As I have mentioned previously, there are multiple people of foreign origin working in the realm of media in the insurgent-held areas of Idlib and its environs in northwest Syria. One of these people is Moussa al-Hassan, who describes himself as an independent French reporter and is of the social media outlet called Nouvelles En Direct Du Terrain ('Live News From The Field'). On 25 February 2020, I conducted an interview with Moussa regarding his assessment of the recent insurgent losses and the Turkish role, among other matters. Note that this interview was conducted in French and I have translated it, but I will also put up the interview in the original language.
Q: We have seen that the factions have lost a lot of territory recently. Why in your opinion? For example Sheikh Jowlani said that the problem is weakness in military organization. Do you agree with this analysis? Are there other reasons that explain these losses?
A: It's not recently that the rebels have been losing territory. If we go back some years before, since the start of the Astana agreements and those of Sotchi, the rebels have constantly lost territory, notably in the south of the country in the regions of Deraa, East Ghouta, Homs, the south of Hama as well as Shirq al-Sikka, and recently north Hama, south Idlib and west Aleppo. For my part I think that one of the main reasons for these losses is the application of the accords of Astana and of Sotchi. Although many factions declared their rejection of these accords, there has not however been real actions to oppose the negotiations. These accords froze certain areas of fighting and allowed the Assad regime and its allies to concentrate on aother regions, as was the case for Ghouta, Deraa and Homs, then to finishing by isolating Idlib for the final battle. The regime had therefore secured its areas in order to concentrate easily on the north. The rebels should have opened some fronts in Lattakia or in the city of Aleppo for example in the most sensitive zones, while the regime was concentrating its forces in the south. The rebels did not take advantage of these key moments to weaken the regime and try to advance on a different region. Also, it would be unfair not to mention the Russian military intervention and the policy of 'scorched earth' that the army applies to advance in the regions, because as has been said, the Assad army would never have been able to lift its head without the aid of Russia and Iran. These two states have contributed enormously and have spent millions of dollars to aid Assad against the rebels.
Some towns have been completely razed by the power of the air. It is difficult for the rebels to hold for a long duration and repel the army under some extremely violent bombardments. Nonetheless, the rebels have not innovated in their military tactics against the regime and Russia. They have been using the same tactics for several years. They have not known how to adopt an effective military strategy that can allow them to stop the offensives. Their military capabilities are largely inferior to the armies. Therefore they should have applied a guerrilla approach on several fronts instead of confronting the army directly, as is the case until today. One of the biggest causes could also be the internal conflicts and absence of a unified command. Recall that when Jaysh al-Fatah was formed in 2015, the rebels achieved some lightning advances against the troops of Assad, and all this under a unified military command. But after the conflicts between HTS and Ahrar al-Sham or Al-Zinki, it has become very difficult for the rebels to unite as was the case before. Therefore I would say that the words of Abu Muhammad al-Jowlani are not false because these difficulties at the military level have always existed in the revolution, but I think that the true problem lies in the manner in which the rebels confront events. Their policy on the ground is erroneous. The rebels have never before had an attack force as is the case today. The number of combatants is far more elevated. The factions possess a lot of financial means. The innovations of armoured vehicles as well as remote-guided drones: all this is new for the revolution. But despite that, they are unable to resist. The military and political errors of the rebels have unfortunately allowed the regime to reach the gates of Idlib.
Q: Can you describe some sufferings of the civilians in northwest Syria? To which areas are they going to flee to fighting and bombardment? Can they enter Afrin and the north Aleppo countryside without restrictions?
A: Honestly, words will never suffice to describe the suffering of the people. The Syrians have been suffering enormously for more than 9 years because they wish to live in liberty and not under the government of a criminal. Bashar al-Assad has not hesitated to exterminate his population, to destroy his country and to kill even his own soldiers to stay in power. One counts today more than a million dead and wounded, at least 10 million displaced i.e. half of the population, and more than 500,000 disappeared. The prisons are illed with civilians who have not committed any crime. It suffices to view the satellite images you will note that some entire towns have completely disappeared and have been wiped out. Bashar al-Assad has not hesitated to use chemical weapons against his people, as has been the case in Ghouta, causing more than 1500 deaths, and equally in Khan Sheikhoun, causing at least 250 deaths. No one can deny these war crimes: videos and images have been spread all over the world. Until today we also see some images of bombardment targeting civilians, killing women and children in the region of Idlib. Today, as has been for 9 years, the regime and its allies are bombarding again towns and villages to take control of the last pocket out of their hands: Idlib. More than 4 million inhabitants live there, and have no place to take refuge. One counts at least 1,200,000 displaced since the start of the offensives. The routes have become shut due to the thousands of Syrians who have fled the bombardments. A great majority of the civilians have taken refuge in the zones of Afrin, to the north and to the east of Aleppo. There is no restriction here. The town of al-Bab to the east incorporates a lot of the refugee influx. But there are also the border zones in Idlib, like Sarmada and Atma which have witnessed a great wave of refugee influx. I have borne witness to many families living under some trees in the period of rain without any aid. The people have nowhere to stay if not in some camps of improvised poverty. In these last days also, with the arrival of an ice-cold, many children have died. A family has also been found dead from cold amid some olive trees in the north of Idlib. The situation is catastrophic. The humanitarian aid does not suffice. Some days ago, some artillery strikes of Assad struck a refugee camp near the Turkish-Syrian border, the day after a media campaign calling on them to 'break the border wall' amid fear and stress. The liberated zones in Afrin and north of Aleppo will never suffice to accommodate the 4 million inhabitants of Idlib in the event that Assad's troops manage to take control of the region. If the situation continues like this, the civilians will have no other choice but to cross the Turkish border.
Q: How do you analyse the role of Turkey in these events? Are they aiding the factions in some way? Is it possible that the Turks will save the northwest?
A: Since the start of the revolution, Turkey has been an important factor for the rebels. It is the only country that has directly supported the rebellion and has accommodated more than 4 million Syrian refugees on its soil. What is happening today in the region of Idlib and its environs places Turkey before a great danger. After the accords of Sochi and the 12 Turkish observation points that were established in the region, Turkey thought it could contain and prevent the Syrian regime from taking control of Idlib through a political solution, and thus avoid a great flow of displacement towards its border, but that has not been the case. One must know that in Turkey, the situation has become difficult for the party of Erdofan after the defeat of the municipal elections in Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir, the three biggest cities of the country. The president Erdogan has expressed himself many times on this matter in saying that he was going to send the Syrians back home into a safe zone. Turkey is no longer able to accommodate other refugees. It is also one of the reasons why Turkey is seeking to establish a security zone along the Syrian border in order to assure a place of refuge for the civilians. Therefore it is clear that Turkey cannot be silent before such a situation in Idlib that derails the plans of the Turkish president in north Syria. The events in Idlib have been declared a 'national danger' by the Turkish government. The president will therefore have to use all his cards to prevent the regime and its allies from advancing. Turkey supports and will support militarily the rebels against the regime, as long as its interests will be at stake. One can find on social media some images of Turkish armoured vehicles in the hands of the rebels during an offensive against the forces of Assad in the south of Idlib. These last days also, 2 helicopters have been destroyed by some fire of MANPADs that have been supplied by Turkey. Moreover, the death of the 17 Turkish soldiers in Idlib killed by the regime reinforces the argument of Erdogan to repel and take revenge on the regime.
It may be that Turkey will be able to save the northwest if it manages to find a solution in the interest of the rebels and not in the Russian interest. We see clearly that the accords of Astana and Sotchi have not produced any result. Assad's troops have been continuing their offensives in the region for several months. No ceasefire or agreement has been respected. Turkey has demanded a retreat of the forces of Assad up to the boundary delineated by the Sotchi accord, which has been rejected by Russia. I think that today Erdogan has realized that Turkey has been duped, among others, by the accords. Therefore he has no other choice but to intervene directly in Idlib, support the rebels militarily and demand a support from the United Nations to preserve his interests. But I do not exclude the possibility of there being a new agreement between Erdogan and Putin concerning Idlib, so long as their interests will be preserved, though I do not think that this will produce a positive solution for the revolution.
Q: If they will not save the northwest, what is the solution to this crisis? For example there are some people who think that it is necessary to dissolve HTS although they bear the burden of most of the fighting. What do you think of this idea?
A: I do not think there will be a solution to this crisis if it is not through the fall of the regime o Bashar al-Assad. It has already been 9 years since Syrians have been fighting hard against the criminality of the Syrian regime. We have clearly seen the impotence of the United Nations that has literally abandoned Syrians to their own fate for 9 years. The country has been totally destroyed. Thousands of civilians have been affected by the crimes of Assad: some have lost their children, others their brothers, sisters and parents. Syrians will not stop so long as Bashar al-Assad and his government are in power. The Syrian revolution has been enduring until now, Syrians hope for the freedom of living in a secured zone far from the authority of al-Assad. Recall that thousands of people have been displaced from their towns, from Damascus, Deraa, Homs and Hama because they refused to live under the control of a regime that kills women and children. These people dream of returning to their homes, in their hometowns, but freely without Assad. The sole means of attaining that is resisting and they know it. You have a fine example with the Afghan people who managed to defeat the Soviet Union and today the Taliban who have defeated the Americans, after many years of war. Syrians have understood that and pursue their revolutions to attain their goals.
No, it is not necessary to dissolve HTS to put an end to the crisis. HTS is only a rebel faction among many others, characterized as 'jihadist' for its predecessors. HTS is no longer al-Nusra. Today also the most moderate factions supported by Turkey are characterized as 'jihadist' by certain media. For example, during the operation 'Peace Spring', the pro-SDF media characterized the fighting factions as Salafi jihadists, which is absurd. Everyone knows that the factions under the control of the Turks are only rebel groups. I think that bearing the burden of this war on the back of HTS is only a means of justifying the offensives and taking over the region. One must know that when the revolution started, there was no HTS or any jihadist faction in the country. The rebels used to control at this time more than 70% of Syria without any external help and without the presence of a jihadist faction. The Assad regime was committing the same actions as today against the civilians and rebels before the appearance of the jihadists. Also this was the case some years ago for East Ghouta and in Deraa, where the moderate rebel factions were largely dominant, but that did not prevent the regime from engaging in massive bombardment in order to take over the zone. I truly think that all these things are only some excuses to justify the attacks. Bashar al-Assad quite simply does not want to lose his power and intends to put an end to the revolution. Syrians hope for freedom while Bashar al-Assad does not want to grant them that. I therefore think that this war continue so long as the objectives of the revolution will not be attained.
Q: Do you have a message for the Ummah and the world in general?
A: What I could say is that the Muslims should not forget the Syrians. This population has been suffering enormously for years. Thousands of people have been forced to leave their homes on account of the bombardments and have been living from then on in some tents. The Muslim community must urgently come together and support their brothers and sisters in these ordeals. We have a force, we have the means of changing the state of these poor people. We have the capacities of coming to their aid and giving them back the smile. I also address the international community: we are all witness to the massacres committed by the Assad regime and the Russians against the civilians in the region of Idlib and its environs for some months. Dozens of videos show some children under the rubble and some women killed by the airstrikes. Some families have been found dead from cold while the regime massively bombards the region. Humanity no longer exists in them. These events prove to us clearly the hypocrisy of the United Nations and international laws that have no effect on war crimes committed against the Muslim civilians. Numerous states discuss Syria for their own security but do not think of the security of the Syrians against the barbarity of the regime. They are witness to this humanitarian crisis on grand scale i.e. the greatest of the 21st century. If all these organizations and these laws do not have the force to stop the crimes of Assad and save millions of people, I therefore call on the entire world apart from these organizations to support the Syrians. Support them by all means you can, on social media, by sending humanitarian aid and medical care, financially or even if only in sending some tents so they have a shelter. Support them by sharing their sufferings and condemning the actions of the Assad regime and Russia against the civilians. Syrians need you. Let us therefore act now.