By Scott W. Winchell
On Friday, August 3rd 2012, an interesting reporting event took place regarding the Civil War in Syria. Reuters posted a report on the continuing battle in Aleppo, Syria. The trouble was that the report was completely incorrect. It turns out that it was a planted story and the source was the Assad Regime. In the report, it was stated that over 1,000 rebels had died and that a Free Syrian Army (FSA) General, Mustafa Al-Sheikh (the leader of the FSA forces in Aleppo) was one of the casualties.
Additionally, they reported that there was a mass exodus of people in the city underway that was due to the superior might of the regime forces, specifically, Gen. Maher’s 4thMechanized Division. This was a case of deception and the use of an international news service to propagandize an event. The propaganda piece was effective and caused much disarray among the FSA ranks, but it was soon quelled when the truth was made known to all when FSA contacted Reuters and forced them to retract the report. (see cached copies here.)
Often in the fog of war, reporting is easily manipulated and misinformation is disseminated to the masses. We applaud the efforts of most journalists to vet, determine, and report the facts. In this case, Reuter’s reported that they were hacked, and that a bogus story was posted. The bogus story was attributed to Thomson/Reuters journalists and it was soon pulled down and an investigation is now underway.
The timing of this report was interesting because it coincided with an interview that Stand Up America had set up where MG Vallely was invited to speak directly to the highest senior staff of the FSA with SUA’s Senior Middle East adviser Nagi N. Najjar. This effort took weeks to organize, and SUA had cultivated what is now a most trusted relationship for disseminating the facts in Syria and the battle areas.
This interview was conducted via Skype with an FSA Senior Commander (Name withheld) who reports directly to the Free Syrian Army Chief, General Raid al-Asaad. The very first question directed to the General was in regard to that report. He said:
“The Assad Regime people gave that story to Reuters, and they ran with it.” He continued: “This isn’t the first time, and we have seen them do this to us before. Many times reports in the media were very wrong.”
When prodded, the commander said they trusted Al Jazeera the most, then Al Arabiya, the BBC, the Washington Post, and the NY Times in descending order before the SUA relationship was established. That was how they got their messages out in the past. Having no designated press agent of their own, they have resorted to using whoever was available from their ranks at that time. General Vallely then asked what the real situation was in Aleppo at the moment.
The FSA Senior Commander told us that the offensive operations that the FSA had been conducting had set the regime on its heels. They captured ten T-72 tanks and turned them on the regime forces. He reiterated that General Mustafa Al-Sheikh was indeed alive and unharmed. He said it was now time for the FSA to consolidate their forces and capabilities, re-arming as best they can.
Often when a tank is captured, its munitions having been expended, they destroy the tank by fire so it cannot be used against them in the future. He then added that they turned some tanks on the Syrian military airport north of Aleppo but had not destroyed the tanks yet.
General Vallely and Mr. Najjar probed the matter of re-arming and asked where they had procured their weapons and what happened to the arms supplied by Qatar? The FSA Senior Commander indicated that the initial shipment of weapons, occurring some six or seven months prior, were mishandled and many fell into the wrong hands.
Simply put, he said the Qataris didn’t know who to give them too, so a lot fell into the hands of [radical] groups. He told us that many Syrians and sympathizers in the Gulf States had pushed for the Qatari government to send help and many rich individuals supplied the money and still do.
SUA asked who the groups are that make up the opposition forces in light of this revelation, and the stories in the media about al Qaida and other Jihadist groups that were taking over the FSA. He scoffed at that.
“They are not taking us over” he said, and then continued; “We control about 60% of all the opposition forces, and there are several other groups that comprise about 5% each, with al Qaida at about 1%.” He continued; “We do not fear these more radical groups, and we know how to handle them. We can control them, but we need all the help we can right now, so we do work with them.”
The FSA Senior Commander was asked where they get the bulk of their arms now, especially the heavier weapons. He indicated that they were purchasing from illicit arms-dealers, mostly in Iraq and Turkey, but also in Lebanon and other places. Again, the funds provided by wealthy donors in the Gulf States. With the bulk of the weapons coming through the Turkish border, he told us that it only takes about four or five hours to get them into Aleppo and Irbil, eight hours to Homs, twelve into Damascus, and less than 24 hours anywhere else. The toughest area to get arms to was the Alawite areas near Latakia, but he did stress they are there, transported through the mountains to the shore areas.
The FSA Senior Commander confirmed; “We know all of them, yes”, when asked about the other factions in Syria. He reiterated that the FSA was by far the largest, with Ahrar Al Shan, the “Liberals of Damascus” next, the Salafists and four or five others; al Qaeda the smallest and least involved. He also said that the command of the FSA was made up of former Syrian Army Generals, he among them, all reporting to Riad El Asaad, and General Mustafa Al Sheikh (the inner circle).
SUA then probed for an assessment of Assad’s forces, particularly his air forces, and the chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction. He told us there are two centers that control all air assets, from jet fighters to helicopters, as well as air defenses. He said that well placed initial strikes, if necessary, would easily disable the entire air defense system.
The targets would be the Syrian air base near Homs, and a naval/air base at Al-Zoubeh Banias, next to the port city of Tartus. He said that Assad had yet to employ his MIGs, and that the only jets used so far were L-39 trainers and all other air attacks were by MI-24 helicopters.
Throughout the 90 minute interview, he spoke with much confidence, and was jovial and positive. He said it was time to start thinking about the first days after Assad was removed. He stressed that they do not want another military man in charge, those days are over.
He acknowledged that the most well organized and moderate of the forces other than the FSA was the Muslim Brotherhood. He intoned that that there are far worse groups who want to be in charge, but he envisioned a government that represented all factions.
He insisted that the FSA would support all groups, but was certain the MB would be about 50% of the structure later; however it was to be constructed. He stated that for the most part, they desire to be a friend and ally of the United States, and that the Turkish had been a very helpful to them throughout the chaotic war zones. He said a future Syria would be a close friend and ally to Turkey.
“The Turks have been working closely with us, and have been most helpful in supporting the FSA. They are ‘micro-managing’ things to secure the FSA.” We took this to mean they were well in control of border matters and supplying the FSA. General Vallely asked: “What is the story behind the news that the FSA has a command center at Adana-Incirlik, and was the CIA helping them?” The FSA General laughed: “We wish these words were true!”
General Vallely and the SUA Middle East Advisor queried him on where Assad was, and were they watching him? Did they have intelligence assets within the regime?
The FSA Senior Commander indicated they did and that there was nothing Assad could do that they did not know about in advance. Their intelligence is well-penetrated in the government, and the military. He said that most of the Assad family was evacuated and only his brothers were still at Assad’s side.
When asked what he thought of external pressures from nations such as Russia, Iran, China and the other nations who were not demanding and applying pressure in the UN for Assad to step down. He said:
“We know who they are, and we will deal with such interests if necessary.”
He assured us that it was quite evident that Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) have their fingerprints everywhere and that is a well-documented fact.
Again, General Vallely and Mr. Najjar probed for more depth on the question of WMD’s and Assad’s delivery systems. The FSA Senior Commander said the stockpiles were huge. They are mainly housed in Badia (East of Hama), and in Hamamim (east of Jableh).
When asked about Scuds, he said those were not the only ones to worry about. He said Assad has other more advanced missile systems such as the Russian Oka Missile, North Korean Rodong-1, Russian Yakont cruise missiles, and also Noor missiles, Zelzal-2 missiles, and Shahab-2‘s from Iran among many others. He said each could carry a chemical or other warhead. He told SUA they were located predominantly in the Alawite areas of Karyet Zaima (25 miles east of Jableh), Jobet Birgal (Northeast of Al-Qardaha), and Beharmil (Northeast of Tartus on the road to Duraykish).
The FSA Senior Commander did tell us that if they encountered the WMD in the field, he hoped that they would be destroyed coincidently when the delivery systems were destroyed.
“If we find them, we will collect them and turn them over to responsible countries. We do not want them”, he vehemently added.
The conversation drifted to the Kurds. General Vallely asked what impact the PKK in Turkey had on the Syrian conflict. The FSA Senior Commander said that in desperation, Assad had relinquished all his assets in the Northeast of Syria to the PKK. This is after all, a Kurdish stronghold within Syria, and removed the bulk of his troops to attack Aleppo. He went on to say:
“This means that Assad is trying to set up mini-states within Syria, one for the Kurds, a coastal one for the Alawite Shi’ites, and the rest for the Sunnis.”
General Vallely commented to himself: “The Balkanization of Syria that we talked about over a year ago.”
When pressed further whether the PKK or Iraqi Mahdi Army were a worry or were interfering, he said they did not fear the PKK, and were not worried about them, but the Mahdi Army was a threat. He said:
“The PKK just want independence, but the Mahdi could supply 20,000 Shi’tes to worsen the situation from the East.” The next question was about whether the Russians would attack them, to which he said: “The Russians will not come in.”
He also said they had no contact with the Russians at all; not even a point of contact. He did acknowledge that they are aware that the Russians and Iranians were developing a plan to place someone in charge who would be friendly to them when Assad was gone, but would deal with that when the time came. He was very matter-of-fact about that eventuality.
The FSA Senior Commander was adamant:
“Assad is not fighting as the Syrian Army anymore; he is fighting as an Alawite militia to establish concentrated power and his base of support.”
General Vallely went on to further ask: “How many troops does Assad have remaining to fight?” The answer was about 100,000 men, split evenly between the 4th Mechanized Division and his own Presidential Guard.
In Aleppo, he said about 10,000 regime forces were engaged now, and all units are supplemented with Iranian and Hezbollah forces. He said Unit-14 was shelling Aleppo with its 130mm artillery and some smaller weapons.
SUA has reported already that other Syrian intelligence sources place the number of Iranian troops in Syria at over 50,000, with a steady stream still entering through Iraq in clandestine operations. The FSA Senior Commander placed his numbers at over 100,000, but would be much greater in size if he had more small arms. He said there are a million strong who want to join from the Syrian Sunni population alone.
General Vallely then asked him about reports made public by a certain Colonel Abdel Nasser, a supposed rebel commander, who supposedly confirmed the corridor between Aleppo and the Turkish border was in his control. The FSA Senior Commander did not know who this person was, but he too confirmed it was in their control. He said there were about twenty Syrian regime helicopters in that area, but they were poorly maintained and not a serious threat.
Finally he addressed fears that chemical weapons would fall into the hands of extremists. To which he replied:
“We will prevent extremism, they will not get anything!” He went on further: “We would like to have the help of Turkey and the Gulf States in establishing a new government of Syria – friendly with our neighbors.”
The lines of communication have been firmly established, and SUA expects to produce a series of reports as events warrant. Watch the sources of the stories – propaganda abounds. The latest example is the capture of 47 so-called “Iranian pilgrims” – who turn out to be IRGC troops.
Video proof of Iranian soldiers fighting with the Syrian Army
UPDATE – 8.6.12, 12:40 PM EDT
NOTE – The following sentence was changed from the original post to better reflect the true meaning of the terms as spoken by the Sr. Commander. Interpretations are wide and varied when translating, often causing confusion in the true definition of words as understood in the East versus the West. This is the change:
Simply put, he said the Qataris didn’t know who to give them too, so a lot fell into the hands of [radical] groups.
Originally the term “Islamist” was used instead of “radical”.