September 2015 Briefs

Publication: Militant Leadership Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 9

SYRIAN OPPOSITION LEADER ALLIED WITH MUSLIM BROTHERHOOD POSITIONS HIS GROUP TO RECEIVE U.S. AID

Nicholas A. Heras

Mustapha Berro (a.k.a. Saqr Abu Qutaiba) is the overall leader of Tajammu Fastaqim Kama Umirt (Be Upright as Ordered Gathering), a leading constituent faction within Jabhat al-Shamiya committed to fighting both Bashar al-Assad’s government and the Islamic State in the Aleppo area (YouTube, May 2; YouTube, September 24; al-Etihad Press [Aleppo], May 17). Abu Qutaiba is one of the most powerful armed opposition commanders in the city itself, and he is also member of Jabhat al-Shamiya’s command structure through its Consultative Council. [2] He has consistently advocated for greater coordination and interoperability of the myriad Aleppo area rebel groups and has brought Fastaqim Kama Umrit into several Aleppo area armed opposition coalitions and operations rooms—including Jaysh al-Mujahideen (Army of the Mujahideen) in 2014, Jabhat al-Shamiya in December 2014 and al-Ghurfat al-Amaliyat Fateh Halab (Conquering Aleppo Operations Room) in April 2015—that he viewed as conducive to accomplishing this goal (YouTube, August 15; YouTube, April 26; YouTube, December 25, 2014; Akhbar Sooria al-Yoom [Aleppo], December 16, 2014; YouTube, July 12, 2014; Halab News [Aleppo], November 11, 2013; see also Militant Leadership Monitor, July 2015).

Abu Qutaiba worked in commerce in Aleppo prior to the Syrian uprising, and was part of the protest movement there that began in 2011; he recently stated that he decided to take up arms to protect peaceful protestors from attacks by the al-Assad government’s security forces (YouTube, August 15; YouTube, May 2; al-Jumhuriya [Aleppo], March 6; YouTube, July 12, 2014; YouTube, November 11, 2013). He was part of the first cohort of native Aleppan, Syrian opposition youth to have taken up arms against Bashar al-Assad in the city, and early in the armed uprising in the city, he became an important frontline commander in Liwa al-Salaam (Peace Brigade), which was established from August to September 2012 in several western districts of Aleppo (al-Jumhuriya [Aleppo], March 6; YouTube, September 23, 2013; YouTube, May 30, 2013; YouTube, April 23, 2013; YouTube, January 23, 2013; YouTube, September 23, 2012).

Abu Qutaiba is considered to be a pragmatic leader with a moderate Islamist ideological orientation, and genuinely associates himself with the more secular idealism, and symbolism, of the early revolutionary period in the Syrian uprising. Although, this is expressed in the context of jihad against the al-Assad government, which includes Abu Qutaiba’s support for the role of the Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra as an ally against the regime (YouTube, May 2; YouTube, March 18). [4] Abu Qutaiba asserts that after the successful conclusion of the civil war, he will retire from combat and return to civilian life (YouTube, July 12, 2014).

Fastaqim Kama Umirt is structurally an umbrella organization of constituent armed opposition groups that are themselves coalitions of smaller, local neighborhood level rebel militias that are most active inside the city of Aleppo. [3] It is estimated to have between 1,500-3,000 fighters, most of whom are local combatants from Aleppo’s western districts, which have been frontlines in the armed opposition’s campaign against the al-Assad regime in the city (Revolutionary Forces of Syria Media Office [Aleppo], July 29; al-Jumhuriya [Aleppo], March 6; al-Akhbar [Beirut], January 6, 2014). Under Abu Qutaiba’s leadership, Fastaqim Kama Umirt has been associated with financial backing from the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and foreign state backers of that organization, including Qatar and Turkey (al-Jumhuriya [Aleppo], March 6). Recently under Abu Qutaiba’s guidance, and potentially responding to command signals from outside state actors—such as the U.S.-led, anti-Islamic State, anti-al-Assad coalition, including Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia—Fastaqim Kama Umirt has sought to institute organizational training to improve its military effectiveness designed by defected Syrian military officers that are members of Tajammu Fastaqim Kama Umrit, professionalism and coordination with Aleppo area opposition civil society organizations to promote more effective rebel rule in the city and its suburbs (Facebook, September 12; YouTube, August 15; Enab Baladi [Aleppo], July 12; YouTube, July 9).

In taking these actions, Abu Qutaiba may be seeking to attract support, such as TOW anti-tank missiles. These weapons have been given to U.S.-vetted Syrian rebel organizations within Jabhat al-Shamiya, particularly Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zenki, one of the most powerful Aleppo-area armed opposition groups and a longtime ally of Fastaqim Kama Umirt. [5] Owing to its position as one of the most important armed opposition groups inside of Aleppo, and serving as a frontline group against the spread of the Islamic State within Jabhat al-Shamiya, Fastaqim Kama Umrit could receive more support from the U.S.-backed coalition, such as TOWs and other material support. This development, which is dependent on Abu Qutaiba’s leadership and the success of Fastaqim Kama Umrit’s professionalization programs, would be indicative of a more aggressive U.S.-led Coalition effort to identify and support additional Aleppo area rebel groups that would be willing to fight the Islamic State in addition to the al-Assad government.

Notes

1. For an extensive discussion of Jabhat al-Shamiya’s coordinating role in the Aleppo battle space, and the difficulties it has had in coordinating its constituent factions, see Aron Lund, “The End of the Levant Front,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, April 21, 2015, http://carnegieendowment.org/syriaincrisis/?fa=59855.

2. Author’s Skype interviews with Syrian activists from the city of Aleppo district of Salah al-Din with knowledge of Fastaqim Kama Umirt, September 12 and August 31, 2015.

3. Ibid. Most notably, in public appearances Abu Qutaiba, and Tajammu Fastaqim Kama Umirt in general, continues to display the green, white and black striped, three red star Syrian Republican flag, whose design was inspired by the 1932 Syrian Republican flag that was adopted at the time of Syria’s declared independence from the post-World War I French Mandate. This flag is a distinguishing feature of the protest movement against the al-Assad government and remains popularly associated with the more moderate armed opposition groups. It has also been adopted by Jabhat al-Shamiya’s constituent factions, however it is reported that Jabhat al-Shamiya, at the organizational level is seeking the imposition of a sharia state in Syria after the fall of the Assad regime and the defeat of the Islamic State. To what extent the TOW-supplied groups within Jabhat al-Shamiya have been vetted against their support for this charter is unclear. See Twitter, June 29; Aron Lund, “The Levant Front: Can Aleppo’s Unite?,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, December 26, 2014, http://carnegieendowment.org/syriaincrisis/?fa=57605.

4. Op. Cit. Author’s Skype interviews, September 12 and August 31, 2015.

5. Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zenki was a founding constituent faction within Fastaqim Kama Umrit and Jaysh al-Mujahideen, and both organizations are important members of Jabhat al-Shamiya. The leader of Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zenki, Sheikh Tawfiq Shahabuddin was the first overall commander of Fastaqim Kama Umrit, according to Abu Qutaiba. See YouTube, August 15; al-Jumhuriya [Aleppo], March 6. Author’s Skype interviews with Syrian activists from the city of Aleppo district of Salah al-Din with knowledge of Fastaqim Kama Umirt, September 12 and August 31, 2015.

SHAKYH SALEH BIN FARID BIN MUHSIN AL-AWLAQI TURNS HIS EYES TOWARD AN INDEPENDENT SOUTH YEMEN

Nicholas A. Heras

As the Ansar Allah (Partisans of God, a.k.a. the Houthis) movement and local, anti-Houthi militias, backed by a regional coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), continue to battle for control over southern and central Yemen, a prominent southern Yemeni political leader, Shaykh Saleh bin Farid bin Muhsin al-Awlaqi, reportedly flew to the UAE’s capital of Abu Dhabi to participate in a conference with Emirati and Saudi leaders to discuss the possibility of an independent South Yemen (al-Youm al-Saba [Aden], September 15; Yemen Akhbar [Aden], September 14 )

Al-Awlaqi, 72, is the paramount shaykh of the powerful al-Awlaq Arab tribal confederation, one of the most significant socio-political actors in Yemen’s southeastern Shabwa Governorate. The al-Awlaq tribe ruled a sultanate based in Shabwa that provided social and military support for the British Empire’s Aden Protectorate. A member of the Yemeni parliament before the current civil war, al-Awlaqi is a native of the town of al-Sa’eed near Ataq, the provincial capital of Shabwa, a graduate of Sandhurst Military Academy in Great Britain and a former member of the South Yemeni military in the 1960s. He lived for several decades in exile with his family in Great Britain, and was a successful and wealthy businessman in wealthier Gulf Arab countries (Ar-Rayan Press [Shabwa], July 7; Sky News Arabia [Shabwa], January 29; Shabwa Press, December 26, 2012; Shabwa Press, December 24, 2012). [1]

He is currently the overall commander of the al-Awlaq tribal resistance to the Houthis and the forces of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh—the Preparatory Committee for the Conference of All the South, an organization that is part of the secessionist Hirak movement, which is seeking an independent South Yemen (YouTube, August 20; YouTube, June 2; YouTube, May 31; al-Mushad al-Janoobi [Shabwa], April 9). His family’s home was targeted and destroyed by Houthi forces and their allies in the fighting for control over al-Sa’eed, but he is a popular leader in Shabwa for his active leadership during the fighting (al-Mandeb News [Shabwa] June 6; al-Watan [Riyadh], June 1; al-Rai Press [Shabwa], June 1; al-Jazeera, May 31).

A longtime proponent of an independent South Yemen, al-Awlaqi is seeking to utilize his interlocutor position between local south Yemeni militias and political actors and his long-standing ties to the powerful foreign backers Saudi Arabia and the UAE to engage in a process that leads to the independence of South Yemen (al-Jazeera, November 29, 2014). In spite of his leadership in the anti-Houthi, anti-Saleh resistance, he has been a fierce critic of exiled Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, the leader that the Saudi- and Emirati-led coalition is seeking to reinstate, both for President Hadi’s inability to provide material support for the Southern Resistance during the fighting with the Houthis and their allies and for Hadi’s opposition to South Yemen’s independence (Hona Hadramaut [Shabwa], June 1). To this end, al-Awlaqi, fearing the descent of south Yemen, and Aden in particular, into a Libya-like morass of warring factions, is seeking to create a unified southern independence movement out of the Abu Dhabi meetings (Aden al-Ghad, September 16; Aden al-Ghad, September 8).

His effort to coordinate a unified secessionist movement for South Yemen’s independence is a significant development in the current Yemeni conflict. Emboldened by the anti-Houthi, southern Yemeni resistance movement that has developed over the course of the civil war, Al-Awlaqi is pragmatically arguing for an independent South Yemen in order to stabilize Yemen and the Bab al-Mandeb region, an important international energy and trade transit point. Although still an incipient process, his activist role in seeking to achieve Saudi and Emirati support for a separate South Yemeni state, which they have thus far opposed and have sought to minimize through a scheme of local autonomy through the National Dialogue political process, would likely place him in a position of national leadership if a South Yemen state were to be created. In this scenario, however, Al-Awlaqi’s leadership would be dependent on Saudi and Emirati largesse and its ability to marshal international support for the new South Yemeni state in reconstruction and economic development funding; the coordination, development and sustainment of an effective South Yemeni security structure that allows for a united territorial state to function; and the ability to militarily defeat and marginalize al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which would be a direct threat and a competitor to the authority of a resuscitated South Yemeni state.

Note

1. Shaykh Saleh bin Farid bin Muhsin al-Awlaqi is an important interviewee of Jeremy Scahill, the investigative journalist who wrote the New York Times bestseller Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield (New York: Nation Books, 2013). The book is about the United States’ strategy in the Global War on Terror (GWOT) in the context of the rise of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), the increasing use of drone strikes as a tool in the GWOT and the controversial aspects of this strategy. Scahill interviewed al-Awlaqi in the context of the escalation of U.S. drone strikes in Yemen, the assassination of the Yemeni-American militant Salafist ideologue Anwar al-Awlaqi—who was the shaykh’s nephew—and the deaths of Yemeni civilians as a result of U.S. and Yemeni counter-terrorism operations against al-Qaeda. Some of al-Awlaqi’s biographical information for this paragraph comes from page 304 of this book. Al-Awlaki, who is fluent in English, appeared on the popular U.S. television show “Democracy Now!” to discuss Scahill’s findings. See: YouTube, June 7, 2013.