In a farmhouse in eastern Syria, a group of men sat around a teapot observing it jiggle over a pile of burning paper bills. Lacking fuel, a charming rebel leader playfully told his comrades that he would make them tea by lighting Syrian pounds under the pot, a statement that soon turned into a dare. Minutes later, the 35-year-old man proudly poured black tea for his guests in small glass cups.
Saddam al-Jamal’s friends narrate this anecdote, which they say took place a few months ago, to illustrate their commander’s humour and free spirit. Jamal headed the Allahu Akbar Brigade, which was once one of the most effective groups fighting against President Bashar al-Assad’s forces in the province of Deir Ezzor.
Its fighters operate under the loose umbrella of the Western-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA). Jamal was not only the leader of a battalion but also a top FSA commander for the whole of Syria’s eastern region.
In November, however, he announced his “repentance” for his membership in the battalion and the FSA, dubbing them “apostates”.
Wearing a brown leather jacket and a black-and-white scarf wrapped around his head, Jamal was filmed seated in front of al-Qaeda’s black flag. He addressed his fighters, urging them to also abandon the FSA. The FSA calls for “killing of our IsIamist brethrens and prevents the rule of Allah from being established on Earth”, he said in the video , released by the al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
Jamal echoed claims that the ISIL and other Islamist fighter groups have been reiterating in recent months: that the “moderate” FSA is being groomed by the West and its Arab allies to point their weapons towards “extremist” groups upon the collapse of Assad’s regime.
In the 32-minute-long recording, titled “Revealing the biggest conspiracy targeting the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant”, Jamal – who has now grown his beard – discussed at length how Arab and Western intelligence services dictated to the FSA how to fight and which battles to fight in Syria.
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“As days passed we realised that it was a project that was funded by foreign countries, especially Qatar. But in general, the whole world’s intelligence participate in the project,” he said. “The Jordanian intelligence, the Saudi, the Emirati, the Qatari and obviously the West [the Americans, the British, the French]. In the meetings of the military command and the military councils, they all attend,” he said.
Before switching sides, Jamal travelled back and forth between Syria and Turkey to receive ammunition and attend high-level meetings between the commander of the FSA, Salim Idriss, and representatives of funding states, he said in the video. Former aides to Jamal confirmed this claim to Al Jazeera.
Jamal’s participation in the meetings and his leadership of successful battles against Assad forces increased arms funders’ confidence in him. Jamal’s group was credited for seizing control of his hometown, al-Bu Kamal, from government troops in the province of Deir Ezzor.
“While he lacked any type of intellectual background, Jamal had so much courage,” said a writer and a journalist from Deir Ezzor, who spoke on condition of anonymity, citing fear for his and his family’s lives. ” Jamal ‘ s name shone and all funders wanted to give his group huge amounts of money. He grew in power and had tens of soldiers working under him. Once a simple man who worked in the smuggling of goods between al-Bu Kamal and Iraq before the uprising, his enthusiasm and good connections turned Jamal into the man of al-Bu Kamal. “
According to FSA figures provided to Al Jazeera in July, the Allahu Akbar battalion boasted more than 800 fighters.
Soon enough, accusations of corruption and misuse of funds against Jamal began to mount. “Power corrupts,” a former aide to Jamal said. “Jamal became a mini-Bashar [al-Assad] in his hometown. He surrounded himself with his brothers, created cronies around him, and his men arrested any resident who opposed him.”
Mohammad, an activist in al-Bu Kamal, said that while Jamal was initially highly respected there for his “heroic fighting” against Assad’s forces, many began to resent him. “Even his own fighters became poor and weak because he was solely distributing the money among his brothers and close friends. They operated like a gang. It’s exactly like how Bashar al-Assad made the Makhlouf family rich and the rest of the people poorer,” Mohammad said.
But Jamal’s story of wealth and power was soon to come to an end.
Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch, was determined to hold its grip over the rebel-held parts of Deir Ezzor. They were under no condition going to join forces with Jamal and his fighters, who were losing popularity on the the ground and lacked an Islamist ideology.
Groups like Jabhat al-Nusra and the ISIL accuse FSA members of being secularists who do not want an Islamist state in Syria. But In fact, most FSA fighters – including Jamal’s battalion – have no ideology at all. They often identify themselves simply as Muslims who want to topple Assad’s regime. Nonetheless, amid the growing power of Jabhat al-Nusra and the ISIL and the international community’s dwindling support for the Free Syrian Army, FSA commanders such as Jamal have reportedly been pressured to switch groups and adopt Islamist rhetoric.
The funders are well aware that - no matter how much influence they have over the FSA - they can never force fighters on the ground to take up battles we are not convinced of. Our fight is not and will never be against jihadists. It is only against Assad.
Tensions were already running high in Syria’s east between rival rebel groups. In neighbouring al-Raqqa province, clashes between the ISIL and the FSA’s Ahfad al-Rasoul (“Grandsons of the Prophet”) Brigade, of which Jamal’s brigade was part, took a deadly turn after ISIL stormed an Ahfad al-Rasoul base. “What happened between the ISIL and us in al-Raqqa had a role in increasing tensions between [Jabhat al-] Nusra and us in Deir Ezzor. They started calling us ‘Ahfad al-Shaytan’ (‘Grandson of the Devil’),” a fighter in Deir Ezzor told Al Jazeera.
A string of incidents in Deir Ezzor between Jamal’s battalion and the ISIL soon led to armed clashes, resulting in heavy losses for Jamal. Two of his brothers were kidnapped, his brother’s house was bombed, several of his fighters died and he himself narrowly escaped an assassination attempt after a man blew himself up at the headquarters Jamal had set up at a branch of the state bank.
“Besides the fact that his fighters were demoralised and demotivated as a result of the marginalisation by their leader, they were also not keen on raising arms against the jihadists. This is why Allahu Akbar Battalion lost,” Jamal’s former aide said. “In Deir Ezzor, it’s common for one fighter to be from the Allahu Akbar battalion and his brother in [Jabhat al-] Nusra. It’s a battle not worth fighting.”
Within days, Jamal surrendered to Jabhat al-Nusra and the ISIL. He had no other option, said the writer from Deir Ezzor. “It was a survival strategy for a pragmatic person with no Islamist ideology whatsoever.”
But in the video released by the ISIL, Jamal voiced his support for the Islamist fighters’ cause. “It’s an honour to come to the ISIL and show repentance,” he said in the video. “The world and FSA commanders always told us the ISIL are terrorists and takfiris [Muslims who accuse other Muslims of apostasy]. But after Allah granted me the honour of repentance, I found that all these claims are false and baseless.”
Suspicious of the FSA
Jamal’s former aide said his former boss’ statements were exactly what the ISIL wanted to hear: That the FSA is an instrument of the West set up to serve its goals. He said the claims were exaggerated, but admitted that much of what Jamal said was true. He acknowledged that intelligence agents attended FSA meetings, that Ahfad al-Rasoul is mainly funded by Qatar, and that some FSA commanders received training in Jordan.
“But what is not true is that we were ordered to fight jihadi or Islamist groups,” the aide said. “The funders are well aware that – no matter how much influence they have over the FSA – they can never force fighters on the ground to take up battles we are not convinced of. Our fight is not and will never be against jihadists. It is only against Assad.”
Members of Jabhat al-Nusra and the ISIL seem to think otherwise. Their heightened suspicion of the FSA can be traced back to an infamous meeting in Paris between FSA commanders and Western diplomats, an Ahfad al-Rasoul commander told Al Jazeera. In the meeting, which took place last September, Western diplomats expressed fears of al-Qaeda-linked groups’ presence in Syria and asked whether the FSA would fight against them if Assad were to fall. Not a single FSA official pledged to do so, according to the commander.
“It seems that the ISIL learned about this meeting and hell broke loose afterward. That cursed meeting in France was the source of all our troubles with jihadists.”
Back in al-Bu Kamal, the ISIL has now designated Jamal as a commander as a reward for turning himself in, a former comrade of Jamal told Al Jazeera. “But I am sure they themselves do not trust him. How can someone just turn into a jihadist just like that?” the fighter said.
The writer from Deir Ezzor told Al Jazeera that Jamal, who did not survive as the leader of the Allahu Akbar Brigade in al-Bu Kamal, will not survive as the leader of the ISIL in the city either. Al-Bu Kamal’s tribal loyalties trump ideology, whether Islamist or other, he said. “Just as the people of al-Bu Kamal did not accept al-Jamal as a dictator, they will not accept him as an extremist.”
Follow Basma Atassi on twitter: @Basma_