Reyhanli, Turkey – Lieutenant Colonel Ahmad al-Saoud’s wrists and ankles were bound for the two weeks that ISIL (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) held him. He was kept in a room with 12 others, interrogated regularly and provided with only one meal – soup – a day. Still, he was treated comparatively well. Other detainees were brutally tortured, he says – hung from the walls and repeatedly electrocuted on the hands, feet and torso.
Saoud heads the Free Syrian Army’s (FSA) Division 13, one of many groups opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that have been involved in a series of bloody confrontations with ISIL in recent months, a group the US and others have labelled a “terrorist organisation”. The clashes have killed at least 2,300 fighters since May 2013, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, and have left some anti-government forces in disarray.
In December, ISIL overran a Division 13 base in Kafr Nabl and seized a stockpile of weapons. Saoud arranged to meet with an intermediary the following day in Taftanaz to try to negotiate for their return. He ran into an ISIL ambush on his way to the rendezvous. The fighters there fired a warning salvo and Saoud, who was only accompanied by two of his security detail, knew he was outgunned. “They were lying in wait, then fired everything and there were far too many of them,” he says.
The FSA men were restrained and blindfolded, then taken to Binnish city where they were questioned. Saoud says their interrogators – none of whom were Syrian – suspected him of “collaboration” with the US, Turkish or Qatari intelligence agencies. “Of course”, he adds, “we denied everything”.
Disowned by al-Qaeda
ISIL, which is comprised mainly of foreign fighters and has roots in al-Qaeda’s presence in Iraq, first appeared in Syria around April 2013. It attempted to merge with al-Qaeda’s smaller Syrian franchise, Jabhat al-Nusra, soon afterwards. However, Jabhat al-Nusra leader Abu Mohammed al-Julani rejected the move, as did al-Qaeda head Ayman Mohammed Rabie al-Zawahiri, who subsequently denied any connection with ISIL.
Since then, the two groups have operated as separate factions. The predominantly Syrian Jabhat al-Nusra has maintained a closer relationship with opposition forces and has focused on attacking government troops. ISIL, meanwhile, has attempted to seize territory and implement its extreme version of Islamic law. It has frequently clashed with both Islamist and secular rebel groups as a result, and has also been blamed for the kidnapping and murder of activists and fighters, as well as members of the press and humanitarian organisations.
Saoud spoke with Al Jazeera in the Turkish town of Reyhanli, close to the Bab al-Howa border crossing into Syria. Away from the frontlines, he exchanged his usual military fatigues for a crisp shirt and indigo jeans, but he still maintained regular contact with his men via Skype.
‘I chose to take a side’
Like many other prominent figures in the FSA, Saoud once served with the Syrian armed forces. By the time he defected in March 2012, he had spent more than 20 years in the military and was a colonel with the 17th Reserve Division’s 137th Mechanised Brigade in Deir ez-Zor. His decision to abscond was made after witnessing abuses committed by the army, including shelling of residential areas and raping civilians. “I saw oppression and crimes being committed by the regular army against unarmed civilians,” he says. “They are the people of my country, and I chose to take the side of the people.”
He defected with 27 other soldiers and immediately travelled with his family to the area surrounding his birthplace of Ma’arat al-Nu’man. There, he formed a brigade called Liwa Ibad al-Rahman, which, he says, grew to be 1,000 strong and helped liberate his hometown in late 2012. The brigade was officially incorporated into the FSA the following year, forming Division 13. It now has at least 1,800 men – “ready to fight anywhere, at any time” – split into 10 companies and another 200 in support roles. It continues to operate in Ma’arat al-Nu’man as well as elsewhere in Idlib governorate. Much of its funding, according to a spokesperson for the FSA’s Supreme Military Council, comes from Saudi Arabia.
There was mutual distrust and antipathy between Division 13 and ISIL from their first encounter, Saoud says, and clashes quickly ensued. These escalated, he explains, when some of his men went to Qatar for training and came back “well-trained and with a huge amount of weapons and ammunition”. ISIL leaders were immediately suspicious. “They considered it to have come from the US and to have been supplied to be used against them,” he says. ISIL began a series of attacks on Division 13’s headquarters and bases as a result, culminating in the Kafr Nabl incident.
Saoud and his men were moved again on the night of their capture, this time to nearby Killi, where they spent the rest of their detainment. There, he says, they were held with 10 others, including Turkish journalist Bunyamin Aygun. Their captors were almost exclusively foreign and included Tunisians, Saudis, Algerians, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, two Egyptians, an Iraqi and a Chechen, Saoud recollects.
After two weeks, activists staged mass protests on the streets of Ma’arat al-Nu’man to demand Saoud’s release. Meanwhile, Division 13 prepared to launch dual assaults on ISIL bases. The three men were quickly released and escorted back to their comrades by two senior ISIL fighters.
for the last few months and avoiding fighting the regime.”]
Division 13 attacked and captured the ISIL position shortly afterwards, liberating almost all of the prisoners. ISIL, however, killed one as they retreated, Souad says.
He adds that his brigade continues to clash with ISIL: “We are trying to secure our country in order to save our people from any extremists who humiliate or persecute them.”
Others joined the offensive. A coalition of rebel forces, including the FSA and the Islamic Front – an alliance of Islamist factions who wish to establish an Islamic state in Syria – launched assaults against ISIL in January, capturing bases and displacing them from their territory. Dozens of ISIL members were reportedly killed or captured.
ISIL fought back, targeting the leadership and headquarters of other opposition groups. Earlier this month, more than 40 rebels were killed in suicide bombings blamed on the group, including Adnan Bakour, head of the Islamic Front’s Liwa al-Tawhid brigade, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. A senior Suqour al-Sham commander, Abu Hussein al-Dik, was reportedly killed in a separate ambush in Hama.
Saoud regards dealing with ISIL as a priority, describing the group as one of the biggest dangers to the Syrian uprising – the progress of which they have essentially halted. “We can now say that the revolution has stopped because of ISIL,” he says. “We have been fighting them for the last few months and avoiding fighting the regime.”