Syria Interview: “More than Al Qa’eda v. US-Backed Brigade” — Understanding the Rebel In-Fighting in the Northwest
PHOTO: Jabhat al-Nusra fighter inside Regiment 46 base in Aleppo Province after defeat of Harakat Hazm brigade
Last month, the Islamist faction Jabhat al-Nusra defeated the Harakat Hazm brigade, which has been supported by the US, in clashes in northwest Syria. Harakat Hazm disbanded, with its fighters regrouping under the umbrella of the Levant Front.
Mainstream media reduced the events to the “Al Qa’eda” of Jabhat al-Nusra defeating an American ally, with some saying — wrongly — that this was the end of a “moderate” opposition in northern Syria. The reduction ignored the local dimensions of the conflict, including mutual accusations by Jabhat al-Nusra and Harakat Hazm of corruption and the kidnapping and murder of the other side’s members.
Speaking to Syria Direct, Monzer Alsallal, a member of the Levant Front, explains the causes of the conflict:
Q: What were the real reasons that pushed some factions of Hazm, after Nusra attacked, to split off from the group and join up with other brigades? Also, did Hazm really disband itself?
In general, the reasons that pushed some factions in Hazm to separate from the group and join other brigades — not just al-Jabha a-Shamia [the Levant Front] but also FSA [Free Syrian Army] brigades, like Kataib Ibn Taimia — was that these groups were neutral, and saw that the mistake was not theirs, just as they wanted to keep fighting against the regime and guarantee their safety with Jabhat a-Nusra.
So they chose strong, moderate brigades from the FSA to join, so no one would attack them and so they could stay on the battlefield.
Q: Why did Nusra assault on Fauj 46 [the Regiment 46 base near al-Atarib in Aleppo Province], belonging to Harakat Hazm, killing more than 50 fighters?
We can’t determine the real reasons behind the attack, but we can determine the professed reasons. As you know, Hazm held Nusra prisoners, and vice-versa, but Nusra was told by al-Jabha a-Shamiya that four of its prisoners, including Abu Aisa a-Tabqa, an emir, were killed in Hazm custody.
When we asked Hazm about the news, they said that those Nusra members were not prisoners in their captivity and that they did not kill them, and further knew nothing about them.
So in short, we don’t know the real reasons. But if Hazm did indeed kill the prisoners, they wronged al-Jabha a-Shamia and Jabhat a-Nusra.
Q: Both Jabhat a-Nusra and Harakat Hazm are accusing the other of disrupting fronts against the regime in the western Aleppo countryside and arresting and kidnapping fighters. What is true?
Both sides accused the other of kidnapping mujahideen, and in reality both did it.
Nusra began the kidnapping operations, accusing fighters from Hazm of aiding the Syrian Revolutionaries’ Front [whom Jabhat al-Nusra defeated last November]. Hazm answered Nusra by kidnapping some of their members in order to negotiate a mutual exchange. Then Nusra responded and took more members from Hazm, and so on.
The last event to occur was Hazm arresting a number of Nusra’s leaders. But I don’t accuse a-Nusra of arresting Hazm fighters unjustly, or vice-versa. Both of them acted badly towards the other.
Q: Al-Jabha a-Shamiya, which represents the arbitrator in the conflict between both sides—what is their opinion of Nusra and Hazm in terms of their regime-fighting capacity, and how they treat people in areas under their control?
Al-Jabha a-Shamiya considers both brigades good at fighting the regime and having a noticeable impact on the Aleppo fronts.
As for their treatment of people living under their control, it differs from place to place for both brigades.
There are places where Hazm treats people well, and others where it treats people badly, and the same thing for Nusra. It depends on the fighters and leaders located in those areas.
Q: Was there any enmity between Nusra and Hazm before the dispute between the SRF and Nusra?
There wasn’t any clear enmity between Hazm and Nusra before Nusra and the SRF began to fight. Except for the fact that Nusra considers Hazm a brigade backed by America.
In general, this is the nature of all the Islamist brigades, they think that anyone who receives aid from the outside is subject to foreign conditions and agendas. I don’t know if Nusra is right or wrong when they talk about Hazm that way.
But in any case, Nusra was wary of Hazm merely because they thought that one day they would go to war. Just as Hazm believed that Nusra considered them kuffar and apostates and that they would one day go to war.
Q: Why wasn’t al-Jabha a-Shamiya able to prevent Harakat Hazm from killing the Nusra emirs, despite the fact that it accepted the responsibility for that in an announcement? And why wasn’t it able to present those who had killed the emirs to a sharia court?
It’s true, we weren’t able to prevent Hazm from killing those Nusra emirs, and we weren’t able to present those who killed them to the sharia court. We couldn’t do that because we didn’t know with certainty that they would kill them, or that they had them in custody, especially considering Hazm never said that officially.
Q: What do residents think of the fighting that occurred between the two groups in the Western Aleppo countryside?
Most of the residents of the Fauj 46 area and al-Atarib are families and sons of fighters in Harakat Hazm. There’s another group whose sons are fighters with Nusra, so the street is split, but the majority are supporters of Hazm because the locals are the ones who created Hazm in the area.
Q: Do you think that Hazm will undertake a counterattack against Nusra or take revenge for its fighters who were killed?
I don’t think Hazm will undertake a counterattack against Nusra because of their major losses in Fauj 46, because this loss broke Hazm’s back. I don’t think that Hazm will respond at the current time, especially after it dissolved itself and joined al-Jabha a-Shamiya and other battalions.
Q: What are the practical steps that al-Jabha a-Shamiya undertook to stop the fighting?
We intervened to stop the fighting between the two sides, but the intervention was late and we arrived at the scene of the battle late, because we did not expect the fighting to happen that quickly. As for the rest of the battalions, we asked them to intervene but they only sent messages to both sides pleading with them not to fight, and they excused their absence by saying they were busy fighting on fronts against the regime.