A conversation with Abu Ali Khibbiyeh, Douma Shield Battalions Commander: “Entering Medan was a big mistake.”

Razan Zeitouneh

There are many stories about Abu Ali Khibbiyeh. He is frequently reported to be dead, although these reports have turned out to be only rumours. Some say he has been reckless on the battlefield. Others praise his courageous and chivalrous nature.

In Douma’s streets, opinions differ and tales vary between Khibbiyeh’s negative and positive attributes. I am not assessing the Douma Shield Battalions (DSB), or its leadership, but all that I hoped is to talk to Abu Ali Khibbiyeh about some of the points that he never talked about, despite frequent media appearances.

Abu Ali Khibbiyeh - Photo by Razan Zeitouneh
Abu Ali Khibbiyeh – Photo by Razan Zeitouneh

We started the interview by the usual talk about ammunition and the relationship with the military councils and coordination between the battalions.

Relationship with dissidents

Although the Douma Martyrs Brigade, to which the Douma Shield Battalions (DSB) is subordinate, is a member of the Military Council, Abu Ali says, “I do not recognize military councils, nor the Sharia Council, nor the Shura Council nor others. As a field commander, I resort to the Military Council to request ammunition, and it is not able to give me even a little. Why do these councils have any authority over the battalions and why should the battalions recognize and be loyal to them?”

He says ammunition for the DSB comes from individual and limited sources, and they do not even pay monthly salaries for their fighters, like other brigades and battalions.

Maybe ammunition is not the only issue that determines a civilian fighters’ relationship with the military. People say the fighters do not like defectors from the government forces and seek to “remove” them. Defectors in turn deal arrogantly with non-military commanders. This is what is said, and perhaps it is “newspapers talk.” However, we cannot think of this in light of the near total lack of defectors on the level of leadership in a large number of brigades and battalions in the area, and of the suffering resulting from poor planning and coordination with regard to military operations, even in the same area.

“We have defectors in the battalion. I do not believe in the officers. The regime is still in their minds. There are also agents sent by the regime to penetrate us. At the beginning of armed action in Douma, we were all civilians, with no officers, but we accomplished much and are still able to. It is true that there are great officers, a large number of them were martyred, and I do not have the right to evaluate people on the basis of defector or volunteer, but laggards are refused,” Abu Ali says.

The issue of defectors emerged again after a decision was issued with regard to weapons that are supposed to be delivered to fighters in Syria. It is said – I could not confirm it from a direct source – that these weapons will go only to the battalions led by defected officers.

Abu Ali says they learned that new weapons arrived to one party in East Ghouta led by a defected officer, but their battalion has not received anything until this moment.

He stresses that even with brigades that have no defectors, they receive ammunition and weapons from their own sources, and work for a “foreign agenda.”

Medan battle in July 2012

Regarding the lack of planning and military strategies of the battles, we talked about entering Medan neighbourhood in Damascus, which was labelled a military mistake and a reckless decision for which Abu Ali Khibbiyeh was blamed.

Abu Ali Said, “We, about eighty field commanders from East and West Ghouta, met and agreed with a brigadier from West Ghouta that once we enter to Damascus, there will be support after six hours from the other formations of the Free Syrian Army. We believed this and entered Medan. The Medan group were waiting for us. I was chosen as the field commander of the battle.”

“We stayed for six days and nights without sleep. Waiting for six hours extended to six days, during which we did not stop fighting for six minutes, and support did not reach us. We destroyed much and killed many of the regime forces, but in the end, we were forced to withdraw, not because of a shortage of ammunition, but because support did not reach us.”

“I was waiting for death while seeing the tank barrel directed to me. I also saw many martyrs, wounded and exhausted fighters around me. I cried during the withdrawal when I saw hundreds of fighters around us who were not engaged in the clashes, more than a hundred fighters. I do not know where they came from and how and why they did not participate in the clash.”

“I know that the Medan people, who opened their homes and received us, say we destroyed Medan and then withdrew, but I did not enter the neighbourhood by myself and it was not my decision alone. There was an earlier agreement with many other formations. Entering Medan was a big mistake, even though it dealt a strong blow to the regime.”

Revolution within the revolution

In any case, Abu Ali thinks the root of the problem is the negative developments that have occurred in the revolution over time.

“In the beginning of the revolution, we used to attack a checkpoint after two prayers and go, win, and get back to pray happily. Now everything has changed. There’s a quest for booty, legitimization of theft in the name of the revolution and hashish.”

I asked about the spread of narcotic pills and hashish in East Ghouta.

“Narcotic pills are sent for free to the area by the government,” he said. “We all tried hashish before the revolution, and we know it is not free of charge. Now, it is available even for free! If you walk in the city of Douma, you will find not bread, but you will find a lot of hashish!”

In the end, Abu Ali says, the right thing is to go back to our faith and our primary goal of the revolution. He is currently working on a project to restructure the “veterans” in one formation in Ghouta.

“We intend to start from the Free Syrian Army, ourselves, and be a revolution within the revolution,” he said.

About violations and malpractices

Regarding the revolution within the revolution, we talked about battalions’ violations against civilians in the liberated areas, and the negative practices of some elements of those battalions. In particular, we mentioned the many times militiamen carried their weapons in public in Douma, unlike other areas in Ghouta, in addition to some complaints that we heard about the DSB, including spectacular armed manifestation in the streets, driving at reckless speeds, robberies and others.

“We recently agreed to unify the prisons in Douma, allowing the military formations to arrest military personnel only, or the accused of dealing with the regime. I began to implement [the agreement] and handed detained women and civilians to the unified prison. In the past, if we wanted to arrest an agent, I did it myself with the elements of my battalion. Today, I ask for a force from the military police to arrest someone, accompanied by elements of the battalion,” Abu Ali says.

I told Abu Ali that it is wrong for the battalions to participate in arrests, a phenomenon that has led to many problems, especially when arresting a member of another battalion, which has resulted in clashes between battalions in some cases. I said this task should be exclusively the realm of the police, as is the case in other liberated areas of Ghouta.

He agreed, blaming the lack of coordination and joint action between the military formations in the city. He added sarcastically, “Douma is the mother of martyrs, where all are officials and leaders.”

What is for the people is for the people

Even for the spoils of military operations, Abu Ali says, “Everything owned by the government is booty, but not everything we took as booty is for us. For example, we entered the electricity warehouse and arrested the thieves and secured its contents and then handed it over to Nizar Smadi [the head of the civilian administration in Douma]. After that, we no longer have anything to do with it. What is for the people is for the people, the post centre, automated bakery, etc., all are owned by the people.”

On the other practices mentioned above, Abu Ali says, “We struggled for more than forty years. Suddenly, citizens became the government, and those practices began to emerge. As for DSB, it does day and night patrols. However, there are mistakes that we try to avoid and to stop offenders and limit their practices.”

I asked him how can I file a complaint against any of the DSB elements or leaders.

“We have a complaints office in the military prison and anyone can complain against anyone in the battalion. We should not burn our revolution by stealing or behaving like shabiha. We have mistakes that we followed up and are trying to remove.”

Relationship with civilians

We asked Abu Ali about their relationship with the civilians in the city, in particular about the many services that the battalions provide, which should be the jurisdiction of civic bodies not the military.

“We prefer not to interfere in the affairs of civilian, but the problem is who will assume these services. Lack of a strong local council puts the task on our shoulders. He who has no military backing will not continue.”

In confidence I told him that I do not have a military backing from the beginning of the revolution and I am going on, but Abu Ali insisted, “You will not keep on!”

Away from what my personal bet with Abu Ali on keeping on without military backing, he continued, “We live for the civilians. We do not want dependency, loyalty or favour. This is our duty. I hope to form a strong civil commission to administer civilian affairs. It is not our business. Civilians now come to us to solve their problems. This is wrong.”

Syria’s future

I ask Abu Ali Khibbiyeh about his vision of Syria’s future. He says, “Our revolution has not begun yet. It will begin after the fall of the regime, after the fall of Bashar and his cronies. Today, there are those who work for an Islamic, Muslim Brotherhood or communist emirate… each party represents a doctrine or party. I hope that Syria will not be like Lebanon or Iraq. Our only guarantee is that the people break the fear that bound them over forty years. The people will rebel against everyone who tries to impose his vision. The people will decide the future of Syria. Even though, I know we will suffer to get to security and safety and we are now in a great chaos.”

Abu Ali Khibbiyeh…

I asked Abu Ali about the statement announcing the death of Bashar al-Assad, which earned more than 2 million views on YouTube in a few hours. It was then shown that it was not true and we did not hear an explanation from him about what happened, even though many Syrians felt deceived and bitter because of it.

The surprising thing is that Abu Ali is still insisting that Bashar was killed and his successive appearance in the media are fabrications made by the regime!

I asked him, finally, what he waits for himself in Syria after the fall of the regime.

“I am an uneducated person and do not want to become an official. I am a house painter and want to leave weapons and return to my work. However, I will not leave my weapon at the time unless I get a guarantee that I will not be killed. We saw what happened with many of the rebels in Libya.”

We ask him about the truth of Abu Ali Khibbiyeh. Narratives about him are conflicting, between a very cruel and ruthless person and a person who has a lot of magnanimity and courage.

“I have mercy upon those who deserve my mercy, but I do not have mercy with killers. There are many prisoners who I took to their homes, but he who deserves to be killed will be killed.”

At the end of the meeting, Abu Ali asked to say a word to the rebels and the Syrians.

“I would like to say a word to those who considered themselves as rebels and fighters in Syria, not in Ghouta only. Let us go back to where we were before, love each other, feel what is happening, be merciful with civilians, victims of the regime and us, for whom we are responsible. Now, it is the turn of Ghouta to be attacked. If it entered due to our languor and we are not one hand, it would bring unexpected massacres. I wish to cooperate as one hand. If we do not do so, we will be held responsible. I ask everyone who has personal issues with a civilian or member of the Free Syrian Army to defer them until the overthrow of the regime, then we think of ourselves.”