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‘America's ‘moderate rebels’ in Syria formed mostly from criminal gangs’

What is the life of a Syrian rebel like? For those watching the events unfolding in Syria, it’s hard to tell who’s who; America claims it has some moderate rebels to support - but are there many of them? Who are these people fighting Assad in Syria? What are they fighting for? Do they have a common cause? We speak to a man who spent two years among the Syrian rebels, filming them for his reports. Journalist Bilal Abdul Kareem is on Sophie&Co today.


Sophie Shevardnadze: Bilal Abdul Kareem, journalist, documentary filmmaker who spent 2 years among the Syrian rebels - welcome to the show, it’s great to have you with us. Now, you’ve seen many foreign fighters in Syria. Who are the Westerners to come to fight in Syria? Are they mostly “born-again” muslims like you? Or do they have middle eastern routes. middle eastern background - who are these people?

Bilal Abdul Kareem: They are little bit of everybody. You’ve got everything from those who are accepted islam just like I did about 18 years ago, and you’ve got those who were born muslim but stopped practicing and then started practicing again for some reason, and you’ve got those who were always religious people. So, you’ve got a big mix of all different shapes & sizes..

SS: But why do so many return home, leave jihad? Are they tired of war?

BK: Actually, many of them do not return home. There are some who go back for various reasons: family reasons or injuries or whatever - which is normal. But the big portion of them stays right where they are.

SS: So you don’t feel like there’s a war fatigue among those people who are actually fighting?

BK: Amongst some of them - there is, because there’s been a lot of changes, the emergence of ISIS has really been a turn off for some of the fighters who had gone over there, who did not go over there to fight other muslim groups like ISIS, and they didn’t want to be caught up in that whole internal civil war within the civil war. So, yes, some of them did go back - but was it war fatigue? For many of them it was not. And some of the people are just caught in limbo, they can’t go back to their home countries.

SS: We’re going to get back to ISIS in just a little bit, but I want to talk about this people returning home, because, you know, we see over here how people are coming back. For instance, European countries - they are actually worried about fighters coming back from Syria because they think they’re ready and willing to stage a terror attack at home. Should they be worried? For instance, in Denmark, people who are returning from Syria or from warzones in muslim countries, they have special rehabilitation programs that these people have to go through before they can actually be back and be integrated into society again… So, should they be worried about these people coming back and staging terror attacks in their european homes?

BK: The program that they have in Aarhus which is in Denmark is not a program which is required, it is not an obligatory program in order to return to Danish society, because going to fight in foreign conflict is not a crime in Denmark. Of course, going to fight with a known terrorist group is a crime. However, just going to participate in a foreign conflict that is not against Danish troops - that is not a crime. So, no, it’s not obligatory. This is the first thing. The second thing is - do I believe that most of the foreign fighters that are there pose a threat to the Western society? The answer to that would be the vast majority - I’m going to say all of them, probably, except for a few because that’s normal, whenever you have people with guns, you’ve always got people who do all sorts of weird things - I don’t believe that they are a threat to Western society. However, it is very important to keep in mind that if Western society continues to antagonise and demonise and threaten to remove passports and citizenships, I cannot guarantee - of course, no one can guarantee - but it’s unlikely that that status quo is going to remain that way. It’s just normal, natural behaviour, that if someone feels antagonised, they turn one cheek, they turn second cheek, and then after that, they lash out. So I do believe that its’ very important that Western societies keep that in mind, because I think they’re trying to fix a problem that they don’t have.

SS: Alright, but the journalists, who cover war stories, often feel a thrill and they return to conflict zones over and over again. I even had a friend, a colleague, who was kidnapped, who was tortured, and then he went back again. Why is that happen? What was it for you, that made you stay for so long?

BK: Actually, I didn’t stay continuously for 2 straight years, but for the better part of two years, I was there. I would go back home and then go back and forth quite a few times. So, no, I wasn’t there two continuous years; however this was a story that I just felt that had to be covered, that was not being covered, that was so misunderstood, particularly by Western media. Middle Eastern media understood this a lot more because they’re accustomed to muslims and a way in which they think. However, I believe that Western society really missed the whole point here, and I think that they still do at some extent.

SS: Now, for a journalist in Syria, how big is a danger of being kidnapped?

BK: Big. Real big. I hope that was expressive enough for you. It’s very-very possible that you could be kidnapped. It’s a high probability. Not everybody, of course, but there are certain profiles of people who look like journalists, that become targets. As you can see, I don’t look like your average journalist, and that’s just reality, so I got overlooked for the most part.

SS: Moreover, you were able to gain the trust of some rebels - how does that happen? How should a journalist act in this situation, just give us some tips.

BK: I don’t know if I can give you tips, but I can tell you what happened in my case. Because I’ve already had a background on TV, some of them already knew me, so I, kind of, was able to break the ice before I even met them - that’s the first thing. The second thing is that I didn’t have a history of seditious media - meaning, that I would be after a story, just so that I can get some footage, take it back, add my own spin to it, add some things that they didn’t say, but take it out of context - I didn’t have a history of doing that. That gained some level of trust initially. Then I did my first and second and third piece, and then, after that, it was pretty easy for me.

SS: Let’s talk about rebels in Syria, because this is something that you know obviously a lot about. Now, these people, they were hardly ever united. Why are they fighting each other - I mean, don’t they share a common cause, “democracy in Syria”?

BK: No. They do not. The first issue is that, 90% of the fighters do not want democracy - and that’s a very-very key point. They’re not fighting for democracy. Initially, the biggest fighting force in Syria was the FSA. Initially, they wanted to have some democracy, or at least, that’s what it said on the face of it. But the reality is that they just wanted something other than what they had. And the only choice that they saw at that time was democracy. however, as the civil war continued, it took on an Islamic identity, and most of the fighting force that are there, are identified in some way, shape, form or fashion with Islam and wanting to have Islamic rule. Now, having Islamic rule does not mean ISIS-style of governance; Islamic rule is something that’s natural for Syrian people, because they are muslims. So, rather than trying to import American law, French law, British law to people who are already muslim, having Islamic law just seems to be a natural fit for a Syrian people.

SS: Will the ISIS threat actually finally unite the rebels?

BK: No, no way. I don’t believe that at all because, number one - none of the other rebel groups believe in ISIS, their treatment of the Syrian people. They are averse to ISIS, which is why…

SS: No, no, what I meant was that unite against ISIS - that’s what I meant. Will, maybe, all these fractions of rebels unite to fight ISIS, that’s what I meant.

BK: Well, the other groups are already fighting ISIS. That’s not new, that hasn’t started in the last week or two.

SS: But they won’t form a united front.

BK: A united front is a different issue. Are they all fighting ISIS? Yes. However, they have much more going on than just fighting ISIS. They are fighting ISIS, they are fighting Bashar Al-Assad, now they are dodging Western munitions, so they’ve got a lot on their plate. So, they will not be able to unite under that banner, because they don’t have one enemy - they have more than one enemy.

SS: Now, tell me more about what you’ve seen. Where does a group find weapons?

BK: Well, a lot of weapons are taken away from the regime forces, after a raid or an attack on a military base or a checkpoint - that’s one place. Sometimes, weapons are sold. Those weapons find their way into the hands of dealers that come outside the country, and they get sold to different factions.

SS: What happens when a rebel group moves into a town? What kind of governance does it impose? Do they build new infrastructure? What happens?

BK: That depends upon the groups, that upon what their goals are. For example, the Islamic groups, primarily, when they move into a area or a territory, they try to establish what’s called “mekkham”, which is court, so that they can try to govern the affairs of people, help them to solve problems, help them to… for example, if there’s a dispute between two people, so that there is some type of a system or governing body that can separate combatants or solve people’s issues. That’s the first thing that usually happens. Additionally, they’ll try to set up some of type of food distribution, if they have a link towards some of the different organisations that are giving out food aid - so that would be another thing. Thirdly, they try to establish some type of police force, so that if there’s a problem, there’s someone who can rapidly respond.

SS: What about the locals? Do they support them? Do they respond to that?

BK: That depends upon the group, again. The locals do not respond well to ISIS, they do not appreciate their presence in their territories, because they feel like they’re looked at as a second-class citizens in ISIS-controlled territories. However, some of the other groups are looked at a lot more favorable, like Ahrar ash-Sham, even Jabhat al-Nusrais looked at and respected a lot by the Syrian people, although they are not respected by Western entities, the situation is completely different inside the Syrian territories.

SS: Who plans the operations? Are the commanders ex-military, or do they have strategic planning?

BK: It could be any of the above. It could be someone who has strategic background, it could be somebody who was in the military, somebody who was flipping burgers at the local McDonalds just a year ago. It could be anybody. Sometimes, the commanders gain their experience in this war, because it has been going on almost for 4 years now.

SS: The rebels in Syria have been funded and armed by the U.S. and the European countries. Who was the West funding all along? Who are these “moderate rebels”, can you tell me?

BK: There has been funding, that’s come from the West. For example, there’s this group called “Abu Hassam”, and there are groups that are there. The FSA, they’ve received funding from Western sources and such like that. But, it’s a huge misnomer, it’s really something that I think makes good TV in the West, America and the UK who are funding this war - that’s just totally untrue…

SS: Not the war, but they are very specific about funding one type of rebels, which they call “moderate” - which I find kind of hard to understand, because, how do you make a difference between a moderate rebel and someone who is much more extreme?

BK: That’s not so difficult to do. You see, keep in mind, that this term, “moderate”, for them means “people they can control”. People who will do what they want them to do. People to whom they can say “stop” and they’ll stop, “go” and they’ll go - that’s what “moderate” means. It doesn’t mean anything else other than that. Somebody can have a beard down to his stomach, and they can say “lā ilāha illā-llāhu” all day long; if they feel that they can control him, then they will label him as a moderate.

SS: But how can you control this? You can be moderate one day and then turn into extreme the next morning. These things aren’t planned and these aren’t predictable things…

BK: We’re talking about human beings here at the end of the day. I mean, Saddam Hussein was a friend to the U.S. but we all saw the way that it went. So, yeah, these things can change, loyalties change, that’s normal in any type of an armed conflict.

SS: You’ve also said there’s mistrust towards the West, because their aid doesn’t come without strings attached. What strings? Are there other reasons for the mistrust?

BK: First of all, 90% of the rebel effort is dominated by the Islamic factions, and anybody who tells you different from that doesn’t know the realities on the ground. Additionally, the U.S., they’ve got their own agendas as well. They would like to continue to expand, they would like to continue to do their thing - so it’s a proxy war now. You see what I’m saying? It’s a proxy war.

SS: What do you think about the U.S.-led bombing campaign in Syria, is it helpful, is it working?

BK: No, it is not working, and it is not going to work. Unfortunately, I think that the world heavyweights - the Russians, the Americans, they don’t get it. They think that they are going to bring about some type of a good solution to this crisis by more bombs, more attacks. Just look at the situation with Al-Qaeda. Go back to 2001, Al-Qaeda was a small group that was confined basically to Afghanistan and some small cells around the world. But now, it has grown exponentially since that time. So, I think, Western powers really got to realize that this Islamic situation, the phenomenon that they are dealing with is not going to go away, it’s not going to just drive and blow away as they may want it to, and bombing is only going to make the situation worse. Significantly worse, and I’m really afraid of what’s going to happen next, because there’s no dialogue going on here. You’ve got each side thinking that they can just bomb their way and kill their way or whip their enemy into submission - that simply not going to happen. There’s no data at all from any analyst that would give you the impression that these islamic fighters are going to go away anytime soon.

SS: The group that you originally followed, Ahrar ash-Sham, it’s part of Syria’s Islamic front. It’s also been influenced by Al-Qaeda and cooperates with Al-Nusra front. So, it supports their terror tactics? I’m talking about beheadings, suicide bombings and all that.

BK: The first group that I met when I went into Syria initially was Ahrar ash-Sham, but you’ve got to understand the situation with Ahrar ash-Sham and the other groups that are out there. It is extremely rare that there is ever an attack on any type of Syrian regime-controlled area except that it includes several different factions. You often find that Jabhat al-Nusra works along with the FSA. You will find that Ahrar ash-Sham will work alongside with the other groups. Everybody eats in the same restaurants, everybody visits their wounded in the same hospitals. So, it’s not as you might think whereas it’s like “yeah, we aid a bit Al-Qaeda in their tactics.” Everyone there is focused very much on the Syrian conflict. Other Western powers, they want to make this… - and when I say “Western powers” I’m not limiting this only to the West, I’m including Russia as well - that they want to turn this somehow into some type of global affair. It’s not like that. That fits the narrative that some people wanted to fit, but the reality is that Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar ash-Sham and these other groups were very-very focused on the Syrian conflict. Other entities want it to be something else.

SS: Ok, but tactics are important, and you yourself said that if the West was willing, it would find a common ground, a compatible partner in islamic fighters in Syria. However, the West has already shown so much support for the rebels, and yet we see heads being cut off and you put that on the Youtube. We’ve seeing hearts being eaten out, and we see that on Youtube as well. I mean, that doesn’t really look compatible to me.

BK:I believe that you are grossly oversimplifying this issue. You’re putting all of the groups as if they were one, and that’s like saying that all of the humans are just one. Yeah, they all are from the human race, but the reality is that they all have different ideas and methodologies and different ideologies. So, firstly, their support for the rebels, quote on quote, hasn’t been much more than lip service, to be honest with you, because as I was there on the ground, you know, military advisors from the U.S. - I didn’t see them. Weaponry, all this advanced weaponry and all that was supposed to be there - I didn’t see that. So, I really think that all of that is really overstated. Actually, what I did see is lots of fighters running up on mountains and like that, poorly trained and poorly equipped, but continuing to carry on with what they have. So, I know that the narrative is that people around the world want to believe that U.S. is participating in people cutting folks heads off and such like that. The reality is that the U.S. doesn’t really have that much sway over the rebels, because if you don’t put anything on the table, then nobody is really going to respond to your call. While they’ve tried to lure some groups, a lot of the groups that they’ve lured are just criminal groups, because those are the ones who are going to willingly bow down to Western ideologies at the expense of the Syrian people - and I think that’s the dynamic that we’re seeing at some extent.

SS: How would you like to see the war end. A Sunni Islamic State?

BK: I’d like to see the war end with the Syrian people coming out on top. That’s first and foremost, whether it’s this or that, jump high, jump low - if the Syrian people come out on top, then all of this perhaps would have been worth it. As I mentioned earlier in the program, a lot of people around the world got to understand something. Syrian people are muslims. This is the first thing. People are not understanding why is this call for Islamic Sharia, or Islamic law - and that’s excluding ISIS’ version of it - why are people calling for that? In reality, the situation is that if you are sitting in the middle of Israel, it’s going to be natural that are people going to want jewish law to govern their affairs. If you’re sitting in the middle of a country where most of the people are buddhists, it’s going to be natural that people are going to want to have that type of governing system. So, I’m finding it difficult to believe why people are finding it hard to accept the fact that Syrians are muslims, so therefore, Islamic rule, Islamic law is not strange for them. But, it may be strange for people sitting in Moscow, or London, or Washington, but in reality the situation is that these people have a right to choose what they want to be governed by.

SS: What if they choose a secular law over islamic law? What if majority of Syrians do not want to have Islamic law imposed onto them? What if they want to live in a secular way? Do they get a choice?

BK:That has nothing to do with me. That’s something that the people and the people who want to govern them, they are going to have to kind of hash that out and sit down at the table and go over a little of this and a little of that. That has nothing to do with me.

SS: Alright, Bilal, it was so interesting to get your insight about the story and Syria and what’s going on with the rebels. Thanks a lot for this interview. We were talking to Bilal Abdul Kareem, a journalist, documentary filmmaker, we were talking about who are these rebels in Syria, and how would he like the war to end - someone who spent 2 years in Syria. That’s it for this edition of Sophie&Co, I’ll see you next time.