Beirut, Asharq Al-Awsat – Following the unification of the Free Syrian Army [FSA] and opposition brigades – at home and abroad – under the banner of the newly formed Syrian National Army [SNA], SNA commander-in-chief Major General Muhammad Hussein al-Haj Ali expressed his satisfaction with this “project”. He lauded the effective role the SNA will play in toppling the regime, maintaining peace and stability in the post-Assad period, as well as securing civil democracy and drawing up a modern constitution that is compatible with the Syrian people’s demands, in addition to guaranteeing “free and fair elections under international supervision.”
Speaking exclusively to Asharq Al-Awsat, SNA commander-in-chief Major General Muhammad al-Haj Ali stressed that “we had no choice but to work to implement this project after the FSA reached a stage where it could no longer absorb all the opposition elements and brigades within its structure. Therefore the main objective of establishing the SNA was to bring all the fighters and the military and civilian revolutionaries under one banner in order to achieve our common objective.”
He added that organizing and uniting the ranks of the Syrian opposition under a single banner will also help avoid any future divisions or civil or sectarian war following the ouster of the al-Assad regime.
Major General Ali stressed that military action on the ground will see fundamental changes at all levels in the forthcoming stage and that this will become apparent in the coming weeks but refused to divulge further details citing operational security. He pledged that communication will continue between the opposition battalions at home and abroad, adding that this will have a positive influence on the SNA’s military activities on the ground, particularly as previous opposition activity took place in the absence of an organized military leadership and collaboration which sometimes resulted in the failure of military operations.
As for whether any foreign nation has pledged to arm the SNA, Ali told Asharq Al-Awsat “for a long time, the [foreign] countries would ask who would actually be receiving arms provided to the opposition; therefore this change will have a positive impact in this regard and reassure the countries friendly to the Syrian people. As for my principal task, it will be to control these weapons which were previously being distributed indiscriminately and restrict their use to the defence of Syria.”
The SNA commander-in-chief declared his opposition to demands to impose a no-fly zone in Syria, asserting that this would have more negative aspects than positive ones. Major General Muhammad al-Haj Ali said “if we can be guaranteed the provision of the required arms, we will make short work of this regime that is a failure in the eyes of the Syrian people who are choosing between death and dignity.”
As for his appointment as SNA commander-in-chief just weeks after his defection from the al-Assad regime, angering many of the longer-serving revolutionaries, Ali asked “who can prove that I was with the regime?” He added” I belonged to an institution whose task was to protect the people and I never took part in any action against my homeland’s sons. I was ideologically and emotionally opposed to everything that the regime and its men were doing. What is happening in my country grieved me but for various reasons, that are no secret, I could not reveal my stance or defect easily due to the strict restrictions and observation that I was subject to. In addition to this, I did not want to leave as a refugee but to continue to serve my homeland and people. This is why I proposed this project to unify the ranks and establish the SNA to work towards this objective.”
Regarding whether he was in contact with the Syrian opposition prior to his defection, Major General Ali revealed “I was in contact with some members of the opposition and this project was in my mind and I planned for it before my departure after I became convinced that the opposition would never be armed unless an institution was established to reassure the international community’s fears regarding the distribution of the weapons, ensuring that the situation does not get out of control. However the talk about implementing this project came later.”
He revealed that the SNA was established following “Turkish-French agreement with US support and Arab blessing”, stressing that “our task is complicated and I hope that everybody will welcome it, from the Arab and friendly countries to the superpowers…to help us achieve our objective without any conditions or foreign agendas.”
The military meeting that brought about the establishment of the SNA was attended by many opposition figures, including FSA commanders Colonel Riad al-Asaad and Brigadier Gen Mustafa al-Sheikh. He revealed that this meeting did not go completely smoothly and expressed his hope that “al-Asaad will give up some of his demands, most importantly his demand to remain head of the FSA whilst still under my command. This is difficult to achieve because the army should not have two commanders.”
As to whether the SNA is coordinating or in contact with the Syrian National Council [SNC] or any political opposition movement, Major General Ali revealed that there are contacts with various Syrian political movements. However he asserted that the SNA cannot work with these political movements, either bilaterally or as a political umbrella, in light of the divisions that are plaguing the Syrian political opposition. He added “we hope they will unite so that there can be coordination and dealings with them on this basis and in order to reach a free and independent Syria together.”