the ground, what could you do?
RA: I was handling it all on my own at first. It was called the FSA, and I was the leader of FSA. Everything was clear. Then those new councils appeared, and that’s what made us fall apart. This caused a mess in the military operations. It was better four months ago.
Except over the last 15 days. Now the revolution is going better, because we put it on the right track. This is correct.
Because of the new councils appearing, it gave an impression that there was no leader of the revolution. We want all of us to be united, all of us, under any name. Those who are being killed – they are our sisters and brothers.
AM: No-one could reach you in Apaydin Camp. The soldiers could not reach you, the media like me could not reach you. You were remote, far away… When I talked to fighters inside Syria they said: Riad al Assad – he means nothing to us. Your isolation damaged you as a leader terribly.
RA: I’m sure not all of the fighters said that. I told you in the beginning we had continuous contact with them. The brigades came and saw me. But in the last period – yes. People were forbidden from even visiting me.
And there is daily communication on Skype, on cell phones. But the new councils that appeared… People’s loyalty changed because of the weapons supplies. We don’t communicate with people who are loyal to the other councils.
There is a shortfall in weapons supplies. So if we don’t have them, there is nothing to offer them. So we don’t communicate with them, because we can’t offer them support.
On foreign fighters
AM: Do you share the same concerns as Europe and America – that if weapons come into Syria now there is a danger that they could fall into the hands of extremists and then end up anywhere, endangering future security of the region?
RA: Sure… We talked about this from the start. I talked with America, Europe, and the media that they needed to support the leadership of the FSA… If there is no support for the FSA, which was organising the fighting in Syria, new groups would appear and the work will fall apart, because then we wouldn’t be able to control what was happening on the ground… And that’s where we are now. That’s what happened. New groups appeared. Many countries are afraid of these groups, and we are as well…
AM: So what do Europe and America need to do? Tell me, because this will tell them. Do they need to act, or still hold back? What needs to be done for Syria?
RA: The train hasn’t left yet. If support is directed properly to the FSA, we can manage to control the situation, and organise the work fast. We can do it.
On the future
AM: Are you talking directly to Qatar, to Saudi Arabia, to America, to Europe? Do they have direct lines of communication to you? Do they listen to you? Do they ask for your advice?
RA: No, there are no direct contacts with them. No-one responds to us. Unfortunately. We warned them a lot, we spoke to them a lot. The responsibility for this destruction and the killing of the Syrian people lies with the international community, especially the ones who claimed that they were helping Syrian people, who said they offered help when they didn’t. They will be responsible also for what happens in the future… The mess is because they didn’t unify our support. We can’t talk about this… We are just in pain.
AM: How do you see the next few weeks and months developing? Do you have a picture of what’s happening now? Do you have a picture of how things are going?
RA: We have decided to carry out a battle of liberation. In the next few days you will see operations that please the Syrian people, and will shock the world that has been standing against us.
On Bashar al-Assad
AM: There are people who say Bashar could survive, who say it’s possible that in some form he will hang on. Maybe not wholly onto power, but partly. Is this possible?
RA: Bashar is finished. We emphasise that. It’s just a matter of time.
Even his forces are really in a desperate situation. The biggest evidence for this, is the number soldiers and officers who have run away in the last couple of days.
The regime is collapsing, it’s just a matter of time.