The Syrian insurgent group Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which dominates Idlib province and its environs, has a number of fighting forces at its disposal. One of the more recognisable HTS military units is the al-Asa'ib al-Hamra' ('Red Bands'), also called the Asa'ib al-Mawt ('Bands of Death'). On 6 March 2019 I interviewed one of the members of the al-Asa'ib al-Hamra. Originally from Deraa province, this person was a member of HTS' two predecessors: Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and then before that Jabhat al-Nusra, the latter of which was Syria's official al-Qa'ida affiliate. In fact, he joined Jabhat al-Nusra back in 2013.
Below is the interview, which is slightly condensed for clarity. The interview discusses the 'Red Bands', the general situation in the north of Syria and relations between HTS and the al-Qa'ida loyalist group Hurras al-Din. Any parenthetical insertions in square brackets are my own.
A member of HTS' 'Red Bands': note the red headband with HTS' logo on it.
Q: First can you tell me what are the Red Bands exactly? And what are their main tasks?
A: They are groups in HTS with special training and assignments, focusing on operations behind enemy lines. The main task is operations behind enemy lines, in all their forms of martyrdom and inghimasi [commando-plunging into enemy lines] operations.
Q: Yes, so they are an inghimasi strike force?
A: Correct, even in cases of defence they are a force that remains in the area after its fall to inflict the greatest damage to the enemy.
Q: And when were the Bands formed exactly?
A: I am a new recruit to the Bands after we were displaced from Deraa so I do not know exactly when the Red Bands were formed.
Q: What are the training courses for the Bands like?
A: Generally they are secret training courses but the training courses focus on raising the skill of the individual and training him on all types of weapons and creating circumstances that resemble the operations that they will undertake, but most of the training information is secret, so excuse me.
Q: And what are the greatest accomplishments of the Red Bands?
A: There was the operation that came in revenge for the martyrs of Jaysh al-Izza [a rebel group mainly active in north Hama] by striking the regime's operations room in al-Tarabi' [a place in north Hama] and killing Russian officers. There are many operations in which the losses of the regime were greater but this operation was a cause for the joy of the people and it was after a military stagnation. And it was a cause for the increase of mutual brotherhood among the revolutionaries.
Q: On which fronts did you fight in Deraa?
A: I fought on the western countryside fronts, the city, and the Quneitra front.
Q: And there were no Red Bands in the south?
A: No, there were none. I was a field military man: leader of a contingent.
Q: Regarding the training courses of the Bands. How many days is the basic training?
A: It varies between two and six months, according to the skill of the person.
Q: And the monthly salary is good?
A: It suffices for the needs of the person.
Q: But it's not like the salaries of the Dawa'esh [Islamic State people] right?
A: No, only what suffices for need. But the Red Bands are to be mobilized in military areas in a continual sense, such that the married is mobilized for 5 days and for two days he goes to the house.
Q: The salary is not according to the number of wives and children?
A: It is according to the [number of] wives and children but it is not like the Dawa'esh in value.
Q: For example what is your salary if I may ask?
A: Around 45,000 [Syrian pounds] with a wife and three children.*
Q: Hmmm, not much by God.
A: The group's economic situation and lack of acceptance of financing from any party in order for its decision-making to remain independent imposes this reality.
Q: Yes, but the salaries of the Red Bands are better than the ordinary member in the commission [HTS]? Or there is no difference?
A: Correct, preferable by the reliability of the salary every month and the constancy of the value, but [the member of the Red Bands] is mobilized in a greater sense.
Q: Yes, yes. How do you assess the situation in the liberated north?
A: The situation now is excellent because the great powers disagree and their interests diverse, while the liberated north is united under a unified administrative leadership and the presence of a great military force in the north. Meanwhile, the Russians and militias have come to rely on the traitors in the areas that have fallen, against which more than one campaign was launched in the preceding times. And they attacked [those areas] with great force.
Q: In your view the campaign against the Nour al-Din al-Zinki movement [a rebel group destroyed by HTS in west Aleppo countryside] was necessary to unite the north?
A: In the north the project of the revolution and bringing down the regime had been replaced among some of the factions and they cooperated with the enemy like the Zinki movement, even if they thought that this matter was better for the people and lighter than the woes of war. This was the main reason for destroying the movement's leadership.
Q: You mean they [the Zinki movement] cooperated with the Russians?
A: At the level of the leadership of the movement, they were in contact with the Russians.
Q: And do you consider HTS to represent the unity of the liberated north?
A: The commission is a part of the revolutionaries in the north and it has been striving with multiple factions for years to achieve unity, but until now comprehensive unity has not been realized.
Q: But the commission is the sole hope for unity?
A: No, the commission is a part of the unity and not the sole hope. But now the greatest impediment to unity is the factions' fear of being classified [as terrorist].
Q: Yes. What is your opinion on Tandhim Hurras al-Din [al-Qa'ida-loyalist faction in north Syria]?
A: A mujahid faction that has the same aims as the commission.
Q: But they differ with you regarding matters of allegiance, right?
A: Correct. The disagreement is on breaking the allegiance with Sheikh Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Q: Yes, but despite that, in your view the commission and Hurras have the same manhaj [ideological direction/methodology]?
A: Correct. The origin of the disagreement is whether it is preferable to break the allegiance or not: that is, which of the two options is preferable.
Q: Yes. Is it true the commission is responsible for the ribat [frontline manning] points of Hurras? That is, the commission pays for the them from the realm of food and ammunition?
A: Correct, responsible for supplying ammunition, within an agreement between the commission and Hurras to equip fighting groups.
Q: Yes. This is a new agreement?
A: This is within an old agreement but not all its clauses were implemented: just some problems.
Q: Yes, but practically speaking the clause of equipping the groups was implemented.
Q: And thus the commission supplies ammunition to the ribat points of Hurras?
Q: Can we say that the commission is still a Salafi jihadi group? Or do you think that this naming is not appropriate?
A: The commission is a Salafi mujahid group striving to implement the ruling of the Shari'a [Islamic law] and this is among the foundational clauses on which the commission has arisen.
Q: Yes. And what is the commission's position on agreements like Sochi?
A: I am not in a command centre but what I know is that it rejects every agreement because it leads to strengthening the regime and ending the revolution.
Q: Why did you choose to join Jabhat al-Nusra [in 2013]?
A: To implement the ruling of Shari'a and out of liking for the al-Qa'ida organization.
Q: And you still like the al-Qa'ida organization?
A: I still like al-Qa'ida but the interest here was to separate from al-Qa'ida and Sheikh Abu al-Khayr al-Masri (may God have mercy on him) was in Syria and he supported the step because it was the interest of the field.
Q: Yes, and can we say that most of the members of the commission still like al-Qa'ida?
A: No one to my knowledge in the commission considers al-Qa'ida to be upon error and the disagreement with Hurras is not because of al-Qa'ida: rather it is an issue of administration and ijtihad regarding allegiance pledge and weapons.
Q: Before the revolution, were you upon the Salafi manhaj?
A: No I was an ordinary Muslim but I became as such through my friend.
Q: So you became Salafi during the war.
A: Correct. If matters of religion were greatly harangued by the regime, Salafi books and video clips about jihad and the mujahideen spread after the revolution.
Q: Yes, but you became Salafi before joining [Jabhat] al-Nusra?
A: Correct. I adopted the manhaj of Salafism and jihad before joining al-Nusra.
Q: Sometimes people say that most of the soldiers of the commission are not Salafis, and that they joined the commission for reasons of money etc. What is your opinion on these words?
A: Those I know joined to implement the ruling of Shari'a and fight the regime. The commission's economic situation is bad.
*Around $90 per month. During the heyday of Islamic State, a fighter with the same family circumstances would have earned a monthly salary of $205 ($50 as the basic rate, with an extra $50 for each wife, and $35 for each child). At a later stage (by mid to late summer 2017), owing to financial difficulties, the basic rate was reduced to $40, with an extra $40 for each wife and $28 for each child. Thus, an Islamic State fighter in 2017 in the same family circumstances would still have earned more: $164 per month. Apparently the basic rate was reduced further to $35, though I am not sure of other details beyond that.