January 2015 Briefs

Publication: Militant Leadership Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 1

Muhammad Sa’ad al-Din al-Baridi meeting with children of killed and wounded Liwa Shuhada al-Yarmouk fighters (Source: screenshot)


Nicholas A. Heras

The intra-opposition fighting within the Syrian civil war has taken a new turn. With the success of the Islamic State comes accusations that various leaders and their organizations are switching allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Jabhat al-Nusra recently accused Liwa Shuhada al-Yarmouk’s (Yarmouk Martyrs’ Brigade) leader, Shaykh Muhammad Sa’ad al-Din al-Baridi (a.k.a. “Abu Ali” and “The Uncle”), and 150 of the group’s fighters of declaring allegiance to the Islamic State. This accusation came after Liwa Shuhada al-Yarmouk arrested three Jabhat al-Nusra fighters and the wife of one of the fighters. These fighters were accused of attempting to assassinate al-Baridi (al-Sharq al-Awsat, December 19, 2014; Orient News [Dubai], December 18, 2014).

Al-Baridi, in his early 50s, is a native of the town of Jamlah, a center for rebel organization in the southern Syrian governorate of Dara’a near the border with northern Jordan and the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights (al-Akhbar [Beirut], November 25, 2014). Prior to the revolution, al-Baridi was a popular local Sunni cleric in Jamlah. He adopted the title of “Major General” of Liwa Shuhada al-Yarmouk over the course of the civil war. [1] Al-Baridi is considered to be a popular commander in his group’s area of Dara’a and is portrayed in the group’s media as religious and social leader as well as a military commander. [2] Under al-Baridi’s leadership, Liwa Shuhada al-Yarmouk, an ideologically Islamist organization, has maintained long-standing ties with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and was one of the founding members of al-Jabhat al-Janoobiya (Southern Front – SF), a loose coalition of more than 50 Syrian armed opposition groups located predominately in southern Syria’s Dara’a and al-Quneitra governorates that agreed to a secular, nationalist political platform for a post-Assad Syria (Zaman al-Wasl [Damascus]. February 13, 2014). Liwa Shuhada al-Yarmouk is considered one the largest and most powerful rebel organizations in the agriculturally important Yarmouk Valley region of western Dara’a, a strategic territory that borders northern Jordan and the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights. [3] Liwa Shuhada al-Yarmouk has retained a relatively low profile in the Arab press, although a military parade of tanks and other military equipment that the group had seized from the Syrian military was broadcast on al-Jazeera over a year ago (al-Jazeera [Doha], November 3, 2013).

On December 14, 2014, the al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra (JN – Victory Front) attacked and seized an important checkpoint from Liwa Shuhada al-Yarmouk in the western area of Dara’a. JN operations against Liwa Shuhada al-Yarmouk resulted in heavy fighting that led to JN forces temporarily seizing a series of Liwa Shuhada al-Yarmouk-controlled villages in the area (Asharq Al-Awsat, December 19, 2014; Orient News [Dubai], December 18, 2014).

Presently, al-Baridi and the leadership of Liwa Shuhada al-Yarmouk are engaged in a mediation process led by Harakat al-Muthanna al-Islamiya (Muthanna Islamic Movement), an important religious organization in western Dara’a, through the Dar al-Adl (Shari’a Courthouse) for the governorate. [4] The leaders of Liwa Shuhada al-Yarouk deny a connection with the Islamic State or any political party and have offered to submit themselves, including al-Baridi, to the judgment of a Shari’a court (Al-Mudun [Beirut], December 18, 2014; Shaam Network [Dara’a]. December 18, 2014). The ceasefire between Liwa Shuhada al-Yarmouk and JN is being enforced by several constituent militias of the SF, which also participated in removing JN fighters from the checkpoints they seized from Liwa Shuhada al-Yarmouk. [5]

The accusations against al-Baridi and Liwa Shuhada al-Yarmouk are believed to have originated with JN leadership that had recently arrived in Dara’a after fleeing from the Islamic State in Deir al-Zor governorate, including the prominent Deir al-Zor JN commander Maysar Ali bin Musa bin Abdullah al-Jabouri (al-Sharq al-Awsat, December 19; al-Mayadeen [Beirut], December 19; al-Safir [Beirut], December 16, 2014; for more information, see Militant Leadership Monitor Briefs, April 2014). JN reportedly secured a citation against al-Baridi from the Aleppo Shari’a court for his alleged allegiance to the Islamic State. [6]

In addition to the accusation of his allegiance to or alliance with the Islamic State, there are other reasons why al-Baridi is a controversial rebel commander. He is reportedly an interlocutor between Israeli forces in the Golan Heights and Syrian rebels in southwestern Dara’a, particularly to transport wounded Syrians from opposition-controlled areas to hospital care in Israel (al-Akhbar [Beirut], November 25, 2014; Manar [Jerusalem], November 25, 2014). Syrian loyalist media have also accused al-Baridi of working with the Mossad and funneling Israeli support for Syria’s rebels (al-Ba’ath [Damascus], November 25, 2014). Opposition activists allied with JN also accuse him of being an agent of Jordanian intelligence and the recipient of a stockpile of weapons (al-Awsat [Montreal], December 16, 2014).

In response to the conflict with JN, al-Baridi released an audio statement to the “people of the Hawran [larger historical region that encompasses southern Syria and northern Jordan], brothers in religion and jihad” decrying the fitna (strife) between the armed factions of western Dara’a and warning against the oppression of Jabhat al-Nusra. [7] Syrians with ties to the Southern Front assert that the personal animosity between al-Baridi and JN, which reportedly began as early as 2013, is a result of the potential threat that JN poses to Liwa Shuhada al-Yarmouk in the territory that it administers. [8]

The conflict between Liwa Shuhada al-Yarmouk and JN is significant. Southern Syria is an area where Jabhat al-Nusra is seeking to increase its standing, particularly with its losses in eastern Syria to the Islamic State. Al-Baridi, a popular local commander in southern Syria who is antagonistic toward JN, represented a target of opportunity for the militant Salafist group. Unlike Jamal Ma’arouf, the deposed commander of Jabhat Thuwar Sooria (Syrian Revolutionaries’ Front – SRF) in the northwestern governorate of Idlib who confronted JN forces and lost, al-Baridi could remain a powerful local commander in his region so long as he is not found to have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State or precipitated the conflict with JN. As a founding commander of the Southern Front, al-Baridi is afforded the protection and mediation of that coalition beyond the capabilities of Liwa Shuhada al-Yarmouk, a significant development in the organization and command-and-control for Syrian rebel movements.


1. Skype correspondence between the author and two Syrian activists with close ties to the Southern Front, December 22, 2014.

2. “Liwa Shuhada al-Yarmouk’s Commander Honors the Quran Memorizing Classes,” Liwa Shuhada al-Yarmouk YouTube page, July 28, 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5rACL-t4iMk; “A Tour of Liwa Shuhada al-Yarmouk’s Commander to the Wounded and the Martyrs’ Families,” Liwa Shuhada al-Yarmouk YouTube page, July 17, 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lcphKhp5ocw; “Liwa Shuhada al-Yarmouk’s Commander During the Military Parade,” Liwa Shuhada al-Yarmouk YouTube page, November 3, 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s1RwXecpodM;

Skype correspondence, December 22, 2014, op. cit.

3. Skype correspondence, December 22, 2014, op. cit.

4. “Statement on the Strife Happening between the Brothers of Jabhat al-Nusra and the Brothers of Liwa Shuhada al-Yarmouk,” Muthanna Islamic Movement, December 18, 2014, https://www.alplatformmedia.com/vb/showthread.php?t=73425.

5. Skype correspondence, December 22, 2014, op. cit.

6. Ibid.

7. “Speech of the Mujahid Shaykh Muhammad Sa’ad al-Din (The Uncle),” Liwa Shuhada al-Yarmouk YouTube page, December 19, 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FWLC1-2X-ko.

8. Skype correspondence, December 22, 2014, op. cit.


Nicholas A. Heras

Rafid Abd al-Razaq Taha, the leader of Liwa Usud al-Islam (Lions of Islam Brigade), is one of the most powerful local commanders in Talbisah, a suburb of Homs, and is accused of declaring allegiance to the Islamic State in December 2014. Liwa Usud al-Islam is supposedly one of the largest armed opposition groups in Talbisah with an estimated 500 fighters, as many as 400 of whom may have refused to join Rafid in his defection to the Islamic State (al-Hal Sooria [Homs], December 15, 2014; al-Safir [Beirut], December 15, 2014). Talbisah, Homs and the surrounding area are some of the last areas of sustained armed opposition against the al-Assad government as western Syria is a source of core support for the regime due to its loyalist communities. Talbisah in particular has been the site of fierce rebellion against the Syrian regime (Zaman al-Wasl [Homs], September 25, 2014; BBC, September 17, 2014).

Taha, 28, is a native of Talbisah and was a deputy commander to his brother Majid Abd al-Razaq Taha, who was the commander of Liwa Usud al-Islam at the time of its formation as a constituent armed group within the Liwa Talbisah armed opposition coalition in early 2012. [1] Rafid Taha is said to have been motivated to fight the al-Assad government after Syrian security services began attacking opposition protests in Talbisah. He supposedly believes that Islam calls for the fall of the Syrian regime. [2] After the death of Majid, Rafid became the commander of Liwa Usud al-Islam and was noted for his bravery. [3] It was reported that he had ties to the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. In August 2013, he signed a strongly-worded statement by the opposition movement inside Syria expressing discontent with the leadership of the primarily exile-led Syrian National Coalition (Shaam Times [Damascus], December 12, 2014; Orient News [Dubai], August 18, 2013).

Under Rafid’s leadership, Liwa Usud al-Islam joined the Homs countryside-based rebel coalition Faylaq al-Sham (Levant Corps), within which it was an active combatant against the al-Assad government. This lasted until early December 2014, when Rafid’s allegiance to the Islamic State was announced. [4] Following his declaration, Rafid allegedly oversaw the capture of an important local Faylaq al-Sham commander in the Talbisah area. In response, Jabhat al-Nusra reportedly led a campaign to force rebel leaders in the northern Homs’ suburbs suspected of supporting the Islamic State, such as Rafid, to surrender (Orient News [Dubai], January 11; Shaam Times [Damascus], December 12, 2014).

Rafid Taha’s reported allegiance (or defection) to the Islamic State is noteworthy because he is a rebel commander in central-western Syria, where the Islamic State is in a relatively weaker position compared to other armed opposition factions. He and his group Liwa Usud al-Islam would represent the type of potential growth constituency from within the ranks of the local Sunni Islamist Syrian rebels that the Islamic State will need to appeal to, and win the allegiance of, in order to continue its expansion in Syria. Although foreign fighters serve as a reservoir of manpower for the Islamic State, the allegiance of smaller, local Syrian armed opposition groups and their leadership could potentially have a multiplier effect on the battlefield, delivering vital towns and villages and their resources to the Islamic State and thereby allowing it to position itself as the dominant combatant against the al-Assad government.


1. “The Mujahid Rafid Abd al-Razaq Taha,” mstafa taeab YouTube page, November 4, 2012, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kwnDGkfaMhI; “Liwa Talbisah-Formation of Katiba Usud al-Islam,” Talbisa h YouTube page, September 13, 2012, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sNfy9i567ts.

2. “The Mujahid Rafid Abd al-Razaq Taha,” mstafa taeab YouTube page, November 4, 2012, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kwnDGkfaMhI; “Rafid Taha Live on the Sooria al-Shaab Channel’s ‘Zero Hour’ Program,” Freedomtalbesah2013 YouTube page, April 29, 2012, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=95TyfB6fhF0.

3. “The Mujahid Rafid Abd al-Razaq Taha,” op cit.

4. Liwa Usud al-Islam maintained an active Facebook page entitled “Liwa Usud al-Islam, Faylaq al-Sham” until December 10, 2014. The page can be accessed here: https://www.facebook.com/pages/%D9%84%D9%88%D8%A7%D8%A1-%D8%A3%D8%B3%D9%88%D8%AF-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A5%D8%B3%D9%84%D8%A7%D9%85-%D9%81%D9%8A%D9%84%D9%82-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B4%D8%A7%D9%85/579838765496077?sk=timeline&ref=page_internal.