LIWA FURSAN’S MODERATE SYRIAN FIELD COMMANDER LT. COLONEL FARES AL-BAYOUSH
The cessation of hostilities agreement between the al-Assad government and its allies and the Syrian armed opposition began on February 27 with low optimism for success. However, several U.S.-backed, Syrian armed opposition organizations are party to the cessation of hostilities, including some of the most prominent moderate rebel groups remaining in the conflict (Al-Hurra [Idlib], February 29; Revolutionary Forces of Syria Media Office, January 26). One of these armed opposition organizations, Liwa Fursan al-Haq (Knights of Justice Brigade), has been particularly effective at utilizing BGM-71 TOW anti-tank missiles since the start of the Russian-backed Syrian military offensive in late September 2015 (Al-Nahar [Beirut], February 6; Twitter; Associated Press, November 6, 2015; Al-Nahar [Beirut], October 14, 2015). Liwa Fursan al-Haq’s commander is Lieutenant Colonel Fares al-Bayoush, one of the most influential and significant defected Syrian military officers and leaders within the Syrian moderate armed opposition remaining in the conflict.
Al-Bayoush is a native of Kafr Nabl in the southern Jabal al-Zawiya area of the strategic Ma’arat al-Nu’man district of Syria’s northwestern Idlib governorate (Twitter, November 17, 2015). At the start of the Syrian uprising in March 2011, al-Bayoush, who was an officer and aircraft engineer in the Syrian Air Force’s 24th Brigade, was posted to the Deir al-Zor airbase in eastern Syria near the Syrian-Iraqi border, and where he was an early supporter of the opposition movement (Twitter, November 17, 2015; YouTube, May 30, 2014; YouTube, October 10, 2013; Asharq Al-Awsat, September 20, 2014). He organized revolutionary activity in Deir al-Zor, including organizing the first armed opposition operations room against the al-Assad government, which attempted to seize the Deir al-Zor airbase (YouTube, May 30, 2014).
Al-Bayoush was arrested by the Syrian military’s powerful Air Force Intelligence Branch and spent time in prison (Twitter, November 17, 2015; Radio Ana [Kafr Nabl], June 30, 2015). After being released from prison by the Air Force Intelligence branch, al-Bayoush is believed to have returned to Kafr Nabl, where he became an active leader within the local armed opposition movement then known as Katiba Fursan al-Haq (Twitter, November 17, 2015; Radio Ana [Kafr Nabl], June 30, 2015; YouTube, February 25, 2012). He then worked to unify several smaller, local area rebel groups into the larger Liwa Fursan al-Haq coalition by September 2012, and was its front-line commander who was wounded in action when Liwa Fursan al-Haq and other armed opposition groups seized the town from the al-Assad government and fought to control other areas around Ma’arat al-Nu’man (Etilaf [Idlib], September 30, 2015; YouTube, October 13, 2012).
Liwa Fursan al-Haq reportedly has more 1,200 fighters, including defected Syrian soldiers and local civilians, with a center of gravity in the Ma’arat al-Nu’man district and surrounding areas of northern Hama governorate, with constituent battalions in the western Aleppo countryside (Revolutionary Forces of Syria Media Office; MLM Briefs, August 31, 2015). Al-Bayoush has led Fursan al-Haq into a leadership role within a number of moderate armed opposition coalitions in northwestern Syria, including in al-Faylaq al-Khamis (Fifth Corps), and most recently as the commander of the al-Farqa al-Shamaliyya (Northern Division) coalition (YouTube, September 7, 2014). The Northern Front is one of the more powerful moderate rebel coalitions surviving in northwestern Syria (Enab Baladi [Kafr Nabl], December 8, 2015; MLM Briefs, August 31, 2015; Al-Araby Al-Jadeed [Idlib], September 7, 2014; YouTube, August 29, 2013). Since 2014, Liwa Fursan al-Haq has been a continuous recipient of TOW missiles, which is a hallmark of U.S.-vetted and U.S.-preferred Syrian armed opposition groups, and some of the fighters in Liwa Fursan al-Haq are reported to have received training in Qatar (Twitter; Elaph [Idlib], May 31, 2014; El-Dorar Al-Shamiyya [Idlib], May 25, 2014; YouTube, May 24, 2014).
The local opposition movement that has emerged in Kafr Nabl is one of the most famous and most internationally-recognized in all of Syria, as it is particularly noted for its creative use of signs and slogans, and the area of Kafr Nabl in the Ma’arat Nu’man district is one of the last remaining centers of gravity for the moderate armed opposition in northern Syria (MLM Briefs, August 31, 2015). Under al-Bayoush’s command, Liwa Fursan al-Haq has become popularly associated with the local opposition movement in Kafr Nabl, and the rebel group that he commands is portrayed as one of the more successful, although not completely controversy free, Free Syrian Army affiliates participating in local civil-military relations (The Washington Post, November 9, 2015; All4Syria [Kafr Nabl], October 9, 2015; Radio Ana [Kafr Nabl], June 30, 2015; Institute for War and Peace Reporting, May 7, 2014; YouTube, March 21, 2013).
Liwa Fursan al-Haq regularly engages with more ideologically radical Sunni organizations within the rebel movement, including with the al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra (JN-Victory Front) and the militant Salafist organization Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya (HASI-Islamic Movement of the Free Ones of the Levant). In April 2015, Liwa Fursan al-Haq and several other TOW-supplied Free Syrian Army affiliates, actively cooperated with the JN and HASI-led Jaysh al-Fateh (Conquering Army) coalition during Jaysh al-Fateh’s campaign that seized a majority of Idlib governorate (Reuters, April 30, 2015). Although there is scrutiny of Liwa Fursan al-Haq’s relationship with JN and HASI, this cooperation is portrayed by al-Bayoush in the context of armed opposition unity in service of the Syrian revolution (Al-Nahar [Beirut], January 25; Reuters, April 30, 2015; Enab Baladi [Idlib], October 28, 2014; YouTube, May 24, 2014).
Al-Bayoush is a key leader within the broader moderate Syrian armed opposition movement who has managed the impressive feat of being able to maintain and preserve supply lines from the United States and its regional partners for his organization. This development will be dependent on the degree to which al-Bayoush can maintain Liwa Fursan al-Haq’s independence from ideological extremist groups within the Syrian armed opposition, particularly as pressure from the Russian and IRGC-backed al-Assad government offensives lead to greater convergence, resource-sharing, and the push for a unified rebel command in northern Syria. It is still to be determined whether al-Bayoush can be an inspirational leader with popular appeal across northern Syria, and to what extent that he would agree to actively confront, marginalize, or defeat more ideological extremist Sunni organizations within the Syrian armed opposition.
ALI MODU SHERIFF’S MURKY TIES TO BOKO HARAM
On February 16, Nigeria’s People’s Democratic Party (PDP) appointed Senator Ali Modu Sheriff as its acting National Chairman. This move was met with massive public outcry stemming from accusations that Sheriff was a key financier of Boko Haram during his eight-year tenure as the governor of Borno State – Boko Haram’s primary area of activity (African Arguments, February 23). The accusations gained traction in 2014 with the revelation of Sheriff’s close relationship with Boko Haram’s former leader, Mohammed Yusuf, whose extrajudicial killing in 2009 sparked the group’s deadly insurgency (How Africa, February 25; Premium Times [Nigeria], December 31, 2014). Though continually denying any connection to the group, while serving as governor of Borno, Sheriff created a Ministry of Religious Affairs and appointed Alhaji Buji Foi, an alleged Boko Haram leader, to the position of Commissioner (Sahara Reporters, September 24, 2014).
The PDP’s appointment of Sheriff gained international attention when U.S. television channel CNN described him as a founder of Boko Haram in a February 25 live news report (Pulse [Nigeria], February 26). The League of Borno Professionals, an NGO, has similarly described the new chairman as having “the same anti-Western education philosophy with the Boko Haram sect” (Naija247 News, September 2014; Information Nigeria, September 23, 2014). In addition to media accusations, Sheriff is also facing investigations by the International Criminal Court for sponsoring Boko Haram’s activities, due in part to accusations by Stephen Davis, an Australian hostage negotiator, who played a role in negotiating the release of the 200–300 kidnapped Chibok girls that inspired a worldwide plea for their freedom in the form of #BringBackOurGirls (Sahara Reporters, November 9, 2014).
In the late 1990s, Sheriff was elected as the senator for Borno Central representing the United Nigeria Congress Party (UNCP) during the “Abacha years” (All Africa, February 20). He became the first governor to serve two terms, later on the All Nigerian Peoples Party (ANPP) platform, formerly known as All Peoples Party (APP) (All Africa, February 20). Sheriff was one of the key stakeholders in the political party merger that ultimately resulted in the formation of the All Progressives Congress (APC) prior to the 2015 elections (All Africa, February 20); the APC is the opposition party of Sheriff’s current party. Sheriff claims to be in the process of actively reaching out to APC defectors in order to rebuild his new party, the PDP (Daily Post [Nigeria], February 28).
The former Aviation Minister under the PDP Obasanjo administration, Femi Fani-Kayode, criticized the PDP’s choice for party chairman, referring to Sheriff as an “intellectually-challenged, morally-depraved, and despicable character” (Pulse [Nigeria], February 19). Fani-Kayode expanded further upon his views, claiming Sheriff played a role in establishing Boko Haram (Pulse [Nigeria], February 19). Fani-Kayode has gone so far as to say that he is prepared for a legal battle with Sheriff in response to Sheriff’s threat to sue: “The days of silencing people with arrogant threats and frivolous litigation are long over” (Daily Post [Nigeria], February 29). Former President Obasanjo has followed suit, tweeting in the wake of Sheriff’s appointment that, “With the emergence of Ali Modu Sheriff as PDP [National] Chairman, let’s have a minute of silence for the PDP” (Broadway Africa, February 17).
Sheriff argues, however, that Boko Haram was responsible for the death of his own brother in 2011, and that President Mohammadu Buhari would have him placed under arrest for involvement with terror groups (Pulse [Nigeria], February 26). He said that, “no one has ever accused me of supporting Boko Haram, no court of competent jurisdiction has ever linked me to Boko Haram […] The real sponsors of Boko Haram will be caught and I have nothing to do with Boko Haram” (Naija247 News, [accessed February 28]).
Sheriff is also under investigation for crimes of corruption by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, allegedly responsible for embezzling public funds during his tenure as the governor of Borno State (Naija247 News, [accessed February 28]; Information Nigeria, [accessed February 28]).
Sheriff’s position as the governor of a border state opened doors for him; he was rumored to have taken part in the recruitment, training, and deployment of Boko Haram militants in Abéché, Chad (Premium Times, September 12, 2014). Furthermore, Yobe state – another Boko Haram stronghold – has received a number of weapons from Niger; Sheriff has been described as a “gun runner” in such arms trafficking movements (Premium Times, September 12, 2014). If the Boko Haram-related allegations are veracious, Sheriff’s ongoing political power and newfound role as acting Chairman for a major Nigerian party indicates a concerning trend of violent non-state actors’ capabilities to assume government positions in democratic states and impact cross-border trade, exacerbating instability across state lines.