Hardline Islamists drove me from opposition back to Assad, says regime negotiator

“Negotiation is a service for besieged people, not a service for the regime,” Omar a-Rahmoun argued in a recent tweet. Last December, Rahmoun signed the agreement on behalf of the Assad regime that saw rebel forces surrender east Aleppo and tens of thousands of civilians leave the besieged half of Syria’s second city.

The 34-year-old is now a regime negotiator with the Office of National Defense and Intelligence.

But when Syrians began protesting against the government of Bashar al-Assad in 2011, a-Rahmoun joined them in his hometown of Halfaya in the northern Hama countryside.

A-Rahmoun was against taking up arms, he tells Syria Direct’s Mohammed al-Haj Ali but believed that the goals of the revolution were “pure.” The Hama native began to work with the FSA, organizing their military command.

In April 2013, he founded his own rebel militia in Hama, Ahrar a-Soufiah, with the stated goals of protecting citizens and working for the downfall of the Syrian regime.

The rebel faction appears to have dissolved in August 2014 when its founder fled the country. Jabhat a-Nusra—now Jabhat Fatah a-Sham (JFS)—had detained his brother, an FSA military commander. A-Rahmoun decided to flee to Turkey, fearing he would be next.

“These Islamist factions spoiled the revolution and devastated the country.

Q: In 2013, you founded Ahrar a-Soufiah, a rebel militia in the northern Hama countryside. Now, in 2017, you are a negotiator for the government of Bashar al-Assad. What changed?

I joined the Syrian revolution, but I was not one of those who fired bullets in Hama province in the early days. I worked for the revolution honestly and sincerely in the days when its purpose was clear and honorable. I participated in the days when it was peaceful—organizing protests and calling on people to join, urging the masses to become a part of it.

Then, one day, it became an armed revolution, and I didn’t want to take up weapons. I knew it would have catastrophic consequences, so I was against it.

I kept working with the factions though. I had no alternative—that was my reality. I worked with the factions of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) because I was for the idea of creating institutions. I coordinated with generals and civilian leadership in establishing the FSA’s Military Council and the General Staff of the Free Syrian Army. That is, until the Islamist extremist factions took over.

I remained with the revolution in the days when it was pure. There weren’t any foreign [fighters] or those who exploit the religion of Islam, who want to drag the country into a sectarian war and destroy it. These groups, which justify themselves with Islam, swallowed up the factions of the revolution. Rebels were cast off to Turkey and other countries. These Islamist factions spoiled the revolution and devastated the country.

A-Rahmoun announces Ahrar a-Soufiah. Photo courtesy of Khalid Ibn al-Walid

Q: Could you talk more about your decision to leave the rebel cause? What grievances did you have with them? Tell us about the backlash you faced from members of the Syrian opposition after you began working with as a negotiator.

There were several reasons why I left the opposition, some more direct than others.

In 2014, Jabhat a-Nusra attacked Liwa Abu al-Alameen [an FSA-affiliated rebel group in northern Syria], detained their members and confiscated their weapons. Their leader and my brother, Sami a-Rahmoun, was also detained.

[Ed.: Following his detention by Jabhat a-Nusra, Sami a-Rahmoun joined the group as a military commander. He now fights with Nusra fighters under the umbrella of Hay'at Tahrir a-Sham.]

[Ed.: Local opposition media reported that Jabhat a-Nusra, now Jabhat Fatah a-Sham, attacked the headquarters of Liwa Abu al-Alameen near the northern Hama countryside town of Halfaya in August 2014.]

I was able to escape to Turkey. Jabhat a-Nusra issued a decree which prohibited me from re-entering rebel-controlled areas. I remained in Turkey for a whole year.

I decided to return to the Syrian regime because Nusra would not allow me to enter rebel areas, and I couldn’t stay with the Kurds because of they were carrying out a separatist project. So, I decided to go back to the ranks of the regime to fight against the division [of Syria’s land and people] and the Islamist factions who fought without reason.

There are various opinions about me among the opposition. Some consider me a traitor to the blood of martyrs. There are some that I’m still in contact with today who don’t support me, but they acknowledge the circumstances I’ve been through. Some support me and what I’ve done, and they wish they could do the same, as they’ve been exposed to those Islamist factions.

Q: You did not immediately begin working as a negotiator. You previously worked with Jaish a-Thuwar, a part of the Syrian Democratic Forces. Could you talk about that experience? Why did you choose to work with them?

In reality, I only worked with them for a short time. Jabhat a-Nusra [now Jabhat Fatah a-Sham] turned on fighters of the FSA. They retreated to the Kurdish territories and formed Jaish a-Thuwar.

[Ed.: Jaish a-Thuwar is a multi-ethnic coalition of rebel factions in northern Syria established in May 2015. The coalition is allied with the Kurdish-majority People’s Protection Units (YPG), and the group joined the Syrian Democratic Forces in October 2015.]

When Ali Barad [leader of the coalition] established this army, he offered me a position, which I declined—I didn’t know what their goals were or the source of their money. However, I stayed in contact with its leadership and some of its members. But Ahrar a-Sham slaughtered two of their members, who were friends of mine, in Azaz.

[Ed.: Syria Direct reported on clashes involving Ahrar a-Sham, Jabhat a-Nusra and Jaish a-Thuwar in Azaz and other areas of Aleppo province in November 2015.]

I called Jaish a-Thuwar and offered my services. He requested that I work in media, which I did under a pseudonym. I wasn’t convinced about their project, but they were old friends and I wanted to help them.

Then, I took a good look at their project, and I realized the PYD was a separatist initiative. I decided to return to the Syrian state and fight this division, to fight the Islamic factions who kicked me out of my country.

[Ed.: The Democratic Union Party, or PYD, is the leading Kurdish political party in the Federation of Northern Syria – Rojava. In 2012, the PYD formed the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the main component of the Syrian Democratic Forces who control large swathes of territory in norther Syria.]

Q: Could you talk about your relationship with your brother, who is now a military commander in Jabhat Fatah a-Sham (JFS)­? How has your role in the Syrian government, which considers JFS members to be terrorists, affected that relationship?

I am not in contact with him, and there has not been any relationship between me and my brother, Sami, since he learned that I had returned to the regime.

Q: In the past year, several rebel-controlled cities and towns signed reconciliation agreements with the regime including Outer Damascus towns, Aleppo and the Waer district of Homs city. Local activists and residents say that the terms of the agreements (prisoner release, the end of arrests, returning state services) are not being implemented. Wadi Barada is one main example that comes to mind. How do you respond?

I follow the reconciliations that I worked to accomplish and signed. As for those agreements that I did not put into place, I have no role, and I do not follow them. The agreement in Aleppo and the clauses that I signed have been implemented.

Q: Last month, you wrote a tweet saying that “negotiation is a service to besieged people, and not a service to the regime.” Could you speak more about what you mean by that statement and how it relates to your role as a negotiator?

The regime was strong enough militarily to overtake east Aleppo. I went to Aleppo at the request of the opposition, not the regime.

Mohammed Al-Haj Ali

Mohammed Al-Haj Ali, originally from Daraa, had completed his first year studying Broadcast Journalism at Damascus University before leaving Syria in August 2012.

Tariq Adely

Tariq Adely graduated from Brown University in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in comparative literature and translation. He continued his studies at the Qasid Institute and the Institute for Critical Thought in Amman, Jordan.