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.

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