During the war in Syria a variety of new media outlets have emerged to provide coverage. One of these is the Sham Center, which produces output primarily in the Russian language. On 19 March 2020, I conducted an interview with 'Umar Shami,' who is the editor of the Sham Center news agency. We primarily discussed the situation in northwestern Syria. The interview is slightly edited for clarity. Any parenthetical insertions in square brackets are my own.
Q: Could you tell me a little about Sham Center and its activities as a media center? When was it created? What kind of content do you produce? Are you affiliated with any factions or do you have links to any of the factions? Are the staff members mostly muhajireen in al-Sham [Syria]?
A: The main goal of the «Sham Center» agency is to deliver reliable information about the events in Syria to a wide audience. Our news is mainly devoted to the war of the Syrian people against the regime of Bashar al-Assad, which is supported by Russia and Iran. We also write about other important events, and give an analytical assessment of the situation both in northwestern Syria and in the region as a whole. We started our work in 2015 as an independent agency, not affiliated with any groups in Syria.
Q: How do you assess the current situation in northwest Syria in general? Why did the mujahideen lose a lot of territory in their recent fights?
A: In general, the current situation in Greater Idlib can be called the climax: the decisive turning-point. Either the Syrian people will break down and finally lose the last bastion of the revolution in the northwest, or the Syrians will withstand this battle and go on the counterattack.
Today, enemies have united against the Muslims of Syria. Recently, Russia has been increasing supplies of equipment, weapons and ammunition through the Bosphorus. The regime of Bashar al-Assad mobilizes its forces from all provinces, sending even prisoners and teenagers to a meat grinder. Iran is actively forming its troops from mercenaries from all over the Shiite world: Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
"Mother of all battles" - this is the name of the battle for Big Idlib today. And if the Syrian people can withstand the last blow, then this battle will make the Muslims even stronger than before. If Assad's troops are defeated in this decisive battle, the liberation of the remaining provinces of Syria will be only a matter of time. Because in case of victory, the spirit of Muslims will only grow, and Shiites and Russians will lose any hope and rush to make peace with the rebels in order to shamefully withdraw troops from Syria.
An important question - why did the Mujahideen lose so many territories in the last battles? There are many reasons for this, but in this interview we would like to draw attention to some important points from a military point of view.
First reason. Enemies managed to unite their numerous formations under a single operational headquarters. You can see how Iranian "Ababil" drones conduct joint reconnaissance with the Russian drones "Orlan", transmitting intelligence to the general command. While staffing officers of the Russian Defense Ministry are training Asadite mercenaries from "Tiger Forces" and "Al-Quds", the Iranian army's elite from the "Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps" is preparing new groups from all over the Shiite world. If earlier armed clashes sporadically occurred between the Iranian and Assad groups, today the Mujahideen have to repulse the simultaneous offensive of Iran in Aleppo province and Assad's troops from the south of Idlib province.
Second reason. The enemies managed to unite all their forces, despite religious and national differences, gathering in one fist the Syrian Nusairites [Alawites], Shiite mercenaries, atheists and Russian Christians. Against this background, the position of the defenders of Sham looks much worse. Despite the fact that all the fighters of opposition groups profess Islam and call themselves "Sunnis", over the past 9 years they have not been able to unite under a single banner and one leader. In such disunity, there is no need to talk about quick victories. The fighters of the "National Front" are subordinate to Turkey, part of the Mujahideen are included in the "Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham", the Uighurs from the Islamic Party of Turkestan are under oath to the Amir in Asia, and the fighters of "Hurras al-Din" declare their commitment to "Al-Qaeda". This list can be long and it will be very long. In short, if you want to see what the victory looks like, then look at Afghanistan, where the Taliban. They are fighting from the very beginning under the single banner of the Islamic Emirate, and even the huge US army now asks the Taliban to sign a peace agreement.
Third reason. Many forget that Russia has extensive military experience throughout its history, has constantly participated in world and local wars, has great practice and a powerful defense industry. If you look at how the balance of power in Syria has changed since September 2015, when Russia officially entered into conflict, you will understand that all Assad's victories are the merit of his Russian patrons. And if tomorrow Russia leaves Syria, leaving Assad's troops alone with the rebels, then we will meet the month Ramadan in the mosques of Damascus, in shaa Allah [if God wills].
The reality is that rebels who do not have full-fledged artillery, combat and reconnaissance aircraft cannot effectively resist the regular enemy forces, which are supplied day and night by the defense industry of Russia, Iran and Assad. And the classic direct confrontation on the battlefield benefits only the regular army, which simply uses the tactics of "scorched earth".
Rebels can defeat the regular army only when they can impose their rules of war on the enemy. They should not go against the troops of Assad and Russia as a united front. On the contrary, the more surprise attacks are carried out along the entire front line, the more the enemy will have to stretch the front, which means that its ground units will not be able to fully interact with artillery and aircraft. Therefore, after the loss of Idlib in 2015, Russia first sent all Assad's forces to capture the southern fronts. Thus were captured: East Ghouta, Homs, Daraa, Deir ez-Zor and other provinces. And only after that a master plan for the capture of Idlib was developed.
Many ask why the Mujahideen so quickly lost large territories? The answer is simple - they were not ready for the planned actions of Russia and Iran. When Assad's troops captured Sarakib and went north along the M-5 highway, they went straight to the rear - to the rebel ribats [frontline manning points]. In fact, they went around behind such fortified areas as Tel Iss, Rashidin and others, which were like impregnable rocks. The entire front line was well fortified and mined on both sides. But in a matter of days, all these ribats were ineffective due to the fact that Assad's troops came to them, not from the east as expected, but from the west - directly to the rear, where supply lines passed and there were no any defense fortifications. The sad ending of this offensive is the loss of the entire Anadan plain: Haritan, Leramon, Kafr Hamra, Anadan and Hayan.
Russia plans to implement a similar scenario on the M-4 highway after a failed joint patrol with the Turkish military. It is obvious that the Russians are striving to advance from Sarakib towards Jisr al-Shugur in order to bypass all rebel ribats in Jabal-Zawiya in the same way and surround the impregnable region of Kabani. In our opinion, these are the main reasons for the defeat of the Mujahideen from a military point of view.
Q: What do you think of the Turkish role in the area and the recent agreement between Turkey and Russia over Idlib? Is Turkey an ally for the mujahideen?
A: From the very beginning, Turkey supported the revolution in Syria. As you know, the ruling "Justice and Development Party" led by Erdogan, close to the Ihvan al-Muslimin [Muslim Brotherhood] movement, has always supported the "ikhvans" throughout the Middle East. And with the advent of the "Arab Spring", Turkey actively supported Tunisia, President Mursi in Egypt, and a number of other close parties in other countries, including Syria, where the Ihvans took up the banner of the revolution.
Turkey accepted the first streams of Syrian refugees, organized tent camps and funds for the distribution of aid. Also, the Turks organized training camps in the border provinces, where thousands of rebels were trained. The Turkish Ministry of Defense supplied the Syrians with weapons, ammunition and equipment, provided logistical and other support in the formation of the first opposition groups. Even now, you can see the continuation of this support in the form of the supplied "TOW" anti-tank systems and the "ACV-15" infantry fighting vehicles, which are actively used by both the "National Front" fighters and the "Hayat Tahrir al-Sham" coalition in the battles against Assad.
We must understand that when Turkey helps the Syrians, it pursues its interests in the region. Turks do not help because of Islamic solidarity with the "brotherly people." Turkey posed the leadership of "Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham", led by Abu Muhammad al-Jowlani, with a choice: either compromise and maintain his position and support, or confront and be trapped between NATO forces in the north and Assad and Russia in the south. The leadership of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham chose the first option. How far this was the right decision, history will show.
Erdogan is trying to sit on two chairs at the same time: firmly shaking hands with Putin, calling the bloody executioner "dear brother", and at the same time declare the protection of the Syrian people, promising a peaceful sky over the whole of North-West Syria. Therefore, as long as Turkey is friends with the bloody regimes of Russia and Iran, it cannot be considered a full-fledged ally of the Syrian revolution.
Q: What do you see as the future of the Idlib area and the jihad in al-Sham generally?
A: Sham is the center of the Islamic Ummah and we are waiting for the events described by the Prophet Muhammad to happen on these blessed lands, may Allah bless and greet him. An authentic hadith says that Almighty Allah himself vouched for the lands and inhabitants of Sham. This does not mean that now we need to sit back and wait for a predestination from above, but we need to understand the responsibility that Allah entrusted to the residents of Sham, which includes both local residents and Muhajirs.
We must look at the situation in Syria through the prism of the Qur'an and the pure Sunna. The promise promised by Allah is true. Today we see how in Syria the interests of not only the countries of the Middle East, but also the world powers clashed. US interests begin east of the Euphrates, Russian interests begin west, the strategic route for Iran connecting Lebanon and Iraq passes through Deir ez-Zor in the southeast, Israel guards the Golan in the southwest, and Turkey fights with the Kurdish factions in the north of the country.
And in this war, the Muslims of Sham will certainly win, but victory will come when the help of Allah comes. As you know, a common enemy joins the ranks and perhaps this last battle for Big Idlib will unite the hearts of believers and unite them under a single banner, after which not only the fall of the Assad regime will begin, but also the collapse of the entire Shiite world, in shaa Allah.
Q: A lot of people talk in the news about coronavirus. Is this a punishment from Allah subhanuhu wa ta'ala [Exalted and Almighty is He] and a sign of the approach of the Hour as some think?
A: Of course, coronavirus is the punishment of Allah Almighty. Statistics show that most people died in China, Iran and Italy. The virus is spreading en masse in those countries that have fought against the Islamic Ummah for centuries and today have deservedly been punished. Due to the coronavirus, not only the population, but also the economy is dying with people, and daily losses reach millions of dollars due to the stoppage of trade and industry.