March 2015 Briefs

Publication: Militant Leadership Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 3

Muhammad al-Faris (Source: All4Syria)

SHAYKH MUHAMMAD AL-FARIS: ASSAD’S MAN IN QAMISHLI

Nicholas A. Heras

The Syrian military has begun a military campaign to reduce the power of Kurdish militias and to seize key transit routes between Syria and Iraq from the Islamic State in the strategic, northeastern governorate of al-Hasakah (YouTube, March 9; YouTube, February 7). Loyalist militias drawn from local Sunni Arab tribes are key auxiliaries to the Syrian military’s campaign (ARA News [Sanliurfa], March 8). One of the most important loyalist leaders in the area of Qamishli is Shaykh Muhammad al-Faris.

Shaykh al-Faris is a native of the Haret Tayy district south of the city of Qamishli, a Sunni Arab-majority neighborhood where the large, transnational Tayy tribal confederation predominates. [1] He is a descendant of a prestigious, Shaykhly lineage within his section of the Tayy tribe, and he is also a member of the Syrian parliament. [2] Prior to the start of the civil war, al-Faris organized Sunni Arab tribal groups that targeted Kurdish demonstrators and looted Kurdish-owned stores during the 2004 “soccer riots.” These groups significantly strained ethnic tensions in Qamishli (Sama al-Kamishli, December 2, 2012). However, he has also participated in inter-ethnic and inter-sectarian dialogue sessions in Qamishli, appealing to Syrian nationalism and pluralistic values, and his relationship with the Kurdish community in Qamishli is believed to be more nuanced than simple ethnic animosity, although it is shaped by a pan-Arab Syrian ideology (Dirak al-Muhaba [Qamishli], September 24, 2012; Welate Me [Qamishli], August 18, 2012). [3]

Since the start of the conflict in 2011, however, he has emerged as a key Sunni Arab loyalist leader in Qamishli. He has mobilized a local militia drawn from tribesmen loyal to him which has policed and limited anti-regime demonstrations in Haret Tayy, including threatening and arresting dissident members of al-Faris’ own tribal section (All4Syria [Qamishli], December 15, 2013; Sama al-Kamishli, December 2, 2012; YouTube, April 20, 2012; YouTube, April 18, 2012; YouTube, January 23, 2012). As a result, he has been the target of several failed assassination attempts through car bombs targeting his headquarters in Qamishli city (All4Syria [Qamishli], December 15, 2013).

Under al-Faris’ leadership, his Tayy-mobilized militia force, which is believed to number more than 2,000 fighters drawn from Qamishli and its suburbs, is integral to maintaining the Syrian military’s foothold in the city and its surrounding areas. [4] His fighters participate in the al-Assad government’s paramilitary structure, beginning as a local, Qamishli-based al-lijan sha’abiya (Popular Committees) and evolving into an active affiliate of the quwat al-difa al-watani (National Defense Force-NDF) network (Yekti Media [Qamishli], November 26, 2014; ARA News [Sanliurfa], October 31, 2013). His forces are also believed to have participated in the Syrian military campaign against the armed opposition near Aleppo (All4Syria [Qamishli], December 15, 2013).

Over the course of the war, fighters under the command of Shaykh al-Faris have served in the al-Assad government’s security structure in the region of al-Qamishli, including in roles such as kinetic operations against Syrian Arab armed opposition groups, guarding checkpoints, policing or attacking anti-regime and Kurdish nationalist demonstrations, and operating as truck-borne rapid reaction forces (Step News Agency [Qamishli], January 18; Orient News [Duabi], November 14, 2013; ARA News [Sanliurfa], July 9, 2013; YouTube, April 4, 2013). His force has been an active combatant against the Kurdish-majority militias of the Yekineyen Parastina Gel (YPG-People’s Protection Units), which, combined with his past activities against the local Kurdish population, has earned him an infamous reputation for targeting that community (Adar Press [al-Hasakah], March 19, 2014; Zaman al-Wasl [Qamishli], June 11, 2013; Welati [Qamishli], June 9, 2013; Welati [Qamishli], November 30, 2012).

His strong pro-regime stance in Qamishli and the area’s strategic importance has also positioned him as the leading loyalist Shaykh; he informally presides over an intra-tribal network of local, pro-Assad Shaykhs and their tribesmen in al-Hasakah governorate. [5] Building off of this position, it is reported that al-Faris organized a Damascus meeting of loyalist tribal leaders from al-Hasakah and the highest levels of the Assad regime, and mobilized tribal leaders based on a narrative of Arab ethnic solidarity and resistance against the Kurdish-led administration in northeastern Syria (Siraj Press [Qamishli], November 6, 2014).

Al-Faris has become a primary recruiter for the quwat al-mughawwir (Commandos Force) unit, a recently-built paramilitary force drawn largely from loyalist militias mobilized from members of al-Hasakah’s Sunni Arab tribes that allegedly receive training from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps-Quds Force (IRGC-QF) and Hezbollah (Orient News [Dubai], March 3; Rudaw [Erbil], March 1; al-Jazeera [Doha], February 20; ARA News [Sanliurfa], October 31, 2014). Opposition activists in Qamishli assert that al-Faris, with the encouragement of Syrian intelligence and the IRGC-QF, has established of the new, multi-ethnic and sectarian loyalist umbrella militia al-Jazirah al-Arabiya Sooria (Syrian Arab Jazirah), which will train with the IRGC-QF’s predominately Iraqi Shi’a militia expeditionary force and Hezbollah (Zaman al-Wasl [Qamishli], March 20, 2014).

Shaykh al-Faris is an important loyalist leader who has grown in influence over the course of the conflict. As the Syrian military, under the direction of the IRGC-QF and its auxiliaries, prepares to aggressively reassert its monopoly of force in northeastern Syria against both the Kurdish administration and the Islamic State, Shaykh al-Faris is likely to have a prominent role in that campaign.

Notes

1. Viber interviews with residents of Haret Tayy, Qamishli, March 17 and March 5, 2015.

2. Ibid.; Viber interview with an ethnic Kurdish YPG fighter from Qamishli, March 15, 2015; Viber interview with Armenian residents of Qamishli, March 14, 2015.

3. Viber interview with Armenian residents of Qamishli, op. cit.

4. Viber interviews with residents of Haret Tayy, op. cit.; Viber interview with an ethnic Kurdish YPG fighter, op. cit.; Viber interview with Armenian residents, op. cit.

5. Viber interview with an ethnic Kurdish YPG fighter, op. cit.; Viber interviews with residents of Haret Tayy, op. cit.

MAJOR YASSIR ABD AL-RAHIM EMERGES AS PROMINENT COMMANDER OF AQ AFFILIATE JAYSH AL-FATEH IN ALEPPO

Nicholas A. Heras

A coalition of the most powerful Islamist armed opposition organizations in northwestern Syria, including al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiya (Islamic Movement of the Free Ones of the Levant) and Jund al-Aqsa (Soldiers of the Al-Aqsa Mosque), recently announced that they were organizing a new campaign dubbed Jaysh al-Fateh (Conquering Army) to seize the strategic northwestern Syrian city of Idlib and its surrounding area (al-Sharq al-Awsat, March 25; YouTube, March 25; YouTube, March 24). The major Islamist rebel coalition Faylaq al-Sham (Legion of the Levant), which is believed to be ideologically aligned with and in coordination with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, is providing the overall command organization of the new rebel offensive (YouTube, March 26; al-Sharq al-Awsat, March 25; al-Safir [Beirut], August 8, 2014). Although not the overall commander of the Idlib-focused Jaysh al-Fateh, the most prominent commander within Faylaq al-Sham, Major Yassir Abd al-Rahim, is poised to be an important participant in the Jaysh al-Fateh campaign (YouTube, March 25).

Major al-Rahim is the military commander and spokesman for Faylaq al-Sham’s Aleppo sector (al-Malaf [Aleppo], March 23). He is a defected Syrian military officer who specialized in artillery, a skillset that he has displayed in videos produced for the armed opposition groups that he has led (YouTube, November 14, 2014; YouTube, March 10, 2013; YouTube, January 31, 2013). In addition to his role as the overall military commander of Faylaq al-Sham’s Aleppo sector, Major Al-Rahim still personally commands a mobile artillery squadron, particularly utilizing Grad and Katyusha rockets (YouTube, March 25; YouTube, March 20).

Al-Rahim was the military commander of Kata’ib al-Islam (Islam Battalions), an active rebel group against the al-Assad regime in and around the city of Aleppo. As the leader of Kata’ib al-Islam, he served as the overall commander coordinating armed opposition artillery attacks against Syrian military and paramilitary bases around Aleppo and against the Shi’a-majority, loyalist town of Zahra northwest of the city (YouTube, January 31, 2013; YouTube, December 21, 2012). [1] He later led Kata’ib al-Islam into the armed opposition coalition Kata’ib al-Farouq al-Islamiya (Farouq Islamic Battalions), participating in the large armed opposition campaign Ma’rakat al-Qadamoun (The Coming Battle), generally in the same battlespace in Hama governorate where Faylaq al-Sham now operates (YouTube, August 23, 2013; YouTube, August 20, 2013). [2] Al-Rahim was the overall commander of Ma’rakat al-Qadamoun and was severely wounded in the course of the armed opposition campaign, forcing him to leave the fighting for hospital recuperation (YouTube, February 15, 2014; YouTube, September 28, 2014; YouTube, September 26, 2013).

A telegenic person, he has frequently appeared in Arab media, where he has discussed Faylaq al-Sham’s participation in armed opposition campaigns in Aleppo, Idlib and Hama governorates and the general course of the revolution (YouTube, March 19; YouTube, March 12; YouTube, March 4; YouTube, September 26, 2013; YouTube, October 28, 2012). In addition to his media outreach on behalf of Faylaq al-Sham, al-Rahim maintains an active Twitter account. [3] He states that he was a close friend of Abd al-Qadir Salah, the deceased leader of the powerful, northern Aleppo suburb-based armed opposition faction Liwa al-Tawhid, who was the first overall commander of Jabhat al-Islamiya (Islamic Front-IF) and a popular rebel leader (al-Itihad Press [Aleppo], February 17).

Al-Rahim has stated that the Syrian armed opposition has suffered from factionalism, and he views Faylaq al-Sham as serving a neutral, unifying role among the rebel factions, making specific reference to the fighting between Jabhat al-Nusra and Jabhat Thuwar Sooria (Syrian Revolutionaries’ Front-SRF) in Idlib in November 2014 (al-Malaf [Aleppo], March 23; al-Itihad Press [Aleppo], February 17). In his interviews, he takes a pragmatic and strategic approach to the armed opposition’s campaigns against the al-Assad regime, focusing on attacking the regime’s lines of supply and communication and encouraging defections among newly recruited, conscripted soldiers (YouTube, March 4; YouTube, February 4). Major al-Rahim’s artillery forces also target Syrian security sites that he asserts are bases of operation for Hezbollah and Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force (IRGC-QF)- organized Shi’a militias, paramilitary forces which he considers to be vital to the regime’s offensive in and around the city of Aleppo (YouTube, March 19; al-Itihad Press [Aleppo], February 17; YouTube, February 7).

His artillery squadrons have consistently attacked the strategic, Shi’a-majority loyalist towns of Nubul and Zahra in Aleppo governorate, though he asserts that they are specifically targeting Syrian military and paramilitary checkpoints (YouTube, February 15). Nubul and Zahra’s importance as staging points for Syrian paramilitary forces also made them major targets of the armed opposition campaign Nusrat al-Douma (The Victory of Douma), in which a-Rahim has a leading role. The campaign was launched in response to regime airstrikes using barrel bombs against the rebel-controlled Damascus suburbs of Douma, which killed at least 186 civilians (YouTube, February 16; Daily Star [Beirut], February 16; Syria Direct [Douma], February 12). Concurrent with the announcement of Jaysh al-Fateh, Major al-Rahim is serving as an important commander of another armed opposition campaign in which Faylaq al-Sham is an important participant, Amaliyat Tahrir Halab (Operation Liberation of Aleppo), directed against IRGC-QF organized paramilitary organizations assisting the Syria military (YouTube, March 19; YouTube, February 23; YouTube, February 6).

Al-Rahim, already an important armed opposition commander in northwestern Syria, particularly in the Aleppo battle space, is likely to continue to rise in prominence. As one of the leading figures within Faylaq al-Sham, an integral participant in several rebel campaigns in this strategic region of the country, he has strong credentials within the armed opposition, particularly within its Islamist factions. What is unclear, however, is the extent to which Major Al-Rahim can assume a larger role in the rebellion and broker a lasting peace and coordination between the rebel factions, and whether his personal vision for a potential post-Assad Syria would lead him to be viewed as a candidate for participation in the Coalition-led Syrian rebel training program. Regardless, assuming he survives, Yassir Abd al-Rahim is a rising figure within the rebel ranks, and is likely to become one of the leading armed opposition officers in northern Syria.

Notes

1. For more information on the Aleppo governorate town of Zahra, its importance to Syrian military and the controversy over rebel operations against it, see Nicholas A. Heras, “Shiite Enclaves North of Aleppo Becoming Staging Grounds for Hezbollah’s Next Offensive,” Terrorism Monitor, June 19, 2013, http://www.jamestown.org/single/?tx_ttnews[tt_news]=41037&no_cache=1#.VRVOUuEe1nA.

2. For more information on Kata’ib al-Farouq al-Islamiya and Ma’rakat al-Qadamoun, see Nicholas A. Heras, “Kata’ib al-Farouq al-Islamiya: A Key Armed Opposition Group in the Battle to Cut Assad Off from Damascus,” Terrorism Monitor, September 19, 2013, http://www.jamestown.org/programs/tm/single/?tx_ttnews[tt_news]=41381&cHash=9b6f0c2de1383fac3b7c0bb4868c6027#.VRVOpOEe1nA.

3. Major Yassir Abd al-Rahim’s Twitter account can be found at https://twitter.com/major_yasser.