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Q&A with Syrian jihadist: Minorities have nothing to fear in post-Assad Syria

A Syrian leader who waged jihad in Afghanistan, Bosnia, and Iraq says that a year of reexamining the Quran has caused his group to treat other religions with more tolerance.

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ZOUABI: Before one year ago I would have seen you and thought "infidel." But in the past year, we have studied the Quran closely and reinterpreted some of the verses and have come up with new views. We believe that everyone is equal like brothers. The Christians especially are closest to Muslims.

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CSM: The alliance between Syria and Iran, which includes groups like the militant Shiite Hezbollah of Lebanon and Palestinian Hamas, has endured for 30 years and has grown even stronger in the past decade. The removal of the Assad regime threatens to break that alliance, which will have major consequences on the dynamics of the Middle East, particularly in relation to the confrontation with Israel. Do you believe that a future post-Assad administration in Damascus will continue to observe that relationship with Tehran?

ZOUABI: There is no way that we can have a relationship with the current government in Iran. If there is a new regime in Tehran, then maybe. But with Hezbollah there is no chance [of a relationship]. Our No. 1 enemy is [Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei [the supreme leader of Iran] and the Iranian regime. Not the Iranian people, just the regime. Our second enemy is Hezbollah. Our third enemy is the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

CSM: Bashar al-Assad is third? But your struggle is directly against the Assad regime, not Iran and Hezbollah.

ZOUABI: Assad is third because it is natural for him to want to kill me because I am trying to overthrow him. But why do Iran and Hezbollah want me dead? What have I done to them? In 2006 [during the month-long war between Hezbollah and Israel], we welcomed the Hezbollah people [who fled to Syria from south Lebanon] and gave them food, blankets, shelter. We never did anything against them. We gave them everything they needed in 2006, but now they have turned against us. We consider the Iranians traitors because they have taken the side of Bashar al-Assad.

CSM: After six months of protests, Assad is still in power and it seems that the peaceful protest movement is not gaining sufficient traction to topple the regime. There are increasing reports of the opposition taking up weapons and fighting back and army deserters have formed the Free Syrian Army. Many analysts and diplomats predict that the confrontation against the Assad regime will soon become an armed struggle which could lead to civil war.

ZOUABI: Until now we have not issued a fatwa [religious ruling] allowing civilians to shoot, but we have issued a fatwa allowing soldiers [who have deserted] to use weapons to protect civilians. We are asking for the international community to intercede because we are dealing with a regime that shows no mercy, no religion, and no sympathy.

CSM: But the international community has all but ruled out a Libya-style intervention.

ZOUABI: A lack of an international intervention will cause a lot of bloodshed. There will be massacres in Syria.

CSM: That means there will be an armed confrontation.

ZOUABI: For sure. That is why we are working on receiving arms and we hope that international parties will get the message and start providing weapons for us soon. We will not fight as Islamists but as Syrians – Christians, Shiites, Sunnis – all together.

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