On The Ground News (OGN) interviewed Abu al-Abed Ashidaa on 10 January 2017. Abu al-Abed was appointed to lead all insurgents in the besieged areas of eastern Aleppo City on 1 December 2016. Aleppo City fell to the pro-regime coalition after a months-long campaign of siege, bombardment, and atrocity on 12 December, with the final deportation of the insurgency and tens of thousands of civilians—a crime against humanity in itself—on 22 December.
OGN is an outlet operating inside Syria that is best known for featuring American activist, Bilal Abdul Kareem. The organization claims independence but is clearly within the milieu of the more hardline insurgent forces in northern Syria, and in fact appears to favour the political line of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS), al-Qaeda’s rebranded presence in Syria, against even other extremist Salafi groups like Ahrar al-Sham.
It was Kareem who interviewed Abu al-Abed. The transcript is below.
Abu al-Abed has previously spoken about the reasons for Aleppo falling, putting the blame on non-jihadist insurgent groups and their regional backers, notably Turkey, which actually did draw away mainstream rebels from Aleppo City to defend Turkey’s border from the Islamic State and PKK and to press the offensive against IS-held areas in eastern Rif Aleppo like al-Bab. Abu al-Abed sticks to much the same script this time.
The interview gives every indication of being a piece of JFS’s political influencing campaign to draw the insurgency into a merger.. The interview seeks to isolate the insurgency from the foreign governments that have—however minimally—supported it, to delegitimize the involvement of these foreign governments in Syria as part of the conspiracy against the revolution, and to present the jihadists as the only option available to resist and eventually the topple the regime.
A merger under JFS’s banner would bring about the final political defeat of the rebellion, who would then be untouchable in the West. It would also provide new military challenges for the armed opposition: the Coalition has been striking at JFS with increased vivacity in recent days and this air war would likely be expanded to all groups formally attached to JFS. But it would provide JFS with a shield of sorts: the Coalition could not defeat a JFS encompassing that many people, that deeply rooted in Syrian society, by airstrikes alone, and any attempt would only stoke a rage that would redound to JFS’s advantage.
Abd al-Abed also issues a call for Muslims to flock to Syria to join the jihadists; this is phrased in the language of defending civilians that brought a lot of the early foreign fighters to al-Qaeda in Syria.
Bilal Abdul Kareem: Welcome to our program, ‘Face the Truth’. I am your host Bilal Abdul Kareem. As everyone may know by now, we spent the last four-and-a-half months in the besieged territories of eastern Aleppo. During the time, there was much turmoil, as you can probably imagine. However, we felt that it was important that people would understand from a certain perspective what was happening in that time, in those territories. Today, we feel that we have a guest that maybe the best person to explain what happened form his perspective in those besieged territories as he was the emir or the leader of all military forces in the final fourteen—approximately fourteen—days of the time that we spent in those besieged territories, and his name is Abu al-Abed. And I would like to say to him, salam alaikum warahmatullahi wa barakatuh.
Abu al-Abed Ashidaa: alaikum salam wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh.
BAK: Let us start instantly. Why was a leader not appointed for Aleppo except at a late stage in the siege.
AAA: I will be straightforward: the rebel groups do not trust one-another. The factions sponsors’ [i.e. external countries] get involved in most of the groups’ affairs. Multiple unity attempts were made previously; the groups do not want unity. For example, four years ago, in the early days in which Aleppo was liberated, we had something known as Hayaa al-Shari’a [The Legal Commission] and after that we had al-Jabhat al-Shamiya [The Levant Front]. Most factions in Aleppo united under al-Jabhat al-Shamiya. It was a stringent unity; not many options were given. After this was the Aleppo Leadership Council. Abu Abdulrahman al-Nur [from the Levant Front] was appointed as the leader, however he was given no real power and was unable to make real decisions. He was a mere representative. In summary, they do not want a real unity in which there is one leader with power and an ability to make real decisions.
BAK: How were you appointed as leader over the city of Aleppo? How did that happen?
AAA: Do you know the story of Pharaoh? When he was about to drown he said, “I believe there is no lord except the one which the people of Israel believed in.” Likewise, this is what happened in Aleppo. Unity came about when our souls had reached parting point and after the ship had sunk. There was no way to fight except through unity. They came together after many areas had fallen. I will talk in detail [about it]. More than eleven areas of Aleppo had collapsed. A meeting was arranged at 12 o’clock midnight. They asked that Abu al-Abed should be appointed as leader. I placed some conditions—that I am given all that I need; weaponry, money, ammunition, and men. Everything. They agreed to all these conditions except for one thing. They said, “Do not get involved in negotiations and political affairs. These affairs are decided by the majlis al-shura (leadership council). You are not allowed to make these decisions alone.” I agreed to this condition; as I told you, the ship was on the verge of drowning. We were forced to help as much as we can. Our meeting finished at 2 AM. The day after this, nine areas within Aleppo collapsed.
BAK: The day after?
AAA: On the first day [26 November 2016], the Hanano living complex collapsed. Al-Indharat, al-Miyah, and Bustan al-Pasha. Many areas collapsed. Our stations were then from the Sakhur roundabout to the Shabab (Youth) living complex toward the airport. On the second day, fierce battles were ongoing in al-Muyassar and Qatorji areas. In the morning the northern areas collapsed. Our guard stations became from al-Qasr al-Adli to al-Nayrab roundabout and then Sinaa roundabout to Shaykh Saeed.
BAK: The question still stands: “Why the delay?”
AAA: The delay was because they do not want real unity. Every group wants to maintain its authority, wants to have men to command and wants power. If there is one leader, they will no longer have their imaginary positions. This is the main reason. The point is that when I became emir of Aleppo, half of Aleppo had already collapsed. The city had totally collapsed.
BAK: Describe what happened in the last days you were besieged in Aleppo from a military standpoint.
AAA: People’s morale was down, collaboration was bad. As I have told you, unity came about too late and we gained no benefit from this unity at all. For example, a single military area would have three or four different groups. Every group’s walkie talkie frequency was different to that of the other groups. We did not benefit from unity; we were in a state of loss and confusion. As I told you, the morale of the troops had collapsed. As the troops which had retreated in from other areas, we did not benefit. For example, Abu Abdulrahman Karm al-Jabal was station in Karm al-Jabal, Shaar, and the areas around there. He would say that he had over forty guard stations. When he retreated he would no longer hold any guard stations. The military leader Abu Waleed (may Allah have mercy on him) told [al-Jabal] on multiple occasions that he must hold guard stations even if it is only half of the initial stations with only twenty soldiers or ten or even if he only held one point. He did not respond. Likewise [the Levant Front]: they had over one-hundred-and-fifty guard stations, as they would claim. When they pulled out of Halab al-Qadima and the eastern areas, they had no more presence. Al-Fawj al-Awal [The First Regiment] had ended totally. When they would pull back they would no longer hold guard duty. Likewise Abu Jaffar al-Sharqiya, who would say that he had over twenty-five guard stations in Masaken Hanano. I personally asked him to hold guard duty in only one station. He would say that he cannot and would try to escape. They were waiting for the [green] buses, if I am to be honest.
BAK: In that instance?
AAA: In that very instance. Yes, this is before Aleppo collapsed. When the various areas in Aleppo collapsed they would speak to their sponsors and some states. They would be told that they would be taken out [of Aleppo City] and things of this nature. They had no real role, they would merely place some young men in the stations. They had no real role, they had no military training and neither did they have any religious adherence. They were waiting for the buses to take them out of Aleppo. This is what happened, in a straightforward fashion.
BAK: Describe to us the state of the civilians, the hospitals and the destruction that occurred in Aleppo.
AAA: The state of the civilians was an absolute tragedy. The situation was extremely difficult; the regime’s offensive was fierce. It was a Mongol-like offensive by the Russians, Iranians, and the Nusayris [Alawis, i.e. the Assad regime]. Aleppo could be compared to [the capital of Chechnya, which the Russians flattened,] Grozny. It was an extremely severe situation and a barbaric bombardment campaign. Most hospitals were destroyed; only a single hospital remained. In a single day, hundreds would be martyred [killed] and wounded. We only had a single hospital, which was under constant threat of bombardment. As a matter of fact it was bombed multiple times but by the grace of Allah it was unaffected. Some of the injured and ill died in the hospitals as a direct result of the bombardment—the hospitals were bombed and burned. Within the hospitals were the ill and injured. There were houses that were destroyed on top of those living inside them. We could not get them out even though they were alive and the Civil Defence [a.k.a. White Helmets], who were working really hard (may Allah reward them), all of their centres were destroyed. This was done on purpose. We were unable to get those who were alive out from under the rubble. The situation was severely traumatic. As for the food and bakeries, most of the flour depots and bakeries were also bombed. We would give to a single person a single of bread for a single day. On some days we would be unable to provide this single loaf. A single egg cost one-thousand lira [Syrian pounds; around £4 or $4.50]. A single egg!
BAK: A single egg?
AAA: A single egg—that is if you are able to get an egg. That is if you find it; it cannot be found. If you were able to find an egg, it would cost a thousand lira. The situation was extremely difficult. This is what forced us out of Aleppo.
BAK: What were the reasons for the collapse of Aleppo?
AAA: The main reason is that there is an international conspiracy that many state have agreed on to put an end to their issues in Aleppo. They consider it to be an issue [i.e. problem]. They are not concerned regarding the civilians, the Muslims, the women and children that reside in the city. The main reason is the international conspiracy.
The second reason is the disunity of the rebel groups. We are fighting against a regime that has united with the Russians and Iranians. It is a sectarian regime. It has no mercy whatsoever for the believers.
Another reason is that no one from outside the siege helped us.
BAK: Why is it that the factions from outside the siege did not help, as they did in the first siege?
AAA: In the first siege there was help; the siege was not new, it was old. The siege started the moment Castello Road was cut off [on 7 July 2016]. There was severe bombardment on this route. Aleppo was initially besieged, multiple battles occurred, and the mujahideen were steadfast in Aleppo. This was towards the beginning of the initial siege until the blessed Jaysh al-Fatah (Army of Conquest) showed up [on 6 August 2016] with a good amount of fighters and was able, in a historic battle, with strength from Allah, to break the siege, destroying the largest strongholds of the Nusayri regime. They were able, I believe by the power of Allah most high, to do this because of their unity. In that army, under one leader, Abu Umar al-Saraqib [a founder of Jabhat al-Nusra and a veteran of the Iraqi jihad whose real name is Usama Namura] (may Allah accept him [he was killed in an American airstrike on 8 September 2016], he was a hero from among the best of leaders, they were able to break the siege.
As I told you, there was an international conspiracy. The affair was not easy. This was followed by an aggressive assault on the fighters who opened the route. The route was opened for a couple more days. When it was opened there was a severe bombardment by Russian fighter jets, Iranian militias, by the regime—from everyone. The route was once again closed [on 4 September 2016]. A few days or a week later, Jaysh al-Fatah was able to re-gather their ranks, after the first battle, as it was a large, fierce battle. The battle was prepared for.
A day or two before the battle started we were surprised by infighting between Ahrar al-Sham and some extremists from Jund al-Aqsa. This was the main reason for the delay of the second battle to break the siege. Jund al-Aqsa and some other factions were preparing for a battle to liberate Hama City. This would have really distracted the regime. Ahrar al-Sham has much weight in Jaysh al-Fatah. When these two groups became busied with one another and this infighting happened, Jaysh al-Fatah was weakened as Ahrar has much power in there. The battle of Hama stopped; as a matter of fact the regime began to advance into the villages of Hama [countryside], even though at one point the rebels were looking to liberate the city itself. This was the primary reason. The battle was delayed a couple of weeks until by the grace of Allah the situation was placed under control and the situation improved by the decree of Allah.
They got their ranks together and prepared for a battle from the side of the 3,000 Apartments Complex and the 1,070 Apartments Complex [in western Aleppo City]. The brothers got to work [on 28 October 2016], may Allah reward them, however it was not decreed that they would be victorious. [By 12 November 2016, all gains by the insurgency had been rolled back.] After this, no-one did anything.
BAK: What is the reason for that?
AAA: The reason is that the battle was fierce and as I told you, I repeat, there is an international conspiracy. There is also great disunity among the insurgent factions. The reason that the factions were disunited is that they were unable to make a decision for the battle. They were unable to operate and we on the inside were driven to exhaustion by the continuous battles; the regime was pressing hard. By this time there were severe battles in Aziza and Shaykh Saeed. The mujahideen persevered, a perseverance that must be attested to. In Bustan al-Pasha and a few other areas such as Salaheddine and al-Amiriyya, on a daily basis there were Mongol-like assaults by the regime. As I informed you, some problems resulted from the retreat of the factions from their points and their refusal to hold guard stations. This is what Allah decreed and He does as He pleases.
BAK: We witnessed many people moving to regime-held territories. What is the reason for this?
AAA: The reason is the fierce assault that they had to endure. As I informed you, the ill would be killed in the hospitals. Food was no longer available. On a daily basis they would witness hundreds of people being killed and wounded. Those whose houses collapsed on their heads, we would not be able to rescue them from under the rubble. This was the enemy’s plan, and as I informed you unfortunately no-one believed that anyone would save us. I told you of Jaysh al-Fatah and other things. Even the [Turkish-run Operation] EUPHRATES SHIELD in the north [of Aleppo], they did not held us with even a single grad rocket. They could have at least helped us by firing mortars. They did not help us. The situation for the civilians and the people in general was very difficult. For this reason, the women, the children, and the elderly just wanted to flee with their lives from the assault, and leave their homes. This was the reason that most civilians [who did so] left to regime areas.
BAK: We heard that there was much food in Aleppo, however it was not given to people. What is the validity of this statement?
AAA: Firstly, there was plenty of food, that is true, the reason for the non-distribution is that we had a plan that Aleppo will be able to old out, for example for six months, as Plan A, and that we will be able to hold out for a year as Plan B. Within Aleppo there were more than 250,000 people. It was incumbent on us to ensure that every person had a parcel or even half a parcel of humanitarian aid for themselves every month. We had a plan to store this food. When the fierce attack started and many civilians left, there were only fifty to seventy or maybe eighty thousand people left in Aleppo at the end of its days. More than half or perhaps two-thirds of the population had left the city. It’s only normal that the food would be plentiful. As I told you, we had put in place a long-term plan. But we left earlier than expected. It’s only normal that there will be plenty of food and flour within the city.
BAK: Are you originally from Aleppo?
AAA: Yes, I am from the fast area [centre] of Aleppo, as we would say in Aleppo.
BAK: What were your feelings when you saw your countrymen, the people of your city, enduring the cold, hunger, and fear. What were your feelings?
AAA: Those days and moments were some of the most severe we have lived through. When we would look to those who are in need, the women, children, and elderly. On a particular day, we buried an infant, who had died as a result of the cold. He died at the crossing. The affair was extremely difficult for us. This is what made us accept [the proposal] to leave the city. There were a large amount of mujahideen who would have refused to leave. We had the resources to hold out. As a result of those who were in need, we were forced to leave. We, the mujahideen, initially refused to leave the city. We requested for the civilians to be evacuated—the women, children, and the elderly. The other side refused, the Russians, Iranians, and the Nusayri regime. This is a sectarian war, they want to expel the Sunnis, all of them. They want to replace them with Shi’a militias, to change Aleppo from a Sunni city to a Shi’a city. This is their plan. We requested that the mujahideen stay and the civilians be evacuated but they refused this offer. The bombing intensified more than before, so we were forced to leave to spare the civilians suffering.
BAK: What was your role in the negotiations? And describe what happened.
AAA: As for the negotiations, I told you that when the Aleppo Leadership Council appointed me as the emir they did not task me with negotiations. They said, “You are not allowed to make decisions in terms of the negotiations and political affairs. This will be decided mutually in the committee.” The committee appointed our brother Faruq to lead the negotiations. But he could not make a decision until he had consulted the other factions. The negotiations started. As soon as they started, the ceasefire commenced. Evacuation was supposed to start the second day after the ceasefire started. The Shi’a militias began a severe bombardment on the city. A severe bombardment by all meanings of the word, it was a most disastrous day. They wanted to kill the largest possible amount of civilians. The bombardment passed and then other negotiations happened.
The second time around, after some buses left with some civilians and some fighters, they committed another act of treachery. As I previously informed you, they have no mercy toward the believers and know no oaths. They are a people of treachery. Shi’a militias stopped the buses halfway into the route. They took all the money off the people who were in the convoy. As a matter of fact they stripped the people of their clothes, confiscated their wealth, telephones, and some rifles that they had. There was a brother who told me that they took $8,000 from him. This was a single brother that was there. The convoy had roughly eight-hundred people. They confiscated all their wealth, telephones and possessions. They also killed a few of them. A few of them who resisted or spoke to us on walkie-talkies were killed. They humiliated the people. The third time around oaths were made by Turkey and Russia that no such incident would occur. We prepared to leave and indeed we left in our cars and some buses. We then left.
BAK: How did you leave Aleppo? By buses or by cars? Where you armed?
AAA: Yes, after the other side committed an act of treachery—the Iranian militias, the Russians, and the Nusayri regime; they are all the same, of course. After repeated treachery from them, we anticipated treachery and prepared for it. We initially made our way out with our cars, the initial assessment being that we could leave with cars but there were not enough cars so civilians and some fighters went on buses. As I told you, the bombardment was barbaric. Most of our cars were not fit to use. We prepared some military battalions. Most of them were wearing explosive belts. We divided them into groups with rifles and RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades]. Each group of ten fighters had an RPG and a PKC [machine gun]. They sat in the cars, they would be present, and ready for anything that may happen. They had their weapons as they were leaving. We told the fighters that there is a ninety percent chance that [the pro-Assad coalition] will commit an act of treason. If anything happens we have our walkie-talkies all on a single frequency. Each twenty or thirty cars left together. We arranged with one-another that if anything happened we would disperse and start a battle. Towards the end of the evacuation there were only a few women and children. The majority of people that stayed behind were fighters. We left with our cars and weaponry and were prepared for anything that may happen.
BAK: What is your opinion regarding the negotiations for unity between the mujahideen and rebels that are ongoing these days? Will they be successful or not—what is your opinion?
AAA: We ask Allah that it is successful. The opinion of Abu al-Abed is that it is the only solution. In fact, this is the opinion of the majority of mujahideen that are here on the ground. They are strongly pushing for it. If I am to be honest, the main cause of what happened with us in Aleppo was the disunity of the [insurgent] groups. [Unity] is what Allah commands. If we do not unite now, when will we unite?
BAK: What is the reason that unity did not occur not until now?
AAA: The reason is that some groups do not want to leave their positions. They want to have soldiers to command and want to continue getting funding from the outside. Some of those who receive funding from the outside are told by their sponsors that if they unite [with JFS], their sponsorship will be cut.
BAK: What is scaring them—those who are outside Syria?
AAA: The power of the mujahideen and that when the mujahideen have power on the ground, they will defeat the regime. Now, as we have said, the various countries of the world—or the global conspiracy—do not want to topple the regime at this point. The regime would have collapsed if it was not for them and would not have lasted until now. Those who are fighting on the ground are Iran, Russia, and their militias. Even in the negotiations, who were we negotiating with? We were negotiating with the Iranians and Russians. The Syrian regime knew nothing.
BAK: What is your opinion regarding the ceasefire that we witness today?
AAA: Firstly, I have witnessed no ceasefire.
BAK: In your opinion, there is no ceasefire?
AAA: The bombardment continues. There is no ceasefire here, we heard of it in the media though. We heard of it outside Syria. Some states say there is ceasefire. Nothing exists on the ground though. These are all lies.
BAK: You have used the statement “international conspiracy” multiple times. Who are the nations exactly?
AAA: The young and the old both know what is happening. It is clear that Aleppo was handed to the enemy. I will give you an example. We requested from a neighbouring country a digger—a digger only! Between Aleppo’s siege and other liberated territories in the countryside of Aleppo there was just four to five kilometres away. We needed a digger to cross this area; we would have been able to break the siege in a month. On multiple occasions we asked for a mere digger. To give us a digger so we may dig a tunnel and lift this siege. They did not respond. Coalition fighter jets were bombing the mujahideen day and night. Russia was fighting for Bashar and his collapsing regime, so is Iran, among other nations. The fighters were made to leave Aleppo on purpose to fight in [Turkey’s Operation] EUPHRATES SHIELD. … I will mention a single group, which is Liwa al-Sultan Murad. Hundreds of fighters from the children of Aleppo City were killed in the battles of EUPHRATES SHIELD in the north. This group had no real strength in Aleppo [City]. Their guard stations in Aleppo are really weak. No one was killed from this group in Aleppo. Actually, only a couple were killed. Hundreds of the children of Aleppo from this group were killed in EUPHRATES SHIELD. I have mentioned some reasons.
BAK: You have now left Aleppo. What do you as an individual intend to do in the future? I am speaking about you personally and then the fighters that left Aleppo.
AAA: Myself and all the fighters are children of Syria and the children of Aleppo. The children of Aleppo are more entitled to [the city]. By the will of Allah, we are preparing ourselves and gathering the sincere mujahideen that have been steadfast in this trial to recapture Aleppo and for jihad in all parts of Syria. We want to liberate Syria from this regime that has oppressed the people here.
BAK: Do you have a message—any message—that you would like to convey to anyone who is listening to you: the world, the Arab countries, Muslim countries? What would you like to say to them?
AAA: I convey my message to the leaders of various groups that they must unite, and fear Allah regarding this shab (people). I have a message for the mujahideen, my brothers the mujahideen: push your leaders to unite; there is no solution for us except through unity and standing together so we may be victorious over this oppressive regime and their militia allies. I say to all Muslims, wherever in the world they happen to be: you must stand by your brothers in Syria. You must fight alongside us … we want men; there are few muhajirun (immigrants, foreign fighters) in Aleppo. Not only in Aleppo but in Syria generally. The muhajirun are few but they have a large impact on battles. Look at Bashar and his sect, the Nusayris. The Shi’a have come from all over the world to fight for the regime—from Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan, everywhere. They fight alongside the oppressor; what about us? The Muslims, they do not defend the Syrian people and the Muslims, even though they are at the forefront of the umma (Islamic nation). It is incumbent on all Muslims, on the young men to come to Syria and fight alongside us to defend the honour of their brothers. These are my messages.