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Nation & World

Syrian Opposition Leader: We Can't Fight A Two-Front War

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to hear now from the president of the Syrian Opposition Coalition. It's an umbrella group representing the so-called moderate Syrian rebels the U.S. is supporting. Hadi al-Bahra is in New York for the U.N. General assembly. Earlier today he spoke with us about the challenges for these rebels as they fight both the regime and the self-proclaimed Islamic State.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HADI AL-BAHRA: Our force cannot fight two-front wars nor one front against ISIL for a very long time without international support. We were fighting alone with limited ammunition, limited supply of weapon, limited support and we couldn't sustain the offensive against ISIL and against the regime.

MARTIN: Have you asked for U.S. ground troops?

BAHRA: We never did ask for U.S. ground troops. Our troops are ready to fight ISIL and fight the regime by themselves. This is our country; we are ready to sacrifice whatever we have in order to gain back our rights and achieve democracy.

MARTIN: But you've also said you are trying to manage this war on two fronts; fighting ISIS and also fighting the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

BAHRA: Yes.

MARTIN: And you're asking for international support. So what form do you want that support to come in, if not ground troops, then what?

BAHRA: We are seeking airstrikes, the same as it was handled in Iraq. Training our troops and equipping our troops with the correct type of weapons - advanced weapons system - to counter the type of weapons in the hands of the fighters of ISIL.

MARTIN: U.S. lawmakers have raised concerns about the composition of the Syrian opposition, which you yourself have described it as a loosely affiliated citizen army. And the key phrase for the administration seems to be moderate, that this is a group of moderate rebels. But what does that mean? How do you define which fighters are moderate?

BAHRA: It's very clear-cut for us. Any armed group which tries to impose on the local population and the ideological belief, religious belief or any other belief, using arms and force, is not a force fighting for the benefit of the Syrian people and will not be accepted to be in the ranks of the fighters of the Free Syrian Army.

MARTIN: The U.S. is committing this money explicitly to fight ISIS, not the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Yet, you wrote on your Twitter feed recently, and I'm quoting here, "strikes alone will not defeat extremism. We must ensure military defeat of ISIS, plus tackle root cause - the Assad regime," end quote.

Is defeating the Assad regime more important to you personally than defeating ISIS?

BAHRA: You have to go to the roots of the problem, as I said and go back to history. Assad regime has been the main incubator in the Middle East for terrorist organizations. They use the same concepts, same procedure, during their occupation of Lebanon for 30 years. So if you deal with the symptoms and leave the main cause, you'll be doing nothing. It's a shared interest for the international community and for us to deal with the main source of terrorism in the region.

MARTIN: You are in New York at the U.N. General Assembly meetings. What do you want to walk away with? What's the most important commitment that you need from these meetings and the talks?

BAHRA: United front. International united front against terrorism and also against the tyranny of Assad regime, the source of all of the symptoms in the area. We have to deal with the whole issue, with a specific set clear strategy - includes military action, political action, economical action, social program, it has to be fought on multi-fronts of the same thing. We have to be united all together in our fight against terrorism, terrorists and the source of terrorism at the same time.

MARTIN: Hadi al-Bahra is the president of the Syrian Opposition Coalition. He spoke to us from New York, where he's attending the U.N. General Assembly. Thank you so much for talking with us.

BAHRA: You're welcome. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.