Below is something I thought might be pertinent amid the coverage of Madaya, the Damascus countryside town that has recently been subjected to a crushing siege by the regime and Hizbullah. I’ve translated a response from Ahrar al-Sham media activist Marwan Khalil (Abu Khaled al-I’lami) to criticism of Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusrah’s blockade of the Shi’ite regime loyalist towns of Kafarya and al-Fou’ah. The criticism, which Ahrar and Nusrah have received from multiple opposition quarters: Their siege of the towns actually isn’t intense enough.
Kafarya and al-Fou’ah are Idlib towns that have been stranded deep behind rebel lines since the Jeish al-Fateh (Army of Conquest) rebel coalition, of which Ahrar and Nusrah are the main components, swept the regime out of most of Idlib province in early 2015. The two towns were half of the September 2015 deal negotiated by, reportedly, Ahrar al-Sham and Iran; the other half were the Damascus countryside towns of al-Zabadani and Madaya.
Since then, Ahrar and Nusrah have been obliged, somewhat awkwardly, to respect a truce with pro-regime militias inside al-Fou’ah and Kafarya. They’ve also had to allow shipments of supplies to enter the two towns and, as part of a December swap, some residents of the towns to leave. Relief to any town under the truce has only been allowed on a reciprocal basis – thus, relief to Madaya this week had to be delivered simultaneously with relief to al-Fou’ah and Kafarya.
The deal has attracted critics, who argue that Ahrar and Nusrah have made some impermissible compromise with the regime and its allies or – to put it in crude sectarian terms – are “feeding the Rawafidh (Shi’a).” Abu Khaled was responding to a report from Murasel Souri (Syrian correspondent), a pro-opposition Syrian activist news outlet, claiming that shipments of food, water and diesel are being diverted by Ahrar and Nusrah to al-Fou’ah and Kafarya and that any talk of a “siege” is purely for media consumption. Others have echoed similar criticisms, ranging from premiere Salafi-jihadist theorist Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi to Syrian Revolutionaries Front chief Jamal Ma’rouf, a southern Idlib rebel warlord whom Nusrah ran out of the country in November 2014. (Ma’rouf’s tweets are translated below the jump.)
Nidhal Sbeih, former spokesman for the Syrian Revolutionary Front: “Picture of the day: One of the lions of Jabhat al-Nusrah proudly protects a bus of al-Fou’ah and Kafarya’s criminals.”
To be clear: I don’t think this intra-opposition static provides the whole story of conditions in al-Fou’ah and Kafarya, on which no one seems to have reported satisfactorily.
My impression, and what I’ve heard from others, is that Ahrar and Nusrah have not exercised leverage on al-Fou’ah and Kafarya (and thus Iran, Hizbullah and the Assad regime) by imposing the sort of crushing deprivation we’ve seen in Madaya. As Abu Khaled argues, al-Fou’ah and Kafarya benefit not just from relief shipments that fall under the Zabadani truce, but also from opportunistic residents of neighboring towns willing to sell supplies and from regime airdrops. Instead, rebels have leaned on the towns by shelling them indiscriminately and threatening them through conventional military means. Indeed, we saw Saudi jihadist evangelist and chief Jeish al-Fateh judge Abdullah al-Muheisini argue earlier this month al-Fou’ah should be “exterminated” if the siege on Madaya weren’t lifted.
That said, by at least some accounts – in one case, local militiamen who had been evacuated to Lebanon – residents of the two Idlib towns are also desperate enough to eat grass. I don’t know.
But the political dimensions of the al-Fou’ah–Kafarya siege and the controversy it has stirred within some parts of the opposition are knowable.
In some ways, the criticisms of Ahrar and Nusrah are a mirror image of loyalist outrage over the Syrian regime’s recent truce with Homs’s rebel-held al-Wa’ar neighborhood. They seem to be more evidence of the popular resistance – on both sides – to any deal, on any terms.
Ahrar al-Sham media activist Abu Khaled al-I’lami, January 7 2015
“In response to the accusations of treason leveled by Murasel Souri against the factions active on the Kafarya and al-Fou’ah fronts”
My revolution has taught me that there are opportunists who wait to take advantage of some moments.
When Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusrah lost nearly 56 men in their last battle with [regime forces in al-Zabadani and al-Fou’ah], we found that everyone was silent. But when we managed to get our wounded out of besieged al-Zabadani in exchange for al-Fou’ah’s wounded leaving, suddenly we were feeding the Rawafidh (derog., Shi’a) and taking money. Anyone who says, “Attack al-Fou’ah,” says that because he doesn’t have a relative under siege [in al-Zabadani]. All of our people have learned this language, these accusations of treason and empty theorizing. It reminds me of when we used to play strategy games.
Yes, I won’t claim that al-Fou’ah and Kafarya are entirely besieged. There are failures to which everyone admits, and anyone who denies them is as deluded as those who level accusations at us.
And some of the reasons for that:
- The presence of a number of factions around al-Fou’ah and Kafarya and the differences between them has led to gaps on the front lines. This happens on any front line, and it’s something from which the Syrian revolution has suffered since the start, and for which all the factions are to blame – within the bounds of advice and constructive criticism, not accusations of betrayal or acting like some opportunistic hustler.
- Al-Fou’ah and Kafarya are surrounded by a long perimeter, and so encircling them requires large numbers of men. Because of that, some weak-willed people in the surrounding towns sell them food, and they’ll be held accountable for that.
- In addition, the regime provides them with food by plane, albeit not a lot.
I wrote this not to wipe out some of this totally unrealistic talk, but rather in the interest of advice and criticism, so that Murasel Souri might not be biased to a particular side. The best thing, as I see it, is for someone to be honest, even if someone runs against his ideology.
“The one who hears is not like the one who sees.”
Marwan Khalil, Abu Khaled al-I’lami.
Syrian Revolutionaries Front commander Jamal Ma’rouf, October 5 2015
Jamal Ma’rouf, commander of the Syrian Revolutionary Front: “A question for al-Muheisini: Is Russia is exempt from the truce between you, Bashar and Iran? Because we see that Russia has only gotten more ferocious since the truce!? Is this not a betrayal???”
Jamal Ma’rouf: “If al-Fou’ah and Kafarya’s fighters were al-Nusrah’s captives, Russia wouldn’t dare bomb the positions of the mujahideen. But a truce to smuggle out Shi’a mercenaries, is that what made Russia so cocky?”