Followers of my blog know that I like to highlight local perspectives on the situation in northwest Syria (Idlib and its environs), the current epicentre of the insurgency in the country. Today's interviewee is Abd al-Majeed Sharif, who previously headed a local council in the Jabal al-Summaq village of Kaftin in north Idlib countryside. An opposition activist and thinker, he continues to reside in Kaftin. Indeed he is one of the opposition thinkers I most respect and admire. This interview was conducted on 23-24 April 2020 CE. Any parenthetical insertions in square brackets are my own.
Q: How do you assess the general situation in northern Syria? Has the revolution ended frankly? And what is your opinion of the Russian-Turkish agreement? Is it a durable agreement?
A: The general situation in the north: the number of inhabitants of the villages and towns and localities has multiplied in a burdensome sense and every town has become surrounded by camps with multiple times more people than the number of its original inhabitants. Our areas may now be the most densely populated in the world as they precede the Gaza Strip in that and therefore the public facilities and infrastructure have become worn out and are no longer able to meet the requirements of necessity for acceptable life. Naturally, for a long time there has been no electricity as the people have been relying on solar power and diesel generators and I do not think there is water reaching the houses in the pipes except in four or five big towns as the water is transported to houses in tankers and the education has stopped because of the displacement crisis and occupation of the schools by the IDPs, and previously the education was not good. And the level of illiteracy has risen in the region in a frightening sense and especially among the inhabitants of the camps. And there are many of the adolescents currently who have never entered school, not to mention the women whom the great majority of IDPs no longer think of educating. As for the health sector, it is of limited capability and is limited to treating light illnesses. As for serious cases, they are taken to Turkey and there are ample difficulties in that. And praise be to God the coronavirus has not spread in the area, and were that to happen it would result in a catastrophe on account of the overcrowding and the camps that are not prepared for isolation and the difficulty of making available the necessary cleaning and the disinfection. You can speak similarly regarding the sewage and the state of the general roads.
And of course the decrease in the value of the currency has led to a rise of prices in a way that weighs heavily on the citizen as the doors of provision have narrowed and the wages of the working hand have debased in a way that does not at all concord with the expensiveness. And the relief organisations present an important portion of the necessity needs of the inhabitants but a portion of it disappears because of cronyism and corruption. And despite that, I believe that the prices in the regions of the north are lower than those in all the other regions of Syria and were it not for the expensiveness of the fuels because of the control of Watd- which is a company affiliated with the Salvation Government- as currently the price of a litre of mazout is 730 Syrian pounds and gasoline 650 Syrian pounds despite the global decrease of oil prices, and likewise I believe that security in the northern areas under the control of Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham is better than that in any other areas in Syria and you may be surprised at what seems to be commendation for the Hay'a but the matter is not as such. I am trying to say the truth as it is and there are wrongs caused by the despotism of the one who bears arms and these are also general in all of Syria, but the villages known as Jabal al-Summaq and under the control of the Hay'a are facing wrongs more than other places besides it.
Has the revolution ended? If you want my personal opinion, the revolution ended since the Free Army disappeared and the jihadist factions gained dominance and that has been since 2014 and it turned into a civil war. As for what the question and meaning indicate: has the resistance against the regime ended? I believe that the one who does not have the decision-making in his hand cannot day: I will be steadfast or I will withdraw. For now the decision-making of the factions is completely in the hands of Turkey and therefore the matter is subject to the Turkish-Russian agreement and American acceptance.
As for the Turkish-Russian agreement, I believe that the conceptions of the states intervening in Syrian affairs are still distant from each other, and I believe that the Russians and Iranians want and indeed have been planning to implement that the regime should spread its control over all of Syria then begin reforms before a broadened government guaranteeing the partition of influence between the Astana sides. As for the Turks, they have realised that their share will be nothing in this state of affairs and therefore they have inserted their army and with American support to reinforce the current situation and they are demanding a safe zone with width 25-30 km along the borders, then the negotiations of apportioning should begin. As for the Americans, I think they wanted to continue the ceasefire on the borders that were stipulated by the Sochi agreement between the Russians and Turks and begin the solution according to international resolutions, and therefore they raised the veto on the recent Moscow agreement and supported the entry of the Turkish army to northern Syria in order to prevent the Russians from continuing to advance but they are not in agreement with the Turks on the Astana solution. And I rule out that Russia will continue the operations with the Turkish rejection and one cannot be certain of anything for the positions of the states are not only governed by our case but also there are other political, economic and military causes impacting them, but I think mostly likely that the war will not return to our areas except against some of the factions that reject all the solutions but who will wage war on them and how? I do not know.
Q: In your opinion what were the reasons for the factions losing many of the areas during the recent campaign against Idlib?
A: Why the factions lost the recent areas: of course the one who fights for victory differs much from the one who fights for steadfastness and even the one who fights for the sake of steadfastness may escape death if he has hope of assistance or change coming soon but when the Russians advance, most of the people have come to believe that it is in accordance with a Turkish-Russian agreement and that is in accordance with the Astana agreements whose details have not been revealed until now so the incentive to defy death is completely debased. And from another angle, the heavy weapons have been withdrawn from the factions and have gone out from the areas and the one who will enter anew and does not have fortifications is not like the one who has organised his front and prepared for the matter. And I believe that Turkey does not want a fierce confrontation with the Russians and despite the fact that all the operations are Russian or with the oversight of the Russians, you find that the statements of the Turkish politicians hold the regime responsible and justify the Russians and of course this indicates the lack of confidence for the factions. And from another angle, I believe that Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham believes that the aim is to drag it alone into intense battles to put an end to it so it fights in a superficial sense and withdraws to preserve its main force for the decisive battle, if it happens and the efforts to rehabilitate it do not succeed. And the most important and decisive factor is the great superiority for the Russian aircraft and missiles that the factions have no means of deterring.
Q: Some people have spoken about a reduction of the influence of Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham in the north of Syria because of the losses in the military campaigns and the unilateral Turkish intervention. What do you think of this assessment? And is it possible that Idlib and its environs will become like the Euphrates Shield regions?
A: I can answer in one word: no. I previously mentioned that the losses that the Hay'a faced are not great materially or in terms of manpower so they cannot impact its influence and the Turkish army that has entered the areas controlled by Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham has not intervened in the affairs of the people or general matters because originally it entered with facilitation and cooperation with Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham. There is talk that the Hay'a will soon be dissolved and its personnel merged with the National Army, and I believe that that is possible, but after every means of gathering money and feeding itself and amirs is exhausted. I think that the obstacle is material in a financial sense, nothing more. And members of the Hay'a themselves talk about the possibility of its dissolution. And of course if that is realised, naturally the area will become like the Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch regions. And the situation in those areas is not better than the aforementioned area, or this is one faction extorting, and in the other state of affairs, there will be factions competing with each other to extort in addition to a foreign occupation army ruling over all.
Q: Do you have a message for the factions in Idlib and the masses of the people in Idlib?
A: The message to our people in Idlib: it is true that the situation is difficult and our decision-making has been usurped and the intervening states are negotiating with each other about us without consulting us and not even informing us of the outcomes of the their negotiations, but in the end they will not be able to adopt a decision we reject. It is true that the Astana agreements are not announced publicly but the results indicate them so we must reject the current situation and reject the return of the regime and reject the idea of the safe zone that is a means to consolidate foreign hegemony over the region and for demographic change, which, if it began in Afrin, will be an example for relinquishing the two Ghoutas and the areas besides them and settling their displaced people in the north, and even when the real negotiation begins for a political solution, the danger of sectarian and ethnic muhassasa [apportionment by sectarian/ethnic quotas etc.] is no less than the danger of partition or colonialism. We must organise ourselves and choose political representatives for us, for indeed the idea of military victory has ended and we are working to return to Geneva and working for a democratic political solution and implementation of transitional justice that will require the return of the displaced people and fairness to the victims. And I say frankly that the factions and the coalition and negotiating committee have all become tools in foreign hands and if we cannot choose representatives who are not pawns we will end up being taken where we do not wish.