Monday, February 25, 2013

The Omari Brigade, A Recipient of the External Arms Supply in Deraa

Liz Sly and Karen DeYoung published an article last week, based on research by a British blogger named Elliot Higgins as well as conversations with Arab officials, asserting that Arab states allied with the US are supplying mainstream rebel groups in the southern Syrian province of Deraa with new weapons. The article states that the effort is designed to increase the power of moderate rebel groups relative to their extremist counterparts, as well as help the rebels make a push toward Damascus, located just north of Deraa. 

Qais Qatanah (left) meeting with a
UN official
One of the rebel formations identified by Higgins as possessing the new weapons is the Omari Brigade. The Omari Battalion (later expanded into a brigade) was formed in late 2011 under the leadership of Capt. Qais Qatanah, an officer from an aerial reconnaissance unit who defected in the summer of 2011. The Omari Battalion operates out of the Lajat region, a rocky expanse in northeastern Deraa Province. Although the majority of its activities are confined to the Lajat region, the Omari Battalion’s area of operations expanded to towns just outside the Lajat in the summer of 2012, including Sheikh Miskin and Hirak.

In October 2012, the Omari Battalion expanded into a brigade which claimed 4 component battalions, all led by former officers in the Syrian military. It has continued growing in recent months as new battalions form under the Omari Brigade umbrella, including one unit claiming to operate in Damascus.

In mid-December, the Omari Brigade participated in a raid of the Brigade 34 base outside the village of Mismin in northern Lajat, just 32 kilometers from Damascus’ southern suburbs. The Omari Brigade also participated in the heavy fighting in Busir al-Harir in late-January. 

The prominence of former Syrian military officers in the Omari Brigade is significant as individuals with extremist sympathies were unlikely to rise through the ranks of Assad’s military.  There are other, more concrete signs that the Omari Brigade holds moderate views. In late January, for example, the Omari Brigade Facebook page posted an image of Capt. Qatanah meeting with an individual identified as a Christian religious leader. The post emphasized the need to respect the freedoms of all Syrian citizens.

The raid on the Brigade 34 base and the fighting in Busir al-Harir do indicate a growing capability in the Omari Brigade, perhaps attributable to new weapons. If, however, the Omari Brigade is going to play a role in cutting off Damascus from the south, to speak nothing of making a drive north toward the capital, the brigade will have to develop its ability to operate outside of the Lajat. 

1) al-Mismiya / Brigade 34 base
2) Hirak
3) Sheikh al-Miskin
4) Busir al-Harir

An apparently injured Qatanah meeting with a Christian religious figure

REVISION 03/23/2012:

In late December, 2012, officers in the Omari Brigade posted a video in which they accused Christians from the town of Mismiya of working with the regime and gave them three days to leave the town. The meeting between Qatanah and the Christian religious leader reportedly occurred after this incident. The meeting can therefor be interpreted as either a case of Qatanah reinging in his over zealous subordinates, or a case of senior FSA leaders forcing the Omari Brigade to engage in damage control, as the attempt at ethnic cleasning was used by pro-regime activists to portray the rebels as extremists.

(the above paragraph was added to the post on March 23, 2013, following the discovery of new information).