Below is a transcript of an interview with Bassam, a rebel who serves with two secular brigades near Salamiyah. He spoke with us on Saturday via Skype.
I work with a number of secular brigades, active in the suburbs of Salamiyah. Salamiyah itself is under regime control. The [al-Qaida-linked] Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is all around us. We expect the ISIS is about to announce a war on all the other brigades very soon, because of our ideological differences.
In Qasr Ibn Wardan, the ISIS stoned a woman to death. We have no idea why. All we know is that the punishment for adultery in Islam is being stoned to death.
We have two brigades in Salamiyah: the Salamiya Youth Brigade and the Free Salamiyah Brigade. Whoever wants to pray prays, whoever wants to fast fasts. It’s all the same to us. The atmosphere in both of the brigades is like the atmosphere in Salamiyah, tolerant of all ways of life.
Rebel Finances: Outspent, Outgunned by al-Qaida
We’re in a very tough situation. At the end of the month we will be out of food to eat. And we do not want to make money through kidnapping people, or stealing historical artifacts and selling them. We want to defend the historical areas and get people out of kidnapped detention.
No one has given us any major support, no one has helped us with anything. We used to get some private donations from people living in Europe, Canada, Latin America and the Gulf who are originally from the area. But there is no more funding whatsoever, it has dried up. The West keep saying the rebels are full of extremists. But what are you giving the secular brigades among us? We are a secular, co-existent brigade, and no one has given us anything.
We were attacking a checkpoint controlled by the regime, in a village called Rahajan, in the suburbs of Salamiyah. We launched homemade rockets on the regime forces. We wish we had better missiles, but these are the ones we have. It costs $150 to make one from scratch. An actual rocket that is professionally made costs thousands of dollars, so we’d rather use these.
We have so many soldiers and officers that are in the Syrian army and who want to defect really badly, but we cannot secure their defection because there are no supplies and resources to ensure their families safe passage. We can easily get them to Turkey, but how do we take care of them there?
Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS are the most powerful among rebel forces because they have terrifying amounts of financial and material support.
Let me give you an example. It we see an Assad fighter plane overhead and there’s a 50-50 chance we’ll hit it, we don’t strike. We can’t afford the ammunition. The Islamist brigades will take a shot at anything, they have more than enough supplies.
We have a lot of weapons that are war booty. We got them because we hit the shabiha and took their weapons. But we can’t use them because we don’t have the money for bullets. Ahrar Salamiyah, for example, had a T-72 tank. But we couldn’t buy shells for it, so we just gave it away to another brigade.
How Will You Uproot al-Qaida?
You can only deal with al-Qaida by force. They are very strong, very organized. They have strategic thinking and very good supplies. If they stay like this they are going to take over all of Syria.
Al-Qaida is the one thing that will unite Syrian people after the revolution, because all of the Syrians will want them out – those who are now with the regime and those who are against the regime.
Nobody likes these people. We will have to fight them to get them out. After the regime falls there will have to be a new military formation to confront these radical movements. We will join this new national formation to oppose them. The moderate brigades will join in to fight these extremists. They already don’t like them and sometimes fight against them now.
Al-Qaida – ISIS – they don’t have the greatest numbers, but they have the most resources and best weapons, and they have very good organization.
Everywhere the regime is cleared out they go in and get organized. In Raqqa they took the over major headquarters in the province, the big government buildings. The bakeries, they took over. They always go take over the wheat silos in every liberated area, because once they feed people they can control the people. So then when people can’t find anything to eat, they’re the only ones who can give them food.
It makes them look virtuous, when they’re really not virtuous people. That wheat is for everyone, it’s not just for al-Qaida. In some places they take hospitals, in every place they take what they want, and they take it by force.
In Deraa they are very small. In Homs even, they’re not that big. But in the north they are extremely strong.
Once the first enemy goes, which is Assad, the people will immediately unite against them, just like they united against the regime. And do not forget this very important thing: a lot of the people fighting with Assad now will be fighting with us, because they will want al-Qaida out.
If we are with the American strike it is for one reason: the number one reason behind al-Qaida is in Syria is the continued existence of the Assad regime. If the U.S. comes and downs Assad it will be very easy to down al-Qaida.
Do You Support a U.S. Strike on Syria?
Our number one goal is to oust the regime. Am I for or against a U.S. strike? It’s a difficult question. Anyone who wants to strike my country I’m against, in principle. But the problem is that someone within our country is using everything he has to attack Syrians – chemical weapons, rockets, everything. For this reason we agree with the strike to take out Assad.
We have air strikes on us every day and every hour. We have shelling every day. We have death every day. Nothing will be particularly different when American bombs come down.
We expect the U.S. is going to hit the airports and centers of military leadership and administration. In our area we don’t have either, so we’re not expecting it to hit our area. But what we’re expecting is some chaos and anarchy in the regime’s ranks in response to the strike. If that happens we’re going to try to make gains from that.
We have seen many defections since the announcement of U.S. strikes. But we don’t have much to give them. We don’t have weapons or money to feed their families. We have soldiers who’ve been in the army ranks, giving us information for two years. They want to defect but they can’t, because we don’t have the means to take care of them.
This regime is like a snake. If you cut off the head of a snake the snake will die. If Bashar al-Assad is gone, the problem is solved.
Most of the people who support Assad – most, not all – are with him because they are afraid of the extremists. And they see him as the only symbol left to defend their freedom. They worry that the revolution is Islamic and looking to take away their freedoms.
In America, when you’re all afraid of something you unite. You used to be afraid of Communism, now you’re afraid of Islamic extremism. You’re very diverse people, with different religions and views, but you unite when you get afraid of something. There are 22 million Syrians, they will unite when they’re afraid of something. That’s how Assad ruled, through fear.
The Syrian situation is very simple. Assad is the problem. For eight months we were protesting and there was no al-Qaida. But when you let stuff reach this level, this is what happens.