In his exlusive interview for The Ukrainian Week, Yasser Abboud, a leader of the Free Syrian Army, talks about the struggle with the Assad regime
Yasser Abboud is the commander of field operations for the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and a leader of the FSA South. As he states, there are up to 8,000 people under his command controlling 70 percent of the territory around the city of Daraa, with a population of 1.2 million. Once Colonel of the Syrian Armed Forces, he defected in October 2011 after 25 years of service, including 17 years in Lebanon. I met him in Irbid, a Jordanian city near the Syrian border.
UW: How did your struggle begin?
The full-fledged armed resistance started in February 2012. We started with 2,000 people involved; now there are 8,000 people under my command. At least 85% of them are civilians from the Daraa region mainly, the rest are former military personnel. Our initial mission was to protect the villages, supply food – especially in winter - and help people to cross the Jordanian border.
UW: What made you defect from the Syrian Army?
I saw civilians being killed during peaceful protests, and how a sniper shot a person I knew while he was walking down the street. At first, the demonstrations in Syria didn’t challenge the regime. They just wanted punishment for those who tortured the kids arrested for anti-government slogans. But they opened fire against people in the rally.
UW: You had been part of the system for 25 years, now you fight against it. Why did you and the people not stand up earlier?
Syrian society was as authoritarian as Cuba, North Korea or the Soviet Union. In schools and universities, we were taught about the supremacy of the Ba’ath party and always thinking about the benefits of stability. The war in Lebanon, the war with Israel, the Iran-Iraq war, the interventions in Kuwait, Iraq, and Lebanon – so many horrible things took place around us. The population was afraid of provoking chaos and disorder. After Hafiz al-Assad died in 2000 and Bashar took power, we had hope. During the first three years of his term there were more rights given to the media and small business – but just during the first three years.
UW: Why did you wait for six months to defect from the army?
I hoped things would normalize. Back then, as a person who had been within the system for 25 years, I believed that somebody outside Syria was manipulating the masses. The members of the Syrian Parliament discussed an opportunity for al-Assad to visit Daraa and talk to the people. That could have been enough to solve the dispute. The regime decided that such a meeting would be harmful to the prestige of the president. At that moment I saw Al-Assad’s only intention was to stay in power, even if people would be killed.
UW: Did you receive orders to shoot civilians or torture them? If so, who were your commanders?
During the demonstrations I had to follow the commands of Military Security, not the army. At that time there were still people from our area. At first we were supposed to only be present on the streets. Later, if there were groups of more than 3 people that didn’t disperse after a warning, we had to open fire or even kill them. It is impossible to disobey in a time of crisis. It was the end of summer 2011 when I rejected the use of weapons and I was arrested. I spent one month and 27 days in a basement of the Security Service department in Daraa.
UW: Why did they release you?
One of the demands of Sheikh Ahmed Siyasanah was to free the military personnel from jail. He is a very influential person in the region, a religious leader, an old blind man whom everybody in Daraa trusts. At the beginning of the revolution, it was he who negotiated with the local authorities to release the arrested kids. The regime forced Sheikh Siyasanah to read a confession on state TV that the revolution is wrong and people should stop protesting and follow the government’s orders. Because of this ‘affirmation’ by him we were allowed to go. Yet all the officers had been reduced in rank, had become soldiers and had to give up their weapons.
UW: How did you become a commander of the FSA South?
Of the defected military, I used to have the highest rank in Daraa – colonel. We started with a small group, and after some successful operations decided to unite our forces. In Syria, the military service is obligatory and lasts 2 years, so the majority of males know how to use a weapon. I was the one who had experience creating a structure and regulations.
UW: How are you financed? Do you receive foreign funding?
Deraa is one of the largest agricultural provinces in Syria, so we get basic things from our families. Of course, these are just little things.A lot of Syrians have relatives working abroad. My brother owned a jewellery shop in Romania, and used to send me money until he was killed during a visit to Daraa. I have relatives in the Gulf. There are many Syrians there, as well in Saudi Arabia. Lots of them are millionaires or owners of big companies, so their financial support is substantial. There are also Syrians campaigning and collecting donations for the FSA there. Yet we do not receive money from any government.
When we defected, together with five or seven colleagues we undertook operations to steal some weapons from army storage. Some residents of Daraa owned guns at home, so we bought from them, but mainly on the black market. There was always an opportunity to smuggle weapons from Lebanon.
UW: What are you goals today?
We do not want to control Syria, but to free the country from the current regime. Now we want to get rid of Bashar and his close circle – the people in power responsible for the murders. We don’t care if they are Sunni or Alawi. For instance, one of our main targets is a Sunni who comes from Daraa.
UW: Let’s imagine Assad is gone. What’s your next step?
I am very concerned about the division of our society. Our first priority is to protect people of all ethnic and religious groups – Alawi, Christians, Druze. It’s hard to explain to somebody who has lost a close family member, a brother, a child, that everything is fine. The people are in grief and want revenge. There are those thinking that being an Alawi makes you a part of the regime. For me, all Syrians are equal. As an organized group, we have to maintain order until a new democratic government is established.
UW: Do you see a way to end the bloodshed without killing even more people?
Unfortunately not, and it is not our choice. Full-scale war is going on. Syriadoes not have a single powerful political party, and our parliament is a fiction. We cannot simply let Bashar escape to a safe place and let our most senior military leaders put away their guns like in Egypt. The regime is not just Bashar. For 25 years I was part of it, including 17 years in Lebanon. It managed to control politics even there. I know from inside how strong and complicated the ‘system’ is. If just Bashar’s family went away, the regime would remain in place.
UW: You insist that most Syrians are against the current government. Why then has the military command managed to remain in power for 18 months?
People in the country believe that Bashar will be overthrown after all. The Syrian government could not remain as strong as it is now without the support of Iran, Hezbollah and Russia. The world should realize that an unstable Syria is dangerous for the entire region. The current regimes in Tehran and Damascus are very close, for instance. As long as Bashar is in power or Syria is weak, Iran can use our territory as if it were its own.
UW: What do you expect from the international community?
I do not expect anything anymore. If the international community wanted to interfere they would interfere, as in Egypt. At this point, there is no way to influence Assad. The big countries are interested in a soft transition of power in Syria, changing the system and imposing another instead. Today they are searching for the best Syrian group to co-operate with. They do not care about almost 200 people being killed every day—30,000 in total; they do not care about refugees crossing the border daily. The Syrians have been asking for help for the last year and a half without getting any response; now we don’t see any sense in asking.