April 2016 Briefs (Free)

Publication: Militant Leadership Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 4


Nicholas A. Heras

A coalition of moderate armed opposition groups in southern Syria, primarily organized within al-Jabhat al-Janoobiyya (Southern Front), are confronting the Islamic State affiliate Liwa Shuhada al-Yarmouk in the southwestern area of Dara’a governorate in the Syrian-Israeli and Syrian-Jordanian border region (YouTube, April 10; YouTube, April 10; YouTube, April 10). One of the most powerful Southern Front-affiliated armed opposition groups currently contesting the Islamic State in southern Syria is Jabhat Thuwar Sooria (Syrian Revolutionaries Front), under the command of Captain Hassan Ibrahim (a.k.a. Abu Usama al-Julani).

Capt. Ibrahim, 40, is the General Coordinator of the Southern Front and is one of the most senior members of the armed opposition delegation within the Higher Negotiations Committee (Viber Interview, April 27, March 20; Zaman al-Wasl [Geneva], April 15; YouTube, March 15; Sooria Mubashar [al-Quneitra], December 27, 2015; YouTube, May 15, 2015). He is also the ranking representative for the Southern Front in the diplomatic process (Viber Interview, April 27, March 20; Sooria Mubashar [al-Quneitra], December 27, 2015; All4Syria [Dara’a], December 15, 2015). Capt. Ibrahim is a high-value target for the al-Assad government and its allies; he has survived at least one assassination attempt targeting him in a May 2015 airstrike carried out by the Syrian Arab Army Air Force and has been declared dead twice—both in May and December 2015—by the al-Assad government (Viber Interview, April 27, March 20; Sooria Mubashar [al-Quneitra], December 27, 2015; Siraj Press [al-Quneitra], May 10, 2015; Orient News [Dubai], March 21, 2015).

Born in Damascus, Capt. Ibrahim’s family is originally from the southwestern Syrian governorate of al-Quneitra that borders the Golan Heights, which is also the area where the Syrian Revolutionaries Front maintains its center of gravity. He is also a member of al-Buhatira, part of the larger trans-national al-Ta’ie confederation, and one of the most powerful Sunni Arab tribes in al-Quneitra governorate with a tribal network in southwestern Rif Damascus governorate and in the northwestern areas of Dara’a governorate that border al-Quneitra (Viber Interview, April 27, March 20). Under his command, the Syrian Revolutionaries Front works closely with a range of civil society actors and provides support for civilian activities in the areas of its control inside al-Quneitra, including with several of the most prominent tribes in the governorate, including al-Na’im, al-Buhatira, and al-Zou’bi (Viber Interview, April 27, March 20; YouTube, December 10, 2015; YouTube, August 12, 2015; YouTube, January 7, 2015; YouTube, December 23, 2014).

Capt. Ibrahim defected from the Syrian Arab Army in November 2011, stating that he defected because he was sympathetic to the goals of the Syrian protest movement and as a result of seeing firsthand the brutality of al-Assad government security forces against civilian protesters (Viber Interview, April 27, March 20). Following his defection, he established himself in Syria’s northwestern Idlib governorate, in the governorate’s southwestern Jabal al-Zawiya district, which by early 2012 had become a major center of armed opposition activity (Viber Interview, April 27, March 20). Soon after his arrival in Idlib, Capt. Ibrahim joined Katiba Shuhada Jabal al-Zawiya (Jabal al-Zawiya Martyrs’ Brigade), which was led by Jamal Maarouf, one of the most prominent Syrian armed opposition commanders in the entire country, and which later became the foundational group within the larger Jabal al-Zawiya coalition Alwiya Shuhada Sooria (Syrian Martyrs Brigades). While in Jabal al-Zawiya, in September 2012, he became a member of Free Syrian Army’s General Command Council, which was an early attempt by the armed opposition to build a more coherent and effective national command structure for rebel forces (Viber Interview, April 27, March 20; Al-Jazeera [Doha], September 28, 2012).

Capt. Ibrahim would later become the general commander of the Alwiya Afhad al-Rasul (Descendants of the Prophet), which during the 2012-2013 time period was the one of the most prominent armed opposition coalition “brands” that had constituent militias located throughout Syria. The Syrian Martyrs Brigade was a founding organization within the Descendants of the Prophet coalition (Viber Interview, April 27, March 20; see MLM Briefs, February 28, 2015). The Syrian Martyrs Brigade became the foundational organization within the local Syrian Revolutionaries Front coalition, whose northern branch remained under Jamal Maarouf’s command.

Capt. Ibrahim traveled frequently to southern Syria, particularly to al-Quneitra where he had extensive familial ties, and helped establish the Syrian Revolutionaries Front’s southern branch, which survived the defeat of the Syrian Revolutionaries Front’s northern branch in a conflict with Jabhat al-Nusra in Jabal al-Zawiya in November 2014 (Viber Interview, April 27, March 20; see MLM Briefs, 2015). Capt. Ibrahim has led the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, which he states has over 7,000 fighters, into several armed opposition coalitions in southern Syria, all of which have been part of the Southern Front, particularly al-Jaysh al-Awwal (First Army), in which he served as a spokesperson and commanding officer (Viber Interview, April 27, March 20; YouTube, May 15, 2015; YouTube, January 2, 2015).

In his capacity as a de facto ambassador for the Southern Front to the international community, Capt. Ibrahim has also sought to advocate for the role of the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, and the Southern Front coalition broadly, as key partners in the campaign to prevent the spread of IS in Syria (Viber Interview, April 27, March 20). He has been particularly concerned with communicating the role of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) organized, predominately Shi’a militias including Lebanese Hezbollah, and Iraqi and Afghani militias supporting the SAA in the battle for the control of strategic al-Quneitra governorate (Viber Interview, April 27, March 20; Zaman al-Wasl [Geneva], April 15).

Due to his long experience as a leader within the moderate Syrian armed opposition movement, in both northern and southern Syria, his ranking position within the Southern Front, and his prominent role in the diplomatic process, Capt. Ibrahim is one of the most important Syrian moderate armed opposition leaders remaining in the conflict. His position within moderate armed opposition will be particularly important as a coordinator of moderate rebel military efforts against ideological extremist actors, including the Islamic State, within the armed opposition. Should he survive, Capt. Ibrahim, as one of the most consequential leaders within the Southern Front, also could be a major leader in a post-conflict transitional period, as opposition-controlled areas, such as in the south, will require effective civil-military structures to promote inclusive, non-sectarian, non-ideological extremist governance.

[1] Author’s Viber interviews with Captain Hassan Ibrahim on April 27, 2016 and March 20, 2016.


Nicholas A. Heras

One of the most prominent, U.S.-vetted Syrian armed opposition groups that currently fights against the al-Assad government and its allies, as well as against the Islamic State (IS), is Liwa Suqur al-Jabal (Mountain Hawks Brigade), an organization with over 2,500 fighters spread in northwestern Syria’s Idlib, Lattakia, and Aleppo governorates (Viber Interview, April 28; Twitter; Al-Hayat, February 26; Revolutionary Forces of Syria Media Office, December 24, 2015). [1] Currently, the Mountain Hawks Brigade is one of the major constituent armed opposition groups in a nascent, primarily U.S.-backed Syrian rebel campaign against IS in areas northeast of Aleppo (Viber Interview, April 28; Twitter). The commander of the Mountain Hawks Brigade is Captain Hassan Haj Ali, 36, who is one of the most important moderate armed opposition leaders in northern Syria (Al-Safir [Beirut], February 2, 2016; Shaam [Damascus], November 26, 2015).

Captain Haj Ali is likely one of the original “Trusted Commanders,” which are Syrian rebel leaders that media reports indicate have been vetted by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (for the potential role of the C.I.A. in vetting and facilitating U.S. military assistance and training, see: Wall Street Journal, January 26, 2015; PBS Frontline, May 27, 2014). He states that he and his organization are seeking a post-conflict Syria where all Syrians have equal rights and duties on the basis of citizenship and law (Viber Interview, April 28). Captain Haj Ali further states that Mountain Hawk Brigade fighters have been provided with U.S. military training in Qatar and Saudi Arabia (on receiving U.S. military assistance and training in Qatar and Saudi Arabia, Viber Interview, April 28). This U.S.-approved military assistance includes BGM-71 TOW anti-tank missiles, which have been particularly effective against the al-Assad government’s mechanized forces. The Mountain Hawks Brigade has received a steady supply of the anti-tank missiles—and the permission to fire them—since 2014 (Viber Interview, April 28; Twitter; YouTube; YouTube).

The Mountain Hawks Brigade was one of the first targets of the Russian Aerospace Forces when Russia’s military intervention in Syria began in September 2015, including targeting the group’s bases and weapons storehouses (Reuters, December 15, 2015; Reuters, October 24, 2015; YouTube, October 7, 2015; Al-Araby Al-Jadid, October 7, 2015; Halab Today [Aleppo], October 1, 2015; Radio Al-Kul [Aleppo], October 1). Over the course of the fall of 2015, the Mountain Hawks Brigade has repeatedly and successfully deployed TOW missiles against al-Assad government armor, drawing regional and international media attention (Twitter, December 1; The Daily Beast, October 24, 2015; Reuters, October 19, 2015; Los Angeles Times, October 12, 2015). This attention on the Mountain Hawks Brigade has catapulted Captain Haj Ali into the role of a front-line spokesman for the U.S.-supported armed opposition in Syria.

A native of Idlib, he defected from the Syrian Arab Army in May 2012. Following his defection, Captain Haj Ali Ali traveled to the northern Aleppo countryside where he joined the Free Syrian Army’s growing armed opposition campaign outside of the city of Aleppo (Viber Interview, April 28). In September 2012, Captain Haj Ali traveled to the Jabal al-Zawiya district of Idlib, where he helped form Liwa Suqur Jabal al-Zawiya (Hawks of the Zawiya Mountain Brigade), which is the same organization as the Mountain Hawks Brigade that he currently leads (Viber Interview, April 28). He led the Hawks of the Zawiya Mountain Brigade into association with Alwiya Afhaad al-Rasul (Descendants of the Prophet Brigades), a national armed opposition “brand” that was powerful during the 2012-2013 time period (YouTube, September 6, 2012; see also MLM Briefs, February 28, 2015). Like Captain Hassan Ibrahim, Captain Haj Ali was a member of Alwiya Afhaad al-Rasul’s command council (Viber Interview, April 28).

Like many of the Jabal al-Zawiya armed opposition groups, the Hawks of the Zawiya Mountain Brigade were formerly constituent members within the district’s powerful rebel coalition, Jabhat Thuwar Sooria (Syria Revolutionaries Front), led by Jamal Maarouf (Orient Reports, December 11, 2015). Although Captain Haj Ali would later lead the Mountain Hawks Brigade out of the Syria Revolutionaries Front, his organization continued to fight alongside the Syrian Revolutionaries Front against both the al-Assad government and the Islamic State (Viber Interview, April 28; YouTube, February 24, 2014). The Mountain Hawks Brigade was one of the more powerful constituent groups within the Syrian Revolutionaries Front-led alliance of Idlib and Aleppo-based rebel groups that pushed IS out of Idlib between December 2013-February 2014 (Viber Interview, April 28; for more details on this anti-IS campaign see: PBS Frontline, February 11, 2014; Al-Arab [Idlib], January 6, 2014; YouTube, January 3, 2014).

However, under Captain Haj Ali’s leadership, the Mountain Hawks Brigade—like a number of U.S.-backed rebel groups—still cooperates militarily with militant Salafist organizations that work closely with the Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, particularly Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya (Islamic Movement of the Free Ones of the Levant), in rebel offensives against the al-Assad government in Idlib and Aleppo governorates (Enab Baladi [Aleppo], February 16; All4Syria [Aleppo], May 9, 2015; Al-Jazeera [Doha], February 3, 2015). Also under Captain Haj Ali’s command, the Mountain Hawks Brigade has been an active participant in northern Syrian armed opposition efforts to unify under a collective coordination and command structure, such as al-Faylaq al-Khams (Fifth Corps), Jaysh al-Nasr (Victory Army), Ghurfat Amaliyyat Fateh Halab (Aleppo Conquest Operations Room). Although he has not been the overall commander of these projects to institutionalize a unified armed opposition army in northern Syria, Captain Haj Ali maintains an important coordinating role within them (Revolutionary Forces of Syria Media Office [Idlib], February 17; YouTube, August 3, 2015; also see MLM Briefs, November 30, 2014).

He continues to be an active front-line commander within the Free Syrian Army, both against the al-Assad government and the Islamic State (Viber Interview, April 28; YouTube, July 8, 2015; YouTube, July 4, 2015; YouTube, June 26, 2014). He states that the Mountain Hawks Brigade is proud of its role in the armed opposition, and he asserts that his organization is one of the most widely traveled in Syria, providing fighters for battles in Homs, Lattakia, Idlib, and Aleppo governorates (Viber Interview, April 28). Captain Haj Ali earned particular noteworthiness for his role as a front-line leader of the armed opposition’s campaign to seize the important and strategic Wadi Dayf Syrian Air Force base in the southern area of Idlib governorate, which lasted over the course of two years from 2012-2014, and fell under armed opposition control in December 2014. U.S.-backed, TOW-supplied organizations, prominent among them the Mountain Hawks Brigade, are reported to have used their anti-tank missiles effectively to apply strong pressure against al-Assad government forces (Etlilaf [Idlib], December 21, 2014; Al-Akhbar [Beirut], December 19, 2014; Al-Jazeera [Doha], July 16, 2014; YouTube, March 4, 2014).

Captain Haj Ali is noteworthy for being one of the first U.S.-vetted, Syrian moderate armed opposition commanders to receive military assistance for his organization, and to have continued to maintain that assistance over the course of several years. This sustained level of assistance from the U.S. and its regional partners is significant, as well as the number of theaters in northern Syria where the Mountain Hawks Brigade contributes fighters to the armed opposition. While the Mountain Hawks Brigade is not the largest moderate armed opposition organization in northern Syria, it is one of the most active combatants against both the al-Assad government and the Islamic State. Assuming he survives, the future challenge for Captain Haj Ali will be whether he and other like-minded armed opposition commanders can limit the power of ideological extremist actors within the Syrian rebel movement and their control over opposition-governed areas. These ideological extremist organizations, which include the Islamic State, Jabhat al-Nusra, Jabhat al-Nusra’s close and continuing ally Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya, represent a future challenge to inclusive, non-sectarian governance in post-Assad Syria. Moderate armed opposition commanders, such as Captain Haj Ali, may be forced to militarily confront these groups in order to prevent their dominance over rebel-ruled areas in northern Syria.

[1] Author’s Viber interview with Captain Hassan Haj Ali, April 28, 2016.