July 2014 Briefs

Publication: Militant Leadership Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 7

Hassan Aboud and Liwa Dawud Defect to Islamic State in Syria

Nicholas A. Heras

In early July, a powerful Syrian armed opposition group based in northwestern Syria’s Idlib governorate, Liwa Dawud (David Brigade), “defected” and pledged allegiance to the Islamic State under the leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (al-Quds al-Arabi, July 8). At the time of the defection, Liwa Dawud’s military caravan, reportedly consisting of over a thousand fighters transporting several seized T-72 tanks and driving military vehicles, was en route from Idlib city to Aleppo to relieve the siege of armed opposition forces by the Syrian military. Instead, the caravan bypassed Aleppo and drove straight to Islamic State’s Syrian “capital” Raqqa (McClatchy, July 8). [1] Beyond the military significance of Liwa Dawud’s defection to ISIS, the event was utilized for geopolitical purposes by the Russian Foreign Ministry to exemplify its arguments against anti-Assad nations providing military assistance for Syrian rebels. [2]

Liwa Dawud’s leader is Hassan Aboud (a.k.a. “al-Sarmini”), a different person from Hassan Aboud, the leader of the Syrian militant Salafist armed opposition group Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiya (Islamic Movement of the Free Ones of the Levant; for more information on that Hassan Abboud, see Militant Leadership Monitor, November 2013). Aboud, in his 40s, was a prominent local farmer and grain merchant prior to the Syrian uprising and is a native of Sarmin, an Idlib suburb located approximately 10 miles southeast of the city and in a strategic area where the inter-governorate M5 highway from Damascus to Aleppo runs (al-Safir [Beirut], July 9). [3]

Aboud and Liwa Dawud’s defection to ISIS are also noteworthy because Aboud is a battle-tested commander who has been a prominent Islamist armed opposition leader in northwestern Syria and has received significant attention from Syrian opposition and pan-Arab media. As a commentator for Syrian opposition media, Aboud was a familiar face to the opposition who provided updates on the fighting in Idlib and explained his and the organization’s vision of a post-Assad, Syrian government informed by Shari’a. [4] In his role as a commentator to the pan-Arab media, Aboud has provided analysis on several aspects of the Syrian conflict, including updates on the ongoing fighting in and around the city of Idlib and the geopolitical consequences of the use of chemical weapons in Syria. [5]

Under Aboud’s leadership, Liwa Dawud has been part of several armed opposition coalitions, including the prominent Idlib organization Suqur al-Sham (Hawks of the Levant) and the coalition Jabhat al-Suria al-Islamiya (Syrian Islamic Liberation Front – SILF); for most of 2012 and 2013 Liwa Dawud was formally referred to as “Liwa Dawud Suqur al-Sham.” [6] While existing as a constituent militia within Suqur al-Sham, Liwa Dawud was noteworthy for planting IEDs and mines in order to attack Syrian military vehicles and for seizing military vehicles and tanks so armed opposition campaigns could challenge the Assad government’s control over the inter-governorate highways running through the area. Their fighters also distinguished themselves in the campaign that seized the Taftanaz air force base, approximately 11 miles northeast of Idlib. [7]

Liwa Dawud fighters also were reported to have ambushed and killed members of a unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) that had been sent to Idlib and Aleppo governorates to oversee the organization of National Defense Force (NDF) militias. The armed opposition organization recovered a videotape shot to provide a documentary of the IRGC unit’s operations in Syria, and released the videotape to the BBC to be shown to a global audience. [8]

Under Aboud’s leadership, Liwa Dawud participated in armed opposition operations with Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiya’s affiliate Idlib militias. [9] Aboud moved Liwa Dawud outside of Suqur al-Sham’s organization as a result of what is believed to have been Aboud’s frustration with the lack of support Liwa Dawud received from Suqur al-Sham (Zaman al-Wasl [Damascus], December 30, 2013). In December 2013, Aboud formally aligned his organization with ISIS and was reportedly appointed ISIS’ amir for Idlib governorate, although he is believed to have broken Liwa Dawud’s ties with ISIS one month later under pressure from Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiya and in response to the deaths of Syrian rebels in the internecine fighting between several armed opposition factions and ISIS in western Syria that occurred that month (Zaman al-Wasl [Damascus], January 20; December 30, 2013). [10] Following his organization’s break with ISIS, Aboud brought Liwa Dawud formally into the Idlib and Aleppo-governorate-based armed opposition coalition Jaysh al-Sham (Army of the Levant). Finally, he and his organization defected back to ISIS in July 2014. [11]

The defection of Liwa Dawud to ISIS under Aboud’s leadership is a powerful symbol of the growing influence and soft power of ISIS in the Syrian conflict and provides the growing militant Salafist statelet with an experienced brigade of fighters composed of Syrian nationals armed with military vehicles to bolster its increasingly entrenched position in Syria. Liwa Dawud, referred to as “sons of Syria” by an FSA affiliate commander in an Orient News program analyzing the group’s defection, demonstrates that Islamic State’s current battlefield successes, powerful organization and significant financial reserves are able to win the support of noteworthy (and pragmatic) elements within the Syrian armed opposition that see ISIS as the strongest actor capable of ultimately defeating the Assad government. [12] Assuming that he is successfully integrated into ISIS’ command structure, Aboud provides ISIS with a charismatic, experienced and “Syrian” military leader for the group’s likely future operations in western Syria.

Notes

1. “Orient News-Liwa Dawud Defects from Jaysh al-Sham and Heads by Convoy to Raqqa for a Huge Pledge of Allegiance to al-Baghdadi,” Orient News YouTube page, July 8, 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jaYlaFQf5O8; “Amr Halabi-Liwa Dawud, ‘The Traitor’ of Jaysh al-Sham, Defects and Heads Toward Raqqa to Pledge Allegiance to al-Baghdadi,” Mustafa al-Rastanawi YouTube page, July 7, 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WeQ9E5JyGyc#t=136.

2. “Briefing by the Official Representative of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Alexander Lukashevich, 10 July 2014,” Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, July 10, 2014, http://www.mid.ru/brp_4.nsf/0/170F87E18FE6BC5544257D1600210A01.

3. Interview of Syrian opposition activist from Idlib who resides in Gaziantep, Turkey. Interview conducted by the author via Skype. July 24, 2014.

4. “Interview with Liwa Dawud’s Commander Hassan Aboud and His Opinion on the Survival of al-Qarmid Base at this Time,” Odai Maari YouTube page, December 25, 2013, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JUVUDF_2_Fo; “Presentation of Liwa Dawud’s Commander on the ‘Scent of Freedom’ Channel,” Jeash al-Sham YouTube page, November 27, 2012, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5AzpJvwydBE.

5. “Liwa Dawud’s Commander Hassan Aboud’s Response to the U.S.-Russian Agreement on al-Jazeera Channel Program ‘Talk the Revolution,’” Uploaded on the Edlib News Network [E.N.N.] Facebook Page, September 15, 2013, https://ar-ar.facebook.com/Edlib.News.Network/posts/652232108120281; “Al-Arabiya-Liwa Dawud’s Commander Hassan Aboud and Taftanaz Airport News,” Uploaded on Mustafa al-Jaza’iri YouTube page, January 9, 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eOZ3R58sSWU; “Al-Arabiya Channel Report on Liwa Dawud’s Rockets,” Uploaded on Jeash al-Sham YouTube page, December 18, 2012, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H4iAp8oTeGA.

6. “Liwa Dawud Suqur al-Sham Capturing T-72 Tanks,” Engma Lauthrey YouTube page, Uploaded on May 21, 2014, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0ca_2jaG_uA; “Al-Jazeera Report on the Landmines presented by Liwa Dawud’s Commander,” Engma Lauthrey YouTube page, May 18, 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hwvFnu1xGtc.

7. Ibid.

8. “BBC-Our World-Iran’s Secret Army,” Darius Barzagan YouTube page, November 23, 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZI_88ChjQtU.

9. “Liwa Dawud-Presentation of Liwa Dawud’s Commander on the ‘Syrian People’ Channel,” Engma Lauthrey YouTube page, May 21, 2014, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9vB_uNYK8k4; “An Interview with Liwa Dawud’s Commander Hassan Aboud, a Leader of Harakat Ahrar al-Sham, and ‘Abu Ali’ the Commander of Brigade of the Descendants of the Companions,” Free Syria Media Center YouTube page, May 23, 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gxhM5xtJDRE; “Liwa Dawud Suqur al-Sham and Harakat Ahrar al-Sham Announce the Battle of Sijir,” Jeash al-Sham YouTube page, October 25, 2012, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gXuUeqD4neI.

10. Interview of Syrian opposition activist from Idlib who resides in Gaziantep, Turkey. Interview conducted by the author via Skype. July 24, 2014.

11. “Announcement of the Formation of Jaysh al-Sham,” Jeash al-Sham YouTube page, February 18, 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iveEIvPX18A.

12. “‘Details’-The ‘Caliphate’ is Moving toward Aleppo and Liwa Dawud Lost its Compass and is Fighting in the Rank of the ‘Caliphate,’” Orient News YouTube Page, July 9, 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gge1D6dth6w.

‘Shredder’ of Syria: Abu Sayaah Tiyaara

Nicholas A. Heras

From July 20-21, Syrian armed opposition militias belonging to al-Jabhat al-Islamiya (Islamic Front – IF) affiliate Jaysh al-Islam (Army of Islam), al-Itihad al-Islami al-Ajnad al-Sham (Union of Islamic Soldiers of the Levant), the al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra (JN – Victory Front) and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) conducted a joint operation in Yalda, a heavily contested southern Damascus suburb. This operation expelled a force of approximately 80 fighters belonging to Islamic State who had established a headquarters in Yalda’s central district (al-Arabi al-Jadid [London], July 22; al-Arabiya [Dubai], July 21). Abu Sayaah Tiyaara (a.k.a. “the Shredder”) leads this Islamic State force. He and 300 locally-recruited fighters have reportedly fled from Yalda to the neighboring suburb of Hajar al-Aswad, where they are currently under siege by several armed opposition organizations (All4Syria News [Damascus], July 26; al-Arabi al-Jadid [London], July 22). Tiyaara is reported to be a native of Yalda who, with the assistance of his brother, had sought to establish the militant Salafist group’s presence in the neighborhood as part of a plan to expand its influence in the Damascus region (al-Arabi al-Jadid [London], July 22; al-Arabiya [Dubai], July 21). He is believed to have recruited Syrians residing in Hajar al-Aswad who have active tribal affiliations in eastern Syria where Islamic State is well-established, particularly in the governorates of al-Hasakah and Deir al-Zor. [1]

Anti-Islamic State armed opposition groups, particularly Jaysh al-Islam, which participated in the Yalda operation, have seized alcohol and pornography at the former ISIS headquarters in the suburb that they assert belonged to Tiyaara and his fighters (Hadath News [Dubai], July 25). These groups also have released video footage of a significant stockpile of humanitarian aid that they assert the local Islamic State chapter took from local residents; a significant charge because civilians in Yalda and its neighboring suburbs of Damascus including the Hajar al-Aswad and al-Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camps have suffered enormously under a year-long Syrian military siege (al-Aan [Dubai], July 26; Daily Star [Beirut], February 18). [2]

This anti-Islamic State operation was conducted, according to rebel sources, as a result of their ongoing campaign to target local armed non-Islamic State opposition commanders for kidnapping and assassination, including the commanders of local Jaysh al-Islam and al-Itihad al-Islami al-Ajnad al-Sham affiliates, and ongoing intimidation of armed opposition groups in the area of the southern Damascus suburbs. The operation also sought to lift a siege by Islamic State on the headquarters of the political activist Yalda Coordinating Committee and a local armed opposition battalion, Katiba Aisha Um al-Mua’mineen (Aisha the Mother of Believers Battalion) (al-Arabi al-Jadid [London], July 22; Al-Arabiya [Dubai], July 21). The Yalda operation is also part of Jaysh al-Islam’s month-old declaration of war against the slowly growing number of Islamic State forces in the Damascus area (al-Mayadeen [Beirut], June 29).

Although Islamic State’s presence in the Damascus region is heavily contested by local Syrian armed opposition groups and Islamic State leader Abu Sayaah Tiyaara and his fighters are under siege, the establishment of Islamic State in southern Damascus under the leadership of a local fighter is significant. The Syrian opposition has consistently insisted that the group is a predominately foreign organization that does not have a “Syrian” constituency, particularly in western Syria. As the recent defection of Hassan Aboud and Liwa Dawud in Idlib and the rise of Abu Sayaah Tiyaara and his local cadre of fighters in Damascus’ suburbs indicate, this claim is no longer true. This growing Islamic State influence is a trend that is likely to continue into the future and will also likely present a significant challenge to the continued existence of the Syrian armed opposition, independent of Islamic State control.

Notes

1. Author interview with a member of the al-Sheitat branch of the Shammar tribe with relatives resident in Hajar al-Aswad. Interview conducted by Skype, July 22, 2014.

2. “Finding Food in Huge Quantities in the ISIS Headquarters in Besieged Southern Damascus,” Free Syria 2011 YouTube page, July 22, 2014, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pn9Bq_4qZZg.