Part 2: Bilal Abdul Kareem – Foreign fighters, rebel disunity and ISIS
n part 2 of this exclusive interview with journalist Bilal Abdul Kareem who spent two years in war-torn Syria, Dilly Hussain finds out how ordinary Syrians responded to foreign fighters, the role of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) in the rebel infighting, and the future of Syria and the Arab world.
DH: Why do you think so many foreign fighters have left for Syria to fight jihad in comparison to other conflicts that have or are currently taking place in the Muslim world?
BAK: Syria or “Sham” as it’s better known as has a special place in Islam. Additionally, it is a conflict that is easy to access through neighbouring countries.
DH: How do ordinary Syrians and rebels feel about foreign fighters joining the war against Assad? Are foreign fighters actually helping or just fuelling the flames of war?
BAK: Initially Syrians loved and welcomed foreign fighters. Many of the foreign fighters settled down and married Syrian women. This is how close the bonds was between the Syrians and the foreign fighters. They ate on one table and drank from the same cup. The regime was not in a position to resist. This union between foreign and domestic fighters was very potent and the results speak for itself. The encounters where much of the territory was taken from the regime demonstrated that foreigners were the fiercest amongst all the fighters. This takes nothing away from the Syrians mind you, but by all accounts the foreigners were the ones who were eager to liberate the country from Assad as much as the Syrians and were very willing to die while trying. Jabhat al-Nusra housed many but not all foreigners. Jabhat al-Nusra was the “darling” of the Syrian revolution much more so than the FSA could have hoped to be.
ISIS fighters in Syria
Then ISIS happened. They split from Jabhat al-Nusra after a fall out between Abu Muhammad Al Jawlani and Abu Bakr Baghdadi. They would claim territory that they as a group didn’t liberate and claim it as their own. Of course the local Syrians remember that it was other groups that cleared the area of regime forces and grumbled about it.
Many ISIS members do not see the majority of Syrians as Muslims and therefore they began to treat them as second class citizens. I am not saying ISIS as an entire group is people of takfir but many of them are, not due to malicious behavior but due to a lack of Islamic knowledge. This caused major friction between ISIS and the Syrians in general including Syrian rebel groups. ISIS consisting of nearly all foreigners were perceived as occupiers rather than liberators in territories they controlled.
ISIS began a series of kidnappings and assassinations of other group’s commanders such as Dr Hussein Sulayman of Ahrar Al-Sham and returned his badly tortured body to them. They also executed Jabhat al-Nusra’s commander, Al Hadhrami after kidnapping him. This began to turn public opinion against foreign fighters which was unfortunate. All foreign fighters had to pay the price because of ISIS’ actions. This hurt the revolution very badly and it has been backtracking ever since.
DH: Tell us about some of the rebel groups you came in contact with:
Free Syrian Army (FSA)
BAK: Many don’t realise that a large group of those who fight under the FSA banner want Islamic governance as well. Some do want democracy but many don’t. Many of them didn’t join Islamic groups for a range of reasons. However I do not agree with those who paint a complete picture of FSA as devoted supporters of democracy.
According to Bilal, many within the Free Syrian Army (FSA) also desire an Islamic government if Assad was to fall.
BAK: This group did something that no other group was capable of doing at that time. They unified the largest rebel groups and made them into a federation and a powerful fighting force. This group is looking to establish an Islamic government too but is using more “user-friendly” tactics than ISIS as they seem to have a better understanding as to what works and what doesn’t. Abu Essa, Hassan Abboud, and others within the movement may have started a model of unification that might show significant results in the future.
BAK: Jabhat al-Nusra is predominantly Syrian with a minority of foreign fighters. They are an Al-Qaeda affiliate but they do not appear to have a global jihad outlook. They seem very focused on the Syrian conflict. Their leader, Abu Muhammad Al Jawlani has been very successful with keeping his fighters focused on Syria. Their fighters were feared throughout Syria, and then came the split and many fighters and weapons were lost to ISIS. They are currently planning to establish an Islamic Emirate in the Syrian territories, which is different to a caliphate. We will have to wait and see if that will be successful or not.
BAK: This was previously answered and re-answered in a later question.
Syrian National Council/Coalition (SNC)
BAK: It’s not even whether they are perceived to be Western agents or not but no one actually talks about them inside Syria. They are sometimes mentioned when there’s big conferences in Turkey or Geneva, however outside of that I rarely hear anyone talk about them. The SNC power base inside Syria is virtually non-existent. Others are trying to groom them into a role of leadership and power in the Syrian territories, however that experiment hasn’t born fruit as of yet.
DH: What role has Islamic political parties like the Muslim Brotherhood and Hizb ut-Tahrir played in terms of political guidance and direction to the fighters?
BAK: They too are not very influential. Hizb ut-Tahrir has a presence in some areas of Syria but their influence is not significant.
DH: Besides Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS, would you say ordinary Syrian Muslims want Khilafah governed by Shariah?
BAK: Ordinary Syrians are of two types: Type one sees that an Islamic system is one that will give them an alternative to the system of governance that oppressed them for decades and they support that. Type two actually doesn’t care one way or the other. They just want the conflict to end and to return home.
DH: From what you’ve seen and heard, have ordinary Syrian Sunnis welcomed Al Qaeda or do they tolerate them out of fear?
Jabhat al-Nusra consists mainly of Syrians.
BAK: As I mentioned earlier, Syrians love Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamic Front. While al-Nusra is Al Qaeda, Islamic Front isn’t but Syrians seem to love them both. They get along very well and fight alongside one another effectively. So the Syrian people don’t look at things in the same context as westerners do in the “Al Qaeda is always bad” paradigm. However, it is clear that Syrians have a hatred for ISIS. Even if ISIS came to govern an area, the people of that area do not feel safe. Safe from ordinary crime? Yes. Safe from the authorities (ISIS)? No. Thus they don’t feel that their lives have improved under ISIS’ governance.
DH: How close did the rebels come to toppling Assad?
BAK: It is difficult to tell as I could not see the entire playing field while inside the country. However, in early 2013 I felt the fall of the regime was imminent. Then the ISIS split happened and that changed things dramatically.
DH: How much has the rebel infighting affected the Syrian revolution and the march to Damascus?
BAK: It was a disaster. ISIS concentrates its forces on fighting the other Mujahideen. There are virtually no fronts with regime forces that ISIS participates in. So the other Mujahideen forces are forced to fight both the regime and ISIS. This has spread thin the resources of the resistance. The Islamic Front, Jabhat al-Nusra and the FSA amongst others seem to be united against ISIS.
DH: Who’s to blame for the infighting? The split between al-Nusra and ISIS, Al Qaeda or solely ISIS?
BAK: It is difficult to see all rebel forces on one side of the divide in relative unison and ISIS alone on the other side and not feel something is wrong. The coalition of Mujahideen forces has one major problem with ISIS (among other issues) and that is their refusal to have an independent Islamic judiciary to settle their disputes. ISIS believes that they are a state and thus have no reason to go anywhere to settle their issues outside of their group. The other Islamic fighters feel that the foundation they are fighting for is to make Islam the judge in all affairs and the best way to do that is for an independent council of scholars to settle the disputes. They feel they have been left with no alternative but to fight ISIS. There lies the stalemate. I think many of the fighters feel that Al Qaeda’s main leadership needed to do more to rein in their rogue commander in Abu Bakr Baghdadi as well.
DH: What implications does ISIS’ declaration of Khilafah have on the Syrian revolution and the Muslim world in general?
BAK: Its declaration has had some impact on the ground in Syria as its galvanized their fighters who are taking on the coalition of Mujahideen. Other groups who are resisting them seem to be adapting and continuing their resistance. Hassan Abboud, one of the leaders of the Islamic Front said that they are “continuing their struggle to save the Syrian people from all forms of oppression whether it is from the regime or from Baghdadi’s group”.
Jabhat al-Nusra came out with a statement few days a go stating that: “We are determined to unify ranks to face the dangers which threaten the jihadi front (in Sham), whether these threats are from the Nusayri regime or from the group of Khawarij and extremists.” Of courses this is a thinly veiled condemnation of ISIS. I think the other groups see the potential threat that ISIS poses to them and they are trying to increase cooperation in ways they never did in the past.
DH: Do you believe it’s a Khilafah?
BAK: My personal view is that this declaration of “Khilafah” is an insult to the Muslims of Syria, Iraq, and around the world. The global Ummah is not a puny or ignorant people. It is full of intellectuals, doctors, historians, scholars, you name it and those people are willing to help build a unified Khilafah.
Abu Bakr al Baghdadi
How Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and those with him thought he would go from complete obscurity to leading this calibre of people without so much as even telling them who he was in advance and what his program was is beyond me. If he thought people would accept him as an unknown figure then that would mean by default that they would accept anyone who made that claim. He is unknown even to members of his own group. No one even knew what he looked like up until two weeks ago.
I think if he truly respected the people he wants to govern, he would have had more respect for their intellect. The Khalifah’s job is to look after the interests and affairs of the Ummah, which can be done in an infinitely better capacity if those being governed willingly accept you and thus they would lend to you their undying support even through difficult times. Is Baghdadi that naive to think that everyone was going to simply rally to his side? This is my opinion.
DH: Have you ever visited or stayed in ar-Raqqa or any areas under ISIS control?
BAK: I’ve been in many areas under their control but never Raqqa. ISIS areas are territories where the people are not in harmony with them. They may or may not be able to do anything about them, depending on the area, but I do not know of areas outside their control wherein the people are asking for their presence.
ISIS is not friendly to those who have dissenting ideas. I am constantly threatened by them simply because I don’t subscribe to their claim to the caliphate and thus many of them don’t recognise me as a Muslim anymore and have called for my execution. This is how Syrians are treated by them as well. How can this style of governance prevail and bring benefit to an already oppressed-weary people?
DH: Could Assad have resisted the rebel onslaught without the assistance of Hezbollah, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Shia fighters from Iraq?
BAK: No I don’t believe he could have. An interesting note is how the news media appears to be up in arms about the presence of “foreign jihadists” in Syria. Yet that concern is 95% directed to foreign fighters of the resbels. Very few media reports allude to the dangers of the presence of foreign fighters from the regime’s side. Am I saying that this is all the part of one big conspiracy? No, I’m not. However, I am merely stating the obvious. Other people who are smarter than me will have to figure out why that is.
DH: What’s your view on the sectarian discourse that has emerged from the Syrian war, which has spilled over to neighbouring Lebanon and Iraq?
BAK: That is the real issue. A sectarian war between Sunni and Shia is a Pandora’s box. Those who stoked those tensions don’t realise what they are playing with and the carnage it will lead to. I hope things don’t reach the point of no return if it hasn’t reached that point already.
Syrian president Bashar al Assad
DH: From your analysis, who is currently winning the war in Syria, the rebels or Assad?
BAK: No one. The rebels have lost considerable ground since the emergence of ISIS both militarily and politically. So I cannot say that they are winning the war. They have been holding up under turmoil but we cannot say they are winning.
Assad isn’t winning because the country is now teeming with weapons and hatred for him and his regime. The Syrian people are no longer governable were he to stay in power. There would be a high intensity insurgency for many years to come as the rebels have the support of the people.
DH: Is a rebel victory still possible? Or is the only way forward a ceasefire and a political solution?
BAK: What I am going to say is not going to be popular but I think it is real. Many people think that there is no military solution to this conflict. I disagree. I believe that no matter what solutions are put forward as long as the regime stays in power there will be no peace. In addition, the regime will not step down nor will its Russian and Iranian backers allow it to step down even if it wanted to. Therefore the only solution that I see at this time is for the rebels to put aside any issues that they have, as they seem to be doing, and to complete the victory they started. I don’t see any level of peace for the Syrian people other than this. I wish I didn’t feel this way but I do.
DH: Where do you see the future of the Middle East and the Muslim world in light of the Arab Spring, the Syrian war, Iraq descending into sectarian conflict, turmoil in Egypt, and the announcement of a Caliphate by ISIS? Who are the real winners and losers?
BAK: The Middle East is going through a transitional phase right now and that is an understatement. It requires mature leadership from religious figures to stem the tide of endless war on the horizon. I say religious figures because people must understand that the Middle East is home to many religious people. Politicians are trying to sideline religion and push for secular solutions. This has proven to be an abysmal failure. So it really is up to the people of religion to step up now, show mature leadership and reach out across divides like they’ve never done before.
DH: Will you be returning to Syria?
BAK: Yes I will. I’m currently working on a daily news brief to keep people updated on the situation on the ground in Syria. Mainstream news has not been balanced enough to allow people around the world to make well informed decisions. We would like to change that and hope 5Pillarz can be a part of the project insh’Allah.
You can follow Bilal Abdul Kareem on Twitter @BilalKareem and Dilly Hussain @DillyHussain88