Battle for Raqqa: ‘Difficult and complicated’
Al Jazeera speaks with Ahrar Al Sham’s spokesperson about rebel infighting, the negotiations and Syria’s future.
As yet another round of negotiations on the crisis in Syria has failed, the military situation in the northern provinces has continued to evolve rapidly.
The Turkey-backed Euphrates Shield Operation in Northern Aleppo province has come to an abrupt stop after progress south and east of Al Bab towards Raqqa was blocked by an offensive southeast of the city by Syrian regime forces.
Washington has also stated that it favours allying with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) for the upcoming battle for Raqqa, the symbolic capital of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/ISIS).
These developments have come just weeks after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that the Euphrates Shield Operation will advance to ISIL-held Raqqa and SDF-held Manbij.
In the past week, the US-backed SDF gave up territory in favour of regime forces west of the city of Manbij, allowing those forces to create a buffer zone between SDF and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions, part of the Euphrates Shield Operation. US troops which, according to Washington, play a mainly advisory role in the conflict, have also moved to Manbij to prevent an FSA offensive on the city.
The territorial belt between the regime forces and the SDF will allow the latter to move resources and troops towards the Afarin canton in the west, which – until recently – was completely isolated from the rest of the SDF-controlled areas.
Ahrar al Sham, one of the most powerful Islamist armed groups in Northern Syria, which Russia in December put on its “moderate opposition groups” list, has been a key player in the latest political and military developments in Northern Syria.
Al Jazeera spoke with Ahmad Qara Ali, Ahrar Al Sham’s official spokesperson, to discuss some of these events and the armed group’s vision for the future of Syria.
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Al Jazeera: What is the situation like now in the area under the control of the Euphrates Shield Operation forces?
Ahmad Qara Ali: The Euphrates Shield Operation continues. Our view is that there is a plan for its continuation. It made a lot of gains in the region, freed the people from ISIL and established some sort of security, and people were able to return to their lives and homes now.
Maybe there are some who are convinced that to a certain extent the operation has stopped. But it is continuing. Al Bab was liberated completely and right now the situation is sort of calm. There are no battles or clashes.
In Manbij, there is progress, but I don’t know where they reached. Clashes continue to take place between Euphrates Shield forces and Syrian Democratic Forces.
Al Jazeera: There have been media reports that US forces are present in Manbij. What is your opinion on that?
Qara Ali: We haven’t confirmed the veracity of these reports. But it is well known that SDF is getting support from the international coalition led by the US. However, regarding the actual presence of US forces, I’m not sure about that exactly.
Al Jazeera: But is the possibility of US forces stopping the progress of Euphrates Shield towards Manbij, in your view, a positive or a negative development ?
Qara Ali: Of course it’s not a positive thing. The goal of the operation is to liberate the area so this barrier is hindering the liberation of the area as well as undermining the battle against ISIL.
Al Jazeera: Do you think Euphrates Shield forces will advance towards Raqqa?
Qara Ali: It is possible, but I can’t confirm that this will definitely happen. Discussions continue between all sides involved, including the international coalition and the Turks.
Even yesterday, meetings took place between the Turks, the Americans and the Russians. So discussions are ongoing on the plan for Raqqa – there’s a plan proposed by the Turks, another one by the Americans. It is still not clear at this point and I cannot confirm whether it will happen.
The Raqqa operation is very important and sensitive. It requires consideration, it requires the presence of the Free Syrian Army, the presence of local factions who know the area, and the mindset [of local people], so that no tribal, territorial and legitimacy issues occur.
But of course the Raqqa operation is very important and sensitive. It requires consideration, it requires the presence of the Free Syrian Army [FSA], the presence of local factions who know the area, and the mindset [of local people], so that no tribal, territorial and legitimacy issues occur.
The situation is very sensitive and it needs studying and planning so that it is successful. In addition to the fact that there is a big number of civilians, so we need to be careful not to have any loss of civilian lives.
It would be a difficult and complicated battle but these areas have to be liberated from ISIL.
Al Jazeera: Would Ahrar al Sham participate in the battle for Raqqa?
Qara Ali: We have presence among the Euphrates Shield forces. We participated in the battle for Al Bab. We would participate in it as well, if such an operation took place
Al Jazeera: Ahrar al Sham was part of the forces that captured Raqqa from the regime. How did you lose the city to ISIL?
Qara Ali: When ISIL appeared, the factions were not used to this type of fighting. They were not used to infighting. Fighting the enemy meant fighting the regime. ISIL appeared all of a sudden and started attacking some factions.
A lot of the fighters could not fathom that other fighters who also fought Bashar [Al Assad] would also fight them. This really affected the fighters and the factions – they were not used to raising their weapons against fellow fighters.
[ISIL’s] methods included the use of car bombs to target factions and their headquarters. This, along with the fact that the factions were still engaged in fighting the regime, affected [the situation] a lot.
ISIL was not fighting the regime. It dedicated itself to fighting these factions, to dismantling them and wiping them out. They left Idlib and West Aleppo province and focused on the eastern parts of Aleppo province and the other eastern provinces, like Raqqa and Deir al Zor.
Al Jazeera: What is your opinion of the Geneva negotiations?
Qara Ali: Until now nothing came out of those meetings. Even those attending said they weren’t seeing any clear results, any serious and effective results from these negotiations. This is not new. It happened so in previous negotiations. They come as a sort of a respite for Assad. During this time he would commit more massacres, he would kill more people, while he is protected by his allies, Russia and Iran.
There have been international media reports about the massacres and crimes committed by the Assad regime like that of Amnesty on the executions in Sednaya prison and others on the use of chemical weapons.
All of this has gone unnoticed. Even though the chemical weapons were eliminated, nothing changed. So that’s why we don’t see anything good in those negotiations for the interests of our people. There’s no real talk about political transformation, the changing of the regime or reaching any of the goals of the revolution.
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Al Jazeera: In the future, would you participate in any negotiations?
Qara Ali: As a matter of principle, Ahrar Al Sham’s position is to participate in the political process and we realise that the solution in Syria will be a political one. But we always say that this political solution has to be in the interest of the revolution and it must agree with the principles of the revolution and be in the interest and justice of the people.
If this was the case, Ahrar Al Sham doesn’t have a problem with participating in the political process, or in any negotiations leading to solutions. But what it comes down to is the essence of these negotiations – is it to the benefit of the revolution and the people or is it to the benefit of Bashar al-Assad so that he can commit more crimes and killing?
And are we just going to hear some nice words or even denials of Assad’s crimes? We find that this type of [negotiations] not useful.
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Al Jazeera: What would a post-Assad Syria look like in your view?
Qara Ali: Of course Ahrar al Sham has an Islamic identity but we consider that the majority of the Syrian people have that same identity without, of course, excluding the others. The other minority/sectarian groups also have their roots in Syria. But we are talking about the identity of the majority of the Syrian population.
Ahrar Al Sham believes in political participation and it will not be the only one that will decide on the issues of governance of this country. The big political issues will be decided by the people like the form of government which would reflect their identity, the constitution, the law.
All of this will be decided on by the people, by popular referenda, by experts in the legal, political constitutional fields. All this will be done with the participation of all revolutionary entities and factions.
Al Jazeera: So are you talking about a democracy?
Qara Ali: This will be decided by the Syrian people. I cannot right now say what term will be used to describe what the government will be like.
Al Jazeera: In what form would Islamic principles be present in such a government?
Qara Ali: The Islamic identity is present among the Syrian people. So when there is a constitution and law, this issue will be taken into account, along with all the other different facets of Syrian society. In what way this will happen will be decided by the Syrian people.
Al Jazeera: If the Syrian people chose a democratic system of government without any religious principles, would Ahrar Al Sham participate in it?
Ahrar al Sham will not confront or oppose [with force] the decisions of the people. In this case, whether Ahrar al Sham would assume the position of political opposition, or whether its activities will change and be dawa-related, ideological or political, is something I don’t know. This will be decided by the leadership when the time comes.
Al Jazeera: What do you think about the Russian intervention in Syria?
Qara Ali: It is an oppressive intervention. It is supporting a criminal regime and a dictator that has been killing the Syrian people for six years. It has killed hundreds of thousands of innocent people, of women and children. We consider it an occupying power.
Al Jazeera: There has been coordination between the Russian and Turkish governments in Syria. What do you think about that?
Qara Ali: Turkey is one of the countries supporting the Syrian revolution. It has supported us through logistics, aid and has welcomed a lot of refugees. Of course we value all of these things. However, we don’t have to necessarily agree with all its decisions.
We may have some differences over how we view some issues. They tried to reach an understanding with the Russians. Our position was that the Russians are not serious and are not honest and that they will continue to support Bashar. And this became clear.
Our position was that the Russians are not serious and are not honest and that they will continue to support Bashar.
After Astana there were no results, the ceasefire was not observed by the militias in the South, by Hezbollah and others.
They didn’t honour the ceasefire, or even listen to the Russians. Either the Russians were not serious and honest, or they didn’t have the capability to control these militias.
This also happened in Aleppo. There was an agreement with the Russians to allow the people to leave. But some Iranian and sectarian militias prevented people from leaving by shooting at them and taking them out of the cars. And Russia didn’t do anything about it.
Al Jazeera: What is the situation like in the provinces of Idlib and West Aleppo after all the infighting that happened in the past two months?
Qara Ali: Fatah al Sham attacked a number of factions. We issued a statement saying that this is not acceptable and we accepted a few factions joining us. We see that unifying is the best way to achieve victory for the revolution. So [six] factions joined us and we told Fatah al Sham that we won’t be silent about it.
After Hi’ya Tahrir al Sham was announced and their leader Hashem al Sheikh said that the attacks will stop and that disputes will be resolved through a court. After a short period, we saw that these attacks were renewed. So the movement [Ahrar al Sham] did not stay silent. It recovered all positions and checkpoints that were attacked.
There is a general view that Idlib is under the control of Tahrir al Sham and no longer under the control of the revolutionary forces, which is not accurate. Factions continue to be present on the ground. We consider ourselves part of the revolution and therefore we have protect it from attacks.
We hope in the coming days with the cessation of infighting, the military operations against the regime will resume.
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Al Jazeera: What are your relations now with Hi’ya Tahrir al Sham? Is there coordination and cooperation?
Qara Ali: The relations with them always included military coordination on the ground. But we do not agree with their methods, their way of thinking, or their project.
We hope change is indeed happening within [Tahrir al Sham], especially after the merger with the other factions.
We hope positive change is happening and that indeed they cut ties with al-Qaeda as they have said. We have insisted so much on this. We hope that positive steps are taken and the group doesn’t attack other factions any more.
In the recent past, Hi’ya Tahrir al Sham undertook attacks, and we were not silent about them. There was a response against them, clashes happened. After that, a court was called in and a committee was put together which will resolve the problems.
Al Jazeera: Syrian activists have said that recently there has been a lot of pressure on them and on journalists in Idlib and West Aleppo province. What do you say to that?
Qara Ali: I don’t know where exactly these things happened. When the attacks on the factions started, of course such things have happened. Activists may have been mistaken as members of other factions, which is perhaps why they were attacked.
This is unacceptable. But there are still activists present there who continue their activities. For example, recently a protest was organised by women in the city of Mastouma, where Tahrir al Sham attacked Ahrar al Sham.
The protest was against Tahrir al Sham and its attacks on the revolution, on other factions and Ahrar al Sham. I know a lot of activists who continue to live in Idlib and West Aleppo province and speak freely. We know that there have been problems, but we are in a revolution.
Disagreements have happened between different sides. The behaviour of Tahrir al Sham was not acceptable. They were thinking that perhaps they will unite the factions by force or by oppressing them.
So yes, during the attacks on the factions, attacks on activists happened as well. This is not acceptable. When activists face harm or pressure, there are efforts to protect them and help them.
Editor’s note: This interview was translated from Arabic and edited for length. After publication changes were made to the first sentence of the response to the 12th question for clarity.