BEATING ON ASSAD’S DOOR: SYRIAN MILITIA FIGHTER ABD AL-NASR SHMEIR
Nicholas A. Heras
Damascus’ suburban region of eastern Ghouta is a site of ongoing and vicious conflict between the Syrian military and several rebel factions. Inter-rebel fighting is common there, particularly between the Islamic State and several militant Islamist Syrian armed opposition factions, including the powerful Faylaq al-Rahman (Legion of the Most Merciful One) organization, which is believed to have more than 3,000 fighters deployed in strategic neighborhoods such as Douma and Jobar in eastern Ghouta.  The overall commander of Faylaq al-Rahman is Captain Abd al-Nasr Shmeir (a.k.a. Abu Nasr), a 38-year-old former Syrian military officer from the town of al-Rastan, north of the city of Homs in the central-western governorate of Homs (al-Jazeera, May 8; YouTube, July 5, 2012). Under Shmeir’s leadership, the Faylaq al-Rahman organization has been a committed combatant against both Bashar al-Assad’s government and its auxiliaries and the Islamic State (Orient News [Dubai], May 8; al-Safir [Beirut], January 30; al-Manar [Beirut], January 6; Daily Star [Beirut], September 30, 2014).
Shmeir is presented as an active and inspiring commander who leads from the front lines (YouTube, May 31, 2015; Twitter, May 7; YouTube, June 12, 2013; YouTube, June 23, 2012). He has stated that he defected from the Syrian military in order to protect the people and because he seeks a Syria that does not serve one sect, choosing to fight in Ghouta because it is the key to Damascus, which is the key to the country (YouTube, July 5, 2012). In May, Shmeir survived a suicide bomber’s assassination attempt on his life at Faylaq al-Rahman’s headquarters in eastern Ghouta; the attack may have been ordered by the Islamic State in reprisal for Faylaq al-Rahman’s steadfast opposition to that jihadist group’s expansion in the area (YouTube, May 8; Orient News [Dubai], May 8; al-Quds al-Arabi, May 8; al-Jazeera, May 8). Under Shmeir’s leadership, Faylaq al-Rahman has developed a social welfare organization, which has reportedly led to tensions with the local community over the cost and limited access to essential goods as the Syrian military’s siege of the eastern Ghouta area tightens (Developmental Interactive Network [Ghouta], June 27; Syria Direct [Ghouta], October 29, 2014).
Shmeir was the founding commander of Liwa al-Bara, an armed opposition militia that was formed in April 2012 from defected Syrian soldiers and local rebels in and around the eastern Ghouta town of Douma. Liwa al-Bara is now a constituent group within the larger, multi-faction Faylaq al-Rahman organization, which was formed in late 2013 out of local armed groups to better coordinate operations against the Syrian military (Orient News [Dubai], April 12, 2014; Soryoon [Damascus], December 23, 2013; YouTube, April 4, 2012). He attained brief international notoriety in 2012 when he served as the spokesman and interlocutor for a coalition of rebel factions led by Liwa al-Bara that had seized 48 Iranian pilgrims, men and women, and an Afghani interpreter near the important Shi’a Muslim shrine of Sayida Zaynab in the southern Damascus suburbs; some of the men were accused of being operatives for the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and of directing military action against the Syrian opposition (YouTube, August 5, 2012; Reuters, August 4, 2012). Liwa al-Bara reportedly issued a statement attributed to Shmeir whereby he threatened to kill the Iranian pilgrims if the Syrian military did not immediately cease its shelling of civilian areas and if it did not release Syrian opposition members held in prisons controlled by the al-Assad government (al-Arabiya [Doha], August 7, 2012). In January 2013, after several months of negotiations and the reported intercession of the Qatari and Turkish governments, the Iranians pilgrims were released (Press TV [Tehran], January 9, 2013; YouTube, January 9, 2013).
In August 2014, Shmeir brought Faylaq al-Rahman into the Ghouta Unified Military Command, the eastern Ghouta Islamist rebel coalition led by the prominent Damascus-area Islamist commander, Zahran Alloush; this coalition is composed of Alloush’s Jaysh al-Islam, the local branch of the powerful national militant Salafist organization Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiya (Islamic Movement of the Free Ones of the Levant), al-Itihad al-Islami al-Ajnad al-Sham (Islamic Union of the Soldiers of the Levant) and Alwiya al-Habib al-Mustafa (Brigades of the Chosen One) (YouTube, August 29, 2014; YouTube, August 27, 2014; al-Araby al-Jadeed [London], August 23, 2014). Although not given a formal title during the extensive public ceremony marking the coalition’s creation, Shmeir is reported to be its military commander and the second most important leader within it after Zahran Alloush (Daily Star [Beirut], September 30, 2014).
In spite of his relatively low media profile, Shmeir is one of the most important armed opposition leaders in the Damascus region. Although he has far less international notoriety than Zahran Alloush, and Faylaq al-Rahman has less prominence than the Jaysh al-Islam organization, Shmeir has the potential to be as influential as Alloush in the eastern Ghouta area and the wider Damascus region. Furthermore, Shmeir is not regarded as a virulently ideological commander, meaning he could potentially be in favor of an inclusive, pluralistic and non-Shari’a-oriented government in a post-Assad Syria. If he survives, Shmeir could be one of the most important rebel commanders in the process of reintegrating Damascus’ rebel factions back into civilian life or into local security structures under the successor state’s authority in a transitional Syria.
1. Author’s personal interviews with Syrian activists from Damascus area in Washington, DC, on December 9, 2014, and June 8, 2015.
SYRIAN SALAFIST PREACHER SHAYKH ABU RATEB AL-HOMS REEMERGES IN HOMS AFTER LONG ABSENCE
Nicholas A. Heras
After a long period of absence from public attention, Shaykh Abu Rateb al-Homsi, a Syrian Salafist preacher and well-known revolutionary, taped a message commemorating the start of Ramadan 2015 for the fighters of Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiya and their compatriots in cooperative rebel factions (YouTube, June 18). Al-Homsi is currently the amir of Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiya (Islamic Movement of the Free Ones of the Levant) in Homs governorate (YouTube, June 18). An experienced cleric and reportedly a business man from the city of Homs, Shaykh al-Homsi is popularly nicknamed al-shaykh al-mujahid (the jihadist shaykh) for his active role in the development of the Islamist revolutionary opposition to the Bashar al-Assad government in the city (AFP [See Image 3 in slide], August 8, 2013; Twitter, July 4, 2013; YouTube, October 11, 2012; YouTube, August 24, 2012). 
Prior to joining Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiya, al-Homsi was the leader of Liwa al-Haqq (Divine Truth Brigade), an Islamist armed opposition coalition that was based in rebel-held areas of the city of Homs, particularly in the armed opposition-controlled districts around the Old City sector of Homs that were besieged and blockaded by the Syrian military and its auxiliary forces until May 2014 (BBC, May 7, 2014). Liwa al-Haqq was believed to have over 4,000 fighters within its organization at its height, and although al-Homsi was not its military commander, as the spiritual leader of the Liwa al-Haqq organization, he developed a strong reputation as a devoted proponent of the Syrian revolution who actively provided counsel, guidance and services for a large number of the city’s rebel fighters (Xeber 24 [Homs], January 27, 2014; al-Sharq al-Awsat, December 13, 2013; YouTube, October 25, 2013; YouTube, October 21, 2013; YouTube, August 30, 2013; YouTube, October 14, 2012; YouTube, September 9, 2012).
Al-Homsi was a participant in opposition demonstrations, both before and after rebel fighters controlled areas of Homs around the Old City (YouTube, October 26, 2012). Although he lived under siege and blockade while in Homs, al-Homsi was an influential Syrian Islamist revolutionary outside of his city, with active ties to activist, militant Salafist organizations in the Bab al-Tabbaneh district of the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli (al-Ahed [Beirut], March 4, 2013). His support for the revolution as a form of jihad earned him the attention and respect of like-minded rebel leaders, most prominently the now-deceased leader of Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiya, Shaykh Hassan Aboud (Twitter, December 1, 2013; for more on Hassan Aboud see MLM Briefs, November 2013). As a result of this respect, al-Homsi was able to lead Liwa al-Haqq into al-Jabhat al-Islamiya al-Sooria (Syrian Islamic Front—SIF), an armed opposition coalition strongly influenced by Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiya, in December 2012, and later became the secretary general of al-Jabhat al-Islamiya (Islamic Front—IF), when it was formed in November 2013 (Welati [Erbil], December 22, 2013; al-Quds al-Arabi, November 23, 2013; Aksalser [Homs], December 22, 2012). As the secretary general, al-Homsi was most noteworthy for a message that he delivered to the Islamic State (then the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria—ISIS) via Twitter on behalf of the Islamic Front and its allies; he sought reconciliation between the Islamic State and the IF and its allies on the grounds that the organizations were brothers and had a common goal of supporting the development of an Islamic force that could uphold religion (Twitter, December 1, 2013). The Islamic State did not heed this message and continued its aggressive posture toward other Syrian rebel factions, particularly in Aleppo governorate, leading the Islamic Front to spearhead a multi-factional offensive against the other group that was only partially effective in reducing its influence in northwestern Syria (AFP, July 2, 2014; Daily Star [Beirut], January 4, 2014; Reuters, January 4, 2014).
Al-Homsi left Homs in May 2014 as part of an al-Assad government-sponsored ceasefire that allowed the remaining armed opposition leadership and fighters in Homs to evacuate to the blockaded, rebel-held areas around al-Rastan and Talbisa north of the city (YouTube, May 7, 2014; BBC, May 7, 2014). Several months later, Liwa al-Haqq formally merged into the Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiya coalition in December 2014 (YouTube, December 8, 2014). Shortly after the merger, al-Homsi was designated Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiya’s amir for Homs governorate (Step Agency Syria [Homs], January 12).
Al-Homsi is a Syrian revolutionary folk hero in Homs who is well credentialed as both an activist cleric and a Salafist practitioner, with a lot of experience in appealing to Syria’s Sunni Islamist armed opposition youth. His current position in Harakat Ahrar al-Sham is respectful of his significance to the Islamist revolutionary movement in Homs, and, by extension, all of Syria, and provides him with a platform to work toward building popular support for Ahrar al-Sham’s vision of an Islamic state in the governorate. Although Homs is currently a secondary battle space for Harakat Ahrar al-Sham, Shaykh Abu Rateb al-Homsi is well positioned to be an influential leader in the development of the Islamic revolution in Homs.
1. Abu Ezzedin al-Ansari, the former head of Liwa al-Haqq’s political office, asserted in an interview that al-Homsi was a businessman prior to the revolution, who was not known to participate in politics. See Aron Lund, “Syria’s Salafi Insurgents: The Rise of the Syrian Islamic Front,” Swedish Institute of International Affairs, March 2013, pgs. 33, 48. http://www.ui.se/eng/upl/files/86861.pdf.