Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS, Conquest of the Levant Front) engaged in fierce skirmishes with several armed opposition organizations throughout northwest Syria at the end of January (Arabi 21 [Aleppo], January 26; al-Hayat, January 24). JFS claims that these clashes were in response to the armed opposition’s participation in diplomatic negotiations held in Astana, Kazakhstan, which it viewed as a conspiracy against it and a betrayal of the fight against the al-Assad government (Reuters, January 25). Several armed opposition organizations, as a result of losses they suffered in the clashes with JFS, recently agreed to join the militant Salafist umbrella organization Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya (HASI, Movement of the Free Ones of the Levant) in order to stand off against JFS (Orient News [Dubai], January 29; YouTube, January 26; al-Jazeera [Doha], January 26; see Militant Leadership Monitor, January 11). One of the most prominent armed opposition groups to join HASI in response to JFS’ attacks is Jaysh al-Mujahideen (Army of the Jihadists). A U.S.-supported and ideologically Islamist Free Syrian Army affiliate, the group sustained significant losses during intense clashes with JFS in the countryside west of the city of Aleppo (al-Hadath News [Aleppo], January 25; Enab Baladi [Aleppo], January 24; ARA News [Aleppo], January 23).
Lieutenant Colonel Muhammad Jumu’a Abd al-Qadr Bakur (a.k.a. Abu Bakr), 47, is the general commander of Jaysh al-Mujahideen. A native of the suburbs west of the city of Aleppo, Bakur, who was trained in the prestigious Syrian military academy, was deployed throughout Syria in the first year of the uprising that began in March 2011 (Enab Baladi [Aleppo], January 27; Revolutionary Forces of Syria Media Office, November 18, 2015). In February 2012, he defected from the Syrian military due to his disagreement with the al-Assad government security forces’ and paramilitary units’ continued operations that specifically targeted civilian protestors (Revolutionary Forces of Syria Media Office, November 18, 2015). Shortly after his defection, Bakur joined the growing armed opposition movement that was forming in the rural areas of northwest Syria, leading several small organizations that conducted operations against the al-Assad government throughout the region (Revolutionary Forces of Syria Media Office, November 18, 2015; YouTube, January 15, 2013; YouTube, December 25, 2012). The last, and largest, organization that he led prior to the formation of Jaysh al-Mujahideen was Liwa al-Ansar (Partisans’ Brigade). Formed in September 2014, Liwa al-Ansar was a founding organization within the Jaysh al-Mujahideen coalition (YouTube, September 11, 2012).
In January 2014, Bakur became the general commander of Jaysh al-Mujahideen. A coalition organization composed of constituent armed opposition groups, Jaysh al-Mujahideen was formed primarily to combat the Islamic State (IS) throughout northwestern Syria (YouTube, June 2, 2014; Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Middle East Center, April 8, 2014; YouTube, January 5, 2015). Although several of the constituent groups within the Jaysh al-Mujahideen coalition would subsequently leave it, Jaysh al-Mujahideen has remained an important armed opposition organization in northern Syria. Under Bakur’s leadership, Jaysh al-Mujahideen has been vetted by the United States and its regional partners to receive military support, most prominently BGM-71 TOW anti-tank missiles (YouTube, November 15, 2016). Jaysh al-Mujahideen has primarily fought against the al-Assad government and its allies. Active throughout northwest Syria, the group has had a particular focus on the city of Aleppo and its surroundings areas (YouTube, October 29, 2016; YouTube, November 19, 2015; YouTube, July 20, 2015; YouTube, June 6, 2015).
Bakur has been a prominent armed opposition leader since his defection in February 2012. He has served as a frontline commander, negotiator for the armed opposition in international diplomatic processes to end the Syrian civil war, such as during the December 2015 meetings in Riyadh, and as a spokesman for the broader armed opposition movement in northern Syria (YouTube, March 23, 2016; YouTube, March 19, 2016; All4Syria [Aleppo], January 20, 2016). As frontline commander, Bakur has been an important leader for the Turkish and Coalition-backed armed opposition forces that have resisted IS’ advances in the suburbs east of the city of Aleppo (YouTube, June 4, 2015; YouTube, February 14, 2015). Under Bakur’s leadership, Jaysh al-Mujahideen had been particularly active in the ultimately losing battle against the al-Assad government for control over the city of Aleppo and its surrounding areas (YouTube, October 29, 2016; YouTube, August 5, 2016; YouTube, July 10, 2016).
Despite Jaysh al-Mujahideen’s current status as a constituent organization subordinate under the HASI umbrella, Lieutenant Colonel Bakur is still one of the most important armed opposition commanders remaining in northern Syria. The fighters within Jaysh al-Mujahideen are likely to continue to follow his command, providing him with a source of power not unlike that held by Ahmad Issa, the commander of Suqur al-Sham (Hawks of the Levant) whose armed group rejoined HASI following the January clashes with JFS (see Militant Leadership Monitor, January 11; Militant Leadership Monitor, November 27, 2013). As a result, Bakur will have one of the larger and more cohesive constituent armed groups within the HASI umbrella. Additionally, he will also potentially have better access to necessary military support through HASI, which enjoys the patronage of Turkey and other armed opposition-supporting regional actors. Further, as an experienced front-line commander who has a demonstrated ability to work with other rebel groups, Bakur will be an asset to the HASI organization as it navigates the next stage in its relationship with JFS and the ongoing conflict with the al-Assad government.