Amid the heavy losses of the insurgency in the current round of fighting in northwest Syria (Idlib and its environs), one criticism has been made is the supposed absence of the leaders of the insurgent factions. That is, where are they and what have they been doing? Why do they not clarify to the wider masses what is going on? In this context, the leader of Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham Abu Muhammad al-Jowlani is now taking some time to explain in media interviews the current situation. What follows is a full translated transcript of an interview he did with the media activist Taher al-Omar. Some of the points Jowlani makes are identical to ones he made in his speech released on Christmas Day (e.g. the insurgency is no longer merely an issue of a popular revolution fighting a tyrannical government but confronting foreign occupiers; regional ramifications of the fight; hardship is a natural result of the tribulations God brings upon His servants to test the believers etc.). Other points worthy of note:
- Jowlani attributes the recent heavy losses to lack of military organization on the part of all the factions and lack of training of elite fighters. Even his own group is only '70%' organized.
- Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham's forces are insufficient to cover all the axes of fighting opened up during this campaign. Its forces still do most of the fighting.
- He denies Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham has seized heavy weaponry from the National Front for Liberation factions.
- Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham has not imprisoned people of the 'Free Army' factions (i.e. merely for being members of those factions). Rather all those imprisoned are involved in criminal cases and security cases (e.g. Islamic State amni operations).
- Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham has not blocked factions wishing to enter the fight from doing so.
- Russia is not, has never been and will never be a friend of the Turkish people, who have a direct stake in this battle.
- This fight is also a fight for the region's Sunnis, who risk becoming a minority if the outcome does not go in favour of the insurgency.
Below is the full interview transcript. Any parenthetical insertions in square brackets are my own.
Q: As-salam alaykum, may God greet you, our steadfast people in the liberated areas are asking about the reason for the absence of the leaders from the media amid the military campaign by the Russian and Iranian occupations against the liberated region. We had the opportunity to meet the leader of Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham [HTS] Sheikh Abu Muhammad al-Jowlani. May God greet you, sheikh.
A: May God greet you.
Q: May God greet you, sheikh. A question circulating in the revolutionary street and the liberated areas. Amid the barbaric campaign by the Russian and Iranian occupations and the retreat of the mujahideen in the liberated areas, what is the reason for the absence of the leaders from the media?
A: In the name of God, praise be to God and prayers and peace be upon the Messenger of God. It is preoccupation only, the preoccupation of all of the leaders in the operations rooms and amid their soldiers to meet the needs of the battles, and nothing more. Coming out to the media needs some protocols and devotion of some amount of time so we give precedence of time to the service of the mujahideen over coming out in the media. This is so even as we acknowledge and recognize the right of our people upon us to clarify what is happening in the field. Whenever the opportunity permits us, we will come out if God wills and speak.
Q: In the recent times we have witnessed a great retreat of the mujahideen and advance of the enemy and seizure of wide areas in the liberated region. What is the reason?
A: We must look at this matter within context. When the revolution began it spread in all the Syrian lands more or less and this was difficult for this regime to resolve the problem entirely at one time in the entirety of the Syrian lands. So when the Russians intervened and stood by this criminal regime- and likewise the Iranians- they worked upon political deceptions and they are the Astana and Sochi processes and the like and they represent freezing some of the areas and isolating other areas.
Q: Lulling some fronts to sleep and pressuring others.
A: Yes, so when they began with Astana, they began and agreed at the beginning of the matter on Sharq al-Sikka and we were fighting there alone: no one fought with us at that time except [scattered elements?- amendments welcome]. So when they finished with Sharq al-Sikka they went to Deraa, they went to East Ghouta, they went to Homs, then they returned here. So this delusion that thinks to this moment that there is a safe zone in Syria and that the Russian occupation will leave this safe zone, people must not believe this delusion. And in no area to this moment in which there is spread a type of imaginary security should they think that they will remain for so for the long term. For the Russians there is no area in Syria that is a safe zone and I mean by that the northern areas in particular. I only want to follow up with answering the first question. There are a number of factors. First, the regime now has been freed up in all the areas in Syria in which it is present and has brought all of its forces and here we are not speaking today of the regime that was present previously: we speak today of a Russian and Iranian occupation, because if the Russians and Iranians had removed their hands from this criminal regime, possibly within two weeks all the Syrian lands would have been liberated. So we are fighting an occupation, and the cause of the revolution has now transformed from a popular revolution against a despotic regime into confronting an occupation- and this occupation has very many satellites requires patience and very long endurance until we should be rid of the Russian and Iranian occupation in this land. The other thing is the weakness of organization among many of the factions present in this field: military organization, and this has had a very big role: organization of control of forces, and establishment of training of elite forces, because we are fighting the Russian occupation: we are not lacking [/weak etc.] in terms of weapons, but we are lacking in the force of faith.
Q: There is a difference in the balances of military forces
A: Balances of forces, yes. We are lacking in the force of faith and the force of willpower and the soldier trained correctly, the mujahid brother trained correctly- it is this in which we are lacking. All the military factions including HTS need more organization, and there are factions that vary in organization. There is one faction with 60% organization, 70% organization, 80% organization and there are factions with 20% organization, 10% organization in terms of control of soldiers, numbers of elite forces and the like. I am not claiming that HTS is completely organized but it is 70% organized, and this 70% is not capable of covering all the axes, especially as the regime has opened around six axes and sectors from the side of Aleppo and around five sectors from the side of southeast Idlib, so the distribution of the forces on the two fronts has led to weakness on the two fronts.
A: The other thing is that there are defensive lines at the front, then the second line, then the third line, but the first defensive lines collapsed rapidly, and the factions were not able to establish a defensive line in the face of the enemy because it did not give the opportunity in a day or two days in which one could organize these defensive lines. But now the factions- praise be to God: the level of coordination between us has been raised and we have been able to form a defensive line by the grace of God (Almighty and Exalted is He) in relief.
Q: Especially as the factions have come out from the first military campaign that was against Khan Sheikhoun and later to the second military campaign...
A: There has been no difference between the first military campaign and the second one. And this separation: there were many saying fortification and the like. It has not left any area alone from bombing even the means of fortification have not been at peace in undertaking operations of fortification on the fronts that have arisen after Khan Sheikhoun, after the fall of Khan Sheikhoun. All the factions must militarily organize in the correct way and have a united military command having control over all the soldiers and equipment present in this field and by the grace of God (Almighty and Exalted is He). And after that by the permission of God Almighty, we can repel the biggest campaign possible that can come against the liberated region.
Q: Yes. Now we quote some of the questions of the revolutionary street. Some say that the factions or HTS are not throwing all their military forces into the current battles with the enemy.
A: Dear brother, all the factions- may God reward them best- are offering what they can, but the observer who tracks on the land of the battle knows full well that HTS bears at least 75% of the battles going on in this area. And I mentioned that there are sectors: six sectors in Aleppo and five sectors approximately in the south and south-east area- the axes that are being assaulted by the Russian occupation and its militias. Approximately speaking, the Hay'a [HTS] is occupying at least 8 sectors of the original 10 sectors in the defensive resistance and the attack operations.
Q: Have the Turks really entered into the confrontation?
A: As you know, the Turks have observation points for the past year or two years. These points have been subject to attack by the evil regime and the Russian occupation, putting the Turks into a situation to respond to this occupation. But there is an issue. The Turkish people have a stake in this battle: the Turkish people have a direct stake in this battle, because the negative results of this battle will reflect on the Turkish people with very negative results in terms of economy, politics, security and even military. The Russians have never been friends of the Turkish people: over the course of history they have never been friends of the Turkish people. And they will not be in the future friends of the Turkish people. Therefore the battle in Idlib with the Russian occupation, the Turkish people have a direct, foundational and principal stake in it. And today, if the battle concludes in a positive sense for the interest of the Syrian revolution, it will reflect positively on the peoples of the region and in particular the Turkish people.
Q: Yes. Where are things heading amid the military campaign of the Russian and Iranian occupiers against the liberated areas? Are there new military plans?
A: In the beginning, we must know that we are now in a field of trial and tribulation and what struck you on the day the two armies met was by the permission of God, so that God might know the believers and know the hypocrites to whom it was said come and fight in the path of God and defend, but they said: if we knew how to fight, we would follow you [quotation from Qur'an 3:166-167]; or do you think you will enter Paradise and there has not yet come to you the likes of what came to those who passed on before you? They were touched by tribulation and hardship and they were shaken until the Messenger and those who have believed with him should say: 'When is the help of God?' Indeed the help of God is near [Qur'an 2:214]. So we must know we are in a state of trial and tribulation. The Syrian revolution has been passing for ten years through trial and tribulation. We must be patient and fear God (Almighty and Exalted is He), close our ranks and remove our hands from any attack against the factions and the level of coordination praise be to God continues to rise.
Q: Are there new military plans and new military organization?
A: There are military plans and operations rooms continuing every day once, twice or three times, but hastening targets, and we ask God (Almighty and Exalted is He) to bless our ranks and to place ease after adversity.
Q: And now questions pertaining to HTS. Some of the questions in circulation. Regarding the heavy weapons of the factions, some say that HTS has taken the heavy weapons of the factions.
A: In the recent problems, no prejudice was done to the weapons of the factions: there were problems with some of the factions affiliated with the National Front for Liberation [NFL], and we agreed at that time that these weapons should be under the defence official of the NFL itself. It was at that time under the guarantee that these weapons should not be used against us but should be used against the regime only. And when the battles began, all recovered their weapons and they have been with them and the Hay'a has not taken them at all. And they have been with the National Front [NFL], inside the National Front.
Q: Also some say there are thousands of prisoners of the Free Army in the prisons of the Hay'a.
A: Dear brother, there is not one prisoner of the factions of the Free Army in the hands of the security apparatus or judicial apparatus at all. There are in the prisons either purely criminal issues, or there are issues concerning security cases: for example the case of the Dawla organization [Islamic State] and the amni operations it carries out in the liberated region, or agents for the regime. The prisons: there is not in them a fourth rank at all except these classifications. As for what is said, give me a name of one person of the factions of the Free Army in prison. And we disavow this matter.
Q: Is the Hay'a prohibiting the entry of the factions to fight the Russian and Iranian occupations?
A: Not at all: all of the factions praise be to God and many of them have entered now, all of the factions present. And all who have desired to enter have entered and are now present in Idlib.
Q: Finally what is your message to the mujahideen on the fronts and our steadfast people and the displaced people in the liberated region?
A: By God I say this battle is the battle of the people of al-Sham: the battle of the Sunnis generally in the wider region, speaking in terms of the wider region. And in this battle a very great price has been paid. More than a million people have been martyred on this land. There is more than half of the people, approximately 12 million displaced and refugees. And there are great misfortunes that have occurred. But we are now at their end, and we ask God (Almighty and Exalted is He) after all these adversities and hardships of the scenes of displacement in this recent battle- alone approximately 1,000,000 displaced people have been displaced to the places near the borders with Turkey in this harsh cold, we ask God to aid them. We need more patience and steadfastness, because if this battle is resolved against the interest of the Sunnis, the Sunnis in this wider region will turn into one of the kinds of minorities after they have been the majority of the people of this region. Therefore we must be patient and steadfast, and the mujahideen must realize they are fighting and behind them are millions of people being harmed by their withdrawal and driven by their advance. So we must know that upon us is a great responsibility and we must offer all we can from what is precious so that God will fulfil at our hands this victory.
Q: Yes, oh God, Ameen. Sheikh Abu Muhammad al-Jowlani, leader of HTS. Sincere thanks. God greet you.
A: God greet you.