Syria Interview: Free Syrian Army Commander Riad Al-Asaad "The Revolution is on the Right Track Now"
On 8 October, Al Jazeera English's Anita McNaught interviewed Free Syrian Army commander Riad Al-Asaad. While admitting rivalries and factions within the insurgency, Al-Asaad --- who had just announced he was moving from Turkey to lead operations from inside Syria --- assured that the FSA was in control of an advancing revolution.
Al-Asaad also spoke of the creation of a de facto buffer zone and complained of the difficulty of getting arms.
Anita McNaught: What do you think of the gains that the Free Army has made on the ground in this past week? Are they sustainable?
Riad al-Assad: After setting up the FSA, we decided we should make the military work straightforward, and make it correct... Now we’ve captured some areas and we want to create a buffer zone but we see the international community doesn’t help Syrians. We put a plan together, and last week there were special operations. We made gains on the ground and now we are on the outskirts of Jisr al Shughour. There are other plans for Idlib, Azmarin [and others] We are now controlling a lot of blocks [formerly] belonging to the regime and we are following this plan.
AM: What strategic errors has the FSA made in the past?
RA: There were no mistakes -- there were obstacles. We suffered a lot from these obstacles. Because of the lack of weapons, we’ve been cut off from the people --- even from Syrians. Those who isolated us, they considered themselves to be the ones who are in charge in this revolution. They tried to cut off the weapons supply. Everyone tried to take weapons for their own side.
On creating a buffer zone
AM:: Why does it matter to capture villages around Jisr Al Shughour? Why is this important?
RA: For some of the Syrian/Turkish border crossings --- Tal Abyat, Bab al Hawa, Bab al Salami --- we want to push forward to this area, because Jisr Al Shughour is near the border. Even Harem --- now we are working on it.
All of this is to make a buffer zone. We will make it happen, regardless of whether the international community helps us or not. And it will include Jebel Akhrad and Jebel Turkman, which are near the Syrian coast. Because there are a lot of places that have been liberated. And we have another strategic military reason... in the next few days you’ll see results, especially concerning Aleppo.
AM: How close are you, do you think, to creating a safe area along the Turkish border for the Syrian people?
RA: It is not far off. It’s close. But now we can’t announce a buffer zone because there are aircraft and we can’t stop them flying.
AM: Is it close or not?
RA: It is very close. Now we are taking advantage of the winter and the rain, because their aircraft can’t fly in these conditions. It will help us make a buffer zone.
AM: Do you think that the Turkish role is changing now? After the shelling in Akcakale when Turkey got so angry, do you think that Turkey is giving more help to the opposition fighters?
RA: We hope so. We thank Turkey for their humanitarian assistance. [But] we had hoped the Turkish government would take a bigger step and help us, especially with weapons, so we could move forward and end the battle fast. Every day there are more casualties and more destruction of our cities --– it’s costing us a lot.
AM: My question was, after Akcakale, after the shelling by the Syrian army on the Turkish side, they sent more weapons to the border, including more anti-aircraft weapons. Is this helping you? Is this keeping the Syrian airforce planes away from you?
RA: I wish that the Syrian planes wouldn’t get close, but we don’t see anything serious from Turkish side. Even after the Turkish troops got close to the border, the regime’s air craft bombed Salkin and Azmarin which are close to the borders.
AM: I thought the Turkish army was keeping the Syrian airforce away?
RA: It’s the business of Turkey – I can’t answer that question.
AM: Do you think the Syrian army is afraid of the Turkish Army?
RA: The regime army is terrified, even by the rebels. Its spirits are at rock bottom. And the biggest evidence is from the last two days....They just ran away, so we liberated more than three districts very fast....Now they are trying to drag Turkey into the war to give Iran a reason to interfere. That’s what we think…
AM: So you think Turkey is smart to stay out of things?
RA: Until now, Turkey has managed to avoid this. There have been a lot of violations by the regime's army against Turkish territory. It’s not the first time. It’s ongoing....We predict that Turkey will maintain its smart position, and not do anything....
AM: I think the major Western powers were rather hoping Turkey would do something on its own?
RA: Turkey is a member of NATO. I expect if America wants to do any thing, it would put Turkey in front, with America working from behind.
And neither America nor Europe want Turkey to be a strong country in Middle East.
AM: Why have you come here [into Syria] at this moment? Why did you decide to come inside today, or this week?
RA: There were some obstacles preventing me from entering Syria that I can’t mention now.…The revolution must be put back on the right track. We are making a new plan for the military revolution. So we took the decision to be on the ground and see the reality for ourselves. And change how things are going, to make the regime fall.
From the moment I arrived here, very good operations have been carried out... Some people - even Syrian people --- try to put obstacles in the face of FSA. The fighters are aware of this. And this was what I had to change. We think the revolution is on the right track now… it’s on the right track.
On splits in the FSA
AM: I know you’ve been doing a lot of work on trying to unify the command. How is that work going?
RA: From the beginning when we established the Free Syrian Army, our goal was to unify the fighters. It has a great name and we kept working on it --- we did a really good job....Until recent months, when some people appeared and tried to hijack the revolution or use it....We really don’t know what their aim was.
So they accused us, and tried to cut off all our support from the outside, but thank God they couldn’t cut it....We are calling for unity. We are the ones who want unity. If anybody wants unity, it’s the Free Syrian Army.
We wish the others all the best. But the Syrian people are aware of what’s going on. They know who are the honest ones and they know who’s trying to turn things to his advantage....
AM: How are relations with Mustafa al-Sheikh [a former Syrian army General who defected] these days? Are you together or apart?
RA: There is no dispute, just differences of opinion. We are always trying to unify everyone, ideally. We’re on good terms with everybody. We are working, co-operating with everybody regardless of who they are.
AM: Is it a marriage or a divorce? Are you marrying or divorcing?
RA: No no no. We are together. You know the situation on the ground. We are working with each other.. there is total co-ordination between us.
AM: Who has the more support? Mustafa al-Sheikh or you, among the fighters and the people who supply the money and the weapons?
RA: I don’t know. As far as we’re concerned we haven’t had enough weapons supplies for four months. Four months…! You can’t even call it support.