Hadi Abdullah is an independent Syrian journalist. He gained wide popularity in Syria and other countries of the Middle East in 2011, when he covered the events in Homs before the outbreak of the civil war. He talked about the first bloody clashes between the opposition and the army of Bashar Assad; He worked in almost all Syrian cities, where battles were fought between the most diverse sides of the conflict. He covered several processes of exchanging prisoner and was several times wounded; He was taken prisoner and openly condemned the actions of the Syrian authorities headed by the President Assad; He calls for a fight against the terrorist organization «Islamic State». In 2016, he received a prize for his contribution to the development of press freedom from the international organization Reporters without Borders. In an exclusive interview with newcaucasus.com, Hadi Abdullah speaks about the causes and consequences of the conflict in Syria and today’s events in this country and how difficult it is to work as a reporter in the war zone.
— The unrest in Syria began with socio-political protests, which then developed into a civil war and religious confrontation. And in the end, the world faced a strong and brutal terrorist organization. Why have things developed this way?
— In March 2011, peaceful rallies began in Syria against the government of Bashar al-Assad, which then developed into unrest and led to a people’s revolution. Millions of Syrians opposed against Assad. Unfortunately, the revolution did not dispense with bloodshed. The authorities brutally suppressed the protest. Seeing this, some of the officers from the Assad Army joined the people and created the Free Syrian Army. Against this background, radical groups began to emerge here and there, such as the Islamic State, Jabhat al-Nusra, and others. I believe that their appearance played into the hands of Assad’s government. Moreover, the authorities themselves contributed to their emergence in order to demonstrate to the whole world that they are fighting against terrorists, and not against their own people. Assad, we must render him his due, conducted a clever policy in this direction. Shortly before the beginning of all these events, he personally, in the guise of an amnesty, freed from prison many odious Islamists who immediately joined the military resistance and began forming radical groups. And immediately, along with this amnesty, Assad began to incarcerate political opponents and activists. Thus, the terrorists were at large, and supporters of the peaceful revolution, moderate oppositionists — in prison.
— Is it possible to say that the so-called Islamic State managed to be destroyed?
— We can say that in recent months the so-called Islamic State has greatly weakened. The militants are retreating and are rapidly losing ground. Previously, they occupied about 40% of the territory of Syria, and now they hold about 7-8% of the country. They are attacked almost from all sides: Kurdish militiamen with the help of the Western coalition liberated the city of Rakka and its environs. The governments of Assad and Russia won back large territories in the desert and the city of Deir ez-Zor. Free Syrian Army with the help of Turkey liberated large cities, mainly north of Aleppo.
— In recent months, the liberated regions of Syria have been returning to peaceful life. Can you tell, how this process is going? Does the government have any relevant program, plan of action? After all, the infrastructure in the country has been almost destroyed.
— Not only Assad and government troops have been fighting Against the so-called Islamic State. All sides of the conflict are at war with terrorists: the Kurds, the SSA, Turkey, the Western coalition. Accordingly, different cities have been liberated by different forces. As for the city of Rakka (the so-called capital of the IS [Islamic State]), Kurdish detachments mainly went there, who fought there under the leadership of the western coalition, which, in turn, were led by Washington. After the liberation of the city of Rakka, different TV channels showed that many Syrian refugees returned there, but in fact, this is not true. The Kurdish militiamen did not give permission to return there to many Arabs who had lived there before. Only a small part of the refugees who were somehow connected with the Kurds managed to return, while most Arabs were not able to return to their homes. Now many of these refugees live in the city of Idlib in Syria, or in Turkey, including in camps. As for those territories and settlements that have been liberated by the government troops, quite few refugees are returning there. This is due to the fact that there are government troops, Iranian Shiite groups in the liberated cities and villages, who got free hands. For example, after the city of Tadmor had been liberated in the center of Syria, and its inhabitants began to return, the military executed twenty people, accusing them of having links with the IS. Naturally, after this many people refrain from returning because they are afraid of provocation and feel the impunity of government troops. I can say that a fully-fledged return of refugees is being observed only in those cities that have been liberated by the Free Syrian Army with the help of Turkey. Moreover, not only locals return there, but refugees from other cities and regions also move there.
Approximately seven months ago, Turkey and Russia initiated negotiations on de-escalation of hostilities, as a result of which the parties agreed on a ceasefire in those settlements that were mostly suffering from strikes by the government army and the RF Armed Forces. Thanks to these accords, about 200,000 refugees who had found temporary shelter in Turkey and a number of Syrian cities were able to return to their homes. As I have mentioned above, almost no one has returned to the territories that were liberated from the IS. By the way, to my great regret, the agreement between Turkey and Russia ceased to function about a month ago, and all negotiations have come to naught. The fire has recommenced with renewed vigor, and approximately 23 000 Syrian families have fled again from Syria to Turkey, fleeing from government troops and Russian aviation.
— What do you think, thanks to whose efforts it was possible to break the so-called Islamic State? What is the role of the key players in this conflict?
— All countries that directly or indirectly participate in the war in Syria do not care and have never been worried about the people of Syria. The parties of the conflict do not think about the benefits to Syria and what is important for this country. They all have personal interests. While Assad is trying to suppress the uprising under the guise of fighting terrorism, other countries are trying to grab tidbits. At the same time, they contribute to the further fueling of the conflict, and to some extent even facilitate their own struggle against terrorism, allowing their “Jihadists” to go to Syria, where they themselves deal with them. By the way, I think that the “recharge” from the outside has largely contributed to the fact of the appearance and strengthening of the IS. The takeover of oil and gas fields began already after the collapse of this terrorist organization, after the main forces of the “Jihadists” were killed. First of all, Kurds together with Americans are engaged in this; they are trying to lay their hands on the fields of eastern Syria. And the government forces occupy deposits in Deir-ez-Zor, there are large gas reserves. And thus, we have come to the fact that today, the fight in Syria is over resources and not against terrorism.
The US is strengthening its presence in the territory of eastern Syria. Russia is consolidating its positions with the help of huge bases in the area of Latakia and Tartu, and it has also seized gas deposits in the center of the country. Tehran is concerned about the seizure of roads and the establishment of control over the main routes — Damascus-Lebanon and Damascus-Baghdad, with subsequent access to Iran. They seek to strengthen ties with the Shiite grouping of Hezbollah in the countries of the region. This, perhaps, is the only thing that worries them. The only country that I could call an ally is Turkey. Ankara really cares about the fate of Syria and the Syrian people. Turkey has taken millions of our refugees, imagine — millions! Then again, Turkey helped liberate the vast territories where the inhabitants could return.
— What is the worst part of your work in the war?
— I was exposed to danger many times, and I miraculously escaped death several times. I was wounded six times. I lost a lot of close people, including my friends — journalists who worked with me almost from the first days of the conflict and took part in the revolution; they are Rad Zukhuri and Khalid Aisa. In addition, I was attacked regularly, they tried to kill me in Aleppo in 2016, I was very badly injured in the leg and stomach. I was a prisoner of al-Qaida prison in Idlib, and I still receive threats from representatives of all sorts of parties — the Assad government, Iranian special services, Iranian armed groups, IS, al-Qaida, and Kurdish groups. I receive all these threats only because I have always been on the side of the Syrians and fought for the rights of my people.
— How can you comment on the latest events in connection with the clashes between the Turkish Army and the Kurds? Can this be the beginning for a new large-scale bloodshed in the region?
— Unfortunately, we, the Syrians, have long been out of the game. All decisions, like everything that happens there, have long been in the hands of large states. I am convinced that there will soon be a truce in Syria, and this introduction of the Turkish troops to the city of Afrin is a kind of part of the measures to resolve the conflict, since this, if you like, is the “product” of the agreements, including between such states as the United States and Russia. This is done to clear the territory of Kurdish terrorist organizations, like the Kurdistan Workers’ Party and the “Democratic Union” Party (PYD). I am sure that after that, the troops will be bought in by other players, including, probably, Russia. And this will be a pledge for a long-term truce between the main players. But, unfortunately, the situation as a whole will not change in Syria itself. Nothing will change for the people. There will simply be foreign troops in the country.
— How would you like to see your country in the future?
— I want the liberation of Syria, cleansing of my country from war criminals, bloodsuckers and enemies. I want the people of Syria to live freely, peacefully, without fear and thoughts about Assad, Russia, Iran, IS, and al-Qaeda. I see Syria as a democratic country, in which the rights of every citizen are protected, where justice and equality reign. I dream of freedom and dignity.
Tamar Kavtatadze for Newcaucasus.com