Readers will recall my long study of the case of the 'reconciliation' in the north Deraa town of al-Sanamayn. In brief, the reconciliation- agreed at the end of 2016- officially brings back the entire town under regime control, but has broadly allowed the armed factions inside the town to continue to exist and resolve criminal matters and disputes among themselves without regime interference. This autonomy model is considered by the regime as a model for the broader south of Syria, and similar deals have already been struck in other north Deraa localities like Ghabaghib and more recently Mahajja.
In al-Sanamayn, the reconciliation led to the release from prison of one Abu Zaher al-Labad (Barhum al-Labad), whose name indicates that he is from one of the main clans of al-Sanamayn. He leads a controversial faction within the town called Katibat Maghawir al-Haq, which came to wider attention at the end of March 2017 and is said to be close to the regime's military intelligence. Following the publication of my study on al-Sanamayn, Barhum al-Labad reached out to me, wishing to give his side of the story on certain matters. Thus I have decided to publish this interview I did with him as a companion follow-up, as I did not have the chance to speak to him for the original article. Indeed, I see no reason not to give him the opportunity to speak out for the sake of fairness and interest to the readers.
(NB: Interview has been slightly edited for clarity and was conducted remotely over a period of multiple days this month. Explanatory notes within the interview in square brackets).
Barhum: As-salam alaykum. Abu Zaher is with you. Dear brother, I read your report about the town of al-Sanamayn: in it are some sufficient truths but also some distortion sufficient according to what has been transmitted to you by people who perhaps want to strengthen the cover for themselves [i.e. want to downplay their own misconduct], and in it are names of factions that only exist on paper, and in it are events transmitted to you only according to the opinion of whosoever transmitted them. To cut a long story short, not everything written in the article is true. Thanks.
Aymenn: Wa alaykum as-salam. Yes, go ahead. If possible we can do a full interview in order to correct the article.
Barhum: Go ahead. But some questions, I have reservations over them, because I am under threat from certain sides.
Aymenn: Yes. Firstly when was the battalion [Katibat Maghawir al-Haq] formed exactly and what was the reason for the formation?
Barhum: Let me tell you some things from before the time of the formation of this battalion. And we will return to the reason for the formation of this battalion. Firstly I was the first leader of Katibat Shuhada' al-Sanamayn: al-Saydali, Abd al-Latif al-Haimid, Maher al-Labad and Yasin al-Atmeh and others besides them from the leaders of the factions were all working with me and under my command. I am the one who brought together this entire group of people on the basis that they are revolutionaries, and they were revolutionaries. But regrettably I was arrested and then there was dispersal [i.e. splitting of the ranks]. And no one can denounce these words, even al-Saydali, and if you have a connection with Maher, ask him as well.
Aymenn: By God, I thought Abu Fadi al-Saydali was leader of Katibat Shuhada' al-Sanamayn from the beginning. But you were in prison at the end of 2012 right?
Barhum: Katibat Shuhada' al-Sanamayn was formed at the beginning of 2012 and was operating on the ground until I was arrested at the end of the year.
Aymenn: And after your imprisonment Abu Fadi al-Saydali became leader of the battalion? Also can you describe to me the nature of the battalion's operations in the first days?
Barhum: The battalion's operations were limited only to harassing the checkpoints and small clashes on the basis of the battalion's force and coming together on the basis of the small support offered to it from specific parties. And I was looking for someone to replace me in the event that I was killed or arrested, until I found Yasin al-Atmeh- Abu Hamam- and he was my right hand man and after a while I was arrested and remained for 6 months in the security branches and then I was transferred to the central Damascus prison (Adhra). And I heard from those who visited me that the battalion had dispersed and how al-Saydali had come to head his family group for himself and his star shone like others. Also Abd al-Latif al-Haimid was with me in the prison and I testified to his innocence before the judge and he left 6 months after our arrest: he and two others. And I heard about the killing of Abd al-Latif al-Haimid, and the thefts, and extorting of the wealth of the people and gangs under the moniker Jaysh Hur [FSA]. Thus I took it upon myself that should God release me from prison, I should work to cleanse the land from every thief and sower of corruption in it.
Aymenn: I see. I heard that Abu Fadi al-Saydali's behaviour is criminal.
Barhum: No, not criminal in the literal sense, but his work is for himself as a private entity in which he has support from those around him, but if we say why he and his group act with haughtiness, it is not only he, but all the factions present in al-Sanamayn, especially after the support and financing ended.
Aymenn: So Katibat Maghawir al-Haq was formed to combat criminal behaviour? Can you also tell me who are the main factions in al-Sanamayn today?
Barhum: There are some factions connected with brigades outside al-Sanamayn and others independent and factions organized inside al-Sanamayn:
1. Mujahideen of al-Sanamayn led by Shadi al-Jum'a.
2. Maghawit al-Haq, under my leadership.
3. Liwa Shuhada' al-Sanamayn, a faction inside al-Sanamayn led by Abu Ghazi al-Nasar.
4. Sha'alat al-Thawra led by Abu Hadid.
5. Ummat al-Tawheed led by Tha'ir al-Abbas.
6. Revolutionaries of al-Sanamayn, led by Khalil Hosni al-Labad.
As for Abu Fadi al-Saydali, he leads a group of those close to him, but I don't know its name. And some of the other small factions. These are the factions inside al-Sanamayn. As for outside al-Sanamayn:
1. Liwa Fajr al-Tahrir: under Maher al-Labad's leadership.
2. Liwa Sha'alat al-Thawra: under Yahya Rifa'i's leadership.
3. Liwa Shuhada' al-Sanamyn: under Fawzi al-Nasar's leadership.
4. Suqur al-Sanamayn under captain Nidal al-Atmeh's leadership.
These last four factions operate outside al-Sanamayn. The aforementioned factions have not dealt in theft in the literal sense, but some of the small armed factions are the ones that have been sowing corruption in al-Sanamayn. On this basis, Katibat Maghawir al-Haq was formed, and most of its members are from the al-Shatar family (الشتار and not الشطار) and the al-Labad family and it also has members from the al-Razouq, Ghaziya, al-Nasar, al-Falah, al-Faruh, al-Atmeh, al-Jayduri and other clans of al-Sanamayn. It is a battalion to protect al-Sanamayn and the people of al-Sanamayn from those who disrupt its security, and it has encountered hostility from some of the people who have felt that their turn would come. But it has also found acceptance and support from some of the factions who have an interest in al-Sanamayn being secure, among them al-Saydali, Tha'ir al-Abbas and some of the leaders also even if only in word. And it has found support from most of the civilians in the locality, though with shyness in some respect. The battalion is not affiliated with any side, but rather only for al-Sanamayn.
Aymenn: Thanks brother for the clarifications. Is there cooperation between the factions and the military intelligence [amn askari] under Wathiq Nasar?
Barhum: Not cooperation in the sense of cooperation but rather specific agreements not to obstruct the state sectors and military personnel, even though the contrary sometimes happens.
Aymenn: Can you tell me the story of the clashes between you and another group around a month and half ago approximately [end of March 2017 as mentioned in the preface]?
Barhum: After the renown of the battalion in waging war on the thieves and corrupt ones spread, it became the sanctuary of all who want protection from these scoundrels. And I carried out more than one operation for no recompense despite the fact that it was offered to me. A clothes shop owner called on me so I went to him and he told me: "There is a young man who came to me and said, 'You will pay a million [Syrian] pounds. Otherwise, you will be kidnapped and then five million pounds will be paid for you to be released if you refuse.'" So I said to him, "Give me the characteristics of that young man." He gave me his features but it did not lead me to him. So I said, "I will bring a youth from me on the basis that he works with you in the shop and when he comes at midday as I tell him, he will connect with me." So indeed I brought the youth and told him the objective and informed him about this thief. After two hours, the youth from the shop got in touch with me and told me that the thieving young man has come and is threatening the shop owner and that his name is Fahad Dhiyab [appears to be same person as Nadim Dhiyab], from a group of ill renown devoted to kidnapping, stealing, thievery and highwayman-ship.
So I sent him three guys: Abu Abdo al-Shatar, Muhammad al-Fawzi and Ahmad al-Shabat to the aforementioned shop and they demanded that he leave and leave the man alone with the knowledge that the shop owner is not from the people of al-Sanamayn and I did not previously know him. Fahad uttered repugnant words against the three guys, resulting in a quarrel without physical brawl, and he got out fleeing from the shop, but they chased him to the outside and there were three armed guys waiting for him on the outside, and my men were surprised at them as they aimed their weapons at their faces and an exchange of gunfire happened, some of it in the air, and Fahad was wounded with a splinter from a round on the ground,but it was very light. And the guys returned to me and informed me of the story. They also told me that Fahad Dhiyab's group was preparing itself to attack the al-Labad neighbourhood. So I got in touch with some of the guys from them [Fahad's group] and told them: "You are supporting a thief and this is a burden, so let the issue be resolved without weapons." The response was: "We are coming to commit a massacre." So I said to them, "Come, I am waiting."
After around half an hour, the attack was carried out on us, and I gave an order to my men not to open fire and hide from their bullets. The gunfire lasted for around an hour and they were not apparent to us, and we were not apparent to them. After this we heard a call in the mosque for the gunfire to stop, because there is a young man who has been killed and we did not know about the matter originally. And we heard after that there is a young man killed by gunfire, and another wounded. And the two were wounded from behind, but we denied that the young man who had been killed was from my group.
And there were threats from them [Fahad's group], and two days later, a group of them headed to the market and opened fire on a young man from the Labad family working in a mobile phones repair shop, and he was wounded in three spots, and he was transferred to the hospital. His name is Ahad Kamal al-Labad, Abu Eisa.
At this point I decided to assault the al-Dhiyab quarter, and I would have done this had not the locality's notables intervened and these senior people promised me: "The matter will be resolved peacefully and you will get your due." There are still negotiations until now and I do not see a result in them and God knows what will happen after two days if there is no root solution [NB: these remarks were made on 22 May].
Aymenn: There was a meeting of some of the factions around a month ago and there was an agreement to form a joint security force. Until now there is no such force on the ground? Also can you tell me a little about your life before the uprising [/revolution] (for example where you studied and what was your work before the uprising)?
Barhum: It was decided to form this force by placing personnel from all the factions to protect the market and main streets in al-Sanamayn, as though I had opened their eyes to things that they were unseen to them, or [they agreed to this matter] to restrict or freeze the battalion's work. But all this is talk without implementation.
I was born in 1966. I studied till 9th grade and I worked in as an external transport driver (refrigeration) and before the uprising I was the owner of a truck and exportation office. I am married with five children and seven grand-children, and I was imprisoned for 4.5 years. I do not know what to say after this. I am a very ordinary person, I do not like wrongdoing or the food of forbidden conduct or oppression.