Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zinki was a Syrian rebel group based in west Aleppo countryside that was first formed towards the end of 2011. It was finally dissolved last year after being routed by Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (of which Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zinki had once been a part). With the defeat of the group, Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham seized the group's strongholds, resources and weapons. More broadly, the defeat of the group allowed Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham to cement even further its domination over the insurgent-held northwest of Syria based around Idlib and its environs.
To learn more about the history of Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zinki, I interviewed Sheikh Tawfiq Shihab al-Din, who led the movement from its inception until its dissolution. This interview was conducted on 4 January 2020. Any parenthetical insertions in square brackets are my own.
Q: Can you firstly talk a little about the establishment of Nour al-Din al-Zinki Movement? The area, who was the foundation of the movement and can you talk a little about your origins and what you were doing before the revolution and these matters.
A: The movement: in the beginning as you may know, peaceful demonstrations set out in Syria, in a gradual sense, and also we came out in west Aleppo countryside and in Aleppo city in peaceful demonstrations against this regime. The aim of the people was to bring down this regime because it had become emblematic of Taghut, not believing in freedom of the person or democracy, but rather it had become emblematic of a sect or group that had gained authority over the Syrian people. This volcano blew up as you saw: it started out in Deraa, and when this volcano exploded, the response began with violence against the peaceful demonstrations. Also we came out in Aleppo to help our brothers in all the regions of Syria peacefully but the regime compelled the people to bear arms through targeting the peaceful demonstrations with gunfire, and it began arresting the demonstrators and began liquidating them. And this matter has become witnessed and known to all people. And upon this we were compelled to bear arms to defend ourselves as revolutionaries. We began in a random, unorganized sense. Here we began organizing in the form of institutions and well-organized sense of course in west Aleppo countryside in which I lived and set out from: it is my birthplace, a village called Qubtan al-Jabal in a farm called al-Sheikh Suleiman affiliated with the village of Qubtan al-Jabal. I was born in 1973, I studied at the primary and preparatory level in Aleppo province, Aleppo city. And from there I moved to my very simple village. I worked in agriculture and rearing livestock before the revolution.
When we began bearing arms and organizing ourselves, the movement began the military stage at the end of the eleventh month at the end of 2011. At the end of 2011, we began to bear arms, train on arms, and train the revolutionaries on arms and the contingents and organize in a good sense. Of course some of the areas became independent of the regime. The regime was spread between all the countryside areas and the provinces. When we began to bear arms, we began become independent in some of the areas in some of the villages in that the regime could not enter them and we began organizing in a good sense. And at the time, Liwa al-Tawheed was formed for all of Aleppo city led by Abd al-Aziz Salama and the military commander was the martyr Abd al-Qadir Saleh (God have mercy on him). I was a deputy for Salama at the time. And in the gradual sense, the revolution became armed, and military work became of the urgent necessities upon us, so the first battles for the movement were in the locality of Anadan, and also Regiment 111 in the al-Sheikh Suleiman area in the west Aleppo countryside. And then the Huwar battle on 20 and 21 June 2012. And then we set out towards the city of Aleppo. We entered Aleppo at the beginning of the seventh month- the first and second of the seventh month of 2012. We entered Aleppo city. Of course the movement was affiliated with Liwa al-Tawheed: a part of Liwa al-Tawheed. It entered the Salah al-Din area and al-Sukkari. And Liwa al-Tawheed remained inside the Sha'ar area, Masakin Hanano, and the northeastern area of Aleppo. On date 6 and 7, the Aleppo battle began. The regime entered with very big convoys into the Aleppo battle. These battles were very intense battles. They were under my leadership from the side of the revolutionaries and the regime under its leadership from the other side in Aleppo city. In this battle there were around 35 martyrs from us in the movement affiliated with Liwa al-Tawheed at the time and 85 wounded.
Of course the movement continued and it became necessary for it to be part of Aleppo city and organize, and it began to become organized in Aleppo city also. The movement through its revolutionary course relied on institutional work and believing in institutional work and wanting to achieve something of this kind. And by virtue of the expended efforts from all the people and the competencies that worked in the movement at all its levels and institutions, there arose a model that could not be found in all of the Syrian revolution. And this model became a good example that could be pointed out by all the people and even the states knew of these institutions that were developed by the presence of the movement and for which the movement worked whether at the educational level, the military level, services level, civilian or the local councils, and at all the medical and relief levels, and civilian aspect: all the levels. The movement was a precedent-setter in this issue, and was every advanced in this level of institutions.
Its establishment was from the villages present in west Aleppo countryside: Anjara, Qubtan al-Jabal, Darat al-Izza, Taqad, Ibzimo, Huwwar, Bashantara, Ma'arat al-Artiq, Babis, Kafr Da'el, Khan al-Assal, al-Mansoura, Kafr Naha, al-Huta, Bashqatin, Awaijel, al-Jina and Basratoun. These areas were the beginning of the establishment of the movement. Since the beginning I mean. It relied on these areas, and then it began to expand gradually.
Q: Can you also talk a little about the political aims of the movement? For example, establishing a moderate Islamic state? What was the political aim of the movement?
A: As for the political aim: we did not desire any except the removal of the regime and its repressive security branches. We had no political aim except that. All that all of us have hoped for is that we should be a hand for the states in helping us to remove the head of the regime and removing its intelligence apparatus repression and founding a democratic state bringing free, honourable and impartial elections, with no role in it for repressive authority, the intelligence apparatuses and the like.
Q: In which battles or campaigns did the movement participate and what was the number of martyrs in total? From the beginning of the movement until the problems with Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham.
A: The movement has 1550 martyrs since its beginning until the date its exit from the region in which there was the problem with Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham. Of course every martyr is registered: who he is, when and in which battle he was martyred. And they had monthly recompenses going to their families from this time until the date of the battle with Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham and Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham's seizure of control of the capabilities of the movement, and so the movement was not able to offer anything to the family of the martyr.
As for the battles, they are very numerous: perhaps I will recall some of them now and others I will not. We participated in the liberation of Regiment 111. The battle was in a number of stages. The first and second stage did not succeed in liberating Regiment 111. And it participated in the liberation of the Bab al-Hawa border crossing, the town of Atarib, and also resisting the [regime] army in Khan al-Assal, the battle of Huwwar, also the battle of al-Buhuth al-'Ilmiya, al-Rashideen al-Janubiya, al-Sahafiyeen, al-Rashideen al-Shamaliya, Shwahneh, the battles of Anadan, and also there is a battle in al-Ra'i, and also in the battle of al-Sheikh Aqil that is considered one of the most important battles in which the movement resisted the army and the Iranian and Afghan militias. Also the movement participated in battles in south Aleppo countryside in Khanaser, al-Eis, and also the battles in al-Sheikh al-Sa'id, and also in Aleppo in Salah al-Din, the battle of Salah al-Din that occurred in the seventh month of 2012. It also participated in the Aleppo airport Brigade 80. There are many battles perhaps I do not remember some of them and forget them, and others I mention briefly and quickly. Also the movement was a forerunner in fighting terrorism in Da'esh and also when Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham committed transgression, there were a number of battles, one of which lasted 67 days and a battle of 11 days. The movement participated in many battles, some of which I may forget.
Q: Why did the movement receive support from the Americans and on what basis was this support? Why was this support cut off later?
A: As for the support for the movement from the Americans, there was the MOM operations room in Turkey, in which ten states participated, among them the Americans, the Turks, the Qataris, the Saudis, the Jordanians, the French, and the Germans I think. And also there were the Italians: a number of states participating in this room. And this room was supporting all of the factions of the Free Army, or most of the factions of the Free Army, and the movement was part of these factions and the support was not cut off except when the support was cut off for all the factions and the MOM was closed and there remained no direct support for the factions of the Free Army. So on this there remained no individual or group support.
Q: There are many accusations that the movement committed human rights violations, torture, prisons. Can you respond to these accusations? Do you acknowledge that some of the members committed mistakes? Of course also a lot of the people were saying the movement is extremist because of the incident of the beheading of the young man in Aleppo. Can you respond to these words and can you say what happened regarding the crime?
A: As for the accusations that were directed at the movement, as you know, the regime has strong media apparatuses, so always any accusations it could try to direct at the Free Army, not in particular for the movement, but rather in general for all of the factions. And it was bombing sometimes the areas in which there were civilians and hospitals present and the like and direct the accusations at the factions, whether the movement or others. As for issues of torture and the like, it has never been proven that the movement was involved in the likes of these issues. And it never happened as well: it never happened at all, with the likes of these claims that it commits torture in the prisons or the like. Even the prisons: there were no special prisons for the movement. But rather they were prisons of the Supreme Judicial Council formed through the Coalition and the Interim Government. And all the prisoners were handed to this judiciary directly, and the movement was not responsible for this judiciary, but rather the Coalition and Interim Government were responsible.
As for the issue of this young man you mentioned in Aleppo city in which the movement was accused of being extremist. We responded directly to this issue that this contingent [which was responsible for the beheading of the young man] entered with the movement at that time present in the areas of Aleppo city. And it happened that this person who did this deed- a brother of his was killed in the battle that he waged on the same day. And this young man was taken prisoner and he was killed by this member. And we handed over this member to the united judicial committee affiliated with the Supreme Judiciary and he was held to account. And we mentioned this issue and responded to it: that the movement disavows the likes of these deeds, and is not pleased at all- neither the policy nor the leadership of the movement- with the likes of this conduct. The movement is not extremist, but rather the movement is open. We arrested many prisoners- among them Christians and of other madhhabs- and we released them without anything in exchange. But rather we wanted to tell them to tell their families and the society behind them to not let the regime involve them into entering into a sectarian war: we do not want a sectarian war in Syria, but rather we want a war against the person of the regime itself. We want a war against this corrupt oppressive regime that had gained control over the necks of Syrians and killed around a million of them, not to mention the prisoners, destruction of the country and the like.
Q: Why did the movement join Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham and why did it separate from Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham? And why in the end was the movement defeated at the hands of Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham? What are the reasons for this defeat?
A: When the movement entered with Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham or when Jabhat al-Nusra formed Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham, Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham wanted to destroy the factions of the Free Army entirely, when it struck Jaysh al-Mujahideen. We met with the Ahrar al-Sham movement and we wanted to form a united body- we and the Ahrar al-Sham movement- so that we might resist Jabhat al-Nusra, or Jabhat Fatah al-Sham as it was at the time. At the time the movement was unable to resist the transgression intended by Fatah al-Sham against the factions. So Ahrar al-Sham rejected the formation of this body and that we should stand in the face of Fatah al-Sham for the lack of ability for us to stand before Fatah al-Sham. So we said: if you do not want us to be united and stand in the face of Fatah al-Sham come let us form a united body and enter with this body and maybe we could help each other to dissolve this faction that is Jabhat al-Nusra or Jabhat Fatah al-Sham. And also this matter Ahrar al-Sham was not content with, so at the time we and Fatah al-Sham entered into Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham but we had a foundational condition that it should not fight the factions and should not strike any member of the Free Army. Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham or Fatah al-Sham agreed when we entered into Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham not to strike the factions ever. But when we formed this body and set out in it, after a period of around seven months, it suggested that it wished to strike the Ahrar al-Sham faction. On this, we rejected this matter and we said: if you want to attack Ahrar al-Sham, we will leave this body for we do not accept that there should be any infighting or that we should strike any Free Army faction. According to this, Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham insisted on striking Ahrar al-Sham and at the time we left and we formed separation forces and we wanted to intervene to prevent Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham from striking Ahrar al-Sham but most regrettably the factions at the time that entered with us in order to separate this issue did not comply with us in what was agreed upon and we were not able to separate Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham in its transgression against Ahrar al-Sham.
As for why Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham managed to strike the movement and expel it from its places, this matter, as you may know: the movement lost around 140 or 150 martyrs in its fighting with Tahrir al-Sham, a battle that lasted for 11 days, and a battle that lasted for 67 days, and finally a battle that lasted for a week and the movement left. Not a house remained in the western countryside without losing a martyr, whether it was with the terrorist Da'esh or Tahrir al-Sham. So these families have become wrecked with Da'esh and Fatah al-Sham, and there are also martyrs with the regime. So not one house has remained empty of martyrs. So there is not ability, but continuation in fighting the likes of this organization: [it is a matter of] the will of the states in removing or destroying this organization. Also we did not see aid from the factions of the Free Army in the last battle, most regrettably. We did not see compliance with standing with us in order to destroy Fatah al-Sham. Therefore, the movement decided to leave with the least losses from its areas after a siege that continued for seven days.
Q: And currently what is the state of the movement? Was it dissolved? Also there is talk that some of the members of the movement joined what is called Faylaq al-Majd in the Syrian National Army. Is this true or not?
A: After the movement left its areas, and all its resources and arms were seized, the movement was dissolved and a part of it joined Faylaq al-Majd. It is a small number: around 700 fighters. And there are also those who went to some of the factions, and also there is the greatest number that went to civil work and have not worked with another faction. This is what happened.