Since the fall of armed opposition controlled areas of the strategic northwestern Syrian city of Aleppo to the al-Assad government and its allies in December 2016, the non-militant Salafist component of the broader armed opposition movement has been severely weakened. In response to the initiation of the Astana, Kazakhstan dialogues — the dialogues are designed to feature direct talks between the representatives of major Syrian armed opposition groups active on the ground and the al-Assad government — the Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS) has sought to co-opt or defeat a range of rebel groups, particularly the more ideologically moderate armed opposition (Enab Baladi [Astana], February 21; Al-Monitor [Beirut], February 17; MLM Brief, February 2). In northwestern Syria, JFS is increasingly targeting BGM-71 TOW anti-tank missile supplied moderate armed opposition groups, which it views as threats and proxies of the United States. One of the most prominent and powerful anti-JFS TOW supplied armed opposition groups in northwestern Syria is the 5,000-fighter Jaysh al-Nasr (Victory Army) coalition (Akhbar Al-Aan [Dubai], October 24, 2015).
The overall commander of the Jaysh al-Nasr coalition is Major Muhammad Mansour, 38, a defected Syrian air force officer who specialized in air defense systems prior to his defection in June 2012 (Revolutionary Forces of Syria Media Office, November 18, 2015; YouTube, November 8, 2015). He was a friend and close confidant of Lieutenant Colonel Jamil Ra’dun, formerly one of the most powerful Free Syrian Army leaders in northwest Syria and the founder and former overall commander of Suqur al-Ghab, which is the foundational armed opposition organization in the Jaysh al-Nasr coalition (MLM Briefs, August 31, 2015). Both Jamil Ra’dun and Muhammad Mansour are natives of the large northern Hama governorate village of Qal’at al-Madiq, one of the last centers of gravity for the moderate armed opposition in northwestern Syria (MLM Briefs, August 31, 2015). Although Mansour was not one of the original defected Syrian army officers who formed Suqur al-Ghab with Jamil Ra’dun in February 2012, his friendship with Ra’dun and active leadership on the battlefield in and around Qal’at al-Madiq helped quickly place him in a position of authority within Suqur al-Ghab (Jaysh al-Nasr [Qal’at al-Madiq], April 9, 2016; Revolutionary Forces of Syria Media Office, November 18, 2015; MLM Briefs, August 31, 2015).
Advancement in Suqur al-Ghab
Prior to being named the commanding officer of the Jaysh al-Nasr coalition, Major Mansour earned a strong reputation within the Suqur al-Ghab organization, and within the broader armed opposition movement in northwestern Syria, as an effective front line commander against forces loyal to the al-Assad government in the region (Jaysh al-Nasr [Qal’at al-Madiq], April 9, 2016; Revolutionary Forces of Syria Media Office, November 18, 2015). For his leadership on the battlefield, Major Mansour was elevated to the rank of deputy commander to Jamil Ra’dun, serving as Suqur al-Ghab’s military commander (YouTube, September 7, 2015). As Suqur al-Ghab’s military commander, Major Mansour was able to build out a network of contacts within the leadership of many of the other Free Syrian Army aligned armed opposition groups in northwestern Syria.
Major Mansour allegedly was also the Free Syrian Army commander responsible for recommending the support that TOW missile supplied rebel groups provided for Jaysh al-Fateh (Conquering Army), a coalition that was organized in March 2015 under the command of JFS’ precursor organization Jabhat al-Nusra, HASI, smaller militant Salafist groups, and armed opposition organizations linked to the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood (Al-Mayadeen [Beirut], December 10, 2015; MLM Briefs, August 31, 2015; MLM Briefs, March 30, 2015). Although Suqur al-Ghab was one of the TOW supplied armed opposition organizations that provided military support to Jaysh al-Fateh, Suqur al-Ghab has had a mostly antagonist relationship with Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate JFS under the leadership of both Jamil Ra’dun and Muhammad Mansour (Washington Post, February 23; MLM Briefs, August 31, 2015).
Commanding the Jaysh al-Nasr Coalition
In August 2015, following the assassination of Jamil Ra’dun in Antakya, Turkey, Major Mansour assumed command over Suqur al-Ghab. Two months later, in October 2015, he was named the overall commander of the Jaysh al-Nasr coalition (Jaysh al-Nasr [Qal’at al-Madiq], April 9, 2016; Orient News [Dubai], October 24, 2015; MLM Briefs, August 31, 2015).
Since assuming the overall command over the Jaysh al-Nasr coalition, Major Mansour has become a political leader within the broader armed opposition movement. Mansour is a representative of the armed opposition in the diplomatic process seeking to end the Syrian civil war (Zaman al-Wasl [Astana], December 30, 2016; Rai Al-Yom [Amman], December 12, 2015). Major Mansour has also utilized Jaysh al-Nasr’s status as a TOW missile holding organization to good effect. In addition to leveraging this status to position his organization as an important player in the non-militant Salafist, non-militant Islamist armed opposition remaining in northern Syria, Mansour has also used it to actively seek and retain foreign support (Washington Post, February 23; The Australian [Antakya], February 8). He also maintains the persona of an active battlefield leader who is still fighting next to the rank-and-file of his organization inside of Syria, a precedent for leadership that was established by his predecessor Jamil Ra’dun (Jaysh al-Nasr [Qal’at al-Madiq], October 10, 2016; YouTube, October 17, 2015; MLM Briefs, August 31, 2015).
Muhammad Mansour is one of the most important U.S.-backed armed opposition commanders remaining in northwestern Syria. Likewise, he is one of the most influential representatives of the Free Syrian Army remaining engaged in the international negotiations seeking to end the Syrian civil war. His organization controls a highly strategic area on the boundaries of Assad’s statelet and on the margins of al-Qaeda’s growing emirate centered in Idlib governorate in northern Syria. Under Major Mansour’s command, Jaysh al-Nasr maintains constituent brigades in several areas of northwestern Syria that represent a direct threat to JFS, including a highly defensible headquarters and center of gravity in northern Hama governorate. However, pressured by fighting with the al-Assad government, and an emerging target of JFS, Major Mansour’s organization will remain in need of U.S. and foreign partner assistance for the foreseeable future. The future viability of the moderate armed opposition in northern Syria, and its ability to confront and defeat JFS, will depend on the leadership of certain key commanders, Major Mansour being one of the most prominent of them.