Interview with an Iranian fighter in Hayat Tahrir al-Sham

Harakat Muhajirin Ahl Sunnat Iran’s banner. “There is no God but Allah. The movement of Iranian Sunni migrants.”

Editor’s note: Below is an interview with Mulavi Abu Abdullah, a member of Harakat Muhajirin Ahl Sunnat Iran, an Iranian battalion in Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). HTS is a Sunni jihadist group opposed to the Assad regime and is based in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province. After the interview was conducted online, Lars Hauch submitted it to FDD’s Long War Journal. Mr. Hauch is a journalist who covers the Middle East and especially Syria. The interview was arranged and first translated by @revolutionfarsi. Amir Toumaj, a contributor to FDD’s Long War Journal, also reviewed the interview transcript and translated parts it.

The interview is of interest for several reasons. Abu Abdullah explains that his fighting unit is “comprised of all kind[s] Iranian folks,” such as Turks, Baloch, and Kurds — all of whom traveled to Syria to fight Iran’s ally. He discusses his opposition to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State, relations between HTS and Hurras al-Deen [the “Guardians of Religion” organization, a suspected al Qaeda group], and his desire to return to Iran.

Q: Please introduce yourself and tell us about your motivations to migrate to Syria for jihad.

A: I am Mulavi Abu Abdullah. We migrated to Syria — as God told us, “And what is the matter with you that you don’t fight in the cause of Allah and for the oppressed among men, women and children who say‚ ‘Our Lord, take us out of this city of oppressive people and appoint for us from yourself a protector and appoint for us from yourself a helper?'” — to help the oppressed people and children who are being oppressed by all kind of evil. This is the cause of most of our brothers who migrated here.

Q: How did you get to Syria? Can you tell us about the challenges that you faced?

A: It’s hard to say how we managed to come here. It was so hard, especially as the Iranian currency is so worthless. But despite all odds, with the favor of God some of our brothers managed to come here. Some of them had passports, others didn’t. Some came by plane and some just crossed the mountains. There are a lot of stories about each one with the potential of writing a book about their journeys. Some of our brothers who crossed the border told us that they were in deep snow for 15 hours, but with God’s favor it became easy for us to get through all the problems and to arrive here.

Q: In what kind of activities are the Iranian jihadis engaged?

A: Well, our brothers are engaged in all kind of activities here. We provide all kind of help that is based on Sharia. For example, we support the military matters and we help the oppressed people who were displaced and have no homes anymore. So no matter on what issue, we have brothers who offer their help, thanks to God.

Q: Is your organization independent or do you rely on other factions or foreign governments?

A: Note that all brothers who came here left their beloved ones to migrate. If foreign states would have a say, they would ask for things that are against Sharia, and that would be unacceptable for those who left the joys of life and migrated here. I can tell you that the organizations we are part of are ideal for us and they are not tied to any foreign state.

Q: How is your relationship with other rebel factions such as the Free Syrian Army (FSA), Ahrar al-Sham and others?

A: In this area that God has given to us, there are a lot of factions with different ideologies and thoughts like the Free Syrian Army, Ahrar al-Sham and others. Since the first day, we participated in any action that we believed in. For example, we had an alliance with the FSA in order to fight against Bashar al-Assad. It was only an alliance, and in ideology, everyone may have different thoughts.

In general, we are with anyone who grabbed a rifle to defend his family. Maybe there are some problems but that is normal. Especially when you think big, the minor issues don’t matter because you want to achieve a big goal which is to defeat the Kuffar and the enemies of Islam.

Q: What is your attitude towards the Islamic State group known as Daesh?

A: At first, everyone thought that they were the true claimers of the Islamic Caliphate and that’s why they could attract everyone in the world, even those with the least interest in jihad and an Islamic Caliphate. But when we saw what catastrophe they brought, for example how they used Takfeer and excommunicated every faction except themselves, how lives didn’t matter for them, it became clear to us that it was the wrong way. So we announced that they are Takfeeri and dogs of hell, and this is the verdict of our prophet (may Allah bless him and grant him peace).

Q: Tell us more about your brothers in arms. For example, how many were martyred?

A: Thanks to God we have brothers from all kind of Iranian folks, such as Turk, Baloch, Kurd and people of the coast. They are really pure and God won’t give anyone such a gift to be here except to those who really want this from the bottom of their hearts.

And about our martyrs: Iranians participated in any battle against the regime and I can say we almost gave martyrs in each one of them. Since we [were] with Jabhat [al-Nusra] for three years, our brothers could do what they should, in one battle we lost seven brothers in a specific position. The regime also got hands on the dead bodies of four of our brothers. Our movement gave 26 martyrs so far and we hope God accepts that from us.

Table of Harakat Muhajirin Ahl Sunnat Iran’s martyrs.

Q: There are conflicts between the armed factions that are often framed as conflicts between jihadis and revolutionaries and also groups with mixed-ideologies like Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Islam. Where [what type of group] do you belong to?

A: We came to establish an Islamic Caliphate, God willing, and every single one of our brothers is here for jihad. You said that Ahrar al-Sham’s and Jaish al-Islam’s goals are revolution and jihad, but I do not agree with you on this. At first, they were. But when they lost their leaders most of the remnants only wanted to earn money, unfortunately. These two factions didn’t participate in major battles in the last 3-4 years, even though they had the best weapons among the revolutionaries. But unfortunately they only targeted groups with jihadi ideology who wanted to establish an Islamic Caliphate and destroy the Kuffar. Unfortunately, their main concern is to destroy the groups that support jihad, like Jabhat al-Nusra. They meet the regime and Jabhat al-Nusra with the same hostility.

Q: What is your opinion about Hurras al-Deen [the “Guardians of Religion” organization, a suspected al Qaeda group] and its split from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS)?

A: I can only refer to Sheikh Abu Muhammad al-Joulani [head of HTS] and the delegation that went to negotiate with Hurras al-Deen. Hurras al-Deen asked the sheikh “What do you think about Hurras al-Deen?“ and the sheikh replied “You are our brothers but you are extreme.” Then the sheikh asked them “What do you think about Hayat Tahrir al-Sham?” and they replied, “You are our brothers but you are flawed.”

“There is brotherhood between us and Hurras. This group’s separation from HTS is because the ijtihad [independent reasoning] that they had, and we can say that this separation is not because of their personal desires. This is out [of] speculation that the reason for separation was ijtihad…”

Q: If there were efforts by Turkey and other groups to eliminate Hayat [Tahrir al-Sham] from the scene, what will be your approach? Will you point your weapons toward them? Or do you not consider this a reason [to fight them] and will continue your cooperation with other groups independently?

A: Answering this is really hard. Our goal is war with the system. God has not brought that day upon us and save us from the nightmare (of war with our brothers). So if we are attacked, we have a right to defend our lives, honor and house. This is certain. But more than this would possibly be not expedient for us.

Q: As you know from reports, Deraa, the birthplace of the Syrian revolution, has acquiesced to a ceasefire and has surrendered. Meanwhile, the regime and Russia speak about repeating this scenario in Idlib as the last stronghold of the revolutionaries and mujahideen. Aside from relying on God to confront this, what do you imagine about the region’s future, and are you ready for a fight from a tactical and equipment perspective?

A: In my opinion, if all factions unite, Idlib will not be defeated. But if there is disunity and selling lands and everyone thinks about their interests, I must unfortunately say that this land will be destroy[ed], and God will take from us this great blessing, and all of these people who are Sunni will be destroyed, and this is very important. As far as I know, decisions have been made and directives have been issue[d], and God willing, God will allow its implementation.

Q: Thanks for your answers, they will help to inform the public about your situation and the goals of Iranian fighters who joined the ranks of Syrian rebels [meaning the jihadist group, HTS].

A: Thank you as well, I am thankful for this interview. God willing, we hopefully all end up with the right destiny. And those brothers who came here with any kind of goal, I hope that God will help them on their way. I hope that God grants us to come to our beloved Iran after we are done in Syria so that we can introduce the Islamic definitions there and destroy the Kuffar and become those who God is willing us to be. And finally, I ask God to accept our actions in his doorway.

Lars Hauch is an independent journalist covering the Middle East.

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