Sunday, December 30, 2012

Who is Responsible for the Failure at Wadi Deif?

The Battle for control of Wadi Deif, a military base just east of Maarat al-Numan, began in mid-October and continues more than two months later. For some rebels, the length of the battle and the accompanying destruction of Maarat al-Numan, represents a failure. A fact finding commission published a report on the battle in early December which placed responsibility for the failures on a number of people, including a sheikh, a businessman, and a rebel leader.

Sheikh Ahmad Alwan
in Dubai in Winter 2011
The sheikh is Ahmad Alwan, a religious leader who spent the most of 2012 in the United Arab Emirates. He appeared to Maarat al-Numan in the fall and began agitating for an attack on Wadi Deif. According to the report, while some battalion leaders wanted to conduct a study on the relative capabilities of the rebel and regime forces in the area, Sheikh Alwan insisted that the rebels “have the ability to burn Wadi Deif in five hours.” Alwan was also accused of forming the Ibad al-Rahman Brigade during the course of the battle from battalions that were already associated with other brigades, creating new divisions within rebel ranks. 

Marwan Nahas, described as a businessman, is criticized in the report for not supporting the Military Council, instead focusing on creating a political party as the city was bombed. The report claims that he only appeared on the front lines for photo opportunities. Marwan Nahas and Ahmed Alwan were also accused by some residents of Maarat al-Numan of kidnapping and torture. 

Abdul Baset Maamar, a Muslim Brotherhood intermediary, was also accused of precipitating the ill-advised operation. He arrived in Maarat al-Numan in September with money from the Brotherhood, which the report alleges he used to coerce the rebels into attacking Wadi Deif, proclaiming that he would only give funds to groups that participated in the operation. 

Idlib Military Council leader Afif Suleiman was also criticized for not including the Shuhada Suriya and Ahfad al-Rasul Brigades in the battle plans in an alleged effort to control the distribution of captured material. This echoes accusations made earlier by Shuhada Suriya’s leader Jamal Maaruf. 

The struggles at Wadi Deif boil down to continuing division among rebel ranks. Although the rebels are able to launch and maintain large joint operations, their campaigns lack coherence due to competition for loot, uneven funding and, according to this report, firebrand clerics who lack an understanding of battle field realities.

    1) Maarat al-Numan
    2) Wadi Deif Military Base

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

The Battle for Idlib City Approaches

Syrian rebels have secured towns across Idlib province, but the provincial capital, Idlib city remains in regime hands. Although Idlib's rebels often speak of liberating the city, it appears that the battle for the city may finally be approaching. In the northwest corner of the province, a number of rebel groups led by the Shuhada Idlib Brigade have finally captured the Harem citadel, after getting bogged down in the city for two months as regime fighters stubbornly held on. Subsequently, the Shuhada Idlib Brigade released a statement announcing that the brigade would withdraw from Harem within three days and redeploy to the outskirts of Idlib city in order to focus on attacking regime checkpoints in coordination with other brigades in the area. Meanwhile, the Yusuf al-Athimah Brigade posted a statement on December 24, announcing attacks on checkpoints on the outskirts on Idlib city in preparation for the city's liberation.

Part of the drive to finally focus on Idlib city stems from the reality that there are not many other prizes left for the rebels to pursue in northern Idlib. Some Idlib rebel groups are now operating in Aleppo, such as the Idlib Tawhid Brigade, Jabhat Thuwar Saraqeb, and Shuhada Suriya, which are fighting for control of a series of regime arms depots southwest of Aleppo city in Khan al-Duman. These powerful groups will have to return of Idlib if the rebels hope to take Idlib city.

The regime’s grip on Idlib city has been firm since rebels were pushed out of the city in March. Attacks increased around the city in late summer 2012, but were limited to one-off assaults, not large scale maneuvers aimed at forcing the regime out of the city. Although the regime’s position is anchored by the Mastoumah military base located five kilometers south of the city, there is no airbase near Idlib city, leaving the regime’s supply routes vulnerable to a siege.

                                    1) Harem
                                    2) Idlib City
                                    3) Mastoumah
                                    4) Khan al-Duman

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

How Should Idlib's Islamists be Handled?

The Idlib Revolutionary Council held a meeting in Reyhanli, Turkey this week in which a new member was elected to the council and rules of procedure were adopted. Continuing the council’s policy of operating in the public eye, unique for political activists, videos of the proceedings were posted on YouTube. More significant, however were the rebel groups not represented at the meeting: The Idlib Tawhid Brigade, the Yusuf al-Athima Brigade, and battalions from Ahrar al-Sham and Suqour al-Sham.

These are the Idlib's most Islamist groups (with the exception of the Tusuf  al-Athima Brigade whose religious ideology is unclear). A statement was posted on the Idlib Tawhid Brigade Facebook page denouncing the election for “not represent(ing) the actual revolutionary movement.” The statement claimed that the election was held “without the knowledge of these forces and without their representation.” The Yusuf al-Athima Brigade later denied being part of the statement, saying they were taking a wait and see approach to the council.

It seems that the most extreme Islamist groups are being frozen out of Idlib’s internal political process which is aimed at administering the liberated areas. This raises a familiar debate: Is it wise integrate extremists into the political process and hope that doing so moderates them, while running the risk of allowing extremist groups to dominate? Or is it better to marginalize them and prevent extremists from influencing the legitimate political process, while possibly forcing them to use violence to pursue political goals? These are questions that moderate Syrians have to address as the rebels gain decisive control over large swaths of the country.

Statement posted on the Idlib Tawhid Brigade Facebook page

Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Regime's Foreign Fighter List

In late November, the Syrian government presented the UN Security Council with a list of 142 foreigner fighters killed in Syria from September through November. A week later, the Syrian newspaper al-Watan published the list. The list is by no means comprehensive, as even some foreign fighter deaths reported by regime sources did not make the list. But if one assumes that the list is representative of the total foreign fighter population (and it may not be), there are some interesting pieces of information.

Despite Saudi Arabia’s efforts to curtail the flow of its citizens into Syria, the country claims the most fighters on the list. Second on the list, and with the most fighters relative to total national population is Libya. This in not surprising given that the seized Sinjar Records documenting foreign fighters arriving in Iraq over the Syrian border also showed Saudi Arabia with the most total fighters and Libya with the most fighters per-capita. 11 Afghans made the list as well, all killed in the north. It is surprising that Afghans would be fighting in Syria given the ongoing fighting in their own country and the fact that none were in the Sinjar Records.

More surprising was the ages of the killed foreigners. The list provides ages for 51 of the 142 fighters. The average age is 39, not the young impressionable youth often pictured as international revolutionaries. The average age of the fighters in the Sinjar Records was 24 years old, more in line with expectations.

The list includes the date and location of each fighter’s death. The incident with the most foreign deaths was the rebels’ October 11 capture of a regime base at an olive oil factory in Saraqeb in which three Turks and six Saudis were reportedly killed. This may confirm the common refrain that large numbers of foreign fighters are joining Ahrar al-Sham of the Jabha Thuwar Suriya network. A number of rebel groups participated in October 11 Saraqeb raid including the Saraqeb-based Jebel Thuwar Saraqeb Brigade, Suqour al-Sham and the Iman Brigade of Ahrar al-Sham.

It is possible that these foreigners were an independent group that followed the sound of fighting, but it is also possible that they were members of Ahrar al-Sham. One video of the attack showed a fighter wearing a Shalwar Kameez, a Pakistani style of dress that has become popular among some Arab jihadists.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Jamal Maaruf Taunts Afif Suleiman

One day in mid-October Jamal Maaruf and the men of Shuhada Suriya heard the sound of explosions to the south. They inquired with contacts and learned that fighters aligned with Afif Suleiman’s Idlib Military Council were attacking regime positions in Maarat al-Numan, a small city just west of the M5 Highway and south of the rebel-held hills of Jebel al-Zawiyah. Maaruf and his men gathered their weapons and joined the fight. Within 24 hours, the rebels pushed the regime out of Maarat al-Numan, extending the rebel held section of the M5 highway further south. The fighting then shifted to the Wadi Deif military base just east of the highway while the rebels simultaneously fought off armored convoys approaching from military bases in Hama and endured constant air attacks. Maaruf’s brother Muhamed, a mid-level Shuhada Suriya field commander, died in the fighting.

As the battle raged on, Suleiman arranged a meeting of the rebel groups involved. Maaruf claimed that Suleiman offered to come visit Maaruf to discuss the plan but Maaruf insisted that he come to Suleiman as a sign of respect, recognizing that Suleiman outranked him in the loose rebel command structure. Maaruf claims that he tried to work with Suleiman, providing fighters and even two tanks. After the rebels failed to capture the base and Maaruf’s ammunition ran low, he pulled some of his fighters back to their villages, an action that angered rebels still fighting in Maarat al-Numan (The Shuhada Maarat al-Numan Battalion, part of Shuhada Suriya, stayed behind). 

The criticism became a source of concern for Maaruf, who responded with a long statement on Shuhada Suriya’s Facebook page claiming that he did all he could, working with Suleiman until his supplies ran low. At the end of the statement, however, came a direct challenge. Maaruf claimed that if those supporting Suleiman would send Shuhada Suriya “half the weapons” sent to Suleiman, he would take Wadi Deif, implying that Suleiman had mismanaged the siege.

The relationship between Suleiman and Maaruf has evolved over the past year. During late-Spring 2012, Maaruf, then leader of the Shuhada Jebel al-Zawiyah Battalion, the forerunner of Shuhada Suriya, operated under the umbrella of Suleiman’s military council. The relationship with fruitful as the battalion captured checkpoints across Jebel al-Zawiyah. With Shuhada Jebel al-Zawiyah’s late summer expansion into the Shuhada Suriya Brigades, Maaruf became independent of the council. 

Shuhada Suriya is one of Syria’s most powerful rebel groups, recently posting a video of the largest known gathering of Syrian rebels to date. Despite Maaruf’s celebrity, however, he is unable to attract the level of financial and material support that Suleiman, the provincial council leader, receives. This is not a bad thing. Provincial councils can only assert control of rebel groups if they control money and weapons. But when council operations are not successful, rebel leaders will question the councils' control, a drawback of the rebels' loose command structure.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Capture of Air Defense Stations

Idlib’s ‘other’ military council, led by Mustafa Abdulkarim had its first success in early November when it captured the Duwailah air defense station outside Salqin after a month long siege, no doubt assisted by the unique terrain surrounding the regime’s position. As Riad Kahwali pointed out, this operation was part of a larger trend of rebels capturing air defense stations across Syria including in Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, and Deir Ezzor, part of what Kahwali described as, “laying the ground for a no-fly zone.”

However, capturing air defense stations will not directly lead to the overthrow of the Assad regime as they are defensive assets, not a part of the regime’s repressive machine. The capture of these positions are also not likely to make an intervention more appealing for the West, as the effectiveness of Syria’s air defense system was already called into question in 2011. Fear of the regime’s military capabilities is not what is preventing an intervention. The capture of these positions is, however, providing the rebels with access to  advanced weapons , as well as large amounts of ammunition. It is also a sign that the rebels’ military capabilities are continuing to improve. As of late spring 2012, rebels considered the capture of a checkpoint a major success. The rebels then moved on to capturing regime-held towns and border crossings, and since mid-summer 2012, began taking air defense stations which usually amount to small military bases. There are now signs that the rebels are seizing larger military bases, such as the section of the special forces base south of Atareb, captured today after part of the garrison defected.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Rebel Leader Basil Issa Dies

Basil Issa, one of northern Idlib’s primary rebel leaders was killed in an airstrike yesterday. Issa's Shuhada Idlib Brigade, captured the town of the Harem near Syria’s northwestern border with Syria this past week. As with other towns, the regime’s response to the rebel seizure of Harem was to continually bomb it from the air. In addition to a mosque and apartment buildings, the regime got lucky when it killed a man at the center of the rebels’ success in northwestern Idlib.

After rebel bands fled Idlib city in March 2012, Issa played a leading role in organizing them into hierarchical command structures. This allowed him to execute one of the rebels' first large-scale operations when he led over 400 fighters on an assault on the town of Armanaz in June.

In July, Issa and his men captured the town of Salqin from a contingent of Shabiha. In early September, Issa led his first assault on Harem but was forced to withdraw after a several days of fighting. He returned to Harem in late-October, this time successfully forcing the regime from what may have been its northernmost position. This was Issa's final battlefield success.

While it is unclear who will take control of the Shuhada Idlib Brigade, there are several candidates. First is Muhanad Issa, a relative of Basil. In July, Muhanad described himself as the vice-commander of the Brigade, but he does not play a role in combat operations. Instead, he playes the role of an activist, granting interviews in Turkey and serving as the head of the Idlib City Revolutionary Council’s Military Bureau. Other candidates are the leaders of the Shuhada Idlib Brigade’s most active battalions: the Jaffar al-Tayyar Battalion and the Uthman bin Affan Battalion.

A video of Basil celebrating the creation of his brigade.

Basil Issa

Friday, November 2, 2012

Military Councils Proliferate

When provincial military councils began forming in the early 2012, the idea was for every province to have one council, creating a unified rebel leadership in each province capable of coordinating rebel activity. Unfortunately, the council leaders, usually defected colonels, were not able to unite all the provincial rebel groups under their leadership, partly because rebel groups were not dependent on the council for financial or military resources. Today, not only are the councils unable to claim membership of all the major rebel groups in their provinces, but competing senior rebel leaders are forming alternative military councils, leaving provinces with multiple councils.

In Idlib Province, the main council was formed in April under the leadership of Afif Suleiman, an air force colonel that defected in January from his base in Hama. Some major Idlib groups, such as Shuhada Suriya, have operated under Suleiman’s leadership, but in the past two months, two new Idlib Military councils have formed. The first, formed in mid-September under the leadership of Muhanad Yahya Bitar. On October 24, Mustafa Abdulkarim, leader of the Deraa al-Thawra Brigade in Sarmada, formed a new military council comprised of 25 rebel groups located across the province. Abdulkarim’s council appears to be a consolidation of Bitar’s council as Bitar was included in the list of council members. Most of the rebel groups in Abdulkarim’s council are smaller, recently formed rebel groups, with the exception of Bilal Khabir’s Sarmin based Ahrar al-Shamal Idlib, formed in February 2012.

Elsewhere in Idlib, rebels are forming military councils to coordinate rebel activity in a single town, such as the council formed in early September in Kafrnabel. Maarat al-Numan, just to the east, has its own military council as well. These councils are a positive development as they coordinate rebel activity in a single town without undermining other leadership structures.

Uniting the provincial level networks may require creating a new layer of rebel leadership, a supreme provincial military council made up of each province’s provincial military councils. This would make the most sense if each council was geographically distinct, which is not the case. But even so, the mission of uniting rebel operations under a central provincial leadership would be a major step forward and should be pursued.

                                                                                                                               Mustafa Abdulkarim
Rebel Groups Claimed by Abdulkarim's Military Council                                             ِAfif Suleiman

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Syrian Opposition's Internal Civilian Leadership Emerges

While Syrian rebel leaders have become household names across the Middle East, the opposition’s civilian leadership inside Syria has remained in the shadows. Their survival required maintaining anonymity, staying deep underground while organizing Local Coordination Committees and provincial Revolutionary Committees to coordinate the import of food and fuel, establish schools and hospitals, publicize regime atrocities, organize local elections, and generally begin the process of establishing governance in liberated regions.

Rebel groups are involved in many of these activities as well, sometimes in partnership with the unarmed opposition structures and sometimes on their own. The problem is that the rebel leaders have been the only ones publicizing their efforts to provide for the Syrian people and establishing themselves as charismatic leaders. If this pattern continues, rebel leaders will be positioned to become the dominant political leaders while the civilian opposition leaders emerge from the shadows too late to build national networks of popular support.

Fortunately, the civilian opposition leadership inside Syria is beginning to emerge from the shadows as the regime contracts. The Idlib Revolutionary Council has been out front of other councils, publicizing some of its members in mid-July. The council recently held elections, bringing in a new leadership. Not only has the council publicized the names of the election winners, it has also posted their pictures. Despite their emergence from the underground, the civilian leadership does not appear to be cultivating a popular following through displays of charismatic leadership. This may change, however, as Syria’s internal civilian opposition becomes comfortable operating in public.

The Idlib Revolutionary Council's new leader, Ghazi al-Bakri (holding the microphone)

Monday, October 22, 2012

Saturday, October 13, 2012

The Idlib Tawhid Brigade Should be Monitored

The International Crisis Group released a great report last week detailing the evolving role of Salafists in the Syrian civil war. The report identified rebel groups with Salafist leanings whose future activity require monitoring. One group not mentioned in the report but worth watching is the Tawhid Brigade in Idlib Province (a different group than the Aleppo-based Tawhid Brigade).

As the report points out, establishing the exact ideology of a Syrian rebel group is difficult. Most do not explicitly outline their worldview and some have adopted positions simply to gain favor with donors. Although the Idlib Tawhid Brigade has not publicly defined their ideology, there is evidence indicating that they are toward the Jihadist-Salafist end of the Islamist spectrum.

The Idlib Tawhid Brigade formed in mid-May by uniting several rebel cells near Idlib city. In a statement dated July 7, the Tawhid Brigade defined themselves as an independent group, separate from the Free Syrian Army (FSA), and defined their mission as supporting religion. They also posted an al-Arabiya interview with Sheikh Aid al-Qarni, a Saudi cleric who preached in support of attacks against American troops in Iraq. On October 1, the Tawhid Brigade claimed to carry out a joint operation with fighters from the jihadist group Jabhat Nusrah, attacking two regime positions near Salqin. It should be noted, however, that the connection between the Idlib Jabhat Nusrah and the Jabhat Nusrah units carrying out large-scale bombings in Damascus and Aleppo is unclear. The following day, the brigade posted a video of a joint operation with the Salafist group Ahrar al-Sham in which, what appears to be a suicide bomber detonates a motorbike at a regime checkpoint near Idlib city.

Joint Tawhid Brigade-Ahrar al-Sham Bombing at a Checkpoint

In addition to working with Salafist groups, the Tawhid Brigade regularly carries out operations with FSA units, particularly the Shuhada Idlib Brigade, which is considered the armed wing of the Idlib City Revolutionary Council. Currently, the Tawhid Brigade is laying siege to an air defense station near Salqin in conjunction with units from Jabhat Nusrah, Ahrar al-Sham, and Deraa al-Thawra. The Idlib Tawhid Brigade also has links to the Muslim Brotherhood which is a major funder of the brigade.

While defining where exactly the Tawhid Brigade sits on the Islamist spectrum is difficult, the fact that they carry out suicide attacks, have links to Salafist groups, explicitly reject affiliation with the FSA, and emphasize their religious roots more than your average FSA group, all point toward the brigade being a rebel group worth monitoring.

The Tawhid Brigade's Logo

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Fight for Northern Idlib Province

Download The PDFThe Fight for Nothern Idlib Province

An explanation of the fight for northern Idlib Province. Includes a look at the battles for Harem, Salqin, Bab Hawa, and Idlib city and explains the roles of major rebel groups including Farouq al-Shamal, Shuhada Idlib, the Tawhid Brigade, and Deraa al-Thawra.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Problem With the Rebels' Financial Distribution Model

The system distributing funds to Syrian rebel groups fosters divisions, sustains extremism, and creates organizational incoherence among rebel groups.

Ideally, the system would work as follows: A diverse set of funders including states, expatriates, and religious/community leaders would secure funds and transfer them to a central rebel coordinating body operating at the national level. This body would then divide the funds between coordinating bodies in each province in charge of organizing rebel activity. Provincial coordinating bodies would distribute the funds among the rebel groups actively fighting the regime based on size, importance of their area of operations, and demonstrated capabilities. This process would force fringe groups to move toward the center in order to acquire funds, or risk becoming operationally irrelevant as better resourced groups take the lead. A top down distribution system would also promote unity, organizational coherence, and responsible behavior among the rebels. Unfortunately, this is not how the system works.

The actual distribution system is more complicated and works as follows: A diverse set of funders ranging from states to expatriates and religious/community leaders secure funds and transfer them to a variety of rebel organizations. This includes bodies that attempt to coordinate or influence rebel activity across provinces, including the Free Syrian Army, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the more islamist Syrian Rebels Front. Primary funders will also transfer weapons and funds directly to revolutionary-military councils coordinating rebel activity at the provincial level, as well as to individual brigades operating at the village level. By providing funds to both coordinating bodies and their component rebel groups, funders are undermining the effectiveness of the coordinating bodies, making it difficult to impose order on rebel groups that have independent sources of funds (sometimes the same source that the revolutionary-military council relies upon). The current system also allows fringe groups to secure funds and stay independent of moderate leadership structures.

This distribution system grew organically out of the need to fund rebel groups operating without the support of a major power. It is natural that funders would want to sponsor actors at every level of the distribution network, giving them broad influence and ensuring that their money reaches the most influential players while targeting rebel groups deemed amenable to the funder's political goals. This effort, however, is undermining the unity, coherence, and moderation of the Syrian rebels.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Kuwaiti Supply Network

A recent article by Rania Abouzeid brought important parts of the rebel supply network into the light. The following blog post aims to build on Rania’s impressive reporting by outlining the Kuwaiti supply network referenced in her report.

Rebel groups across Syria receive funds and weapons from the Haia al-Shaabiya l-Daam al-Shaab al-Suri (which loosely translates to The Popular Commission to Support the Syrian People). The organization is run by two young Kuwaiti sheikhs, Sheikh Hajaj al-Ajmi, and Sheikh Irshid al-Hajri.

The sheikhs do not appear to receive direct support from the Kuwaiti government as Sheikh al-Ajmi has said that he does most of his fundraising through Twitter where he has over 110,000 followers. The Haia has also released a video in which prominent Kuwaiti artists, sheikhs, and athletes make emotional appeals for contributions.

According to al-Ajmi, he began sending arms to the Ahrar al-Sham Battalions as well as Free Syrian Army units via Turkey in 2011 (this early activity is unconfirmed). During the summer of 2012, the Haia’s activities became more public, possibly coinciding with an increase in the amount of assistance being sent to Syria.

On June 30, the Umma Brigade, led by Libyan revolutionary Mahdi al-Harati posted a thank you to the Haia and the people of Kuwait for their “material support.” On August 1, Ibrahim Ayoub, leader of the Hamza Battalion and member of the Rastan Military Council released a Youtube video thanking the Haia for its support in the form of $10,000. The Thuwar al-Shaidat Battalion, based in Deir Ezzor released a video on August 20 thanking the Haia for its backing, and another Deir Ezzor group was so grateful for the Haia’s sponsorship that they named themselves in honor of Sheikh Hajaj al-Ajmi.

Funders of the Syrian rebels are often accused of distributing funds based on ideological preference. Interestingly, the Kuwaiti Haia does not appear to be doing this as its beneficiaries lie across the ideological spectrum. Ahrar al-Sham is considered a mostly salafist group, while the Umma Battalion is a moderate Islamist group, and Ibrahim Ayoub is on the secular end of the spectrum. The amount each of these groups receives is unknown, however, and it is possible that the distribution of funds is weighted toward Ahrar al-Sham.

Sheikh Irshid al-Hajri (Left) and Sheikh Hajaj al-Ajmi (center) meet with Riad al-Assad, head of the FSA during a trip to Turkey in late June.

The sheikhs with Mahdi al-Harati, head of the Umma Brigade

The Ahrar al-Sham Battalions send the sheikhs a thank you tweet

The Long Arm of Shuhada Suriya

In late July, Jamal Maaruf, leader of the Shuhada Jebel al-Zawiyah Battalion formed the Shuhada Suriyah Battalions, presaging a growth in capabilities and aggressiveness. Before mid-July, Shuhada Jebel al-Zawiyah’s area of operations was restricted to Jebel al-Zawiyah and the M5 highway seven kilometers to the east, it has since expanded 29 kilometers further east to the border of Aleppo province and north to Saraqeb.

The expansion began late July when the group moved south of Jebel al-Zawiyah to capture regime positions in Maarat al-Numan and Kafr Nabl in quick succession. Shuhada Suriyah then participated in the battle for Ariha in late August. A few days later, they traveled 45 kilometers from their base in Deir Sunbil to carry out a raid on the Abu Dhuhur air base. There were many impressive aspects of this operation, including the seizure of a section of the air base as well as the downing two MiGs, but their ability to sustain the fight for two weeks far from their base of operations was unprecedented.

After pulling back from Abu Dhuhur, Shuhada Suriyah did not simply rest and regroup. Instead, it attacked regime positions in the town of Saraqeb, strategically located where the M4 and M5 highways meet, and maintained the fight for three days.

Over the past two months, Shuhada Suriyah’s pace of operations, extended area of operations, and strategic choice of targets has been impressive, making it a key player in northern Syria. The funding that Shuhada Suriyah is reportedly receiving from Gulf states probably accounts for part of this rapid expansion in capabilities.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Middle Men Getting Rich Off the Syrian Civil War

There are massive amounts of cash flowing from the Gulf states to Syrian rebel groups. Some of this money never reaches its destination, however, as unsavory middle men siphon off funds meant for the rebels. In other cases, con men are selling themselves as representatives of groups to which they have no connection. Rebel groups are aware of the problem and are trying to dampen its impact by publicizing their official fund raising channels on social media outlets.

The Furqan Brigade, a member of the Ansar al-Islam group in Damascus, posted a warning on their facebook page to their “donor brothers in the Gulf states.” Furqan cautioned that that “there are people collecting donations in the name of the Furqan Brigade that have nothing to do with us.” The post then directed prospective donors to the phone number of the Furqan Brigade’s financial committee.

It is inevitable that this would occur as the flow of money from the Gulf to Syria is entirely unregulated, allowing money handlers, both official and spurious, to get very rich very quick.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Syrian Rebel Groups Expand into National Networks

A new phenomenon is emerging in Syria in which powerful rebel groups that were formally associated with a single city are developing national networks. Rebel networks including the Ahrar al-Sham Battalions and the Free Syrian Army have existed on a national level since the early stages of the Syrian civil war, but the expansion of networks that once revolved around a distinct region into nationwide organizations reflects the increasing complexity of Syrian rebel groups, the growing influence of several charismatic leaders, and the power of money.

The Ariha based Suqour al-Sham Brigade was one of the first to expand out of their province when they incorporated the Shuhada Halab L’Muham al-Khasa Battalion in Aleppo city during the spring. Abdul Razzaq Tlass’ Farouq Battalion, a dominant player in Homs, now claims the Farouq al-Shamal Battalion based around the Bab Hawa border crossing, as well as a group in Damascus that played a role in the bombing of a Syrian army general staff building on September 2. The Damascus-based Ahfad al-Rasul Brigade, which also took part in the September 2 bombing, recently announced the formation of a battalion in Idlib province named Suqour Jebel al-Zawiyah, giving the brigade a presence in the north.

Given their distinct areas of operation, it is unlikely that there is an operational relationship between the leaders of the brigades and their new far-flung battalions, but the satellite groups probably receive financial benefits from their well-endowed patrons. A recent video by the videographer Mani depicted Farouq Battalion commanders receiving a shipment of $100,000 in cash, while Ahmed Abu Issa, the leader of Suqour al-Sham, candidly told reporters in August that “people want to join us because we have enough weapons.”

Suqour al-Sham and the Farouq Battalions are both high-profile groups with charismatic leaders, allowing them to pull fighters, funders, and journalists into their orbits. It is also likely that Abu Issa and Tlass have political ambitions for the post-Assad era. The expansion of their networks beyond their immediate region gives them control of geographically widespread networks of supporters, allowing them to be national political leaders after the war.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Rebel Downing of Regime Aircraft and What it Means

I received a request for a list of the dates and locations for all instances of rebels shooting down regime aircraft. It was posited that perhaps an examination of the list would indicate a new capability among the rebels that could obviate the need for foreign support.

I can only confirm seven instances in which the rebels have shot down regime aircraft (if anyone has other examples, please share).

The List:

Rebels first shot down a helicopter around June 26 in Maardebseh, Idlib. The Suqour al-Sham Brigade and the Shuhada Jebel al-Zawiyah Battalion deployed mounted heavy machine guns during the battle and both claimed responsibility.

On July 7, members of the Jafar al-Tayyar Battalion in Deir Ezzor shot down a surveillance aircraft.

On August 13, rebels in the town of Mohasan, Deir Ezzor shot down a MiG jet with an anti-aircraft machine gun.

On August 27, rebels in Damascus shot down a helicopter in the vicinity of the Jobar neighborhood.

In late August, the Shuhada Jebel al-Zawiyah Battalion sustained a week long attack on the Abu Dhuhur airport. They shot down two MiGs during the course of the battle, one on August 31 and one on September 4.

On September 5, the Saif al-Islam Battalion of the al-Islam Brigade shot down a helicopter over Damascus


Regime aircraft have been shot down across a wide geographic area. This indicates that a foreign supporter is not providing unique arms to a specific rebel network. Additionally, the rebels used anti-aircraft machine guns in all instances in which the weapon used to shoot down an aircraft could be identified.

The rebels are mostly likely acquiring these weapons during raids on regime positions. As the rebels captured small regime positions during the spring, they seized weapons caches which were then used to attack larger regime positions during the summer, from which they seized larger amounts of weapons. This snowball effect accounts for a part of the rebel’s growing strength.

Another factor in the recent increase in aircraft being shot down has been the regime’s growing use of aircraft. The regime only began using helicopters in earnest in May and fixed-wing aircraft in July, providing the rebels their first opportunities to shoot down aircraft. The two MiGs that were shot down in late-August and early-September occurred at the Abu Dhuhur airport where rebels had penetrated the perimeter of the airport, making it much easier to shoot down aircraft taking off and landing.

Although the rebels are able to shoot down aircraft, it does not happen very often. This explains the rebel’s newest tactic of attacking air bases. The rebels have not been able to protect their villages, cities, or armored vehicles by shooting regime aircraft out of the sky. The rebels have therefore begun destroying aircraft on the ground by assaulting or capturing air bases in Abu Kamal, Taftanaz, Abu Dhuhur, and Mengh. The rebels do not have a sufficiently strong anti-aircraft capability, but their growing ability to seize large regime bases may obviate their need for advanced anti-aircraft weapons.

Unconfirmed reports of rebels downing aircraft: 

June 23, the Salman al-Farisi Battalion claimed that they had shot down a helicopter in al-Bab, Aleppo

On July 17, The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights stated that “several witnesses report that a military helicopter was downed in the Qaboun neighborhood of Damascus”

On July 20, The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights stated that there were “reports that a helicopter has been shot down in the (Harasta, Damascus) area.”

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The Idlib Revolutionary Council’s Dispute with the Muslim Brotherhood

The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood’s tendency to fund rebel groups based on ideological affinity has caused resentment among rebel groups that do not benefit from the Brotherhood’s largesse. In Idlib province, the Idlib Revolutionary Council and its military wing, the Shuhada Idlib Brigade, have assumed a lead role in the quarrel with the Brotherhood.

The dispute began in early July when Ahmed Sid Yusuf, a member of both the Syrian National Council and the Muslim Brotherhood, held a meeting in Istanbul to discuss the distribution of funds in Idlib province. According to the Shuhada Idlib account of the meeting, opposition activist Tarif Saeed Issa gave a financial report, stating that €642,000 had been distributed from the beginning of March through early June. The Shuhada Idlib envoys grew upset upon learning that €311,000 had been distributed to the Tawhid Brigade and other units in the Idlib countryside while their group had only received €9,000. During the ensuing argument, the Shuhada Idlib Brigade representatives left the meeting (or were thrown out).

In mid-July, the Shuhada Idlib Brigade and the Idlib Revolutionary Council organized their own meeting in Antioch, Turkey which included representatives from associated rebel groups and political activists. The statement released following the meeting called on rebel financiers to recognize that 2/3 of rebel groups in Idlib province were represented at their meeting, and therefore 2/3 of the external funds going into the province should be distributed through the Idlib Revolutionary Council network, and identified Abu Mohamed Battal from the council’s External Executive Office as the point of contact for potential funders. (The 2/3 figure given by the statement cannot be verified and important Idlib province rebel groups did not attend the meeting).

On August 28, the Shuhada Idlib Brigade and the Idlib Revolutionary Council held a follow-up meeting in the Rihaniyya refugee camp near the Turkish city of Antakya. The statement released after the meeting demonstrated that the problems identified at the first meeting have not been resolved. They again called on the Muslim Brotherhood and the national council to distribute funds according to the relative size of the group, not ideological affinity.

There are two takeaways from this. First, the Muslim Brotherhood has not changed its funding policies, alienating many powerful rebel and opposition groups. Second, the fact that important groups such as the Idlib Revolutionary Council are still calling on the Brotherhood to change its distribution policy implies that the Brotherhood remains an important source of overall funds for the Syrian rebels.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Refugee Camps in Northern Syria Still Impossible

Turkey is pressuring the international community to establish refugee camps inside Syria as refugee flows increase to tens of thousands per week. The regime’s military presence on the northern border, however, makes this plan unworkable for the time-being, as there is no political will to place troops or aid workers inside Syria near regime positions. Until the rebels consolidate unquestioned control of the northern border, any suggestion that camps be established inside Syria will continue to be a nonstarter.

The rebels of northern Idlib province are fighting to push the regime’s remaining forces out of the border region. The major rebel groups in the area, including The Shuhada Idlib Brigade and The Deraa Hunano Brigade, are laying siege to a regime held town two kilometers from the Turkish border named Haram. The first day of fighting did not go well for the rebels. A contingent of fighters from the Uthman Dhu Nurain Battalion of the Shuhada Idlib Brigade got pinned down by heavy machine gun fire near the Haram citadel. Trapped, the battalion issued a request for covering fire to facilitate their withdrawal which was posted on the Facebook pages of the Local Coordination Committees in the surrounding towns. When help arrived, the Uthman Dhu Nurain unit withdrew on foot through a series of valleys, but later criticized fighters who thought the request for assistance was specious.

As of late today, there are reports that an armored convoy is on Route 56 headed toward Haram from the direction of Salqin. The Local Coordination Committees in the area have issued calls for fighters on Route 56 to attack the convoy, whose aim is to either reinforce the regime position inside Haram, or pull the garrison out. In any case, calls for the establishment of refugee camps inside Syria are premature until the rebels consolidate control of all the villages along Turkey’s border. The effort to do so is ongoing, but by no means easy.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Rebels Threaten the Regime's Air Dominance

The regime’s air dominance is a serious problem for the rebels. Not only do fighter jets drop indiscriminate bombs on rebel-held urban centers, but attack helicopters are used to destroy rebel tanks and strafe rebel positions. Although the rebels have had some success shooting down helicopters and one fighter jet with mounted anti-aircraft machine guns, the regime’s air dominance is formidable.

Unsatisfied with the results of anti-aircraft ground fire, and unable to seize or acquire functional shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, the rebels in Idlib province have found a new way to neutralize the regime’s air dominance. Destroy regime air assets on the ground.

On August 29, the Uma Brigade and Ahrar al-Sham led an attack on the airbase in Taftanaz, reportedly destroying several helicopters. The same day, the Shuhada Jebel al-Zawiyah Battalion, led by Jamal Maaruf, attacked the Abu Dhuhur air base, 38 kilometers to the south. This is not the first time the rebels have attacked Abu Dhuhur, in March, rebels destroyed a parked fighter jet during a daytime rocket attack. The recent attacks, however, are new for a number of reasons.

First, the attacks appear coordinated. The Shuhada Jebel al-Zawiyah Battalion and the Uma Brigade which led the Taftanaz attack, have an ongoing relationship. Their areas of operation overlap, as the Libyan led Uma Brigade is based in Maarat al-Numan, just to the south of the Jebel al-Zawiyah region. In early August the two groups captured a regime checkpoint during a joint operation in Kafr Nabel, and may have planned the simultaneous attacks on the only two airbases around Idlib province.

Second, Maaruf claimed that his group captured the Abu Dhuhur air base. Although other sources report that the rebels only control a part of the base, their ability to breach the perimeter and seize even a portion of a base of this size shows a significant capability. Although the regime’s air presence is diminished in the north, it retains four airfields in Aleppo province, one in Hama, and one in Idlib, allowing it to maintain a significant, if vulnerable air capability in the region.

Jamal Maaruf Announces the Capture of the Abu Dhuhur Air Base

Satellite View of the Taftanaz Air Base

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Significance of the Battle for Ariha

As the fighting in Aleppo city diminishes to a slow burn, an intense battle for Ariha has endured for over a week. The regime tried to clear Ariha almost every month since March, but failed in each attempt. Although the regime’s control over large swaths of the country is quickly eroding, including its hold of crucial cities like Aleppo, its focus on Ariha has not wavered. There is good reason for this, as Ariha's northern edge touches the M4 highway linking Aleppo city to the coast. This route has grown in importance as rebel controlled territory along the M5 highway linking Aleppo to Damascus now extends south from Jebel al-Zawiyah into the Maarat al-Numan region, threatening the regime's only alternate route for resupplying its troops in the north.

The M4 Highway as it runs past Ariha toward Aleppo city

On August 22, Suqour al-Sham’s website claimed that the M5 highway linking Damascus to Aleppo is already closed to regime convoys. If this is true, the regime will not be able to maintain control of either Idlib or Aleppo city if it cannot keep the M4 highway open. The regime simply does not have the air assets to supply its northern garrisons via helicopters and transport planes. In any case, the number of operational helicopters possessed by the regime is dwindling, due to ground fire, rebel attacks on air facilities like the recent attack in Taftanaz, and regular maintenance problems. Regime logistics relies on the highways.

The rebels in Ariha are faring well. Earlier this week Suqour al-Sham used a tank to capture a regime position just south of Ariha, and has also used one inside the city itself. The regime may be able to keep the M4 Highway open by simply maintaining pressure on Ariha, thereby forcing the rebels to focus on protecting the city, not closing the road, but this is not a sustainable solution. On the other hand, if the rebels drive the regime out of Ariha, they will turn their attention to the M4 Highway. If the Rebels can shut down the highway, the regime’s entire presence in the north may become untenable.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Anti-Tank Weapons are Widespread in Syria

While pundits clamor for the international community to provide the Syrian rebels with advanced anti-tank weapons, the rebels have figured out how to kill main battle tanks with simple RPGs, a weapon found in the arsenal of rebel groups across the country.

This past week, the following picture appeared on rebel Facebook pages identifying the area on a T-72 tank where the armor is described as a thin 2-3 cm directly above the tank’s engine. An RPG is capable of penetrating this light armor thereby destroying the engine and disabling the tank.

Footage from the ongoing battle for control of Ariha, dubbed the Battle of Tawhid (unity), shows a disabled tank struck in this exact location.

Despite the rebels’ lack of advanced weaponry, they destroy tanks on a daily basis and have shot down multiple regime aircraft. This raises the following questions: Does the risk of proliferation outweigh the benefit of supplying the rebels with an improved version of a capability that they already possess? Or is supplying the rebels with advanced weapons more about buying influence than providing a crucial capability?

Monday, August 27, 2012

Rebels use Tanks to Capture Regime Position Near Ariha

The Muhajireen wal-Ansar Battalion, of the Suqour al-Sham Brigade, captured one of the regime’s strongest positions in Jebel al-Zawiyah on August 26. The captured position, located in the town of Kafr Lata just south of the crucial city of Ariha, was shelled repeatedly by rebel armor before capitulating. Suqour al-Sham’s armored vehicles include an APC captured in mid-August, as well as main battle tanks, one in the possession of the Daoud Battalion, and one used by the Muhajireen wal-Ansar Battalion.

The rebel use of armor is an emerging capability and this is the first time that rebel armor seemed to play a crucial role in a battle in Idlib province. In addition to capturing a regime position, the rebels also acquired a large amount of ammunition, and the Battalion’s leader, Abu Musab, announced the capture of five regime fighters. As the rebels improve their use of armored vehicles they may finally be able to capture the larger bases that they have been unable to defeat thus far. A prime target for the Jebel al-Zawiyah rebels may be the Mastouma military base five kilometers north of Ariha, a likely source of the deadly artillery attacks in northern Jebel al-Zawiyah.

There are, however, a number of factors that limit the growth of rebel armor capabilities. One is the difficulty of keeping tanks operational. As the rebels capture more vehicles, however, they will gain a ready supply of spare parts and mechanics abound in Syria. The bigger problem is regime helicopters. Hind attack helicopters are designed to destroy tanks, and there have been reports that the regime has effectively used them to this end. The full development of the rebel armor capability may therefor have to wait until the regime's supply of combat-ready helicopters has been significantly diminished.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Syria Isn't Chaotic, it has a Complex Order

Many imagine Syrian rebel groups as one dimensional militias. Simple clusters of armed men loosely organized for irregular fighting. This image is incorrect however, as these are increasingly complex organizations that systematically raise funds internationally, provide services, organize politically, and embark on public relations campaigns.

Almost all groups have Facebook and Twitter accounts and some have websites. Their internet presence is managed by dedicated staff often described as a group’s “information department.” Branding is important to Syrian rebel groups. They all have unique logos and often publicize their attacks as well as the services they provide in an effort to attract donors and gain influence. Suqour al-Sham’s media department, for example, is run by Ahmad Assi who produces long montages of Suqour al-Sham raids and writes articles for the group's website.

Syrian rebels also provide services. During the recent Eid holiday, the Muhajirin wal-Ansar Battalion within the Suqour al-Sham Brigade, distributed food to needy supporters. They publicized the effort with interviews and videos, promoting in an image of the unit as a protector and provider. The Luwa Brigade in Maarat al-Numan, run by Mahdi al-Harati, an Irish citizen who led a prominent rebel group in Libya before coming to Syria, recently opened a hospital with supplies sent by supporters in Libya.  Again, maximum effort was made to promote the endeavor.

Rebel groups’ core mission of defense goes beyond fighting the regime. During a recent election in the Jebel al-Zawiyah town of Maar Zeita, local rebel groups provided security and crowd control. Rebel leaders are also dealing with local crime in the northern border regions. Fighting the regime requires organizational structures as well, and some groups have controlled arms depots from which they distribute arms to their men, while others produce their own rockets in metal workshops.

In the north, rebel leaders make frequent trips to Turkey to meet with foreign and exiled supporters and sometimes host their patrons inside Syria. Powerful rebel groups seek out large funders based in the Gulf with whom they build enduring relationships. One example of this is the Luwa Brigade's relationship with the Haiah Shaabiyah l-Daam al-Thawra al-Sury (The Popular Commission to Support the Syrian Revolution) in Kuwait, an organization supported by many prominent Kuwaitis. The Luwa Brigade has publicly thanked the commission and its leaders, Sheikh Hjaz al-Ajmi and Sheikh Arashid al-Hajri on multiple occasions.

“Chaos” does not accurately describe the situation in Syria. When the Assad system broke down, local political entities emerged organically in the rebellious regions. These local entities operate on many levels, including the political, military, and economic. Binding these entities together to form a state is a huge challenge, but on the village level, order already exists in rebel-held Syria.