Maher, 25, was only two months away from a university degree when he abandoned his studies to join the nascent Syrian revolution. He went from being a peaceful activist to a fighter within five months. Today, he is a member of Liwa al-Islam, the strongest rebel brigade in Damascus province, which counts both the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the jihadist Jabhat al-Nusra as allies.
Growing up, my father taught me three things: pray, don’t smoke cigarettes and hate the Syrian regime and the Assads. That last part was kept between us.
I was born in the city of Douma [northeast of Damascus]. My father owns a farm and I studied at the Damascus University Faculty of Agricultural Engineering. When the Syrian revolution broke out, the first demonstration in Douma was on March 25, 2011. I had always wanted to protest and now was my chance. I went against the will of my family, and when I came back to the house my mother gave me a beating. I was 23 years old.
My first and last goal in protesting was to bring down the regime. I wanted an end to emergency law. I wanted an end to the Assads’ domination of the economy. Every big company is either crushed or co-opted by the Makhloufs [notoriously rich and powerful cousins of the Assads] or other relatives of the ruling family.
I was a peaceful demonstrator until the day I saw Syrian security forces beating female university students. I never liked participating in protests on campus because the risk of arrest by security forces is high. But when I saw a security officer beating up a girl, I had to go stop him. I ended up beating him unconscious, but then another officer grabbed me and started hitting me for several minutes. Somehow I managed to get out of his grip and jumped over a wall to escape. When I returned later that day, I saw four members of the Air Force Intelligence [a feared security branch] waiting for me at the door of my dorm. I knew I was never going back.
This was May 2012. I was in my fifth year of university with only two months left until graduation, but if I returned I would have been arrested. The security forces later raided the office I shared with other activists in Damascus, and before long Douma was under siege. That was when I joined Liwa al-Islam.
I joined them because they were professional. They were operating stealthily and weren’t parading around with their weapons. They would have their arms in the car, strike a checkpoint one minute and then be gone the next. Our work was successful; when we would attack a checkpoint, the army would vacate it shortly after and one of our battalions would take it over. By June I was training with a Kalashnikov for street fighting in one of the sports clubs in Douma.
The goals of Liwa al-Islam are the same [as those of the FSA]: to remove the current government and create an alternative that would be formed by the people who have been working for it most effectively on the ground. Most of these people identify as Muslims.
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is a shadowy organization that is not making its objectives clear. Many members of Jabhat al-Nusra, which was originally formed from less extreme groups, broke away to join ISIS, which fights even other rebel groups that differ from its own thinking. It has gathered fighters from other groups, especially foreigners. It is beginning to make some errors that cannot be tolerated.
But the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria does not exist on the ground as it does in the media. They are concentrated in the north, where you often have foreign fighters entering from outside Syria. In Damascus and its suburbs where I am, they are practically nonexistent. Liwa al-Islam is the biggest brigade in Damascus and its countryside.
The different brigades in Damascus province [eight, including al-Nusra] cooperate depending on the operation. Usually the most successful operations are carried out by one brigade, not multiple, because all of the guys already know how to work together.
I am against a U.S. strike on Syria. What we need from America and other Western countries instead is to pressure the regime’s allies, like Russia and Iran. If you cut off the regime’s financial and logistical support, the regime will fall straight away.
It is true [that a forensic chief recently defected from the regime with evidence of chemical weapons], but it’s not important; the time for defections has passed. There is no need for more evidence of the regime’s crimes beyond the destruction of this country. We already know what this regime has done.
When we were unarmed and being shot at in demonstrations and asked the world to intervene, we were abandoned. But over the past two years, we have built our strength. I’ve been fighting for a year and three months. At first we only had Kalashnikovs, but now we have tanks, missiles and anti-aircraft weapons. And we have liberated a large part of the country. We are much stronger than before, and we did this on our own.
There is no need for anyone to enter, and we don’t want anything from the outside. We just ask that no one support the regime or get in our way.