Journalist Khaled Abo Salah introduces Abdel Basset Sarout: “Let me introduce you the symbol of the revolution. With his courage and simplicity he became the treasure of the revolution. He has always said: ‘Syria is my family; I can’t give it up.’ Now he will tell you his story.”
I would love for you to tell us about the beginning of the revolution.
Answer: I cannot describe the beginnings of this revolution with just mere words or actions, it was the most beautiful at its inception. The beginning was much more difficult than what we are witnessing today. I was at the roots of the revolution and I went out to support the people.
Question: Tell me about your first protest, where you went out and sang?
Answer: My first protest was at the clock tower in Homs. I went out with the protestors it was in honor of the martyred, there were Assad regime snipers posted around the area. So I led the chant “listen, listen oh sniper, this is my neck and this is my head.”
Question: You also used to host other celebrities at your demonstrations such as the starlet Fadwa Suleiman could you tell us about this experience?
Answer: Firstly, we hosted many shining celebrities from all sects, Homs was gaining the reputation as the capital of the revolution and spirit of the revolution. We represented the beauty of demonstration and the people of this country, among them Fadwa Suleiman and other actors and many from the area of Salmaniyah. We all had the same objective the fall of this regime and freedom. We were all united in speaking up against this tyrannical regime and all its oppression.
Actress Fadwa Sulaiman and goalkeeper al-Sarout lead protest
in Al-Khaldiyah neighborhood, Homs city
Question: In the first year of the revolution, you and your group used to move from one place to the next, from Deir Baalba to Bayada to Khaldiyeh to Bab Amr. How did you manage to move around since all residents of Homs were well aware that there are regime checkpoints widely spread out? How did the residents welcome you?
Answer: Of course just conjuring up the memories of those days brings tears and also happiness. These situations were the most dangerous.
There would be two checkpoints separated by only 400 meters and we would have to cross between them on foot. At times we were subjected to live fire.
When we would reach Khalidiyeh, we would realise that the residents were actually waiting for our arrival and all the areas were in solidarity with each other.
Question: The regime offered a cash reward for leads on the whereabouts of Abdul Basset. Even now very recently the regime has put a high price on your head. Could you tell me why you think the regime wants to capture or kill you and who are the people who have tried?
Answer: This question I don t know how to answer it for you, should I answer it as an individual who has been oppressed or should I answer it the spirit of the revolution, or should I answer it with all simplicity or from my experience? The subject of this question is very disconcerting.
Oh people, we are the family of the revolution, we are the ones that went out and we were the ones that the regime were in pursuit of. We were the ones who the regime was paying large sums of money for people to kill us, meaning we were more powerful than the weapon. This is absolute.
Yes, the weapon has a role, and you know very well that taking up arms was forced upon us.
However you know when they start pursuing you and offering money for your murder, meaning that your voice is very great. All these voices had the regime quaking.
Question: How did you find the response of the regime to the demonstrations? Was it proportionate? Was it reasonable?
Answer: The soil of Homs, blood of Homs, and destruction of Homs, and the martyrs. The picture becomes clear of the brutal response. You would think we were producing chemical weapons in Homs to warrant such a response with its entire arsenal. In fact, we were –- with the exception of airstrikes -– the first ones to experience it. Even chemical weapons, we were the first to casualties of such attacks, even before Ghouta, Deir Baalba and Bayada were the first to be subjected to it.
Question: After you were transported to northern Homs in the fifth month of 2015, you were welcomed into their homes, could you explain to me what you were planning to do after this?
Answer: Of course we had already planned the next stage before we were evacuated. We had decided to organize under one movement called “Homs Legion” (Faylaq Homs) and because of what we experienced during the siege our immediate goal was to break the siege on the people of Wa’er. There were more than 150,000 besieged civilians, women and children. It was obligatory on us to think of these people.
It was a crime for this revolution if we did not work to breaking this siege.
Question: After you formed Homs Legion you shortly left it and then shortly after that rumours started to circulate that you gave allegiance to the “dawlah” (Islamic State/ISIS). What are the origins of the rumours and what is the basis for them?
Answer: There is no smoke without fire. If there was no basis to these rumours no one would even bring up such an accusation. So I can confirm it does have a basis. 7 months after I left Homs Legion I was in contact with a man called Abu Dawud from Eastern Homs from “Ahlul Sunnah wal Jama’a” group. He had left this group and was searching for fighters to form a new group splinter group that would eventually give allegiance to ISIS. I was one of those people looking for work. I was frustrated by 7 months of no progress with my previous group to break the siege.
Question: So what did you do with Abu Dawud?
Answer: We gathered some groups, including mine. They asked us when ISIS reaches this area will you be prepared to give allegiance? In all honesty I was one of those willing to give allegiance because I wanted to work. So I told Abu Dawud and he automatically took it as allegiance. However it later became clear that it wasn’t a legitimate way of giving allegiance and invalid.
Question: So was he actually an agent of ISIS?
Answer: No, Abu Dawud was like us, he had no affiliation. This was his own project that ISIS played no part in or had any knowledge.
Question: So he was just a regular person who thought of starting a group that would give allegiance?
Answer: Exactly, it was just an idea, he was just seeing how many people would be willing to give allegiance and after he got the numbers on that basis he would then talk to ISIS and ask them if we could give allegiance. So we were never actually affiliated to ISIS or even gave them allegiance. Even my own pledge of allegiance to Abu Dawud was invalid because he was not part of ISIS.
From this basis began the rumour started that Basset pledged allegiance to ISIS.
Question: Ok, what provoked someone like you to contemplate even joining ISIS?
Answer: Many people were provoked to join, not just Abdul Basset. When you, as a brigade get out of a siege, and as fighters start getting offered backing, you have no other choice but to work with what you have. You see brigades being starved of supplies for such a long time, and witness no political headway; you have every right to look for a way elsewhere. As for the Dawlah (ISIS) they were already in the Rif by the time I left the siege.
By the time I left the siege, there were Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham, and many battalions. Back then they weren’t fighting each other.
Question: in the beginning of April, ISIS dispatched a group of its Shariah legislators, around 8 individuals to the Rif of Homs -– of course at this point there was no presence for ISIS in this specific area yet. They sent 8 legislators to receive the pledge of allegiance to ISIS and even opened training camps. Did you ever meet any of these legislators? Has there been any communication between you?
Answer: In that period, during gatherings there were people that knew each another from every group. Some mistakes were made by some groups that were an anathema to the religion and the revolution so I decided to withdraw. Mistakes were made by the very same groups that were interested in joining ISIS.
Question: Just so people understand. So the very people who were calling on the factions to unite and pledge allegiances to ISIS were the very ones who made the mistakes you speak off?
Answer: Yes and they were a large group of people and around three-quarters of them were inclining to pledge allegiance. I swear by God they numbering around 5,000. Ones who had previously given and sacrificed everything for the revolution. Regardless of affiliation, all the fighters I hold in the highest esteem but I swear three-quarters were willing to pledge.
However there were certain military leaders that committed a grave error so I withdrew completely from this whole project and wanted nothing to do with it.
I made this absolutely clear, I even told Jabhat Al Nusra, I told Homs Legion, I told all of them that I just wanted to work. I discovered however, that politics had tainted the revolution.
When the legislators had arrived they were looking for me to receive my pledge after being told that I was one of those that said previously that I wanted to pledge.
So Abu Dawud and groups from that same project told them that I had changed my mind for my own reasons. They reported me to an individual from Talbiseh. I was told the Emir is coming to take your allegiance. I asked “where will I be posted?” He said he was in Talbiseh and to come to Zafaran. I told him Talbiseh and Zafaran fall right in the middle of the north, why should I be posted here? Where is the work? For example we should be heading to the east, to Houla for example, a very large area. You know, to work. Not to merely establish a state in the north and start dictating over people.
So this individual came to me and gave me an ultimatum that either I pledge allegiance or I relinquish my weapon.
Question: Why did he want your weapon?
Answer: Because as far as he was considered I was now a murtad [apostate] for not pledging allegiance to ISIS. The weapon was even my own personal weapon and not issued to me by the organization. I told him I would not pledge or relinquish my weapons.
So more importantly, someone grassed on me, and accusations of “sahawat” were circulating and I was told to pledge, I told him I am a man that doesn’t want to pledge. He said therefore give me your weapon. I replied, if there is someone more among you more macho than Abdul Basset let them come forward to take my weapon. Gather all the men you have and take my weapon. As in, if you are more of a man than Abdul Basset or anyone with you, let them try to take my weapon off me. That was my response to them. Think of it like this, if someone is prepared to address them in this manner, then you know immediately that all ties have been severed.
Question: So just make it completely clear, you never pledged allegiance (to ISIS)?
Answer: Of course not.
Answer: The battle in Zafaran and Talbiseh had begun between the rebel factions against ISIS. In the middle of this Jabhat Al Nusra approached me requesting my allegiance. This was in the heat of the battle and many witnessed this. They came to me, they were afraid of me; these legislators Sheikh Abu Rashid Al Gahm, Sheikh Hatim, and Sheikh Azzam asked me what my position was regarding this battle.
I told them we don’t want to get involved, we are a group that refuse to spill the blood of other Muslims and at the same time if we did support ISIS we would have pledged allegiance to them. They were very understanding at first like “may God reward you; we know you don’t like bloodshed and you have always been good role models.”
After the battles had ended I would come and go as if nothing had happened. The battle was over. Within 6-8 months I would work in the eastern areas to support the fronts. I was working independently. As you know, I wasn’t affiliated to any faction and I didn’t have any foreign backing. I started my own brigade, we worked in Hasad, we worked in Zaytoun and Baluz.
Everybody knew this as a fact, maybe in other areas like in Idlib or Daraa, they will be ignorant of this. I swear to God that everyone in the Rif knew this, even the group that fought me. All of them are well aware that we established this brigade from our own hard work and sweat; we funded ourselves through war booty on these fronts. We ambushed that pig Suheil Hassan’s men in Salmiyah capturing grad rockets, konkurs, and executed 13 of them. This is how we provided for ourselves.
I believe this is the only reason they fought me, only because we were becoming so much stronger and influential in the area. They eventually started reducing the number of my men on the fronts.
Question: Why were they removing your men? What excuse did they give?
Answer: It was certain individuals they targeted. We were apparently committing “crimes”, such as listening to Abu Hajar al-Hadrami’s [ISIS’s so-called song writer] nasheeds. They would take you and place you in reeducation because listening to these songs meant you had sympathies to ISIS.
Question: So this is why you released a video?
Answer: Yes, I released a video to set the record straight and I was very honest and clear, however today I regret even releasing it. I regret it because I gave legitimization for the trial. When really I should have just released a statement from the start and put an end to this whole ordeal.
Answer: If I tell you in detail I will take incredibly long, I will give you a curtailed version with just the important parts.
I was summoned by the court and it brought a jury that would observe my side of the story first, and then they would be invited to another sitting where they would only see Nusra’s side of the story.
After hearing both sides independently of the other (preliminary) then both I and Nusra would be summoned to a second hearing where all sides were present.
Question: Who were the jury?
Answer: The jury was made up of a mixture of well known people from a variety of areas who had previously arbitrated settlements between different factions from Talbiseh and Nasr Al Nahar, i.e Homs Legion.
Question: So tell me about the very first hearing
Answer: I sat down and straight away told them “so I am being accused of being affiliated to ISIS? Ok bring the proof.”
They didn’t have any evidence. They asked me daft questions like “Do you listen to songs by Abu Hajar al-Hadrami?” basically questions that are even embarrassing to be asked because everyone in the north listened to his songs and almost all of them have long hair. There were Pakistani’s who also have long hair.
These were merely suspicions and in Shariah law you cannot base your evidence on suspicions.
Question: before you sat down with Jabhat Al Nusra in the hearing, what did the court say to you in front of the jury? As in did they bring forward documented supporting evidence?
Answer: I sat down in this hearing to see some evidence; they purposely delayed things in order to talk about suspicions based on some in my group who give out the vibe that they’re affiliated to ISIS having long hair, and listening to Abu Hajar al-Hadrami. I asked them to be seated down with Nusra to bring all their evidence and accusations forward and once that was arranged we would all sit down together in court as two parties with witnesses.
Question: At the end of the hearing what did they say?
Answer: I asked them to bring forth all of their evidence so that Nusra could confront me with this before the Judge and jury.
Question: So the court had initially informed you that Nusra had all its evidence ready?
Answer: Yes, otherwise why was I summoned if they had no evidence? On mere suspicions? That’s unlawful by Shariah.
So I sat down with the jury for the first hearing without the presence of Nusra, and they too would sit in court without my presence only without a jury to put forward their claims. Then when the trial would commence we were meant to sit down as two opposing parties with evidence brought against me.
When the trial began I found myself alone in the court, no Nusra or a jury. “Where are my accusers?” I asked.
Question: So this was the trial that both you and Jabhat Al Nusra were meant to attend?
Answer: Yes, I was waiting for their evidence and accusations and if I were proven to be an ISIS member I would surrender with my brigade, my weapons and equipment like I had agreed. I would also have had to make a public apology admitting that I was part of ISIS and acknowledge that I received a fair trial.
I was prepared to solve the whole matter for them.
So I turned up to court and there was no Jabhat Al Nusra. I asked the Sheikh “how come there is no Jabhat Al Nusra?” He replied “If only Nusra would show up we could settle this matter and they promised us they would leave you alone and you also promised the same.”
Ok, so in that case the trial was in my favour. Have you ever heard of a court trial where you would be representing both parties? This is what happened to me and I have witnesses to verify this version of events.
So we sat down for another hearing and the court had told me they would like this to be resolved and to be honest I wanted it to be quickly resolved. We weren’t that unoccupied to be wasting time we still had Al Wa’er and other areas. We’re not that unoccupied to be stopping each other at checkpoints and fighting each other.
So at the final hearing, of course the jury were present, it was ruled that Abdul Basset is not with ISIS, he just doesn’t want to fight them. I admit I don’t want to fight ISIS and one of my reasons is I don’t want to oppress civilians by arresting them on suspicion of them being involved with ISIS, only to find out they weren’t. Similar to how I was framed and oppressed and some of these people could have children. I am not compelled to oppress people in the similar light only to later discover they were just civilians and not affiliated to ISIS.
So I told the court, I only want to fight the regime; I will fight it to the last drop of blood. They were well aware that I wasn’t affiliated to ISIS. The whole dispute was based on me refusing to fight ISIS and I have witnesses to confirm this.
So they then told me “in that case, your frontlines are only manned by your group and since you don’t fight ISIS what will you do when they come from your side? This means that they would eventually enter north Homs”
I told them to bring the military and shariah councils and to come and observe the frontlines and see for themselves. If Abdul Basset was on his own in Aydoun or Dalak or a third front in the north.
Furthermore, I told them, if the distance between myself and ISIS allows either side to enter one another’s territory then I hand you the area, my weapons and myself.
Up until now could I say anything better than that?
Question: So the court put together a council? Who was part of this council?
Answer: It was made up of leader from all factions from, Hajj Bilal from Homs Legion, commanders and a sheikh from the High Court.
They showed up at Aydoun unannounced and found it completely in rubble. They found myself and Ahrar al-Sham which meant I did not have a monopoly over the front and if I didn’t want to fight ISIS, Ahrar al-Sham would be prepared to fight ISIS.
Then when they went to Dalak front, they found my brigade only 40 meters away from Ajnad Al-Sham and Jabhat Al Nusra – Three different factions in Dalak. They also found, the distance between myself and ISIS were more than 40 villages that were controlled by the regime. There was Salmiyah and many checkpoints, a large distance between us.
Question: So the council presented its findings to the court that it is impossible for ISIS to enter this area?
Answer: Yes and I have witnesses.
Question: However despite this, the court ordered that Abdul Basset and his fighters must leave their fronts and fight in a different area and even convicted you of having pledged to ISIS. How do you respond to this decision and why did they ask you to change your fronts, despite admitting it was impossible for ISIS to enter through your area?
Answer: This was the crime. I refused to be moved because my whole brigade was made up of locals that defended their villages first and foremost and then they would defend other villages secondarily.
If I left these areas I don’t have anyone to support me, nor do I have foreign backing. The war booty was just about sufficient for us, our whole inventory are made up of war booty.
Furthermore, these fighters were local, if I were to go 30 kilometers away with just 5 of my fighters my whole brigade would fall apart, that would mean you have killed me.
I outright refused on the principal that the council had found I wasn’t affiliated to ISIS and neither could they enter from my front. This was in front of a council that had more than 40 witnesses.
I asked him “Hajj Bilal what were the findings of your council?” he replied “It’s impossible for ISIS to enter from where you are posted nor do you have a monopoly over those areas.”
Question: So why did they announce that you were convicted of pledging allegiance to ISIS?
Answer: Because I had rejected their judgement. Today these courts unify all the brigades and they have to form a consensus. This is the real battle, not that I was an ISIS member. My battle was that the High Court represents all the factions, but dominated by Ahrar al-Sham on one side and on the other Jabhat Al Nusra. Now if I refuse their judgement and they’re not able to implement their order on me, they will look incompetent.
Both Ahrar al-Sham and Nusra are in competition to show up the other, now why should I and my brigade fall victim to their competition?
Question: This leads me to my next question. Very shortly after your disagreement and refusal of the court’s decision a battle broke out with your brigade and Jabhat Al Nusra because they had captured a group of your men from Shuhada Bayada brigade.
Nusra had later announced that two of those captured were ISIS fighters. Tell us how this incident began and how it escalated with your brigade becoming a target?
Answer: Firstly, we did not start the fight which caused Nusra to retaliate. The High Court – which I am sorry to have even participated in – ordered that no faction or individual has a right to capture fighters from another brigade without written permission from the High Court. It also allowed for self-defense if anyone transgressed those bounds, this documentation is for all to see.
So, I personally was behaving lawfully under Sharia to defend myself.
Question: So what happened? Nusra captured these men?
Answer: No they did not capture them, they kidnapped the military commander of Shuhada Bayada who is my relative who fights every day in the path of God and my cousin Nizar Sarout.
After it kidnapped them, it told all the factions they had discovered silencers and targets in their possession and instructions from ISIS. They would go to Sheikh Azzam tell him they discovered a hit list with his name on it, they would go to Ahmed Al Durzi and tell him Abdul Basset has your name on a hit list. They presented all this information to the court which would later release its verdict – a big error- that Abdul Basset’s Brigade is involved with ISIS.
Of course they [Nusra] had started it by setting up checkpoints in Zeytouna which flanked my forces on all sides which led to clashes. I admit I fired on them, they encircled me and I fired at them. I did not go and attack them, I stayed in my area and they encircled me after they removed my commanders. If they are going to remove my men and commanders everyday then we have nothing left and I have a right to fight back.
Question: How many were killed from your side?
Answer: 8 brothers.
Question: In this dispute?
Answer: In this dispute 2 but in the ensuing battles 6 and not a single one from Jabhat Al Nusra was killed.
Question: We will return to this later, as we have gone into too much detail for the viewers. After a period of time, Jabhat Al Nusra attacked an office in Al Ghanqo village that was harbouring 6 men from Shuhada Bayada Brigade and all 6 were killed. Why did Jabhat Al Nusra attack this office in this safe village even though it did not have the authority from the court? Even more so, a dispute arose between them and court because the court had released a clear statement denouncing Nusra’s actions and killings of the men in your brigade. I am quoting the court “The High Court had no prior knowledge of the attacks of Nusra and gave no authority and did not partake in enforcing such a decision. A verbal agreement was made between the court and Nusra that it would not carry out any raids in the eastern area of Homs without the knowledge of the court. Otherwise Jabhat Al Nusra is not committed” Why was Nusra not committing itself? Had this dispute between you and they turn into a personal one?
Answer: If it was personal it would have been a lighter situation, it would actually have been cute, however it was worse than that. This was defiance between us and a tit for tat. By any means they had to prove I was with ISIS because if it turned I wasn’t it would be a calamity. It would make them criminals. You didn’t let me finish what I was saying before, which was far more important.
The moment when the factions had captured me, I swear by God, I swear by God, I swear by God (thrice) if I wanted to slaughter them I could have killed no less than 150 of them and swam in their blood. I swear by God, I didn’t back down because for the commanders sakes but for the soldiers from all the factions who I respect.
Question: So you refused to fight them?
Answer: I swear by God we defended ourselves, and withdrew and were handed over to the joint army despite having the necessary power to retaliate.
Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat Al Nusra and all the factions know how steadfast we are in the face of the regime when it is attacking us with ground forces and jets. Despite all attacks we still hold our ground. I swear by God I was scared for their lives more than my own when they attacked us.