General Ahmad Rahal is a former high-ranking Syrian officer, former Syrian deputy defense minister and fleet commander. In 2012, he made a public statement, refusing to comply with the Assad regime’s illegitimate orders, and took the side of the Syrian rebels.
General Rakhal was the Commander-in-Chief of the Western Front, proving himself as a manly, brave and responsible man; now, he is busy doing analytical work, commenting on the issues related to the Syrian Civil War in media and helping reinforce the Free Syrian Army. He is confident that the ideals of the Syrian Revolution of Dignity will be fulfilled someday. On February 13, 2016, the general gave the InformNapalm volunteers an exclusive interview, providing a detailed account of the Russian involvement in the war against the Syrian people, along with many other interesting details…
General Rakhal, we know that you do a lot to make the Free Syrian Army stronger. Bombings and hunger forced many Syrians to leave their homes; some of them, with past military service experience. Do you think you can build a proper army with these people?
I’d like to point out that many of the soldiers and officers who left Assad’s army did it for moral and ideological reasons. They did so in an effort to put an end to the injustice, havoc, and murders in Syria rather than because of hunger or lack of money. These officers swore an oath of allegiance to their fellow countrymen and remained true to that oath, taking the side of the Syrian revolution.
When Assad’s army started to crumble, Assad had to form the so-called Shabiha squads. Shabiha were not proper military; they were armed gangs killing Syrians. When Shabiha could no longer hold back the Syrian revolution, the Assad regime invited mercenaries from abroad. First, they invited Lebanese Hezbollah; later, they brought Iraqi brigades and invited Qasem Suleimani with the Iranian Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution (IRGC) and the Failak Al Quds corps. They also released and trained convicts from Tehran’s jails to send them as mercenaries to Syria. That was how control over the military passed from Bashar Assad into Iran’s hands, with Qasem Suleimani becoming Syria’s supreme warlord.
(According to The Times of Israel” Qasem Suleimani was behind the extraction of the Russian Su-24M pilot downed on November 24, 2015 — IN).
But even after the Hezbollah and Iranian-Iraqi incursion, Assad continued to lose ground, having to seek the backing of the Russian air force to continue the extermination of the Syrian people.
Today, Russian warplanes bomb Syrian civilians under the pretext of combating ISIS. Over 95% of all air strikes are made against Syrian civilians and the Free Syrian Army (FSA)
Shabiha have been replaced with foreign mercenaries: Hezbollah, Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, Iraqi brigades on Tehran’s payroll, Afghani units and now also the Russian troops. What would be an approximate number of the paramilitaries fighting for Assad?
Assad’s regular army is history now. Let’s count foreign mercenaries. Hezbollah: 15 to 20 thousand fighters from Lebanon.
Iraqi mercenaries: the al-Nujaba militia, Abu Fadl Al-Abbas, and others (approximately 36 Iraqi brigades), 20 to 30 thousand men, all Shiites.
Iran sent IRGC’s advisors Failak Al Quds: the so-called “army of volunteers” who “volunteered” to fight in Syria. Iran also sent Afghani convicts and junkies. All in all, 20 to 30 thousand people.
There are also mercenaries from Chechnya, Afghanistan, India and Pakistan. 3 more thousand people have been recently brought from Nigeria.
All in all, there are about 100 thousand people fighting for Assad. This is not counting the Russian troops.
General Rakhal, what does the real military and political situation in Syria look like today?
Following Russia’s military invasion into the eastern part of Ukraine and annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea, the West imposed sanctions on Russia that are already taking a heavy toll. Russian ruble has collapsed after the plunge in oil prices below US$30 a barrel. Russia is said to have suffered US$400-600 billion in economic losses. The economic mafia that brought Vladimir Putin to power begin to realize that he can no longer ensure their status quo in the West. To avert this and distract Russians away from the Kremlin’s failure in Ukraine, a new “peace-making card” was played. Putin decided to resort to another external aggression, this time in Syria. His interests coincided with those of Assad, not least because of the reassurances given by General Qasem Suleimani commanding the Iranian Failak Al Quds fighters. He persuaded them that with Russian airforce in Syria, Assad would be able to regain control over the entire country thereby enhancing Putin’s bargaining power and giving him an opportunity to blackmail the West and divert the focus of attention from Ukraine.
However, the events taking place in the Sahl al-Ghab plain between October 1, 2015, and October 8, 2015, disrupted those plans. The FSA and the Jaish al Fatah (Army of Conquest) inflicted a heavy blow on the Iranian militants and Assad army debris. In the village of Morik alone, 46 tanks were destroyed.
Despite the support of the Russian warplanes, helicopters, and artillery, they were unable to stop the rebels. After suffering such a crushing defeat, the regime tried to open a new front in Homs and along the coast, but to no avail either. This made Russia reconsider its approaches. Putin made a blitz trip to Tehran accusing the Iranians of exaggerating their capabilities and dragging Russia into the war.
Putin then resorted to new tactics by getting into a conflict with Turkey following the downing of the Su-24 bomber. Russia deliberately provoked that conflict to change the confrontation agenda. Putin made a “tough” appearance on the Russian television, imposing sanctions on Turkey which, in fact, only led to an upsurge in food prices in Russia.
So, Russia and Iran had to return to Syria by devising a “Plan B”. Once Putin and Suleimani realized that neither Russia nor Iran would ever regain control over the entire country for Assad, they decided to divide Syria into several cantons. To achieve this, they intensified the fighting in the areas north of Aleppo and on the coast near the Hmeymim airbase, losing there over 120 Russian servicemen. Putin forbade the Russian media to disclose any information on Russian casualties in Ukraine and Syria except for that published officially by the Russian Defense Ministry. Everything that Putin has been able to archive so far is moving the western front line 10 km forward to expand the area of the “useful Syria” as he calls it. The battles taking place north of Aleppo are fought to secure the borders of a Kurdish enclave, making the plan to divide Syria fairly clear.
Russia wants to divide Syria through a series of partial, local, and incremental “victories”, arresting young men and sending them to the front line to make up for Assad’s lack of men. Most of our enemies getting killed in action are Iraqis and Hezbollah.
The information on the war in Syria is often hard to rely on: it is often difficult to understand who actually wins a particular fight or battle. Russian propaganda is waging information warfare to confuse the international community. Can you tell us what is actually happening on the front line?
Indeed, the propaganda is doing its dirty work and mass media often grossly misinterpret and distort events. Here’s an example for you: once we captured an Iraqi fighter on the coast; the next day, the RT channel broadcast this man’s “confessions” saying that he served in one of the ISIS units “advancing under the cover of NATO’s Apache helicopters” and was captured by Assad’s army. After a closer look the “report” turned out to be a video footage covering certain events taking place in Libya in 2014; namely, the Libyan units moving, as part of the Fajr offensive, towards ports to expel terrorists, with those Apaches covering the Libyan military. In Syria, all victories of Assad army leftovers account for only 5% of the country’s area (on the coast and near Aleppo). But they always exaggerate their victories in media. The capture of Rabia, a tiny village of fifty houses, was presented as a great victory. According to the media, it was the “rebels’ capital” and a strategic point. When the regime’s troops capture a town, the media following them always blow it out of proportion; when we recapture the town the media keep mum.
Another example: On 12 February, we captured 3 towns in the Turkmen Mountain area; last week (the interview was given on February 13 – IN), we recaptured 7 villages near Aleppo. None of it was mentioned in the media. Not a word will ever be said about Russian casualties or Hezbollah fighting in Aleppo. That is, the Russian media deliberately and consistently misinform both their fellow citizens and the whole international community.
As soon as Russian air strikes end, we will take back all the areas seized by the regime’s fighters under the cover of the Russian air force. Assad’s mercenaries can move forward with the backing of the Russian aerospace forces only; they cannot retain those areas on their own.
How long do you think the regime’s forces can hold the areas they have advanced to? Are they backed by the Russian air force?
To answer this question, I’ll quote the man commanding the Russian units at the Hmeymim airbase. He sent the following cable to the General Staff in Moscow: “We cannot stay airborne 24 hours a day: as soon as we land, the FSA win our areas back; Assad and his troops have neither the desire nor the will to fight and are afraid to engage with rebels/terrorists.” These are the words of their Hmeymim airbase commander. We are absolutely positive that once Russia ends aerial attacks, we will take their areas back and launch an offensive against the coast. The regime is helpless on its own. Here’s an example: there is this 10 by 15 km area captured near Aleppo, occupying 150 square kilometers. Russian warplanes had to make 305 strikes to help capture the area. In Syria, Russia repeats its MO in Grozny: total annihilation of people, stones and trees; of literally everything they can lay their eyes on. Iranian and Hezbollah fighters claiming their victories can in fact move forward only under the cover of Russian warplanes.
Only the Russian airforce helps keep a military equilibrium but the Russian commanders realize their capabilities are limited. A plane can only make 4-6 sorties a day; a pilot can make only 4 missions a day – he gets tired and loses concentration. So, they had to bring in more planes and people. They have been using 20 planes over the last 7-10 days. And what did they get except keeping all their ships busy bringing in ammo?
A few days ago, the EU made a statement saying that the sanctions will remain in place until Crimea is returned to Ukraine and that all Putin’s efforts to trade the war in Syria for the war in Ukraine are useless. The West will never accept anything of the kind.
What is your view on the role of Russia in Syrian war?
Russia has taken part in the destruction of lives in Syria from the very beginning of the Syrian revolution. For starters, all agreements on weapons supply normally include an article prohibiting the use of weapons against civilian population. Russia is aware that people of Syria are being killed with Russian arms, although it could impose a ban on Assad to use its weapons against the civilians. Here’s an example for you: in 2005 we visited Japan to negotiate a contract on equipment supply to Syria. There was an article in the draft contract banning the use of such equipment against civilian population, because Japan does not want its machinery to be part of any military activity against local people, thus refusing to participate in any such deals that include specific military objectives, staying away from such contracts. Whereas Russia has started destroying people of Syria with its bombs and missiles, aircraft and military personnel from the very beginning of the war.
Moreover, the Russian Federation has a part in killing of Syrian people through the veto right, that was applied 4 times on Syrian issues in the UN Security Council, including humanitarian matters – the latest veto was applied to humanitarian corridors, which is also an act of aggression against the people of Syria. Today, there are 12,000 Russian servicemen, experts and militants that take part in the genocide of the Syrian people. About 80% of civilian deaths during the war have occurred through Russian operations and bombings. Around 70’000 people have left their homes and turned into refugees because of Russian airstrikes, these people are currently residing on the border with Turkey, and 35’000 persons in eastern parts of Aleppo are planning to leave because of Russian bombings. Russia is using all types of prohibited weapons against civil population: Russians have deployed phosphorus, cluster and vacuum bombs, missiles such as ‘Caliber’ and “TOW22”, “TOW95”. Many pilots stationed in Hmeymim airbase come from the occupied Crimea. Putin is cautious about using pilots from mainland Russia and wants to avoid their possible captivity.
Volunteers of InformNapalm use open sources for analysis and intelligence. At the moment, social and mass media have lots of useful information: on-scene photos and video footage that may be used for identification and OSINT-investigations. The InformNapalm website has published investigative reports on the supply and deployment of high damage weapons in Syria, such as thermobaric projectiles and others. nternet based investigators are finding data on the Russian Airforce personnel, logistics supply routes and locations of Russian ground troops in Syria. We know that you have used some materials from InformNapalm. Do you find the information useful?
InformNapalm is definitely useful, I gather a lot of information from your resource and analyse it as a military strategic analyst. In previous roles, I served as a Commander of the Western front and Deputy Minister of Defense, so I know exactly what is happening on the frontlines. In my current role as a military analyst, I provide information via satellite channels and write articles, so InformNapalm is helpful with obtaining additional information. On several occasions, I have reprinted your articles in full and they have resonated strongly with Syrian people.
The IN website has published information about presence in Syria of Russian ground troops that participated in combat operations in eastern Ukraine. What additional information could you share about Russian ground forces in Syria?
In Syria, Russian military is present on the Western front, at the coastline, Tartus port and Latakia, Hmeymim airbase and Slenfa command unit. In Homs, at the equestrian club, Alshuairat and Addabaa airbases, in Damascus at the Kabun area, in Aleppo and Qamishli at the airbases. Putin is afraid of Russian soldiers being captured, as well as of heavy losses among them; there were 4 Russian servicemen killed recently, but the website of the Defense Ministry of Russia has informed about 1 casualty only, hiding data about others. Russians are operating in the second line, staying behind troops, they provide logistics and aviation support. On the ground, they try to keep far away from direct combat activity, although video materials exist showing Russian military personnel directing ground operations.
What is the situation regarding air defense for the Free Syrian Army? Among the Arab countries or other partner states, would any be able to provide air defense systems to counter Russian airstrikes, or these are just circulating rumors?
We do not have anti-aircraft missiles at the moment, and we did not have them previously. From the beginning of war, the Assad regime has moved all air defense systems to the main bases, since the FSA does not have airplanes, and so that the systems did not end up in the hands of rebels.
The information about supply of air defense systems to the rebels is not true; we are not receiving these from any sources, because the US has imposed an embargo on such supplies from the very beginning of the revolution. From the start of uprising, everyone knows the ‘3 no’s’ of American ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford: ‘no weapons supplies, no no-fly zone, and no military intervention’, and each of these 3 ‘no’s’ is in force at present time. Air defense systems are lethal weapons. Syrian revolution will obtain no such support.
You have taken part in combat operations at the Western front, in the mountains, where support of local population plays crucial role. What was the attitude of the people toward the Free Syrian Army? What kind of support did they demonstrate? When Assadite troops entered Salma, Russian journalists presented this event as a liberation of the town and a celebration for the residents. What happened in reality?
Civilian population is not residing at the territories controlled by the regime. Also, there are no civilians in Turkmen and Kurdish mountain areas, at the Western frontline. People move away from the Russian airstrikes to the border with Turkey. Those persons who were shown by Russian media were brought there from Latakia by the regime forces. Since 2012 Salma does not have any civilian residents, because local infrastructure is completely destroyed. These territories have been under shelling on a daily basis, by the regime’s helicopters dropping barrel bombs. There still are frequent airstrikes and artillery bombardments. For 3 years, Salma has been an empty town. Now, with the arrival of Russians and Iranians, the residents of mountain areas, Kurds and Turkmens are evicted from their homes. About 15,000 to 20,000 persons have left already, they are at the Turkish border. They have found themselves under Russian airstrikes there as well. So Russian media are lying, when they say that local residents ‘celebrated’ the arrival of Assadite forces. They have brought Alawite Shabiha together with them for the picture.
Russia describes its involvement in Syria as protection of civil population and fighting ISIS, which is supported by extensive media resources. What is the situation like in reality?
IS, a terrorist organization, was developed by Assad guards, together with Russia, Iran, Iraq and some of western special service agencies. Russia subsidizes IS. IS does not fight against the regime, but against the FSA that has liberated the coast from IS, to the south of Aleppo and in Idlib. Now IS is located in the north-east of Aleppo. However, Russian jets do not strike IS. The question is why? IS has a line of contact with the regime troops, while Shia groups fight only against FSA. Why do they not fight against IS? They have a line of contact stretching 70 km, so what is the secret?
These rhetorical questions demonstrate explicit cooperation between the regime and IS: they were provided large strategic warehouses in Palmira, their convoy, 3 km in length, travelled from Raqqa to Palmira in the open desert. Why was it not hit by an airstrike? They were given warehouses, 17-th division and an airbase in Tabqa. That is because both Assad and Russia realize that a demise of IS will lead to the fall of Assad regime. Why Russia is so opposed to the involvement of the Saudi and Turkish troops to fight IS? The reason is that IS serves as an excuse for the Russian intervention in Syria. Kremlin did not spend a single day or moment to fight IS.
Under Assad, Syria is undergoing the process of Russification. Russian language has been introduced in school curriculum, and Russian songs are present in Syrian mass media. Does this suggest a case of occupation?
Definitely, the presence of Russia in Syria is a type of occupation. The actual military situation makes it clear that discontinuing Russian intervention would mean inevitable fall of the regime. For this reason, the regime is doing everything possible to please Russia. Introducing Russian music and language, Putin is enticing Russian businessmen to invest in Syrian coastal territories. These things are happening as part of the agreement between Assad and Russia, it is a degrading and enslaving type of agreement.
Is unification of opposition groups possible, in order to change the balance of powers and shift the situation?
There is unspoken agreement between representatives of the EU and the US on the matter, to not allow the unification of allied rebel forces, because the US has interest in continuing the war in order to weaken Hezbollah, Iran and Russia in Syria. Thus, any unification of all groups within a strong army would mean ruining these plans. Americans are playing their own game with their narrative about the disparity of rebel forces. In 2013 I visited Europe, meeting with politicians and explaining how their support in development of strong armed forces to fight Assad would guarantee the fall of his regime in half a year. We argued that their support in building up of a national army capable of wiping out the Assad regime over the 6 months, would be incomparable to their future losses, when Europe is faced with millions of refugees coming from Syria. Europeans agreed with our view, but the US blocked the creation of the armed forces.
What is your view on the future of Syria? What possible resolutions exist?
We can say that from the moment of Russian intervention, the keys to resolution are ended up in the hands of Putin. Russia is represented at the negotiations in Geneva by Mr. Katelov, Deputy Minister of Defense. This means that Moscow and to some extent Iran are the actors pressing towards military and political solution. Assad does not influence anything. From the start of its intervention, Russia has made a faulty judgment based on promises from Iran about an easy victory and full control over Syria for Assad. But the scenario and balance of powers on the ground proved to be very different. The leadership of Russia realized that it would not be possible to re-establish full control over Syria. Therefore, they have chosen a strategic course to divide Syria. Fighting in the coastal area had a purpose to establish borders of the Alawite state; fighting on the northeastern side of Aleppo – for the Kurdish state; and the remaining territory, from Iraq to Idlib, is meant for the Sunni state. The international community may not agree with this approach, yet Russia aims to dictate conditions for keeping Assad in power – through the use of military forces, killing of civilians, destruction of infrastructure (8 hospitals, 25 schools, 20 humanitarian agencies) and bombings of refugees at the Turkish border. People of Syria will never accept this. Even if the whole country is occupied, there will be guerrilla resistance. There are 300,000 troops that will not allow neither Russians, nor Iranians, and especially Assad to stay on Syrian land. The international community is working to find a compromise, while Russia wants to grab the greatest share and assert control over our territory. Russia makes plans for a role in the future of Syria. Our country will have no military or economic relations with Russia.
People of Syria view the Russian government as war criminals that utilize all types of means and weapons to fight against Syrian people. People of Syria will not forgive Putin for the mess he has created. There is one solution and that is the departure of Assad.
In your opinion, does this appear a realistic scenario? What may be a way to achieve this goal?
In case the international community is not able to find political means to remove the Assad regime from power, then support should be provided to people of Syria in order to take down the regime. One way or another, the revolution will continue until it achieves its victory.