Written by Diego Cupolo / Translator: Muhammad Halloum
Reyhanlı, Turkey – A clean-shaven man in a fresh-pressed shirt and spotless dress shoes is waiting outside a hospital for Syrian refugees as I walk out the door. We start talking about the civil war across the border, less than 1 km from were we stood, and he tells me:
“The presence of Islamists groups in our rebel forces could ruin our chance to end this war within the next year. They make up less than one percent of the men fighting against Bashar al-Assad, but all that seems to matter to foreign media is the fact they exist and they are beside us.”
The man introduces himself as Ahmad al-Soud, Lieutenant of the Free Syrian Army and Commander of the 13th Division based in Idlib. He was originally an officer in Assad’s army, but switched sides when regime forces bombed Idlib, his hometown, and he witnessed a high number of civilian casualties. I asked him to sit down for an interview and he agreed.
Diego Cupolo: How are Islamist groups impacting the strategy of the Free Syrian Army?
Ahmad al-Soud: Let me first say 99 percent of Syrians are against any organization that operates like Al-Qaeda. Most of our people simply want to live in a democracy like Western countries. That’s why this war began. We want peace and we want freedom. We cannot achieve this with a dictator like Assad and we certainly won’t achieve this by bringing Al-Qaeda or other extremists to power.
As I told you, the current presence of Islamist groups in Syria remains small. If the war ended today, the Syrian population would push these groups out of the country and we would move forward with a modern democratic government. The problem is this war has no foreseeable end and the longer it continues, the more power the Islamist groups will gain. They recruit more men every month.
Diego Cupolo: When did fundamentalist groups begin appearing on the battle fields? Have you personally seen their recruitment numbers rise?
Ahmad al-Soud: I can give you an example from my hometown, the city of Idlib. One year ago I did an interview with a Washington Post reporter and I told him there were three Al-Qaeda members in the city. Since then, their numbers have grown to 45 members. Still, 45 is small in a city of 125,000, but it’s a trend that will continue for the remainder of the war. By this time next year, I wouldn’t be surprised if they have 1,000 men or more.
Why? Because the Syrian people are vulnerable and will take any help they can get at this point. Russia, Iran and Hezbollah are helping Assad, but no one is helping the resistance. Al-Qaeda is smart, they’re organized and they have money and arms. They have everything rebel fighters need. Think about it. Our people have been at war for more than two years now and if someone, anyone, offers them help, of course they’re going to take it. The trick is that if you receive arms from Al-Qaeda they will make you work for their organization. That’s how the recruitment process starts.
Diego Cupolo: Where have you been getting your weapons up until this point?
Ahmad al-Soud: Many places. A mix between foreign purchases and the occasional looting of regime barracks. We receive shipments from Saudi Arabia, Libya, and especially Qatar. Anyone selling arms will sell to us. Even Bashar’s men have sold us arms. It doesn’t matter which side you’re on, it’s just for the money.
Diego Cupolo: Several countries, including the United States, are currently debating whether or not to send weapons to the Free Syrian Army. What are your thoughts on the matter?
Ahmad al-Soud: It’s like a global auction game. The US, Russia, China and Iran are placing bets to see who’s willing pay the highest price for Syria. Of course, a big shipment of anti-tank missiles would help, but world leaders keep talking and talking while our men die in the streets.
Russia and Iran have dedicated endless support to Assad’s forces. Most of our men use nothing more than Kalashnikovs. As of this moment, we have received no weapons from the United States and don’t expect to any time soon.
If the US wanted to, they could end this war with the push of a button. They can get rid of dictators whenever they want. It’s easy for them. Just look at Gaddafi. Why they haven’t done it with Assad, I don’t know. They seem to be confused over the impact our victory will have on Israel.
Diego Cupolo: What are the current and future plans for the Free Syrian Army?
Ahmad al-Soud: Rebuilding Syria will be harder than overthrowing Assad. That’s why we are currently building the foundations for our organization. We want to have a stable government structure to implement when the time arrives and we want to secure our democratic beliefs.
I, for example, was elected Lieutenant in a referendum. Members of Free Syrian Army voted for me in our first efforts to prepare for a democratic country. We are working hard to organize our leadership and to fix the mistakes of the past.
Syrians want to live just like all the people in Western countries. That is all. No Al Queda, no extremists. This is not about religion. Assad and the media focus on the religious aspects. We just want democracy and peace.