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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 October 2018

Syrian rebel colonel ‘confesses’ to foreign hand in rout

Ahmed Nehmeh is filmed saying that shock defeat blamed on him was ordered by rebels' foreign backers.
A screen grab of Colonel Ahmed Nehmeh from a video uploaded on Facebook and YouTube.
A screen grab of Colonel Ahmed Nehmeh from a video uploaded on Facebook and YouTube.

Amman // A confession from a rebel commander captured by Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria claimed foreign intelligence services orchestrated a disastrous military defeat for anti-regime forces in Deraa last year.

Ahmed Nehmeh, a former Syrian air force colonel who defected to become a key link between Western and Arab intelligence agencies and moderate rebels in southern Syria, said the defeat in the strategic town of Khirbet Ghazaleh, last May, was deliberately arranged by the rebels’ international backers.

Col Nehmeh, head of the Free Syrian Army’s Derra Military Council (DMC), was taken prisoner by Jabhat Al Nusra after an ambush in Deraa on Saturday, and is to stand trial in a rebel court on charges of treason.

He appeared on Tuesday in the video confession uploaded to a Facebook site and on YouTube, looking tired and bruised after three days of interrogation. He had clearly been beaten.

It was not possible to verify whether the confession was extracted under torture.

Rebels were beaten back from Khirbet Ghazaleh, on the Damascus-Deraa motorway, after 60 days of heavy fighting in which they appeared to have secured a victory. But unexpectedly Col Nehmeh took charge of the battle, vital weapons shipments he was overseeing failed to arrive and rebel units pulled out, leaving the few remaining forces routed in a courter attack.

According to Col Nehmeh’s confession, “the donor countries” – a reference to Western and Gulf states that have poured billions of dollars into the war – contacted him and he enacted their orders to pull rebel units out of the town.

The rationale for the move, he said, was that Al Nusra forces were playing a major role in the Khirbet Ghazaleh attack and stood to increase their influence on the southern front.

Rather than allow Al Nusra to make gains, Western and Arab intelligence agencies engineered a victory for forces loyal to the president, Bashar Al Assad.

That explanation dovetailed with rumours that have swirled around the Khirbet Ghazaleh debacle since it happened. The defeat, snatched from the jaws of victory, was widely seen as suspicious by rebels and opposition supporters in Deraa. It sparked serious divisions within what had been broadly united groups.

Bashar Zaubi, the leader of the Yarmouk Brigade, a powerful rebel unit ostensibly under Col Nehmeh’s command publicly called for him to face trial for mismanagement.

Col Nehmeh specifically named Jordanian intelligence, with which he was closely affiliated, living in Amman in a building protected by government agents. Jordan hosts the secretive Military Operations Command (MOC), an operations room staffed by Western and Gulf intelligence units dealing with the Syria crisis. Jordan officially denies the MOC’s existence.

“We have moved from one failure to another and this is the fault of the donor countries who are manipulating us and they are implementing their policies and they do not want the Islamic project to succeed or that there be an Islamic power on the ground,” he said in the confession.

Col Nehmeh retains the support of more than a dozen FSA units and moderate rebels have expressed alarm about both the manner of his detention and his apparent beating.

“We have seen on the video the evidence of violence and that is why we are asking that he face trial in a mutually agreed court [not just an Al Nusra judgement] and that his trial must be fair, with evidence presented. If he is incriminated he will be punished,” said a senior FSA source.

A source close to Al Nusra in Deraa said Col Nehmeh admitted to conspiring with foreign intelligence agencies and of selling information to the Syrian regime – in effect, acting as a double agent.

“Nehmeh confessed to everything without being tortured. For the first two days he was well treated, then he was beaten but it was only a light torture,” the source said.

“Nehmeh would give advance notice to the regime of planned rebel attacks, he helped get rebel leaders killed.”

The rebel commander’s capture has raised tensions in Deraa, with some moderate rebel groups aligned with the Free Syrian Army saying they will attack Al Nusra if he is not handed over to them.

That desire to free Col Nehmeh appears to be less about wanting his freedom or believing his innocence than it does ensuring he faces justice in a court they administer, rather than see a sentence and punishment handed out by Al Nusra.

A mediation committee has been set up to deal with the case, involving tribal sheikhs, Al Nusra figures and members of almost 40 FSA units. Talks were underway in northern Jordan yesterday afternoon, rebel sources said.

Various rebel factions generally cooperate in Deraa but more moderate units remain highly suspicious of Al Nusra and its growing power.

But the need for continued cooperation among rebels in the face of stronger regime forces seems to be moving the Col Nehmeh case towards a resolution.

“He’s a traitor and deserves to have his head cut off but we don’t want blood to be spilled and people will be polarised between the Islamists and the FSA,” the source close to Al Nusra said.

Rebels in southern Syria have been trying to increase pressure on regime forces since February when they launched a new offensive. They have since scored small victories but have failed to make any major breakthroughs.

psands@thenational.ae