PHOTO: Jaish al-Islam fighters in an offensive northeast of Damascus earlier this month
Jaish al-Islam is one of the largest factions in the Syrian rebellion, operating not only in southern Syria near its base close to Damascus but also in the north, including the Aleppo front.
The faction’s high-profile leader, Zahran Alloush, was killed on December 24 by a Russian airstrike. There were further setbacks in the spring with in-fighting with other rebel groups such as the Rahman Corps and a pro-Assad offensive that took part of the East Ghouta area near the capital.
However, Jaish al-Islam maintains that it is far from weakened, despite the daily bombing and shelling of the Damascus suburbs. Earlier this month, it launched its “al-Riqaa” offensive, taking territory northeast of the capital, and it is involved in the rebel advances on the front southwest of Aleppo city.
Last week, the Jaish al-Islam spokesman, Captain Islam Alloush, gave an extensive interview on the political and military situation. The exclusive English translation by EA staff member M.B.:
The Situation Near Damascus
Have your recent offensives achieved their objectives since the start of the al-Riqaa battle series?
Yes, we have achieved 70% to 80% of the targets that we set in East Ghouta and Eastern Qalamoun.
What is the current situation in the city of Daraa and in the Yarmouk Basin [in western Daraa Province] as the fronts against the regime are static while the ISIS-affiliated faction Army of Khalid Bin al-Waleed is active? Do you have any presence there?
Yes, we do have troops in Daraa.
The situation in Daraa varies from one area to another, according to circumstances. We understand the situation of the military formations in each Syrian area. What applies to the north — for example — does not apply to East Ghouta or Daraa, and vice versa. We also do not accept distrust of any military formation under any circumstances, without evidence and proof.
The Military Operations Center [the international operations room in Amman, Jordan] is increasingly accused of crippling battles against the regime. One of the rebel factions associated with MOC has asked to leave.
What is your stance on the MOC, especially as one of your officials has previously accused the Rahman Corps [which was in armed conflict with Jaish al-Islam in the East Ghouta area this spring] of receiving support from the MOC?
We call on all groups and actors on the ground to work to achieve the interests of the Syrian revolution, with emphasis on the need not to abandon relations with parties supporting our revolution. But we also demand that the countries involved should not have a negative impact on our revolution.
We view all the influential parties through the lenses of the Syrian agenda. We thank whoever serves the interests of the Syrian people and helps them to achieve their aspirations. And we stand against whoever serves the interests of the enemies of the Syrian people and suppresses their demands. According to this parameter, we evaluate all parties.
Also, unless there is valid proof, we cannot accuse anyone of treason or of working against the interests of the Syrian people on the basis of mere lies or speculations.
Have your disputes with the Rahamn Corps come to an end? What’s your comment on the Corps’ decision to dissolve all the security checkpoints in Eastern Ghouta?
What we and the Rahamn Corps have agreed upon has not been accomplished. We are still waiting for them to hand over the rest of the arms and the factories they detained, only some of which were returned to us.
No doubt, we have been waiting for the Rahman Corps to take this step for a long time now, after we took the same step in Jaish al-Islam a long time ago. But we have concerns and doubts that this step will remain on paper, because in reality, parties dig in the institutions of the Corps, preventing any substantial change.
Syrian people demand that the military and suppressive approach of the Corps towards its rivals needs to be changed, in addition to ending violations of human rights and ensuring that laws are enforced by the judicial institutions following the absence of state Suthority in the region.
Situation in Northwest and the “Nusra Question”
Rebels in northern Syria are active in Aleppo. Can you explain to us your role in Aleppo?
Jaish al-Islam is a member of the Aleppo operations room. It took part in the breaking of the siege. Last Thursday our fighters regained control over points where Assad forces had taken control in al-Qarassi to the southwest of Aleppo. We killed many troops of the regime and sectarian militias supporting it. But media, unfortunately, does not attribute this to us in many cases, and I do not only mean in the case of Aleppo.
After a long wait, Jabhat al-Nusra announced its disengagement from Al Qa’eda and changed its name to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, with its emphasis on work inside Syria only. What is your comment on the changes made by the organization, and whether you can see your differences with them reduced after this move?
There is no doubt that the disengagement from Al Qa’eda is in the interest of the Syrian people and achieves the Syrian agenda that the revolutionaries in this country are pursuing.
But we should keep in mind that the announcement from Jabhat al-Nusra’s leader Abu Mohammed al-Joulani did not declare explicitly the disengagement from Al Qa’eda. When we followed up with their announcement, we only found that the name was changed. So, we are wondering about this, with no clear answer. We need a justification from Jabhat Fatah al-Sham.
The name is not enough for a change. The required change is the change of the previous ways in which Jabhat al-Nusra dealt with rebels, detaining them without bringing them before a court and presenting them instead to a special Nusra tribunal.
We are still waiting for practical steps in this direction. We are waiting for action on the ground, including the release of detainees from other military factions and acceptance of Sharia courts demanded by Syrian people in several areas.
What is your position about [the rebel bloc] Jaish al-Fatah and the demands that factions of Northern Syria join the bloc in a military framework?
The Jaish al-Fatah operations room is a military operations room that is fighting the regime in several areas.
A military union is wider than all the existing operation rooms in Syria. If we want to reach the military union desired, we should form the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the Syrian military forces, making them the only umbrella for these forces. This would unify the military efforts within a regulatory administrative framework, and not within a framework that follows individual operations rooms as well as the military factions.
There are increasing calls by your followers to abandon the flags of “Army of Islam” and to lift instead the flag of the revolution. Is it possible that the Army of Islam responds to these demands, especially that its leaders wave flags of the revolution in their official speeches?
The position of Jaish al-Islam to the revolution flag is clear and it has been declared in more than one occasion. Moreover, Jaish al-Islam sees itself as one of the military formations of the Syrian revolution, working according to its principles, and not deviating from its objectives. The flag raised by the bloc now belongs to Jaish al-Islam in order to distinguish it from other factions of the revolution.
Relations with Outside Powers
What is your position to the recent Russian-Turkish rapprochement, even though Moscow is still an active ally of the Assad regime and commits many massacres in northern Syria?
There is no doubt that Turkey is an important ally and friend of the Syrian revolution. It is an independent sovereign state that has its own interests. And just as Turkey and other countries do not interfere in our internal issues, we do not interfere in their internal affairs which do not do harm to the affairs of our revolution in Syria.
We hope that this rapprochement is in the interests of the Syrian revolution and that both Turkey and Russia reach political agreements that would stop Russia’s support for the Assad regime, which committed the most heinous atrocities against the Syrian people. The bombing and killing in Aleppo and other regions of Syria are known by all nations.
Some say you still receive support from Saudi Arabia, while others see that disputes erupted between Jaish al Islam and Riyadh following the killing of Sheikh Zahran Alloush. What are your current relations with Saudi Arabia, and what is your position to its policy towards the Syrian revolution?
Saudi Arabia is a friend and an ally supportive of the Syrian revolution. However, we in Jaish al-Islam have not received any Saudi military or logistic support. As far as we know, Saudi Arabia is involved in military support only through the international cooperation rooms, which in turn do not support Jaish al-Islam.
Activists accuse the UAE of fighting the Syrian revolution in secret. Do you see any role for the UAE in Syria?
We establish our positions to any actor in Syria in accordance with documentation on its positions. We do this either according to what our intelligence informs us, or according to statements by an actor.
Thus, we cannot accuse anyone of being an enemy of the Syrian revolution unless they acknowledge being an enemy, or unless we get reports indicating this.
As for the UAE, it always expresses its support for the Syrian revolution through its officials.
Can you comment on [the US envoy] Michael Ratney meeting with the Syrian opposition coalition, and whether you see that the future of such meetings is fruitful?
We cannot confirm the validity of leaks about what happened inside the meeting, and even the information that was leaked was nothing new.
The US has long expressed its stance to communicate with the Russians and Kurds. This is the viewpoint of the US.
This position should be held, on the basis of information on the ground and globally, in a way that does not violate the principles of the Syrian revolution.
The Kurds and the Islamic State
What is your position to the Kurdish units which are fighting the rebels and want to declare an independent state?
The unity of the Syrian nation is one of the principles of the Syrian revolution that won’t be compromised. The rebels are the ones who protect the Syrian people from the brutality of its enemies: the regime and Daesh [the Islamic State]. So, to target the rebels is to target the Syrian people, and this is something that cannot be accepted.
How do you see the future of the Islamic State and regime in Damascus Province specifically, and the rest of the regions of Syria generally? What causes ceasefires between you?
Daesh was eliminated in Eastern Ghouta and in Barzeh near Damascus. Many of its troops have been eliminated in the south of the capital.
Daesh is now focusing its attack on Eastern Qalamoun, so that they can gain access to Damascus. We are trying to prevent this.
The battles between us did not stop, they are still continuing. However, fighting stopped in Eastern Ghouta and in Barzeh because the organization [Islamic State] has been demolished there.
Finally, we would like to ask you about the American position in Syria, and whether Jaish al-Islam is interested in following the outcome of the Presidential election in America.
Certainly the US has an impact on Syria, and we hope that this impact remains positive, and not negative towards the crimes committed every hour in Syria.
We do keep an eye on American politics because it has an implication on the future of Syria and our revolution. But we do not interfere in the internal affairs of states, and we don’t want others to interfere in our business. This does not mean that our relations with friend and ally states are to break out.