Although the Lebanese General Security Directorate released him 20 days ago — after making sure he was not involved in any security incidents in Lebanon — Free Syrian Army (FSA) commander Col. Abdullah al-Rifai is still confined in Arsal due to death threats and rampant kidnappings undertaken by unknown perpetrators in town.
Rifai was arrested in November 2014 at a Lebanese army checkpoint, as he was en route, along with a person from Arsal, to the barren lands with no ID. It is probable that someone ratted him out.
The security services interrogated Rifai. He told An-Nahar, “They wanted to know about my ties with Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State (IS), and whether or not I took part in the Arsal battle, or if I have any plans in Lebanon. As for the ID issue, it was secondary.”
Rifai and the soldiers
Analysts in Lebanon linked the detention and release of Rifai to the soldiers kidnapped by Jabhat al-Nusra and IS. Yet Rifai denied it, saying, “I was asked if I can help release the soldiers, and I said that I do not have influence on IS and Jabhat al-Nusra.” He spoke about how the issue of Hezbollah captive Imad Ayyad was resolved, and described what Hezbollah did to liberate him as “bad,” as the group arrested women and children of an FSA member, Al-Omda, to exchange them for the captive. “They also handed over to us two Syrians who were not part of the deal — one of them was from Homs and we do not know him, and the second was an elderly sheikh from Yabrud. This took place in the barren land of Assal al-Ward,” he continued.
While Rifai was absent, there was a 180 degree change in the barren lands. He said: “There were many changes. IS leaders entered the barren land and many have pledged allegiance [to it], particularly in the barren land of Qara and Jarjir, which are considered IS-affiliated military areas. Those who were there either pledged allegiance to [IS] or handed over their weapons and left. On the other hand, Jabhat al-Nusra is trying to gain more power in the regions under its control in Flita, al-Maarra and Assal al-Ward.”
Entry of IS to Lebanon
One of the FSA leaders in Qalamoun confirmed to An-Nahar on condition of anonymity that IS has about a thousand fighters while Jabhat al-Nusra has 600 fighters, and that he does not rule out an attempt by IS to enter Lebanon. “This is very probable, but we do not know their plans. Everyone knows that Jabhat al-Nusra and IS are no longer on good terms.”
He added, “There is great sensitivity between IS and Jabhat al-Nusra in the barren lands and there is the possibility that they will clash soon.” When asked if Jabhat al-Nusra will win, he replied, “The reality shows that IS is the strongest now, but the question is whether those who pledged allegiance to IS did so in a definitive manner or for their own interest? It is impossible that Abu Malik al-Shami pledges allegiance to IS; they previously proposed to him to do so but he refused.”
The FSA leader stated that nowadays, Abu Walid al-Maqdisi, a Sharia official in the region, leads IS, instead of Abi Abdulsalam al-Souri. He confirmed the presence of Lebanese nationals with IS and Jabhat al-Nusra, but not with the FSA, which is considered the weakest link in the barren lands and no one is joining it. “There are cells affiliated with Jabhat al-Nusra and IS in Arsal and they kidnap whoever they want,” he said.
700 FSA fighters
An-Nahar asked Rifai: Is there still a Free Syrian Army? He replied, “There are about 700 fighters in the barren lands, but they are afraid, and the majority of factions are torn between becoming affiliated with a given entity or maintaining their current situation. We are trying to adjust their situations. They currently have three options: either join Jabhat al-Nusra, or IS, or leave. A large number of them swore allegiance to IS while many will leave toward the eastern Qalamoun.”
Since the closure of lanes toward Arsal, support has been halted to all parties, but Rifai indicated that the most affected party by the separation of Arsal from the barren lands is the FSA, whose source of sustenance mainly depended on Arsal. This is not to mention that IS and Jabhat al-Nusra have their own ways to get supplies, and “we are currently unable to secure a mere bread loaf for our young men there,” he added.
Rifai will not take up arms against any faction in the barren lands. “Our main battle is currently against our main enemy, which is the Syrian regime, and therefore we join hands with every group in the barren lands against the regime. We hope that we would not take arms against one another at a certain time,” he said.
Rifai confirmed that the FSA was the “most afflicted with the snowstorm ‘Zeina,’ stuck in the mountains of Assal Al-Ward, and no one can reach them [now] as roads are blocked with snow.”
How do the fighters spend their days there? “The fighters in the barren lands stored food before the storm and winter came, but their supplies started to run out,” Rifai said.
As for gas, “There are gas stations in the desolate areas of Arsal, far from the locations of the Lebanese army, and are used by fighters there.”
Rifai criticized the decision to prevent bread supplies for the FSA, saying, “The FSA has distanced itself from the incident in Lebanon or Arsal. I condemned what happened in Arsal and I was against any intervention in Lebanon. I even gave orders to my troops not to be remotely involved in any battle in Arsal because the Lebanese army is not our enemy and we would like to preserve the security of refugees in Lebanon. As for Hezbollah, we are fighting against it because it is fighting us in Syria. If I returned to the desolated areas, I will fight against Hezbollah again, but not the Lebanese army.”
Rifai also denounced the bombing incidents in Lebanon, considering that they “are detrimental to the FSA and serve the interests of the Syrian regime.”
About a solution in Syria, Rifai said, “The political solution with Assad staying in power is no longer an option. As long as he remains in office, the battles will continue, but if he steps down, a political solution could be possible again. So far, scenarios are still blurry.”
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