The shocking rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and its rampage across Iraq has taken attention away both from the conflict in neighboring Syria and the other organizations seeking the downfall of Bashar Al-Assad’s government.
At the height of the world’s interest in the Syrian war, the Syrian National Coalition was feted by Western governments as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people, an umbrella organization that sought to include all the rebel groups battling Assad under its aegis and wield them into an alternative government and military for the war-torn country. As ever, the course of events proved to be far from predictable, frustrating the Coalition’s plans for a post-Assad Syria and worsening its factional infighting.
Today, the Coalition struggles to remain relevant in the face of the advance of ISIS and the resilience of Assad and his forces, which have managed—with help from regional allies—to turn the tide against the rebels in much of Syria.
Asharq Al-Awsat spoke to the man elected recently to lead the Coalition, Hadi Al-Bahra, about its struggles to aid Syrians displaced by the conflict, the recent violence on the Lebanese border, and the relationship between the Coalition and the various armed groups on the ground in Syria.
Asharq Al-Awsat: What is currently being discussed at the meeting of the Syrian National Coalition’s political leadership in Istanbul?
Hadi Al-Bahra: The meeting deals with the main hot issues in the region, such as the issue of the Lebanese town of Arsal and the tragic situation of [Syrian] refugees in Lebanon, particularly after the targeting of refugee camps as a result of the fighting [in Arsal]. Around 828 tents have been set on fire. That is, at least 828 families are displaced now. For the time being, we are looking at the nature of the events and at how to restore the situation in the area to normality in a way that does not pose security risks to the safety of [Syrian] refugees and civilians in Lebanon. We are also considering the formulation of a humanitarian plan aimed at rebuilding [refugee] camps and securing tents and food aid.
I would also like to point out that there are refugees in Lebanon who are not officially registered as refugees in the UN. They are only registered in the UN for statistics purposes but not in an official way. I think this has created a legal problem for the UN, given that it is not providing them with aid as refugees.
Q: Is this the situation of all refugees across Lebanon, or just the ones in Arsal?
The problem is that the very Lebanese state does not recognize Syrian refugees as official refugees. And thus the UN cannot officially register them either. The UN only register their names but cannot deal with them as a part of a full program that recognizes them as refugees in the same way it deals with the Syrian refugees in Jordan, for example.
Commitment to the safety of refugees in Lebanon is very significant because there is a faction in Lebanon that incites people to breaking rank and sows discord between [Syrian] refugees and the Lebanese people, which leads to behaviour that does not serve the interests of either side.
What happened in [Arsal] has its roots [in past incidents]. At the beginning [of the Syrian crisis], Lebanon decided to adopt a policy of “self-distancing.” We understand the independence of Lebanon and its historical experience, as well as the boundaries within which it can move. But in fact, Lebanon has been completely involved in the situation in Syria, because Hezbollah, as we all know, is a partner in the political decision-making apparatus in Lebanon. When the [Lebanese] government turns a blind eye to Hezbollah’s entry into Syria, through Lebanon, and the participation of its militias in crimes against humanity on a daily basis against the Syrian people, this brings into question the legal status [of the Lebanese government] and its interests in the involvement of Lebanese nationals in the crimes of the Syrian regime.
We understand adopting a policy of “self-distancing,” but we do not understand [Beirut’s] silence on the presence of Hezbollah’s militias in Syria and their daily crossing of the Lebanese–Syrian border without any official response from the government. This is what caused tensions along the border [between the two countries].
Q: How can this issue be dealt with?
By withdrawing Hezbollah militias from Syria and ending its participation, alongside the regime, in the killing of the Syrian people and committing crimes.
Q: In your opinion, who is to blame for Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria?
If the Lebanese state cannot exercise its sovereignty, it damages its own prestige, authority and state integrity. It is the responsibility of the Lebanese government, in which Hezbollah is an active partner. This in itself poses a problem in terms of the legality of this intervention. Is Hezbollah interfering [in Syria] as a party, or as a partner in and on behalf of the [Lebanese] government? We should clarify this problem and find solutions for it.
Q: How true are the accusations of the Syrian regime standing behind radical Islamist groups?
If the regime is not directly involved with these organizations, it is at least the one who facilitated the release of many prisoners with terrorist tendencies in order for them to form terrorist organizations. It laid the ground for these groups to exist and operate inside and then outside Syria.
Q: ISIS seems to be spreading within the ranks of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in a way that will almost eliminate the moderates. What fate awaits the FSA?
Not all armed battalions can be labelled as being radical or loyal to ISIS. ISIS is obviously a terrorist organization which has an ideological agenda and wants to impose its presence through force of arms and beheadings, an approach which contradicts the principles of the Syrian revolution and Islam. Therefore, this organization falls outside both the framework of Islamic Da’wa (proselytising) and the Syrian revolution of freedom and dignity, and thus cannot be labelled as an opposition force. Rather, it is a terrorist force that controls territory in Syria and Iraq and maybe Lebanon also.
However, the other [Islamist] factions are neither radicals nor terrorists. The Islamic Front is pretty different [from ISIS] and includes several fighting groups, including six major ones. The Islamic Front does not seek [to promote] an absolute radical [agenda] and this is why it has gone through several stages. At the beginning, it had a dream of establishing an Islamic caliphate, which it then replaced with a less ambitious aim of seeking the implementation of an Islamic system based on Shari’a law, before eventually pursuing more realistic aims. The Islamic Front is an organization that believes in Islam and the different means of its application. But now it believes predominantly that it cannot use arms to impose its presence, and has realized that the only way to establish itself is through peaceful Da’wa . . . and ballot boxes.
Q: What about the rest of the rebel factions?
The majority of the remaining factions are moderate and remain an effective power in Syria. I do not deny that we lack control on the ground. ISIS and the regime control the largest part of territory and are both fighting the FSA.
The FSA’s slow response in dealing with [ISIS] is the reason for the spread of this group. The shortage of support, both in terms of quality and quantity, and negligence on the part of the supporting countries have been the main reasons behind the spread of ISIS, which is now in control of around 32 percent of Syrian territory and is extending [its influence] on a daily basis.
The regime, at the same time, is spreading gradually. But the map of influence in Syria is dynamic not static, and the regime is, like the FSA, in a backward and forward movement.
Q: Have you called for US airstrikes against ISIS in Syria?
We only requested [from the US] what we need to deal with the problem ourselves and with our blood. But no support has been given, nor an alternative to it [proposed], as happened, for example, in Iraq. The level of support has remained the same despite their knowing that we are fighting two wars, one against the regime and one against ISIS. This has led to a shrinking of the areas controlled by the opposition compared to ISIS and the regime.
Q: How long can you hold out, under the current circumstances?
Of course, neither ISIS nor the regime can achieve an absolute victory, because the land is our land and the people are our people. We are present in the center of Damascus, Aleppo and across Syria. It is a matter of time . . . and capabilities. Therefore, we cannot say that people have lost confidence in the revolution or that the opposition has suffered a military defeat. The “crisis-is-over” theory propagated by the regime does not exist [on the ground].
Q: Why are you fighting both sides? Why not concentrate on one enemy at a time, as ISIS and the Syrian government do?
For me, as a legitimate political representative of the [Syrian] people, I cannot ally with any organization that does not comply with the objectives of the revolution, let alone a military one using Islamic Shari’a and religion to justify unacceptable practices and . . . wrest areas out of the control of the FSA on behalf of the regime. Therefore, we consider the threat of radical groups as being similar to that of the regime.
Q: What about your ties with the Al-Nusra Front?
We are against any organization that tries to impose an ideology or doctrine on people. And we think there is an ideological similarity between the Al-Nusra Front and ISIS. So far, there has not been any cooperation between the two, but they both belong to the same ideological trend and school of thought. These organizations intimidate the Syrian people.