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.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Ansar al-Islam's Damascus Offensive

As the world focuses on Aleppo city, rebels in the capital have made impressive gains. The current round of fighting can be traced to the creation of the Ansar al-Islam Brigade on August 8. This new formation, possibly modeled on the Tawhid Brigade in Aleppo, brought together seven distinct rebel groups into a single formation. It is still unclear if there is command and control across the group, or if it simply creates a formal mechanism for effective coordination, but events in southern Damascus over the past week have proven the formation’s effectiveness. The fight began in earnest on August 16 in the neighborhood of Hajar al-Aswad. The following day the fighting spread across southern Damascus, from the Mezzeh military airport in the west and to Daf al-Shuk near the city center. The fighting has continued ever since in many of Damascus’ southern neighborhoods, often creeping across the Southern-Ring Road. It appears that the  rebels of Ansar al-Islam are likely to maintain their offensive longer than the rebels were able to during the Battle for Midan this past July.

The rebels’ ability to maintain pressure in Damascus will make it impossible for the regime to send further reinforcements north to Aleppo city. The regime has always struggled to fight major battles concurrently, always favoring successive action. Ansar al-Islam’s offensive in southern Damascus may force the regime to weigh which city they need more. Aleppo or Damascus.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Rebel Pride

Increased coordination between Syrian rebel groups is a growing trend. In Aleppo, the Tawhid Brigade brought a number of rebel commands into a structure that allows for more effective battle field collaboration. In Damascus, the Ansar al-Islam Brigade was also formed from multiple rebel commands and has shown its effectiveness in recent fighting in the Hajar al-Aswad neighborhood of the capital. While coordination and joint action is a net positive for the rebels, it can sometimes lead to tension between groups.  An example of this was the battle in Kafer Zeita in early June, when multiple rebel groups from surrounding villages encircled a regime military post used for shelling the town. The rebels maintained a siege on the regime position for days, but several rebel groups withdrew due to resentment over the unequal burden shouldered by some of the groups. In other cases, bitterness can build over petty disputes.

In Idlib province, The Shuhada Idlib Brigade and the Tawhid Brigade (the Idlib-based group) have bickered publicly over properly branding and assigning credit for attacks. The dispute started when the Shuhada Idlib Brigade claimed credit on Facebook for a June 11 IED attack in the al-Shamaat Traffic Circle in Idlib city. The Tawhid Brigade posted a statement on their Facebook page the following day addressed to their “brothers” in the “blessed” Shuhada Idlib Brigade saying that it was “not decent” for Shuhada Idlib to claim the Tawhid Brigade’s attack. Muhanad Issa, the brother of Shuhada Idlib’s commander, Basil Issa, said that they did not intend to claim the attack as their own, but to simply announce it.

The two groups continued working together amicably, but a conflict recently resurfaced in relation to the branding of a video of an August 14 car bombing in Idlib city. The bombing was a joint operation carried out by the Jaffar al-Tayyar Battalion of the Shuhada Idlib Brigade, and the Saad bin Abi Waqas and Nasr al-Islam Battalions of the Tawhid Brigade. The video of the attack, apparently produced by the media arm of the Tawhid Brigade, displays the Tawhid Brigade’s logo, not Shuhada Idlib’s. The Shuhada Idlib Brigade complained about the slight in a Facebook post calling the omission “an injustice” and stating that it was their right to be proud of their accomplishments.

It is unclear if the quarrel will cause a permanent rift between the groups or if they view the argument as secondary to the importance of their partnership. The dispute does, however, show how devoted the rebels are to their distinct formations and how difficult it will be on an emotional level for many rebel leaders to surrender their independence to a national, or even provincial level military. Many of the rebel leaders were simple artisans and shop keepers before the war and have now risen to national and sometimes international prominence. Establishing a post-Assad system that massages the egos of these heavily armed men who sometimes focus on parochial disputes will be a massive challenge.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Islamist Rebels Break with the Muslim Brotherhood

The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood is on the outside looking in as their countrymen threaten to overthrow the regime that crushed their revolt in the 1980s. The new uprising has provided the Brotherhood, exiled to Europe by Hafez al-Assad, with an opening to reassert themselves inside Syria. They have struggled, however, to capitalize on the opportunity. Outside the country, the Brotherhood has become a dominant player in the Syrian National Council (SNC) which many now see as a front for the Brotherhood. Their dominancy within the exiled political leadership, however, has contributed to the weakness and factionalism of the exiles as many secular and minority groups do not want to align themselves with a Brotherhood dominated entity. The SNC is now a hollow body that has lost the confidence of the international community and failed to gain a constituency inside Syria.

Within Syria, the Brotherhood has distributed money liberally to Islamist rebel groups, but this has not always bought the allegiance they hoped for. Ahmed Abu Issa, head of the Islamist rebel group the Suqour al-Sham Brigade, released a video on August 19 denouncing the Brotherhood’s efforts to take control of rebel coordinating bodies. He ended the video by stating that he no longer has any ties to the Brotherhood. It is especially surprising that Issa would publicly break with the Brotherhood as he is an Islamist who aims to create an Islamic state in Syria, and because many of his fighters are related to those who died during the rebellion in the 1980s. This may also indicate that Abu Issa has sources of funds outside of the Brotherhood. The Brotherhood's domination of the exiled political leadership has left it in control of a powerless entity, and if it continues to alienate Syria's new Islamist rebel groups, it will not be able to play the dominant role in post-Assad politics that some observers expect.

Friday, August 17, 2012

The Indirect Approach may Give the Rebels the Northern Cities

The rebels’ focus on smaller, vulnerable regime targets has allowed them to gain control of stronger regime positions that their current military capabilities cannot directly defeat. Though the rebels control large swaths of territory, they have never been able to capture large military bases. Attacks focus instead on convoys, checkpoints, and combat outposts, which in turn force the regime to abandon otherwise strong positions. Employing this indirect approach is the key to the rebels gaining control of the northern cities.

The rebels have not demonstrated the ability to capture strong regime positions like military bases or large cities. They have, however, been able to force the regime to pay a major price for traversing the northern roads by employing IEDs and ambushes. The regime reevaluated the value of maintaining isolated positions, and in two recent cases in al-Bab and Bab Hawa, decided to withdraw. The rebels were not able to drive the regime out through a pitched battle, but by making the cost of resupply prohibitively high, the rebels have pushed the regime out of heavily defended, but isolated positions.

When the dust settles in the north, the regime will likely be in control of the cities of Idlib and Aleppo as well as scattered checkpoints and bases, but not the roads. If the rebels improve their IED capabilities and focus on ambushing convoys on the M5 highway between Damascus and Aleppo, as well as the M4 highway between Saraqeb and the coast, while maintaining pressure on Damascus, they may force the regime to make the same decision it made in al-Bab and Bab Hawa. The rebels do not have to take the cities by force or even entirely cut off the roads. They simply have to make resupplying the north so costly that the regime is forced to abandon the effort in order to focus on securing Damascus and Homs.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Explaining the Battles for Bab Hawa

The Bab Hawa border crossing is the prize of northern Idlib province.  Rebels from the town of Sarmada, located six kilometers from the Turkish border, have fought for control of the strategic crossing for months. The Daraa al-Thawra Brigade, the main rebel group in Sarmada, first captured the crossing in mid-May under the leadership of Muhamed Kamal Razuq who died during the operation and was replaced by his chief of staff, Muhamed Bakour. As the regime began mobilizing to take back the border crossing, the rebels abandoned it, possibly at the urging of Turkey which did not want a battle on its border.

In mid-July, as the regime fought to maintain control of the capital, Bakour returned to Bab Hawa, capturing it after a short battle. The rebels traveled to the checkpoint on foot through the countryside because the road from Sarmada to the Bab Hawa border crossing runs through the old Bab Hawa crossing which was still controlled by the regime’s military. The old border crossing’s location five kilometers from the border made it of secondary importance.

With the fall of the Bab Hawa crossing, the old crossing became an isolated position surrounded by rebel-held territory. On the morning of August 14, the regime sent a convoy from Idlib city to pull the Bab Hawa garrison out. The 30 kilometer journey from Idlib city to Bab Hawa was arduous as the convoy fought through ambushes in Maarat Misrin, Hazano, and Batbo on their way north.

The following morning, the Bab Hawa garrison broke out of the old crossing and dashed south to Idlib city, enduring additional ambushes and losing trucks, armored vehicles, and soldiers along the way. The Sarmada rebels celebrated the liberation of the old border crossing throughout the day and claimed credit for pushing the regime out.

This development highlights one important point. While regions such as northern Idlib, Jebel al-Zawiyah, northern Aleppo, and eastern Deir Ezzor are considered rebel-held territory, the regime still maintains isolated positions in these regions, used for shelling surrounding villages. The rebels will likely continue targeting these isolated positions as they consolidate control of their defacto safe havens.   

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Rebels Return to Idlib City

The Shuhada Idlib Brigade reported the destruction of a checkpoint in western Idlib city today in an operation carried out in conjunction with two other rebel groups. While multiple checkpoints were attacked in northern Syria today, this attack is particularly significant because it confirms the return of the Syrian rebels to Idlib city.  In late 2011-early 2012, Idlib city was a significant center of rebel activity, but the fighters were poorly organized, allowing the regime to clear the city in three short days in March 2012.  Video evidence, such as this al-Jazeera report in early March featuring the future leader of the Jafar al-Tayar Battalion, one of the Shuhada Brigade's most important battalions, confirms that the fighters that later created the Shuhada Idlib Brigade, were fighting in Idlib city in March. After being driven out, they moved north of the city and  formed the Shuhada Idlib Brigade in April under the leadership of Basil Issa. 

Due to the regime’s tight control of Idlib city, the brigade set its sights on the northern Idlib countryside, carrying out large, coordinated attacks in the border region. In late June, hundreds of Shuhada Idlib fighters traveled in a convoy to attack regime positions in Armanaz.  A month later, the brigade captured the town of Salqin, six kilometers from the Turksih border, from a contingent of Shabiha. 

The brigade shifted its focus back to Idlib city after the regime drew down its forces there in late July in order to increase forces around Aleppo city. This created an opening across Idlib province for rebels seeking to expand their safe zones and for the rebels who used to operate in Idlib city to vie for control of their provincial capital.
Basil Issa with the leaders of the Shuhada Idlib Brigade's twelve component battalions. The leader of the Jafar al-Tayar Battalion is on the far right.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Determining Rebel Ideology

Observers of the Syrian rebels are often asked about the ideologies of the groups they track. Most of these groups, however, do not explicitly outline their ideologies, and many may not have systematically thought out where they would stand on many issues.  Analysts are therefore left to collect bits of evidence in an effort to place groups on a spectrum from secular to global jihadist.  An example of the evidence used to make these determinations is attitudes toward female fighters.
In early July a Canadian-Syrian woman named Thuwaiba Kanafani declared that her group of fighters in Aleppo were members of the Suqour al-Sham Brigade.  Ahmed Abu Issa, the leader of Suqour al-Sham, quickly released a statement denying that his group had any female fighters, thereby confirming Suqour al-Sham’s Islamist leaning.

The Daraa al-Thawra Brigade, based in northern Idlib and led by Muhammed Bakour, has a different attitude toward female fighters.  On August 3, the Daraa al-Thawra Facebook page posted a picture of a young woman in military fatigues with her hair uncovered, holding an AK-47 with the caption “God protect her.” It therefore appears that Daraa al-Thawra, the group responsible for capturing the Bab-Hawa border crossing in May and again in July, is one of the more secular leaning groups in northern Syria.

A member of Daraa al-Thawra


Friday, August 10, 2012

Idlib Rebels Capitalize on the Focus on Aleppo

Three weeks ago the regime began moving troops across Syria toward Aleppo city in order to retake neighborhoods controlled by Syrian rebels. The strategic importance of this battle and its high profile nature has sent rebels in Idlib province streaming toward Aleppo as well.  In some cases, commanders have dispatched troops to Aleppo while in other cases, the senior leadership of Idlib rebel groups have themselves fought in Aleppo city. For example Lt. Bilal Khabir, the leader of the Ahrar al-Shamal Idlib Battalion, participated in recent fighting in the Aleppo neighborhood of Salah al-Din. Other rebel groups have opted to consolidate control of their own regions rather than join the fight in Aleppo.

In order to mass sufficient forces to take back Aleppo city, the regime had to drawdown elsewhere, creating opportunities for rebels willing to sit-out the battle for Aleppo city.  The Shuhada Jebel al-Zawiyah Battalion is using the opportunity to seize a series of regime positions on the southern road leading into Jebel al-Zawiyah. They first captured a regime position in Maarat al-Numan, then headed west to Kafr Nabl where they not only took a regime position, but captured two armored personnel carriers and a tank. When the dust in Aleppo clears, the regime will find itself contending with an expanded rebel stronghold in Jebel al-Zawiyah and its environs.

This is the central dilemma facing Assad. The regime can mass sufficient forces to take any terrain the rebels try to hold, but doing so requires drawing down elsewhere. The rebels first obtained safe zones in March after the regime drew down in the countryside in order to secure the cities of Idlib, Aleppo, and Homs. The rebels are now forcing the regime to draw down yet again, leaving the positions that they still hold extremely vulnerable. The regime is clearing the rebels from Aleppo city and is likely to succeed, however, they will control an isolated city surrounded by rebel-held territory that will be exceedingly difficult to resupply.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Rebel Armor Capabilities

Syrian rebels have captured numerous armored vehicles since late May.  In some cases, rebels may have pulled anti-aircraft guns out of armored 'Shilka' vehicles and mounted them on pickup trucks, favoring mobility and ease of use over armor.  There have, however, been cases of rebels assaulting fortified regime positions with captured tanks.  This trend has increased in recent weeks as rebels in northern Aleppo shelled the Mengh Military Airport with captured tanks in early August. Most recently, Suqour al-Sham used a tank to shell a regime position in the Ariha area on August 8.

As the rebels capture more military hardware and are able to train without fear of regime attack in the northern safe zones, they will learn to operationalize heavy weaponry, moving toward a combined arms force. This may prove to be a decisive development allowing the rebels to march on Damascus should they consolidate control of the northern cities.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Participation of Idlib Rebels in the Battle for Aleppo

As Syria observers focus on the battle for Aleppo, it is important to note the role being played by rebel groups in Idlib province in this important battle.

Restricting Supply Lines

The roads from the southern cities of Homs and Damascus, as well as those from the Alewite areas on coast, run through Idlib.  Rebel groups in Idlib have focused their efforts on these roads, repeatedly ambushing regime convoys. Although convoys regularly reach Aleppo city, many have taken significant casualties on the Idlib highways. The main choke points are Maarat al-Numan, where Shuhada Jebel al-Zawiyah has recently deployed from their base in Jebel al-Zawiyah, and the stretch of highway between Ariha and Saraqeb, where Suqour al-Sham and Ahrar al-Shamal Idlib have carried out ambushes.

Force Multiplier

As the rebels have consolidated their strongholds in northern Idlib and Jebel al-Zawiyah, they have felt less constrained by the need to defend their home villages, traveling farther afield to carry out attacks. This trend has increased over the last two weeks as the regime has pulled forces out of garrisons in Idlib province to join the fight in Aleppo. This has allowed rebel leaders in Idlib to send forces to defend Aleppo city. Ahmed Abu Issa, leader of Suqour al-Sham told a reporter two weeks ago that he dispatched fighters to Aleppo city and the Ahrar al-Shamal Idlib Facebook page said that Mahmud Khabir lead a group fighters east to Aleppo on August 1.

Rebels in Aleppo and Idlib have an ongoing relationship based on fighting in towns such as Atareb located on the border between the two provinces. Carrying out ambushes in support of fighters deep in a neighboring province, and sending fighters 60 kilometers to fight in another group’s territory are, however, new developments. These are examples of a rapidly maturing insurgency as well as increased cooperation across rebel commands.

Suqour al-Sham Reveals Sources of Funds

The sources of funding for the Syrian rebels has long been a mystery. Plenty of anecdotes point to wealthy gulf donors and the Muslim Brotherhood, but direct evidence of links between wealthy organizations and individual rebel groups have been scarce. Two videos released this week by Suqour al-Sham, a powerful Islamist rebel group based in Jebel al-Zawiyah, have changed that. In one video, the Suqour al-Sham’s leader, Ahmed Abu Issa, is seen sitting between two supporters from Bahrain while he discusses the crucial role that financial contributions play in carrying out the Syrian Jihad.

In a second video, Hassan Abu Abdu, the leader of the Daoud Battalion which is one of the components of Suqour al-Sham, is seen eating with Imad al-Din al-Rashid, a Syrian Islamist who leads the Syria National Movement. Although this does not necessarily mean that the Syria National Movement is funding Suqour al-Sham, the link is interesting. While many of the rebel groups in Idlib province are forced to raise funds from sources inside Syria or from the poorly organized distribution network of the Idlib Revolutionary Council network, Suqour al-Sham seems to have its own sources of funding allowing it to remain independent of the provincial level organizations that are trying to organize the rebel groups into larger, more coherent entities.

The involvement of international donors in the Syrian revolution who favor ideologically aligned rebel groups has the potential to create additional fractures among the Syrian rebels and make unity in the post-Assad era difficult to achieve. Ahmed Abu Issa, who operates out of the mayor’s office in the village of Sarjeh, south of Idlib city, has an independently funded network of fighters and is unlikely to give up control of his village to a political order that he does not find satisfactory.