Readers may remember that I interviewed the leader of the Hermon Regiment back in late 2017. The Hermon Regiment was a local holding force set up in the context of a 'reconciliation' agreement with the Syrian government in the Jabal al-Sheikh (Mount Hermon) area in Damascus countryside. The Hermon Regiment included many former rebels in its ranks and various promises were made. The regiment continued to exist as the last rebel-held pockets of the Beit Jann area returned to Syrian government control at the turn of 2018.
However, in a remarkable twist, the 'reconciliation' agreement was basically torn up, and the leader of the Hermon Regiment ended up becoming a wanted man and has now fled to Turkey. Today, the Hermon Regiment has been effectively dissolved and has no real presence on the ground. Speaking from Turkey, the man who led the Hermon Regiment- known by the nickname of 'Khattab'- told me the story of betrayal in an interview conducted on 1 July 2020. I have also conducted this interview to correct misconceptions about him and the group he led, such as the idea of a supposed close relationship with Hezbollah.
The interview is slightly edited and condensed for clarity. Any parenthetical insertions in square brackets are my own.
Q: First can you talk more about your original role in the reconciliation in the Jabal al-Sheikh area?
A: Originally I undertook the reconciliation for a number of reasons, the most important of which and at the head of them out of fear that our areas would come in the hand of the Hezb [Hezbollah]. Brother the far and near know that I directly and indirectly was the reason for the reconciliations of Jabal al-Sheikh and I had the most prominent role in convincing the fighters of that matter. Of course I had my aims and convictions particular to this matter. I am not of those sympathetic to the ruling regime but at the same time I am not of those sympathetic to lack of a regime and a state of chaos. And I waged much war in the past years in opinion, consultation and advice- I mean the days of the revolution: I saw at the time chaos in decisions, self-imposition, and frivolity. And this was contrary to the program of the revolution.
I tried to change what I could, and when the means were lacking and the pressure, helplessness and fear increased on the civilians- and they were my preoccupation, my ever concern and my weak side, it was inevitable to reconcile in looking for a little organisation and much security and safety within a clear and systematic vision I had placed for myself and conveyed to the military commanders besides me who reconciled with me. At the head of that was not to relinquish the arms even if light ones at least and I got that in the beginning. Also the idea was not to join this bloody war alongside any side at all and from which we flee from the outset. My task was to protect my borders and the honour of my beloved Syria in right and deed from the Zionist enemy that neighbours our tajammu' ['gathering'/community] and had a clear intention to incorporate our areas.
Q: Yes, and at the same time you wanted to prevent Hezbollah from seizing the area?
A: Of course, for Hezbollah was aiming to occupy these villages on the pretext of cleansing them and making them training camps for it like south Lebanon, and a number of leaders of the leaders of the Hezb at the time attempted to win over my loyalty and my regiment to them after the reconciliation.
Q: Yes. Can you talk about the formation of the [Hermon] regiment, its connections, the conditions of service and the promises from the parties?
A: I obtained the acceptance of my conditions entirely: the weapons' remaining in the hands of the fighters, the formation of a regiment including all the fighters from all the villages and under my leadership, affiliated financially with the al-Bustan Association, and administratively with the Military Intelligence Branch, and in thought with my clear and decisive program. I made a number of military points for the regiment and checkpoints surrounding the tajammu' entirely, in coordination with the Military Security Sa'sa' branch [i.e. a division of the Military Intelligence in the Jabal al-Sheikh area].
I played the role of the mediator between the army and the revolutionaries in order for me to receive the most important military point in the area, and it is al-Zhughur al-Aswad. And it was under my supervision by the mutual agreement of the two sides, until Jabhat al-Nusra betrayed the agreement, and occupied one of the points, so the army received al-Zhuhr al-Aswad from me, preceded by a strong warning from me to the commander of the Seventh Division and the Brigadier general Ali Mahmoud the commander of the forces of Maher al-Assad, that al-Zhuhr al-Aswad is a very big and rugged area and it is not possible to control it, but I did not find attentive ears and there were many of the officers at the time.
I handed them the points for their responsibility, and freed myself of the responsibility, and I warned them that the revolutionaries would not relinquish these points, and indeed on the same day there was a huge attack on the army in its new points. Of course I as [leader of Hermon] regiment was not present by request of the army. 70 military personnel lost their lives because of this matter, and these strategic hills fell in the hands of the revolutionaries.
Q: This was before the campaign on Beit Jann?
A: Of course. And naturally officers in these capacities and positions were under direct responsibility and to escape from the responsibility, they referred the matter against me and that I betrayed them and they submitted reports to the head of the [Military Intelligence] Branch, Maher, and the highest commands. The head of the Branch at the time was Muhammad Mahalla. Note I met with them all and warned them of the consequences of this matter, such that I put in place for them a plan by my military expertise and my knowledge of the land: had they implemented the plan, they would have been able to protect these hills, but they did not take it up and put in place their own laughable military plans, and the result was what it was. And they put the burden of the matter upon me to absolve themselves of responsibility. Of course I went to the head of the Branch and explained to him the matter but the head of the Sa'sa' branch [for Military Security] at the time was of the Zahr al-Din family and had another opinion, of course the reason for that being he wanted to break the force of the regiment present in the area that exceeded the force of his branch. And he knew that that would not be accomplished except by putting an end to me personally. This is approximately everything in summary.
Q: So in the end what was your role and the role of the regiment in recovering Beit Jann?
A: Brother, my role was in general peaceful, as I recruited won over many of the factions that remained there fighting, and in the end the tajammu' of Beit Jann fell after its fighters collapsed and leaned towards conciliation, and all this was by the efforts of the regiment. And from the outset this was the desire of Kenana Hawija, in that the matter should be accomplished peacefully to reduce the material losses, and for her part also she was afraid of the presence of the Hezb in the area: I do not know why.
Q: After the recovery of Beit Jann did Moro [rebel commander in Beit Jann] become a leader in the regiment?
A: Moro became a commander but in a symbolic sense as arms did not remain with him, it was just that he was receiving salaries for his fighters.
Q: And when did you become wanted again exactly?
A: After the military branch was unable to dismantle the regiment, it began to demand from the people who had brothers or relatives who were killed in the past to refer a legal case against me. Note that the far and near, even the relatives of those betrayed, know that I have no relation near or far with these cases but on the contrary I was among the most intense of those who waged war against this sort of conduct.
Q: Which military branch exactly? And why was it trying to dismantle the regiment?
A: The Sa'sa' branch. The reason is this [i.e. he indicated that the head of the Sa'sa' branch wanted to dismantle the regiment]: a conflict over authority in the area. Brother, it was a regiment that had around 800 fighters under my leadership. It had great power, and also a hand's fear of it.
Q: So despite the fact that the regiment was affiliated with the Military Security branch officially, they tried to dismantle it.
A: It was affiliated with the Branch [i.e. the overall Military Intelligence Branch] and not to the branch [i.e. the division of the Military Intelligence in Sa'sa'] firstly. Second even if it were affiliated with them, their hope nonetheless was to dismantle it and withdraw the weapons from the hands of the fighters and take them to the army.
Q: In summary no promises were realised? From reckoning personnel of the regiment to be part of [military] service, and giving salaries.
A: Brother, all the promises were numbing. I knew that, but rather I was trying to make sure the regiment should remain inter-connected and cohesive so we could protect the citizens in the area from all parties.
Q: Yes, so in the end you had to flee to Turkey?
A: I became wanted for a number of cases that I had no connection with at all, such that one of the cases was that there was an attack on one of the checkpoints of the regiment by one of the factions in the tajammu', and by order from me the checkpoint defended its points. As a result of this matter the leader of the attacking faction lost his life. Just think of it: a case was raised against me for the killing of this person who was affiliated with the revolutionaries, while I am considered the commander of a regiment and am affiliated with the regime, and I become wanted because of this case. I went to the head of the Sa'sa' branch at the time, and asked him for a document to be directed to the civil judiciary, in which he mentions my capacity as being the commander of the regiment, and that I had no link with the killing of this person they described as the terrorist, while I was undertaking my work (of course I was not present at the point at all from the outset). Just think of it: he refused to give me this document.
Q: So after that you fled to Turkey?
A: I tried to resolve the matters. I could not. And after I was unable to resolve this matter, and I feared the matter would go out of my control, and in order to protect the military personnel who were around me from the consequences of any matter that could occur because of me, I fled to Turkey.
Q: Yes, so this is the story entirely.
A: Yes in summary. The stations that occurred are very many and their explanation is long.
Q: Yes by God. Do you have a message for those who betrayed you?
A: Syria is in my heart. I fought in the beginning for it, I reconciled for it, I migrated for it. Whoso wronged me and made a claim against me out of fear of the [security] branches, I excuse him. And whoso deliberately did that for an interest or position he desires, God Almighty is present.
Q: According to your knowledge the Hermon Regiment is no longer present?
A: It no longer has a presence.
Q: So all the personnel became regular army?
A: Brother, a month after I departed the regiment was dismantled and weakened. And an order came to withdraw the weapons and join the army. And this is what has happened.