Shortly after U.S. president Obama declared war on the so-called Islamic State (ISIS/IS), a bogus claim by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) about a non-aggression pact between ISIS and an unnamed unit of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) went viral largely due to ignorance about which moderate rebels the U.S. and its “Friends of Syria” allies are supporting. This guest post by Hasan Mustafa (@hasanmustafas) is an attempt to cure that ignorance and make future pseudo-scandals less likely by detailing who the U.S.-backed moderate rebels are using open-source information.
Those who oppose arming the FSA often claim that advanced weapons have already fallen or will fall into the hands of extremists, but the results of arming rebel forces thus far indicate otherwise. A recent report by the Carter Center found that of the foreign-supplied tube-launched optically-tracked wireless-guided anti-tank missiles (TOWs), HJ-8s, and RAK-12s that:
“… few of these weapon systems appear to have been distributed beyond their intended recipients or captured by the IS during its recent offensives throughout Syria. Of the total 274 times these weapons have been seen in the possession of armed opposition groups, they have only been observed six times in the use of an organization unlikely to be a direct recipient. All six of these instances were in the Daraa and Quneitra governorates in the possession of Harakat Ahrar al-Sham.”
The most notable form of direct American support has been the supply of TOWs to certain rebel groups vetted by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. The missiles themselves most likely come from Saudi Arabia’s stockpile, although by law the supply of American-made weapons to a third party must be approved by the U.S. The approved groups overwhelmingly belong to the FSA, many have recognized the Syrian National Coalition of Opposition and Revolutionary Forces (Etilaf), and all are committed to letting the Syrian people decide their own future.
5th Corps: The 5th Corps is a recently declared formation consisting of five moderate rebel groups linked to the FSA’s Supreme Military Council (SMC) that have all adopted the revolutionary independence flag as their symbol. Led by a joint command council, it consists of the 13th Division, the 101st Division, Knights of Truth Brigade, Suqour Jabal al-Zawiya Brigade, and the 1st Brigades. All five have received TOWs provided by the international “Friends of Syria” alliance led by the U.S. through the Military Operations Command center in Reyhanli, Turkey. Active in northern Syria, the 5th Corps commands a few thousand men who fight against both the Syrian regime and ISIS. Social Media: YouTube; Facebook.
The 5th Corps’ constituent brigades are described in detail below:
13th Division (Furqa 13): Formed in 2013, the 13th Division commands more than 1,800 fighters in Idlib, Aleppo, and Hama governorates. The division is divided into 10 companies and is headquartered in the town of Ma’arrat al-Numan in Idlib. It was among the first rebel brigades to begin receiving TOWs. Under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Ahmad Al-Sa’oud, the 13th Division has fought in the battles of Aleppo, Morek, Khan Shaykhun and participates in the sieges of Wadi al-Deif and Al-Hamdiyyeh military bases. It is a part of the Syrian Revolutionary Command Council, a grassroots bottom-up effort to unite fighting factions across the secular-Islamist ideological divide. The 13th Division receives funding from the U.S. through the SMC. It advocates the creation of a civil (meaning non-religious) state. Social Media: YouTube; Twitter; Facebook. Knights of Truth Brigade (Liwa’ Fursan al-Haqq): An FSA-banner group sanctioned by Etilaf. The Knights of Truth Brigade is active in Idlib, Hama, and Aleppo governorates. The group controls the town of Kafranbel where it formed in early 2012. It fought in the battles of Aleppo, Morek, Khan Shaykhun and the sieges of Wadi al-Deif and Al-Hamdiyyeh military bases. This brigade is also active in the fight against ISIS. It is among the 32 rebel factions that make up the Syrian Revolutionary Command Council and receives funding from Qatar. Social Media: YouTube; website; Twitter; Facebook. 101st Division (Furqa 101): Led by defected air force pilot Colonel Hassan Miri’l Hamdeh, the 101st Division of the FSA is an Etilaf-sanctioned group that was among the early recipients of TOWs. Like other 5th Corps members, the 101st Division operates in the Idlib, Hama, and Aleppo governorates and is active in the fight against both the Syrian regime and ISIS. It too recently joined the Syrian Revolutionary Command Council and notably includes religious minorities in leadership positions. Social Media: YouTube; Facebook. Falcons of Mount Zawiya Brigade (Liwa’ Suqour Jabal al-Zawiya): An FSA unit that was once part of Ahfad al-Rasul and later the Syria Revolutionaries Front (SRF) coalition led by Jamal Marouf that formed in early 2014 to fight ISIS. After leaving the SRF due to its internal disputes, Suqour Jabal al-Zawiya joined the 5th Corps. The group was funded by Qatar and is now funded by the U.S. government and receives TOWs. It is based in the Jabal al-Zawiya region and operates mainly in Idlib governorate. Social Media: YouTube, YouTube, YouTube. 1st Brigade Infantry (Liwa’ al-Awwal Masha’): An FSA group active in the Idlib governorate, in the vicinity of Ma’arat al Numan which is an important opposition stronghold. 1st Brigade Infantry is a constituent of the 5th Corps. Social Media: YouTube; Facebook. Movement of Steadfastness/Hazm Movement (Harakat Hazm): The first group to receive TOWs and the most well-known FSA group officially designated “moderate.” The Movement of Steadfastness fields 5,000 fighters dispersed throughout Aleppo, Idlib, Hama, and Homs governorates as well as the northern areas of Damascus governorate. It was formed in early 2014 after the union of 22 smaller rebel brigades. Leaders of the Movement of Steadfastness include Bilal Atar and Abdullah Awda. The Movement of Steadfastness has received the most international support due to its moderate political leanings and strong military organization. Along with TOWs, the group also fields a large number of artillery pieces and armoured vehicles. The Movement of Steadfastness fights in a number of fronts and battles including Sheikh Najjar, Khan Shaykhun, Morek, northern Homs, and in the Aleppo countryside (against ISIS). It is an important constituent of the Syrian Revolutionary Command Council and it fights ISIS as part of the Nahrawan al-Sham Operations Room alongside mostly Islamist groups (but excluding Jabhat al-Nusra). A number of its fighters have been trained in Qatar. Social Media: YouTube; Twitter; website. Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement (Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zenki): Named after Nour al-Din Zenki, Emir of the Seljuk Sultanate’s Syrian province who battled the Crusaders and was a contemporary of Saladin, Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement is one of Aleppo governorate’s most powerful rebel factions despite being an independent rebel grouping. It played an important role in seizing large parts of Aleppo in 2012. Once part of the One-ness Brigade (Liwa’ al-Tawhid), the Authenticity and Development Front, and later the Army of Holy Warriors (Jaysh al-Mujahideen), Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement now fights independently against the regime and ISIS. Described as non-ideologically Islamist and commanded by Sheikh Tawfiq Shahabuddin, Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement recently voiced its support for Etilaf and is a member of the Syrian Revolutionary Command Council and fights against ISIS in northern Aleppo through the aforementioned Nahrawan al-Sham Operations Room. It receives funding primarily from the Saudi Arabian and U.S. governments as well as shipments of TOWs. Its Islamist rhetoric has shifted towards pragmatism and it believes in a political solution with the current regime. Social Media: YouTube; Facebook. Ahmad al-Abdo Martyrs Brigades and Battalions (Alwiyat wa’ Kata’ib Shuhada Ahmad al-Abdo): An FSA-linked group that operates primarily in the Qalamoun and northern Rif Dimashq regions. Ahmad al-Abdo Brigades first used TOW missiles in May of 2014 and have also been in possession of Chinese-made HJ-8 anti-tank missiles paid for by Qatar and supplied from Sudan. The brigades have been involved in the capture of Brigade 559 and the siege of Dumayr airbase. This group was one of the earliest recipients of TOWs and was most likely vetted several months ago. It is under the command of a defected colonel, Bakur Salim al-Salim, who also heads the military council in Damascus governorate. The group is named after Ahmad al-Abdo al-Saeed, a civilian killed by the regime early in the 2011 protests. Social Media: YouTube; Facebook. Falcons of al-Ghab (Tajammu Suqour al-Ghab): An FSA brigade operating throughout western Hama governate under the authority of the Hama Military Council. They are headquartered in the town of Qalaat al-Madiq which is situated in the al-Ghab plain. Falcons of al-Ghab is affiliated with the SMC and has received TOWs. It was formed early in the revolutionary war and played an important role in captured the al-Ghab region. More recently, the group has been involved in the Great Badr al-Sham offensive in northern Hama. This group is also a member of the Syrian Revolutionary Command Council and is led by Jamil Raadoun, a defected lieutenant from the air defence forces. Social Media: YouTube; Twitter; Facebook. Brigade of the Chargers (Liwa Al-Adiyat): An FSA brigade that operates in Idlib governate and the northern Latakia countryside. The group was a former member of Grandsons of the Prophet Brigade (Ahfad al-Rasul). Brigade of the Chargers was vetted by the “Friends of Syria” alliance several months ago and was an early operator of TOWs. It has taken part in the Al-Anfal Offensive and is active on fronts near the cities of Idlib and Jisr al-Shughur. A number of its fighters have been trained in Qatar and the brigade also receives funding from Qatar. It is led by Muhammad Haj Ali and contains mostly local fighters. Social Media: YouTube; Google+.
Army of Holy Warriors (Jaish al-Mujahideen): An Islamist rebel coalition in the Aleppo governorate originally formed to fight ISIS in early 2014, Army of Holy Warriors splintered after the Nour al-Din al-Zinki Movement seceded along with a number of other substituents. Nonetheless, it remains an important rebel group in the Aleppo governorate. They are a member of the Ahl-e-Sham Operations Room (alongside Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic Front) and fight against ISIS through the Nahrawan al-Sham Operations Room. As of September 27, 2014, Army of Holy Warriors has completed the U.S. vetting process but advanced arms have yet to arrive. It is led by Captain Mohammed Shakerdi and estimates put the group’s current strength at around 5,000 fighters. Army of Holy Warriors maintains close relations with local civilian governing councils and with Etilaf. Social Media: Youtube; Twitter. Syrian Martyrs’ Brigades and Battalions (Tajammu Kata’ib wa’ Alwiyat Shuhada Souriya): Led by Jamal Maarouf, it was one of the earliest FSA brigades formed. The Syrian Martyrs’ Brigade today makes up the leading component in SRF. Their powerbase is in the Jabal al-Zawiyah region, an important opposition stronghold. Syrian Martyrs’ Brigade operates throughout the Idlib, Hama, and Aleppo governorates. They have received support from Saudi Arabia and were recently supplied with TOWs. Presently, many of its operations are carried out under the SRF name. The overall SRF coalition played an important role in ridding Idlib governorate of ISIS completely early in 2014. Social Media: Facebook; YouTube. Omari Brigades (Alwiyat al-Omari): The first FSA unit formed in the Daraa Governorate, the Omari Brigades are a part of the SRF and the Southern Front coalition. This group has been supplied and funded by Saudi Arabia and was one of the first operators of TOW missiles. Their main powerbase is the Lajat region in southern Syria. The brigade is named after the Omari Mosque in Daraa city, which was an important symbol for the opposition in the early days of protests. (The mosque, in turn, is named after Caliph Omar.) Social Media: Twitter; YouTube. Yarmouk Brigade (Liwa’ al-Yarmouk): A prominent FSA group operating in southern Syria’s Daraa and Quneitra governorates, the Yarmouk Brigade fields over 4,000 men and several tanks. They are a key component in the Southern Front coalition and their leader, Bashar al-Zoubi, is the overall leader of the Southern Front. The group recognizes the SMC, has received support from Saudi Arabia, and is equipped with TOWs. It is named after the Yarmouk river which flows through the area. Social Media: YouTube. Partisans of Islam Front (Jabhat Ansar al-Islam): An independent Islamist brigade operating against the regime across the Quneitra and Daraa governorates, Jabhat Ansar al-Islam is the most hardline Islamist group to be provided with TOWs. This group recently partook in the Quneitra offensive that saw 80% of the province seized by rebels. Social Media: YouTube. Hamza Division (Forqat al-Hamza): An FSA-banner group composed of six substituent brigades that operate mostly in Inkhil, Daraa and have received TOWs. The division works under the supervision of the Daraa Military Council and receives foreign support from Western and Arab state backers. It is a member of the Southern Front coalition. Social Media: YouTube; Facebook. Sword of al-Sham Brigades (Alwiyat Saif al-Sham): A group hailing originally from Damascus, the Sword of al-Sham now fights primarily in the Daraa and Quneitra governorates. They have participated in the recent rebel advances in Quneitra and were a part of the 2012 and 2013 rebel offensive into central Damascus and its suburbs to the north. A component of this group, the Ezz Brigade, has received TOWs. It is a signatory of the Southern Front coalition. Social Media: YouTube; Facebook. Martyrs of Islam Brigade (Liwa’ Shuhada al-Islam): An FSA-banner group that operates in Daraya, a southern suburb of Damascus. The Martyrs of Islam Brigade is the largest group in Daraya, with most of its fighters being from the local area. It is the only rebel group that is completely under the authority of a local civilian council and operates with its approval. It has recently been vetted and supplied with TOWs despite Daraya being under a tight siege. This group is also a signatory of the Southern Front coalition. Social Media: YouTube; website. Dawn of Islam Division (Forqat Fajr al-Islam): One of the earliest FSA groups to arise in the Daraa governorate, the Dawn of Islam Brigade recently merged with a number of smaller groups to create the Dawn of Islam Division. The division has been supplied with TOWs and is closely affiliated with the Daraa Military Council and is a signatory of the Southern Front coalition. This group is active in the ‘Uthman and Tafas districts of Daraa city as well as in Busra al-Harir in the north-east of the province. It is under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Mohammed Hassan Salama. The Dawn of Islam Division contains mostly local tribal fighters from Daraa and Quneitra. It is not to be confused with a number of other rebel brigades with similar names operating in Homs, Idlib, and Aleppo. Social Media: Facebook: YouTube. Helpers of Sunnah Brigade (Liwa’ Ansar al-Sunnah): A group operating in Daraa and Quneitra that is affiliated with SRF, the Helpers of Sunnah Brigade is also a member of the Southern Front coalition. They are recipients of several TOW missiles that have been used against regime tanks and vehicles. Not to be confused with a number of groups operating throughout the region with the exact same name, many of whom espouse an extreme ideology. Social Media: YouTube. Helpers Brigades (Alwiyat al-Ansar): An FSA group, the Helpers Brigades are a founding member of SRF. This group operates in the Idlib and Hama governorates. Formed in 2012 in the southern suburbs of Ma’arat al Numan, they are led by Mithqal al-Abdullah. This group has recently been supplied with and deployed TOWs against a number of regime vehicles. Social Media: YouTube; Facebook.
Amoud Horan Brigade: An FSA-banner unit operating in Daraa and Quneitra and member of the Southern Front coalition. Like all Southern Front signatories, the Amoud Horan Brigade has called for democratic governance and a state built on human rights. Such moderate leanings are an important reason why so many groups like the Amoud Horan Brigade operating in the south have been supplied with TOWs. Important leaders include Colonel Ahmed al-Omar and Colonel Jihad Saad al-Din. The Amoud Horan Brigades participated in the recent capture of Tell Harrah. The name refers to the Horan region in southern Syria, a rocky plateau. Social Media: Facebook. Emigrants and Helpers Brigade (Liwa’ Muhajireen wal Ansar): One of the earliest FSA battalions declared in the Daraa governorate, it was created and led by two military defectors, Captain Iyad Qaddour and Captain Khalid Fathallah. It is affiliated with the Daraa Military Council and is a member of the moderate Southern Front coalition. Its leaders are also affiliated with the SMC. Emigrants and Helpers Brigade have been vetted and has received TOWs. This group is not to be confused with the Chechen-led group in Aleppo, Army of Emigrants and Helpers (Jaish al-Muhajireen wal Ansar). The name refers to the original community of believers in Medina under the Prophet Muhammad. The emigrants (muhajireen) were those who emigrated from Mecca and the helpers (ansar) were natives of Medina who aided the Prophet and the emigrants. Social Media: YouTube.
One-ness Battalion of Horan (Tawhid Kata’ib Horan): An FSA-banner group based in the Horan region of southern Syria. This brigade is active in the Daraa and Quneitra governorates and is a signatory of the Southern Front coalition. The group was originally formed by Major Mohammad al-Turkmani who was later killed in battles with the regime. The One-ness Battalion of Horan has been provided with TOWs and has participated in a number of important battles in Daraa such as the recent capture of Tall Harrah. Social Media: YouTube; Facebook.1st Artillery Regiment: As the name signifies, this armed group operates mostly rockets, mortars, and artillery. The 1st Artillery Regiment is an FSA-banner group that is also a part of the Southern Front coalition. This group was formed by the Daraa Military Council in an effort to create functionally named military units. It is under the command of the defected Major Abd al-Latif al-Hawrani. The presence of defected officers in leading positions of many of these groups is notable since those holding extremist views would not have risen to high ranks in the Syrian army. The 1st Artillery Regiment has been supplied with TOWs and also fields a variety of other anti-tank guided missiles. Social Media: YouTube. Quneitra Military Council: An FSA coalition that operates in Quneitra. At least one substituent, the Grandsons Brigade (Liwa’ as-Sabiteen) has fielded TOW missiles. The Quneitra Military Council was once led by Brigadier General Abdul-Ilah al-Bashir who is now Chief of Staff of the SMC. The Military Council in Quneitra has played an important role in the recent advances here. Social Media: Facebook; YouTube. Youth of Sunnah Brigade (Liwa’ Shabbah al-Sunnah): An FSA brigade in the Daraa and Quneitra governorates, the Youth of Sunnah have received TOWs and are members of the Southern Front coalition. Social Media: YouTube; Facebook.
Al-Anfal Brigade: An SRF affiliate in southern Syria. Al-Anfal Brigade is also a member of the Southern Front coalition and has received TOWs. Social Media: Facebook.
1st Brigade: A Southern Front coalition member that also possesses TOWs. It is active in the Daraa governorate and is perhaps an example of the wider trend to adopt military rather than religious or symbolic nomenclature. Social Media: None known. Damascus Martyrs’ Brigades: The Damascus Martyrs’ Brigade appear to be an independent Islamist group in Daraa, Quneitra, and southern Rif Dimashq. They are also a member of the United Sham Front, a group with a limited presence in the south. The Damascus Martyrs’ Brigade have recently deployed TOWs against regime vehicles and positions in the seizure of Tell Harrah. Social Media: YouTube; Facebook; United Sham Front Facebook.
Works Cited/Recommended Reading
- Heras, Nicholas A. “A Profile of Syria’s Strategic Dar’a Province.” Combating Terrorism Center. 30 June 2014. Web. 9 Oct. 2014. <https://www.ctc.usma.edu/posts/a-profile-of-syrias-strategic-dara-province>.
- Legrand, Félix. “The Resilience of Moderate Syrian Rebels.” Arab Reform Initiative. 1 Sept. 2014. Web. 14 Oct. 2014. <http://www.arab-reform.net/resilience-moderate-syrian-rebels>.
- Lund, Aron. “Does the “Southern Front” Exist?” Syria in Crisis. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 21 Mar. 2014. Web. 11 Oct. 2014. <http://carnegieendowment.org/syriaincrisis/?fa=55054&reloadFlag=1>.
- Lund, Aron. “The Mujahideen Army of Aleppo.” Syria in Crisis. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 8 Apr. 2014. Web. 9 Oct. 2014. <http://carnegieendowment.org/syriaincrisis/?fa=55275>.
- White, Jeffrey. “Rebels Worth Supporting: Syria’s Harakat Hazm.” The Washington Institute. 28 Apr. 2014. Web. <http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/rebels-worth-supporting-syrias-harakat-hazm>.
- Winter, Lucas. “A Modern History of the Free Syrian Army in Daraa.” FMSO Leavensworth. Foreign Military Studies Officer, 1 June 2013. Web. 9 Oct. 2014. <http://fmso.leavenworth.army.mil/documents/Free-Syrian-Army-Daraa.pdf>.
- “9 FSA Factions in Possession of TOW Missiles, as Obama Mulls Greater Involvement in Syria.” Tahrir Souri. 9 May 2014. Web. 2 Oct. 2014. <http://tahrirsouri.com/2014/05/09/9-fsa-factions-in-possession-of-tow-missiles-as-obama-mulls-greater-involvement-in-syria/>.
- “Exclusive Interview: Former MIG Pilot Recounts Audacious Defection, Talks TOW Missiles.” Tahrir Souri. 6 June 2014. Web. 2 Oct. 2014. <http://tahrirsouri.com/2014/06/06/exclusive-interview-former-mig-pilot-recounts-audacious-defection-talks-tow-missiles/>.
- “Syria: Countrywide Conflict Report #4.” The Carter Center, 11 Sept. 2014. Web. 14 Oct. 2014. <http://www.cartercenter.org/resources/pdfs/peace/conflict_resolution/syria-conflict/NationwideUpdate-Sept-18-2014.pdf>.