Born into one of the most influential families in the northwestern Syrian town of Idlib, Tarif al-Sayyed Issa joined the the Muslim Brotherhood while very young. In the late 1970s, political and religious tension rose in Syria as the regime of then president Hafez al-Assad tried to suppress militant Islamist factions using brutal means.
In late 1979, the Muslim Brotherhood joined the armed struggle. The following year, the government launched a nationwide crackdown, crushed the secular opposition, and decreed that all members of the Muslim Brotherhood would be put to death. Tarif al-Sayyed Issa was one of tens of thousands of Syrians who fled the country in 1980, unsure if he would ever return.
Three decades later, a new Syrian uprising erupted against Hafez al-Assad’s son, Bashar al-Assad, and on March 28, 2015, Syrian rebels announced that they had seized full control of Idlib. Thirty-five years after his escape, Tarif al-Sayyed Issa was finally able to return to his hometown—and this time, he came as part of the Fath Army, a coalition of Islamist rebels that have since ruled the city.
Tarif al-Sayyed Issa has been kind enough to talk to Syria in Crisis about his experiences during the battle for Idlib, the way the city is currently administered, and the lessons that the Syrian opposition could draw from these events.
Tarif, please tell us how this all began for you in 2011.
I left Idlib in 1980 and since that day, I have always been struggling for Syria’s liberation. I have fled from country to country with my family. We first went from Syria to Iraq, where we found ourselves trapped in a war, then Yemen, where another war began. Finally, we managed to get to Sweden.
That is where I lived very peacefully in 2011. I had explained my situation to the Swedish authorities and been granted asylum as a political refugee.
When the revolution began in March 2011, I felt that I had to remain faithful to my people. It would have been impossible to sit in Sweden and do nothing, watching my country suffer. It was my duty to take part in the liberation struggle.
At first, I joined the Syrian National Council to work as a politician. Then I moved into Syria and started organizing humanitarian assistance in the area around my hometown. We lived in opposition-controlled areas of Idlib Province, while the city itself remained in regime hands. We created a group called Sanabel al-Kheir that distributed food and clothes and such things.
When I realized that there would be an operation to liberate Idlib city, I decided to change roles again. I began working with an armed group in the Fath Army called Faylaq al-Sham, which contains some people from the Muslim Brotherhood. They made me field commander of a small unit. I had already received military training in the 1980s when we in the Muslim Brotherhood first rose up against Hafez al-Assad. Now, I took a short refresher course in a training camp that had been set up before the Idlib operation.
It would have been impossible for me to just sit down and wait when I saw Idlib, the city I had been forced out of thirty-five years earlier, on the verge of liberation. I felt so strongly about being a part of this.
The Fath Army was created to capture Idlib in spring 2015, just as Saudi Arabia seemed to be ramping up support for the opposition and after a series of high-level meetings between Saudis, Qataris, and Turks. What can you say about the issue of foreign support?
Generally speaking, it is of course a positive thing that Saudi Arabia and other countries play a positive role in Syria.
However, I must say that the opposition had been planning for a long time to liberate Idlib. The plans took shape long before it actually happened. But that doesn’t mean that there was no role for certain countries when the day came. An operation like this is very, very expensive. It would have been impossible to execute it without support from some quarters.
In this period, support came in with no strings attached, which was then used to organize the liberation of Idlib.
When you entered Idlib for the first time, how did you feel?
The feeling when I finally returned home—it is impossible to describe. To do it not as a mere traveler but as someone who had helped free his city, to return as a liberator, it felt incredible.
My group had moved in from the eastern side of the city, using the Aleppo road in the area of Binnish. On that short trip from Binnish to Idlib, I started crying.
Then we reached the Mehrab Roundabout in eastern Idlib. Among the last things that my friends and I had done when we rose up against the regime in 1980 was to smash the statue of Hafez al-Assad that stood in the Mehrab Roundabout. And now, thirty-five years later, I was able to return to the same place.
And smash the Assad statue again?
Hah! There was no statue, they had not rebuilt it.
I fell down on my knees right there in the Mehrab Roundabout and thanked God that I was finally back.
Then the first thing I did was to visit my old home. The house had been sold by then, but the new owners still allowed me in to visit when I explained the situation. It was strange. Of course, I felt a sense of loss. It was an incomplete joy. It was just a house now, but it had been the home of my father, my mother, and my siblings. Now, only the stones remained.
I then went to meet my uncles, my brother, and so on. There was much to do and many people to meet.
So who had changed the most, you or the city?
I think we had both changed! I left when I was twenty and returned at age fifty-five. Idlib had become a much bigger city in those years, too, but the center of town was almost unchanged. It had only grown outward into the countryside. Several of those who accompanied me were amazed that I could still find my way in town.
Many people came out to meet me, there were such warm welcomes even though I couldn’t name all of them. Even my fellow fighters were surprised that so many recognized me after thirty-five years.
What has your role been in Idlib since the army was driven out?
I left Faylaq al-Sham once Idlib was liberated. Others continued on toward Jisr al-Shughour and other towns, but I stayed in Idlib and returned to my humanitarian work. There was a lot to do. We had to quickly get aid into the city, set up an administration, and try to activate civil society.
During Ramadan, we prepared 7,000 meals and handed out thousands of food baskets. We distributed seven tons of dates in some of the poorer neighborhoods.
When you say we, who do you mean?
I am still employed by Sanabel al-Kheir, the aid group we created a few years ago. I am part of its five-person steering committee. As a member of Sanabel, I work on the ground with several big aid organizations. They include the Ataa Relief and Development Association, which is a Syrian charity registered in Turkey, the White Hands, which is also based in Turkey, the IHH, which is a large Turkish charity, and the Aid Coordination Unit, which is part of the National Coalition and is backed by the Western countries.
Among the other aid groups active in Idlib, there is one named Violet and an Irish one called Goal. These organizations have all been approved to work in the city and we trust them. The armed groups have no real humanitarian work of their own. Some of them claim to run their own aid operations, but it’s really the aid groups that do all the work.
So far, the armed groups have not interefered with the humanitarian work. The Fath Army leadership has made it clear to them that this could lead to the international aid groups pulling out. It is a sensitive situation since the Nusra Front is active in the area and it is linked to al-Qaeda, while the population depends on donations from nations at war with al-Qaeda. There was an incident early on when some members of the Nusra Front interfered by trying to control the distribution of flour, but this was stopped immediately. After that, the Fath Army decreed that the armed units cannot be involved with the aid work.
What sort of donations do you get from abroad?
Perhaps 90 percent of all donations are in the form of aid packages, such as food. The remaining 10 percent is money, which is used to fund the aid distribution, pay salaries, buy equipment, run offices, and so on. We never hand out cash directly.
Are you also politically active?
I am still part of the Muslim Brotherhood, of course. In the Brotherhood, we have a committee for each Syrian province and I am one of the members of the Idlib committee.
Part of my job now, as I see it, is to convince people of the need for a civilian leadership. I go around mosques and other places, meeting people and trying to explain to them that the country will never get up on its feet again without a strong civil society. I have met with all the workers’ unions in Idlib, with the professional associations, and so on.
Didn’t people flee the city?
A very high number of people fled when the battles were going on in March and right afterwards, when the regime started bombing the city. But a month later, people began to come back. Now I would say there are more people coming than leaving. The city is growing. During Ramadan, the authorities had to ban motor traffic in the market area because it was so crowded. Trade is back and life goes on.
The government is still bombing Idlib, but the intensity differs from day to day. A while ago there was an incredible amount of bombing, with ten to fifteen bombs dropped on our city every day. But then it slows down again and you have a calmer period.
It is very difficult to live there, but people are forced to stay because most of them do not have the economic resources to move elsewhere. And frankly, you get used to the hardship. There is, of course, also a will to stay, a sense that we have nothing more to lose.
What are the major needs in Idlib city today?
The number one need is electricity. Idlib had access to electricity from the state grid earlier, even if it was intermittent, but then the regime cut off power and even water. Now, people rely on private electric generators. They are expensive, but we get together and buy shares in a generator. For example, many different shops can share a generator to power their street. The problem is that these generators will only cover the needs of those who own it. They also cannot run the big public utilities, like the water treatment plant that needs electricity for its pumping system.
So the number one need is electricity, electric repairs, and generators. Number two is fuel for the generators. Without fuel, they won’t run.
Number three is wheat. Everyone eats bread in Syria, but we lack the wheat to bake it.
Number four, that would be money. We need to pay salaries for public employees. Right now, we are trying to restart the schools in Idlib. But we cannot get the teachers to come unless we have money to pay them. Actually, regardless of what we do, we won’t be able to cover the costs of all the people who used to be employed by the state in Idlib. But if we can’t give them salaries, we must instead give them aid so they do not starve.
Fifth is equipment. Machines and these types of things, for the Civil Defense units in particular. The fire brigade and the people who pull victims out of the rubble after bombing raids need salaries, but also specialized equipment and resources. And remember that the regime has not concerned itself with roads and infrastructure since 2011. The roads have been without maintenance for several years and some are damaged by battles and airstrikes. So we need the machinery for road works and similar things.
Sixth is something that many forget, namely psychological aid. Especially for the children and the orphans. Their traumas require specialist assistance that we cannot provide.
Number seven, finally, is to equip and train a local security force for the city. The armed groups of the Fath Army keep order now, but it does not work perfectly. There should be a local civilian police corps.
There was a lot of talk about looting when the city fell.
It is true that there were incidents in the beginning, including some looting of public property in the first days. In the days after the city’s fall, the Fath Army was still embroiled in side battles in the countryside and many fighters pursued the army when it retreated southward to Mastouma. So there was a vacuum of power in the city, which unfortunately led to unrest and some trouble.
Now, there is a security committee that has its own cars with the name of the committee on them. They patrol the streets to reassure people and provide a sense of security. There is also a council backed by the Fath Army that oversees the administration of justice.
The Fath Army has posted notices and handed out fliers in the mosques explaining that only Fath Army forces, with official papers, are allowed to conduct house searches. But people still live with a fear of authority that the regime instilled in them. When unknown men knock on their door and say that we are the Fath Army and we want your car, they give it to them—they don’t ask for papers. But measures are being taken and I hope this situation will improve.
Are you worried for the future?
We cannot rule out that there could be problems between the armed groups in the future. That would be very serious, but so far there haven’t been any major issues. There have been some transgressions and interference in civilian affairs by the armed groups, as I have mentioned. On the other hand, we are in a difficult situation in the middle of a war. I hope that this will cease with time.
Now that a few months have passed after Idlib was taken, how would you rate your results? Did things work out as intended?
I would say we have had a medium success. Strong voices told us that everything was ready for taking over, but they did not really live up to it when the city fell.
Apart from Raqqa, which is now occupied by the Islamic State, Idlib is the first provincial capital to be liberated, so it is an important lesson for the future.
For example, I am now even more convinced of how important it is to start organizing a civilian administration before a city is taken. We must also set up security forces that can go in immediately and protect the inhabitants and safeguard public installations and private property. And there must be preparations to set up a local police force early on. It is also very important to try to separate civilian and military work. The people who liberate a town are not necessarily best suited to rule it.