TELL ABYAD, Syria — The Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa (Raqqa Revolutionaries' Brigades), affiliated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), is one of the factions that has continued to wage war against the Islamic State (IS). In an interview with Al-Monitor, the brigade’s commander, known by the nom de guerre Abu Issa, said that his brigade had joined the Syrian Democratic Forces, which includes Kurdish, Arab, Turkmen and Christian factions, as part of a strategy to combat the terrorism of IS and other extremist organizations. He also said the brigade's war against the Syrian regime continues unabated and emphasized that Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa remains committed to the Syrian revolution, as evidenced by its continuing to raise the Syrian revolutionary flag.
Abu Issa sat for an interview with Al-Monitor on Feb. 10 at one of his headquarters in the Tell Abyad countryside in Raqqa province and continued the conversation by phone in March.
Al-Monitor: As part of the Syrian Democratic Forces, what role does Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa play in liberating the Syrian part of upper Mesopotamia and maybe Raqqa in the future? Will you play a pivotal part in operations, or will your participation be limited to being part of a military alliance, as was the case in Kobani?
Abu Issa: Since their establishment in October 2015, we have comprised an integral part of the Syrian Democratic Forces, which aim to gain control of most of the Syrian part of upper Mesopotamia [which includes Raqqa, Deir ez-Zor, and Hasakah]. Each military faction therein plays a part in combating IS, and our part is equal to any other faction of the Syrian Democratic Forces.
Our latest campaign, which led to the successful capture of the Tishrin Dam, in Raqqa’s countryside, gave us control over a strategic crossroads that cut off access between IS-controlled Raqqa and Manbij, in Aleppo’s countryside. In parallel, a campaign was launched in Hasakah’s southern countryside, where the towns of al-Hawl and al-Shaddadi were liberated. All these battles took place with the coordination and participation of all Syrian Democratic Forces’ factions, each of which was positioned in predetermined locations, extending from Hasakah province through Raqqa province, all the way to Aleppo’s countryside. We currently control approximately 25 square kilometers of land between the western edge of Tell Abyad and northern Raqqa, all of which is on the direct front line with IS.
Syria's northern regions have witnessed some of the heaviest fighting against IS. Click the picture above to view photos of the aftermath of IS battles and capture of towns.
All member factions play a role in the military strategy of the Syrian Democratic Forces, for we all agree that these forces will form the nucleus of a future army for a democratic Syria. Moreover, each faction will play a role in its own home area, because it would be illogical that we, who hail from Raqqa, march on to take control of areas in Hasakah province, with an overwhelming Kurdish majority, for example, and our ultimate goal is to hand over the administration of each region to its own inhabitants.
Al-Monitor: In November, news spread that Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa had withdrawn from the Syrian Democratic Forces as a result of a dispute about the formation of a tribal army in Raqqa’s countryside, but you later reconsidered and went back on your decision. Why?
Abu Issa: There was a minor disagreement pertaining to some individual mistakes committed by both sides. The issue was resolved, and everything is back to normal. The main reason behind our withdrawal was the formation of the tribal army, which became a hindrance to our efforts due to a lack of equipment and the poor support that it received. The formation of that army required financial support, weapons, ammunition and vehicles, which were never adequately made available.
The purpose of forming the tribal army was to make it clear to the world that the tribes stood against IS, particularly in light of the latter’s constant claims and statements that the tribes had pledged it allegiance. As a result, the formation of the tribal army was a reply to [Abu Bakr] al-Baghdadi and his organization’s lies. It also was a political message of reassurance to the inhabitants of Raqqa and the world that the tribes stood against IS.
Al-Monitor: Many of the Syrian armed opposition factions in the region were defeated by IS, which has controlled Raqqa since 2013. How has Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa endured when others have failed? Could you tell us about your experiences against IS and the factors that aided the latter in taking control of Raqqa.
Abu Issa: Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa is part of the Syrian revolution and participated in operations against the Syrian regime from the start. In June 2012, we initiated the armed revolution against the regime, and in September of that same year, we, and other factions, succeeded in liberating the towns of Tell Abyad and Suluk, as well as the Raqqa prison and the governorate in the city. But, a dispute ensued between three groups for control over the governorate, namely, Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa, Ahrar al-Sham [Islamic Movement of the Free Men of the Levant] and other factions that espouse IS ideologies.
In January 2013, a decisive battle took place in Raqqa to prevent it from falling into the hands of IS. We, Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra agreed to join forces and fight IS, but we were betrayed by Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra, both of which fled the battlefield on the fourth day of combat. Left alone, Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa was unable to defeat IS as the battle raged on for 14 days. When we pulled out of Raqqa, our control encompassed approximately 40% of the province’s countryside, but a shortage of weapons and ammunition forced us to withdraw from the city toward Sireen, in Aleppo’s countryside.
Subsequent to seizing Raqqa, IS took control of Tell Abyad after battles with Ahrar al-Sham and then continued on to overrun the town of Tabaqa. As a result, our situation became precarious, due to the fact that the most strategic points in the province had fallen to IS. Had it not been for the betrayal of the two other factions, Raqqa would now be governed by its people and not by IS. It should be said though that our alliance with Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra was not that strong and was solely aimed at defending Raqqa from IS’ grasp and ideology.
At that time, around 35 IS militants defected and joined our ranks when they realized that IS’ intentions did not serve the interests of the Syrian people. One of those defectors, who goes by the name of Abu Assad, told us that they defected when they found out that IS was coordinating with the regime as well as killing, torturing and kidnapping civilians.
Afterwards, we tried to eliminate one of IS’ commanders, Abu Omar al-Shishani, in the 11-day-long battle of Sireen, but we suffered great casualties, with over 40 dead and 60 wounded, forcing us to retreat toward Kobani.
As for our endurance in the fight against IS, it is attributable to our level of organization and strength, for many of the weaker factions fell victim to IS.
Al-Monitor: As part of the Syrian Democratic Forces, is Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa receiving adequate support in preparation for the battle to liberate Raqqa? Can you tell us about the level of support that you are receiving?
Abu Issa: The establishment of the Syrian Democratic Forces was predicated on them receiving adequate support to combat IS and terrorism. But, the truth of the matter is that the world has let us down in this fight and failed to provide us with enough support. Even American support was lax, with very few shipments sent to the Syrian Democratic Forces. Of course, I cannot deny the role played by the international coalition’s air forces, which flew sorties in support of the Syrian Democratic Forces. But, a lot of the talk about support is untrue, and we have seen no serious efforts to support the liberation of Raqqa. We would have been informed if any entities wanted to offer support, and liberation would have been led by Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa. Our complement of arms right now consists of weapons seized from IS, but these weapons are not enough to liberate Raqqa and its countryside.
With proper support, Raqqa would be delivered from the grip of IS. Our ranks include a lot of men, and many of the province’s inhabitants will rise to liberate their homeland. But, what use are men without weapons? We also lack vehicles, which is greatly degrading our abilities. Sufficient support to the Syrian Democratic Forces will also help liberate Raqqa, Hasakah, Aleppo’s countryside and Deir ez-Zor, and by sufficient support we mean advanced and effective long-range weapons, such as TOWs and Konkurs.
I would like to point out here that without international support, we will not be able to soldier on in our fight against IS until liberating Raqqa. Should we continue with these feeble capabilities and weaponry, we might fall prey to IS, and we refuse to be easy targets.
Al-Monitor: Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa continues to raise the flag of the Syrian revolution, despite the fact that after you joined the Syrian Democratic Forces, some FSA factions and other activists accused you of belonging or being subservient to the Kurdish People's Protection Units [YPG]. Also, you are being accused of helping the Kurds attain their dream of autonomous rule or attempted secession from Syria. How do you respond?
Abu Issa: Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa is part of the Syrian revolution, and we are one of the factions that continues to raise the flag of the Syrian revolution, because we remained faithful to our principles and believe that hundreds of thousands of Syrians lost their lives for this flag. The rhetoric that you mentioned and the accusations against the Kurds are due to the fact that Kurdish troops make up part of the Syrian Democratic Forces. It should be noted here that each Syrian region has its own specificities and tensions. Some express reservations about the YPG, which they accuse of wanting to partition Syria or other similar plans, which is absolutely untrue. There are no such aspirations, and since the formation of the Syrian Democratic Forces, a plan was adopted by all factions to work together and do away with these barriers and misconceptions. Today we ask people to judge this experiment based on the realities on the ground and not hearsay alone.
Like others before us, we heard a lot about the intention of the Democratic Union Party [PYD] or the YPG to secede or partition the country and collaborate with the Syrian regime. But, throughout my relationship with the YPG and us fighting side by side against IS in Kobani, I never noticed any intent to secede. Also, we must not forget that many Kurdish factions with close ties to the YPG fought against the regime in Aleppo’s countryside.
In addition, I must point out that Hasakah province has its specificities and suffers from Kurdish-Arab tensions seeded by the Syrian regime. The truth of the matter is that most of the province’s Arab inhabitants remain loyal to the regime, and disaster would have ensued between the parties had the rhetoric about partitioning and secession proven to be true. In that context, the Democratic Autonomous Administration and the Syrian Democratic Forces have succeeded in establishing true conviviality between all components of society, as proven by the fact that the regime no longer has a presence in the area, except in a few security strongholds in the cities of Qamishli and Hasakah.
Following the liberation of Tell Abyad, a civilian administrative tribal council was formed to include all components of society there. I can affirm in this regard that the country’s fate will be decided by the Syrians who respect the rights of all, including the rights of Kurds, who themselves have long been oppressed by the regime. We shall respect the will of the Syrian people, even if they agree to federalism or some other form of governance.
Al-Monitor: Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa is represented in the FSA, but military officers, politicians and Syrian activists have accused your partner, the Syrian Democratic Forces, of fighting against the FSA in Aleppo’s countryside and of displacing the Arab population there. How do you respond to these accusations?
Abu Issa: Let me reiterate that each area has its own specificities and sources of tension. This revolution has engendered a lot of rhetoric, but we assert that as part of the Syrian Democratic Forces, we will never allow any confrontation against a faction that backs the Syrian revolution. Neither the Syrian Democratic Forces nor Kurdish troops intend to confront factions belonging to the FSA, for our aim is to combat IS and terrorism.
Here, we must clarify which factions are actually considered to be part of the FSA. It is unreasonable to characterize any clashes between Syrian Democratic Forces and this faction or that as representing a conflict with the FSA or an attack upon it. Lately, Jaish al-Thuwar, which is part of the Syrian Democratic Forces, agreed with certain military factions in Aleppo’s countryside [Ahrar al-Sham] not to conduct operations against each other and clearly stated that their common enemy was IS. Yet, this does not mean that we will not confront Jabhat al-Nusra and other extremist factions as well!
Concerning the issue of Kurds displacing Arabs, we also heard such stories, but never saw any proof of it. In our military alliance with the YPG, and our political presence within the Syrian Democratic Council, which includes the PYD, we never noticed anything related to displacement or a desire to fight the FSA. In May 2015, I told the press that Arabs were never displaced from Tell Abyad, although there were some villages whose IS-affiliated inhabitants left and did not return. Even here, in this village that we control, there are families who have not returned because members of it continue to follow IS and are fighting in the latter’s ranks in Raqqa.
Al-Monitor: Politically, you are part of the Haytham Manna-led Syrian Democratic Council, which includes the PYD, itself accused of collaborating with the regime and Russia, which is accused of shelling Syrian cities. How do you explain that?
Abu Issa: Our stance vis-à-vis Russia is clear, and we will never accept Russian support here at a time when Russia is killing Syrians elsewhere. A political entente perhaps exists between the PYD and Russia, but militarily, there is no cooperation between the Syrian Democratic Forces and Russia.
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