Monday, 13 August 2012

A provisional guide to the Syrian armed Opposition

The Next Century Foundation's Syria and Lebanon Working Group has tried to draw up a list of who is who in the Syrian Opposition. It's a first attempt and in no way definitive. Not a Kurd in sight.

The Opposition perspective
This report:
Profiles the Free Syrian Army, the armed wing of the Syrian opposition.
Includes a statement on transitional governance by the Homs division of the FSA
Notes of an NCF discussion on the Local Coordination Committees (LCCs)

The Armed Wing of the Syrian Uprising

The Syrian uprising’s military groups are legion. They include major brigades as well as small groups of as little as ten men. Some are in the FSA, some are not. We have classified them as either secular, or mainstream Islamist, or extremist (i.e. Takfiri). We have just listed some of the more prominent groups. This is our first attempt to categorize the various rebel groups in the armed uprising. Please be tolerant. We will try and do better with this complex subject next time.
The Free Syrian Army

The FSA Northern Command / Higher Military Council (secular)

The following is an account of a Skype discussion with Mr Louay al-Mokdad, a political figure who represents the Free Syrian Army’s Northern Command (the factions fighting in and around Aleppo).

“The FSA is now more prepared and organised for new attacks, including the current battle in Aleppo and future attacks in Damascus. They have been sending more rebels to the Christian areas as they do not want to allow Assad forces to get a hold of any of these streets. They are trying to prevent violence in these areas. The FSA is very short of money and arms but their organisation is much better.
“The recent government's actions in Aleppo prove that Assad is nervous and does not really know what he is doing anymore.

“We condemn the act of some of the FSA rebels for executing members of the Shabiha and uploading the video on to the internet. This behaviour does not follow the FSA's principles and ethics. We understand this reaction. It is a response to the massacres committed daily against civilians. However, this reaction was a mistake and we would rather have had a fair trial for these people but we have neither the resources nor the time. The FSA are planning to construct some kind of court soon so that this will not happen again.

“It must be noted that the particular family of the men executed are responsible for having killed more than 200 people.
“With so many different groups, it is impossible to control what everyone does within the FSA. As regards the international condemnation of these events: How can the international community talk about crimes against humanity when that's what the government does here every day?

“Regarding Kofi Annan's resignation....we don't care about this, it won't change anything as he hasn't changed anything.”
When asked if he thought the FSA was perhaps becoming more political and less military he said that they are “certainly more organised but they are not necessarily becoming more political”.

This group is allied to the newly formed Higher Military Council led by General Mustafa Sheikh.

The FSA Aleppo Command (quasi-secular)

One of the main groups also fighting in the battle for Aleppo was the FSA command loyal to the Internal FSA Coordinated Leadership in Homs (as opposed to the Higher Military Council). This group rejects the authority of the FSA command in Turkey and refuses to obey its orders. It is led by Col. Abdel Jabbar al-Okaidi. In some sources he is described as ‘a spokesman for the rebel Free Syrian Army’. It is suggested that some of his fighters do not belong to the main rebel force but to a radical Islamic militia calling itself “Banner of Islam.” Some of this latter group are said to be jihadis arriving in Syria from Iraq and Libya.

The Internal FSA Coordinated Leadership / FSA Al Farouq Battalion / Homs Division (quasi-secular)

The various Al Farouq battalions that make up the Al Farouq Brigade are based in Dera’a, Homs and Rastan and are amongst Syria’s most feared and ruthless rebel units
Lieutenant Abdul Razak Tlass is the commander of the Al Farouq Battalion and has been in direct personal command of opposition forces in Homs during 2011 and 2012. Abdul Razak became a defector from the Syrian army very early on in the revolt, prior to which he was based in the Dara’a region. He is posted on Tumblr, as leader of the Farouq battalion. An emotive interview of his can be found on the web translated into English as well as a number of opposition videos praising him. He has become something of a cult figure for the opposition. A number of sources suggest that Abdul Razak Tlass may have been killed in action. The Al Farouq Battalion does not profess allegiance to the “Higher Military Council” (see above).

The broader command known as the Homs Division is the stomping ground of FSA spokesman Colonel Qassim Saad Eddin who is also described locally as the “Commander of the Military Junta in Homs”. It was this command that planned the Damascus uprising known as operation “Volcano”. In a demonstrable shift in their own tactics, the FSA sent its own reinforcements into the capital region. Col. Qassim confirmed this himself: “We sent many groups and fighters to Damascus and its suburbs. We have sent at least 50 groups, each with around 50 fighters.” If true, it means that the FSA leadership coordinated a relatively complex operation among fighters from a number of different regions. The military coordinator for the group is named as Ahmed Kassem. There are tensions between this pro democracy group and some of the more radical FSA commands. Colonel Qassim Saad Eddin has previously announced that the rebels in Syria would no longer be bound by the Annan peace plan. Indeed, it is clear that he is not bound by what Colonel Riad Assad wants as the two had contradictory positions on the Annan peace plan in May 2012.

The FSA Turkish Command (secular)

This one of the first FSA commands. They call themselves “The Free Syrian Army” and claim to be in overall control. At the NCF we have decided to label them “The FSA Turkish Command” to distinguish them from other FSA groups, who, by and large, make a point of calling themselves “FSA (Inside)” to distinguish themselves from this group. This group has a headquarters in the Apaydin Refugee Camp, in Turkey’s Hatay region.
When discussing the FSA, organisations like the BBC do not seem to differentiate very well between the FSA outside Syria and those actually fighting in Syria. Most internal opposition fighters are keen to dissociate themselves from those outside the country.

The original Free Syrian Army was formed in August 2011 by army deserters based in Turkey and led by Riyad al-Asaad, a former air force colonel. Col Asaad claims to have as many as 40,000 men under his command and that soldiers are defecting every day and being assigned tasks by the FSA.

Note that at a press conference on the 1st of March this year the SNC announced that it had created a military bureau to co-ordinate the various armed anti-government groups in Syria. The FSA said it would not co-operate with the new bureau. Col Riyad al-Assad said the FSA does not want any political interference and has its own military strategy.

Colonel Asaad is named as Commander-in-Chief, with Deputy Commander-in-Chief Colonel Malik Kurdi and Chief of Staff Colonel Ahmad Hijazi. Colonel Asaad is under Turkish military protection and does not go into Syria. He has recently expressed his objection to in any way creating a separate country for Kurds.

The Khalid bin al-Waleed Battalion of the FSA (secular)

This FSA command is based in Rastan.
Though in Homs province, Rastan is well to the north of the province and far closer to Hama than to Homs. The Khalid bin al-Waleed battalion is named after the Arab conqueror of Roman Syria. The force reportedly possessed some tanks as well as light weaponry. This was the group that was active in and around Houla and was decimated by the government attack on that village which is just across the Orontes River from Rastan.

The FSA Salaheddin Brigade (secular)

This FSA command is the only non-Sunni Arab brigade in the entire FSA. It is Kurdish and fights alongside the FSA in Aleppo. It opposes the PKK and is unique in that all other Kurdish groups (and indeed virtually all other minorities) either stand with the government or stand aside. (more of the complex developments in the politics of Kurdish Syria in a subsequent report).

The Independent Armed Groups

The Al Nusra Group (extremist)

This group is disowned by much of the FSA and calls itself the Al-Nusra Front to Protect the Levant (aka Support Front for the People of Syria/Jabhat al Nusra):
The Al Nusra Front was formed during the Syrian uprising (late 2011). They released their first public statement in January 2012, calling for armed struggle against the Syrian government. The group claims responsibility for the 2012 Aleppo bombings, the January 2012 al-Midan bombing, the March 2012 Damascus bombings, the assassination of broadcaster Mohammed al-Saeed and possibly the 10 May 2012 Damascus bombings (many of these were suicide bombings).

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said that al-Qaeda in Iraq members have gone to Syria, and seem to be joining the al-Nusra Front. However they themselves claim that they are not affiliated with Al-Qaeda but see themselves as mujahedeen. They have a sectarian edge to them, fighting as Sunnis against Alawite oppression, and they justified the Damascus suicide bombings as retaliation for massacres of Sunnis.
They admit that there are foreign members of their group, coming from all over the Muslim world. There seems to be a significant amount of tension between this group and the local population of Syria, especially with regards to importing foreigners in to fight in the insurgency, which many Syrians object to.

The Muslim Brotherhood Group (mainstream Islamist)

Known as the “Armed Men of the Muslim Brotherhood” and discussed in an article by Ruth Sherlock, this is a Muslim Brotherhood Militia set up in Syria.
This group has a presence in Damascus as well as Homs and Idlib. One of their organisers, who calls himself Abu Hamza, said that he started the movement along with an unnamed member of the Syrian National Council (SNC).

This group’s main strength is in Homs province and it professes to supply Islamist militias in Homs province with weapons and other aid.

Like some other Islamist groups, the Muslim Brotherhood group makes it very clear they are not under the FSA banner. One clear distinction between this and other groups is that the Saudis fund most groups in the FSA whereas the Qataris are now funding this group. Also note that the Qatari funded SNC have fallen out with the FSA.

· NOTE: there are important differences between Muslim Brotherhood ideology and Saudi Wahhabism/Salafism (though this article suggests, the Muslim Brotherhood only claims to be more moderate because it will help them achieve their goals).

Ahrar Al Shamm (extremist)

This takfiri group is based in the historic village of Qalaat al Mudiq, close to Aleppo, and sends the rebels under its command to fight in the streets of Aleppo.
Ahrar al Sham draws its members from followers of a conservative strain of Sunni Islam known as Salafism; its followers see themselves as fighting in part for the right to preach their doctrine and the fall of a government that jailed them for doing so. “Things are going on as usual, (in the areas under Ahrar al Shamm control) except that it became hard for Alawites to come to work,” says Khalid al Amin, the Ahrar al Sham leader. Amin said Alawites now fear retaliation from Sunnis for the support in Alawite villages for pro-government militiamen (Shabiha).

Liwa Al Islam (extremist)

This rebel Syrian group claims responsibility for the explosion in Damascus on 18 July 2012 that killed several top state officials: Defence Minister Daoud Rajha as well as Assef Shawkat, President Bashar al-Assad's brother-in-law and the deputy defence minister.

Liwa al-Islam, an Islamist rebel group whose name means "The Brigade of Islam", said in a statement on its Facebook page "We happily inform the people of Syria and especially the people of the capital that the National Security Bureau, which includes what is called the crisis management cell, has been targeted with an explosive device by the Sayyed al-Shuhada brigade of Liwa al-Islam". Liwa al-Islam confirmed the claim by telephone but denied that it was a suicide attack. "Yes we did the attack but there was no suicide bomber," said the man, who asked to be identified as Abu Ammar. "Our men managed to plant improvised explosives in the building for the meeting. We had been planning this for over a month."
Moreover, “Liwa al-Islam” has been blamed for the killing of Christians in Bab Touma. Most of the gangs operating in the Southeast of Damascus are considered close to the Muslim Brotherhood, while members of the group “Liwa al-Islam” belong to the Wahhabi ideology.

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