Of the various muhajireen (i.e. foreigners who have come to the territories held by the insurgent groups in Syria), Bilal Abdul Kareem- an American convert to Islam- stands out as perhaps the most well-known working in the realm of media, running an outlet called On the Ground News that provides live coverage of events in northwest Syria (Idlib and its environs), interviews with a variety of people in that region, and general social media updates from other parts of Syria and the world.
Bilal's high profile status has of course attracted some controversy. Some object to the idea of giving him a voice to talk about what is happening on the ground because he is not Syrian; others attack him in particular as a supposed 'al-Qaeda propagandist' or 'propagandist' for Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham.
I reject these criticisms. Bilal is on the ground and I believe it is fair to give him a platform to speak just as I have done for other muhajireen on the ground who work in media, military or clerical functions (see for example my interview with Sheikh Abu al-Yaqdhan al-Masri). As for the claim Bilal is a 'propagandist' for al-Qaeda or Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham, these words are also inaccurate and reflect a lack of thorough review of his output. As Bilal and I both agreed in a conversation prior to this interview, working in the media realm means talking to and interviewing, if one can, people whose viewpoints one may not agree with or dislike. Thus, while Bilal has his own clear perspective on events (i.e. he is supportive of the armed fight against the Syrian government and believes it is a cause of the Ummah- the global Muslim community), that is not the same as being a 'propagandist' for a particular faction. I should add that Bilal noted to me that he has read much of my work, and does not necessarily agree with some or much of my analysis of events in Syria. For my own part, I found Bilal to be polite and engaging: far preferable to a lot of the social media noise created by distant observers who have not been on the ground.
As usual, I like to conduct interviews in the form of raw questions and answers rather than publishing select excerpts. Below is the interview I conducted with Bilal on 13 February 2020.
Q: So my first question is how do you assess the military situation in Idlib? For what reasons a lot of towns and villages have fallen to the Syrian government and its allies especially along the M5 highway? I mean for example some people complain and say: well, there are a lack of fighters on the frontlines and many of the villages have not been well defended and there was of digging of trenches despite a campaign claiming to do so and there was a lack of adequate preparation for this particular phase of the campaign. Are those criticisms fair? Or is it fair to say for example it's just that the rebel forces are too thinly spread out. So it seems to me for example there is fierce fighting on the west Aleppo front but along Idlib lines it's there they yielded ground more easily.
A: All right my assessment of the situation is militarily of course we are suffering a lot, and it's for all of the reasons of which you made mention. We really have to look at the reality of the situation and the reality is that rebel forces just did not prepare. Period. We can't add anything to it: no sugar, no spice. They just didn't deliver. They did the people an injustice and I think that the people really to sit back and try to figure out: okay, this is what happened. The main powers that be didn't deliver. What do we need to do to make sure that this doesn't happen again? Because it can't happen again. The people will not survive if it happens again. People are thinking that this is just a matter of taking or retaking territory. This is not the case. You have hundreds of thousands of people fleeing in the cold inadequately dressed having no idea where they are going because they are fleeing for their lives. They're not necessarily just fleeing the conflict zones. They're fleeing to live under Bashar al-Assad again because everybody knows what happens when a territory falls under the hand of the regime. So at the end of the day rebel forces- the main power-broker- didn't get it done and everybody needs to figure out what needs to happen so that this doesn't reoccur.
Q: Could you talk in summarized form about some of the humanitarian impacts you've witnessed of this campaign and the IDP flows? Are many people going for example to the Afrin and north Aleppo countryside areas where there's more Turkish influence and you have those National Army factions?
A: The humanitarian situation is as I made mention of earlier. You're talking about hundreds of thousands around 650,000-700,000 refugees have been displaced over the last two to two and a half months. Syria has never seen numbers like this. When you couple that along with the harsh weather that we're looking at, I'm recording this right now while it's snowing outside and that's rare here in Syria. Some of them are trying to go to the Afrin areas but they're at maximum capacity just like the ones that are here. I mean the vacant housing is taken, totally taken. Me myself I had 16 people living in my house. So the humanitarian situation is one that if you thought it was bad before, it's even worse now because you have people who are dying in the cold and it's snowing outside and you have people who are living in an abandoned bus. So the situation is as bad as I have ever seen it.
Q: What do you observe in terms of Turkish responses to this campaign? It definitely seems like they have deployed a lot more troops inside Idlib. But have they actually responded in any way? What have they actually done in response? Have they fired at Syrian army positions? Have they launched any airstrikes as they claim? What is the nature of the Turkish response? Also have some of the rebels from north Aleppo countryside and these areas and east of Euphrates come over into Idlib and Aleppo to join the fight in Idlib and west Aleppo countryside? What about claims Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham blocked fighters from those factions from entering?
A: Well as you know, Turkish forces are operating in these territories and they have been present here for a long time but they have not been operating. They brought in a tremendous amount of military hardware- tanks, armored personnel carriers and things of this nature. The shooting down of the helicopter just a couple of days ago is something these territories haven't seen for quite some time. And it's no coincidence the Turks were quite active in that area: they are probably the ones who shot it down. So they're here now and we are seeing a lot more activity from them. The question, the issue is: will it continue? Will all of a sudden there be a new deal in place with the Russians? Every single deal that has been made has always been to the detriment of rebel forces and the Syrian people. Now I am not saying that the Turks don't mean well, I'm just saying that the Syrian people have not benefited from any of these new deals whatsoever. So I think that's what's on people's minds now. Are the Turks really here to help us? Or are they here to strengthen their bargaining positions with Russia? Or is there another scenario that people are looking at? In addition to that, as everybody knows, that a lot of the fighters who were in the Euphrates Shield operation have come over here. Some people are saying that they came over because they wanted to fight. Others are saying that Turkey transferred them, but whether it was the first or the second, it had to happen with Turkey's permission, and that's exactly what happened. They allowed them to come over because they are the ones at the end of the day that are supporting those soldiers. And once again they're here now, and they are on the frontlines and they are fighting, so we'll just have to see what kind of commitment all these elements actually have. And the second part of your question: do I believe Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham brought them over? I don't think that Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham really has the authority to either bring them or stop them from coming. So I think they were more or less a bystander in this. You know, I am sure whether they liked it or didn't like it is another issue. I don't think they had the authority to say they can come or they can't come.
Q: Do you foresee Turkey escalating its response even further and perhaps going into an all-out offensive to try to push the regime and Russia back to the pre-Sochi lines? Or do you think Turkey's interests with Russia will prevent that kind of outcome? Or do you think Russia will perhaps counter-escalate? Or are we really all just speculating here?
A: I don't believe that we're going to see a scenario where we see Turkish forces squaring off against Russian forces. I don't foresee that. I think that Turkey is very concerned along with the Russians. Now a lot of people have been talking about Turkey not wanting to anger Russia. But I think it's a bit of a two way street here. We have to understand that the pipeline that has been built that goes from Russia to Turkey where Turkey would distribute Russian gas to 15 million homes inside Turkey and Eastern Europe. This would be a big cash cow for the Russians as well: their economy is not doing the best right now. It's not as bad as it was. But it's not the best right now, and I believe they are counting on that money. At the same time, Turkey is also counting on ways in which they can strengthen their economy and to be able to do that to the tune of billions of dollars a year and to do that would be a real home run for Erdogan and the Turkish government. Now after having said all of that, do I believe that they're now going to go all out against the Russians? I don't believe that, and I don't think they actually have to do that. I think what they're doing on the ground right now which is backing the rebels with heavy artillery, avoiding the Russians which is not all that difficult to do because most of the Russians are in the plains or giving advice you don't find large contingents of Russian battalions fighting on the ground. So I do think that they are able to avoid you know any direct confrontation with Russia. And it's within both countries' interests for there not to be. Not just the Turks. I don't see that they will directly confront one another nor do I think that they have to. Do I believe Turkey will work hard to push Assad forces back behind the observation posts? I'd like to believe that they will. I'd like to believe that. But you'll have to ask me in a couple of weeks if we see a sustained engaged Turkish military then we can begin to talk about things like that. Right now I think that's very very premature.
Q: I've seen some people announcing initiatives for forming independent groups and factions. For example Sheikh Abd al-Razzaq al-Mahdi has formed this new group called Liwa Tahrir al-Asra wa al-Asirat- Brigade to Free the Prisoners and Female Prisoners. Is it fair to say that there's disillusionment with the conventional factions, a lot of popular disillusionment, and a lot of people have been refraining from the fighting because they are disillusioned with the factions?
A: Sure, there are people on the ground who are forming new groups, new organizations so that they can face off against the enemy in I guess you would say a more unified fashion. There are a lot of people- which is normal, which is natural- that are disillusioned with the main power-broker here in Syria and in other places. It's always going to be that way. And what has a tendency to happen is that as that main group- for example, Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham- continues to grow, those people who are disillusioned with their direction have a tendency to stay at home. And when there's a lack of new groups being formed, that also leads to a situation where a lot of the talent that was on the battlefields before is at home. So what I see right now are new groups being formed again: I think that this as a good thing, because it's not necessarily an indictment against Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham, but it says that there's a place for those people who don't want to fight under the banner of Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham. There's a place for them. And I think that this theatre of war, this jihad needs to have facilitation of any and everyone who wants to get out there and face off against Bashar al-Assad.
Q: Realistically speaking what do you see as the best outcome now for the rebels and the people living in Idlib?
A: In terms of what I see as the best outcome, it really has to go back to the Syrian people. They're going to have to figure out: okay, are we going in the direction we intended to go some years ago? If the answer is yes, well then carry on with what you are doing. If you're not going in the direction that was going to bring the most benefit for the Syrian people, then it's upon them to say: we want to make changes here, we want to make changes there. We want this to go differently, we want that to go differently. I think for them to just simply accept things the way that they are is a decision in and of itself. They have to become engaged and they have to say: no we don't want this anymore, we do want that, let's do this differently, let's keep that the way that it is. Anything short of that- and that means all of the power-brokers around these free territories have got to have a say, they've got to raise their voice and they've got to make demands that are going to basically stem the tide of the way things are going. If we are looking at this situation now from a bird-eye's point of view, if the same tactics which are being used now were used five or six years, maybe or maybe not they would be successful. But the reality is that the playing field has changed, the tactics have to change, the structure of the way things are being done has to change. So I think that the Syrians really need to look at that and they're going to have to make a decision, like my mother used to say, pretty damn quick!
Q: Also could you talk a little about public services and the impact of the rise of the price of the dollar on things like electricity, water, prices of goods? From your own personal experiences, what are the impacts for example?
A: Well as everybody knows, the Caesar Act, the Caesar Law passed by the U.S. administration was designed to weaken the economy, to weaken the hand of Bashar al-Assad in Damascus. Well up until this time, we haven't really seen that, while we have seen the depreciation of the Syrian lira to the dollar, a lot of what's been affected I have to say has been directed towards the average Syrian people. The price of bread is very expensive, the prices of diesel- which is important because not only does it fuel cars but it's also one of the main fuels that people use to heat their homes-and there a lot of Syrian homes that are going cold because the prices at this time right now are more than triple the cost that it was just one year ago. Just one year ago, a liter of diesel was 250 Syrian lira, now it's 820 Syrian lira. And bear in mind that the average Syrian doesn't have an income that is based on the dollar. They only have Syrian lira. So what they were able to buy maybe just a month or so ago they're not able to buy that now. Couple that along with the harsh weather, the sub-zero temperatures, the hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people, and you've got yourself a real mess. Will the Caesar Act do what it was designed to do which is to weaken Assad? I think in and of itself, by itself, we're not going to see that effect. If the U.S. administration decided to take other diplomatic measures, then maybe we might see in concert with the Caesar Act, we might see a weakening of the regime. But so far we haven't.