Jaysh Usud al-Sharqiya: Exiles of the Euphrates

 

From eastern Aleppo to Raqqa to Mosul, the Islamic State (IS) appears to be losing ground on all sides in recent months. The same pattern holds true in southeastern Syria, a region that stretches from the Jordanian border to the city of Palmyra to the Euphrates river and only rarely features in reporting on the conflict. Since the beginning of 2017 local opposition groups have been advancing on IS territory along three fronts: the Eastern Qalamoun mountains southwest of Palmyra, the Bir Kessab pocket largely in the northeast of as-Suwayda governorate, and in al-Badiya (meaning ‘the desert’) along the Rif Dimashq-Homs border. One of the key rebel factions behind these advances is the Free Syrian Army (FSA) affiliated Jaysh Usud al-Sharqiya, or the ‘Army of the Eastern Lions’. Formed by fighters fleeing Deir ez-Zor after its fall to the IS, Usud al-Sharqiya is motivated by hopes of returning to their hometown where IS and the Syrian government both control territory.

Jaysh Usud al-Sharqiya fighters in Eastern Qalamoun, March 2017. 

The Road to Qalamoun

Jaysh Usud al-Sharqiya was formed in the wake of what was then called ‘the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham’s’ (ISIS) dramatic seizure of the Euphrates river valley in mid-2014. The Deir ez-Zor Governorate had been a bastion of the Syrian revolutionaries since 2011 and hosted a wide range of rebel factions, including local FSA groups and the nationwide al-Qaida-linked jihadist faction Jabhat al-Nusra. The opposition had taken control of most of the province and restricted government forces to Deir ez-Zor city and surrounding countryside by late 2013. This coincided with increasing ISIS presence in the area following their official expansion into Syria in April of 2013. War between ISIS and Syrian opposition groups eventually broke out the following January 2014. ISIS engaged in a tactical retreat in from Deir ez-Zor in February of that year only to launch a major offensive in the area in April. By mid-July, following its declaration of a caliphate and the changing of its name to ‘the Islamic State’, the jihadi organization controlled almost the entirety of Deir ez-Zor governorate. Local opposition fighters were driven westward after the city fell. While some, including the eastern Jabhat al-Nusra leadership, ended up in the Dara’a governorate, a multitude of groups that would come to make up Jaysh Usud al-Sharqiya sought refuge in a mountainous region northeast of Damascus called Eastern Qalamoun.

Key locations in southeastern Syria. 

The Army’s Formation

Jaysh Usud al-Sharqiya declared its formation through the merger of twelve different ex-Deir ez-Zor factions on August 4, 2014 with a video released on YouTube (see below). Among these included the Eastern Front of the nationwide Jabhat al-Asala wa’l Tanmiya coalition (‘the Authenticity and Development Front’ or ADF), as well as Liwa al-Qadisiyah and Liwa Omar al-Mukhtar. The latter two factions featured prominently in the anti-ISIS fighting of that spring and were both mentioned in Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi’s December 2013 article “The Factions of Abu Kamal”. Another noteworthy founding member was Bayariq al-Shaitat, a militia affiliated with the Deir ez-Zor-based al-Shaitat tribe. Al-Shaitat resistance against IS rule led to the massacre of reportedly seven hundred of its members in August 2014, one of the group’s most brutal crimes to date.

Abu Faisal Talas al-Salama of the ADF Eastern Front was chosen as Jaysh Usud al-Sharqiya’s General Commander and Abu Barzan al-Sultani was named their Deputy Military commander. Prior to the war, Al-Salama was the owner of a small factory in al-’Asharah, a town on the Euphrates between Deir ez-Zor city and Abu Kamal. Both Talas al-Salama and Al-Sultani are active on Twitter, as @abufaislosod and @barzanbarzan429 respectively (the group itself can be found @osoudalshrqia or @osodalshrqia_en, the new English language account). Talas al-Salama joined the rebellion in March 2012 and eventually came to lead Liwa Bashayir al-Nasr, one of the ADF Eastern Front component groups. He was also appointed as a member of the Deir ez-Zor Mujahideen Shura Council during the 2014 war with ISIS, demonstrating his importance within the local opposition.

An Infographic by @badly_xeroxed portraying the factions that founded Jaysh Usud al-Sharqiya, as well as those that merged in later. 

Talas al-Salama lays out the group’s raison d’etre in the August 4th video, stating that “given… the emergence of [the Islamic State] that has affected the course of the revolution, corrupted the Islamic project, labelled Muslims disbelievers... it is [Usud al-Sharqiya’s] revolutionary and lawful duty to confront and fight” the group. This is followed by a call on all who “care about Islam and the homeland” to join them in the fight against the “ungodly Safavid regime,” in reference to the al-Assad government and their ties to Iran. These statements both highlight the importance Jaysh Usud al-Sharqiya has always placed on fighting IS as well as the group’s Islamist orientation. Based on what information can be found regarding the ideology of Usud al-Sharqiya’s founding factions, it seems they belonged across the spectrum of the Syrian opposition. Several of these previous groups’ logos featured FSA symbols, including the green, white and red ‘revolution flag’ and depictions of eagles. Al-Tamimi concluded that neither Liwa Omar al-Mukhtar nor Liwa al-Qadisiyah appeared to have a political program outside of the ousting of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in his aforementioned article.

Abu Faisal Talas al-Salama (right) in al-Badiya, July 2016. 

As discussed above, Jaysh Usud al-Sharqiya was founded as a local affiliate of Jabhat al-Asala wa’l Tanmiya who had long maintained a presence in Eastern Syria. The ADF is headed by “Secretary-General Khaled al-Hamad, a Salafi preacher based in the Gulf,” while the Front’s nationwide membership “is composed of a mixture of military defectors, civilian rebels, and Islamists”, according to analyst Aron Lund in Carnegie Middle East Centre. Sheikh Khaled al-Hamad labeled their ideology moderate Salafism in a February 2015 interview with Arabi21. Lund reported the group’s leadership as being “close to the so-called madkhaliya, which is a conservative but politically pliant (Saudi) Salafi tendency that supports the Saudi government.” This affiliation to a large national coalition enabled Usud al-Sharqiya access to the ADF’s regional support network. This fundraising web ties the ADF to several Gulf nations including Kuwait, according to Charles Lister's book The Syrian Jihad. Being an ADF member group was crucial to Usud al-Sharqiya’s initial survival and eventual growth. According to their commander Talas al-Salama, the four hundred Deir ez-Zor exiles that would come to make up the army arrived in Eastern Qalamoun lacking in money and supplies and were often forced to sleep out in the open. As largely destitute and defeated outsiders it took a while for Usud al-Sharqiya to gain the trust and support of the local population. The army’s status as an ADF member group came to an end in December 2015 as they announced they were leaving the Front. Presumably this was partially due to Usud al-Sharqiya becoming self-sufficient and ingrained in the local opposition scene. Both Talas and Younes al-Salama have since expressed gratitude for Jabhat al-Asala wa’l Tanmiya’s support.

Abu Faisal Talas al-Salama (right, seated), April 2015. 

The only place the faction has ever maintained a presence outside of Qalamoun and al-Badiya is within the opposition-held pocket known as Eastern Ghouta in the Damascus suburbs. The formation of Liwa Usud al-’Asima, an affiliate of Usud al-Sharqiya, was declared in a video uploaded to YouTube on January 17, 2015. The brigade was active in the Tishreen district of Qaboun neighborhood in northeastern Damascus. They were involved in coordinated rebel efforts to remove a local IS affiliated group from the neighbourhood. However, Usud al-’Asima merged into Jaysh al-Islam’s 8th Brigade only six months later due to local unification efforts in Qaboun.

Liwa Usud al-'Asima's defunct Twitter page. 

Size and Structure

Jaysh Usud al-Sharqiya was made up of three hundred and fifty fighters by January 2016, according to Talas al-Salama. Two hundred of these were from the original Deir ez-Zor contingent, while the rest were Qalamoun locals who had joined after the group’s formation. The following month two smaller Qalamoun factions would announce their merging into the army: Liwa Usud Umayyad and Liwa Usud al-Sunnah. Liwa Usud al-Sunnah appears to have been another old Deir ez-Zor faction from the town of Mayadin that was active alongside Liwa Bashayir al-Nasr in the ADF Eastern Front. According to press officer Younes al-Salama, Usud al-Sharqiya has had success recruiting other Deir ez-Zor exiles living in opposition-held Idlib and in Turkey who must cross the Jordanian border in order to join the army. This enlistment path has been disrupted as Jordanian authorities closed the border following an IS attack on the Rukban internally displaced people (IDP) camp in January of 2017. The groups that have been folded into Usud al-Sharqiya since its inception have not maintained individual identities. The only active subdivisions within the army are based on current geography: one sector for Eastern Qalamoun and one for al-Badiya. It’s not clear which of the two is bigger but since the beginning of the year the army has published significantly more media from al-Badiya. Younes al-Salama refused to disclose a more recent figure of the army’s total size when asked in March 2017, but between four and five hundred fighters seems like a reasonable estimation.

Military Equipment

On the battlefield Jaysh Usud al-Sharqiya makes extensive use of technicals, perfect for the mobile desert warfare that takes place along their frontlines. These vehicles are almost entirely Toyota Land Cruisers and Hiluxes outfitted with heavy machine guns, anti-aircraft guns, recoilless rifles, Multiple Launch Rocket Systems (MLRSs), and occasionally mounted Anti-Tank Guided Missiles (ATGMs). Overall, research on the group’s military equipment is complicated by their tendency to publish videos in conjunction with local ally Quwwat al-Shaheed Ahmed al-Abdo (‘Forces of the Martyr Ahmed al-Abdo’). Such videos often show conveys of ten to fifteen pickup trucks without faction logos on them, making it impossible to discern which belongs to whom. The most common artillery piece in the group’s arsenal appears to be the Soviet-made 57mm AZP S-60 transportable anti-aircraft gun, frequently used in a surface-to-surface capacity. As far as small arms go, Usud al-Sharqiya fighters are typically seen with AK and PK variants, Soviet-made standard issue equipment for the Syrian Arab Army. Usud al-Sharqiya is in possession of multiple T-55 tanks and at least one T-62 tank, captured from either IS or forces loyal to the Syrian government. In 2016, T-55s appeared in combat in at least three of Usud al-Sharqiya's videos: once in January and twice in September. The T-62 has only ever been shown in combat in an image released on the group's Twitter on March 16, 2017. Possibly the same T-62 briefly showed up in a September 2016 video. Both these T-62 appearances took place in Eastern Qalamoun.

A Usud al-Sharqiya T-62 fires at IS positions in Eastern Qalamoun, March 2017. 

There are several instances of ATGM usage by the army, dating back to January 2015. These include the use of the US-made BGM-71 tube-launched, optically tracked, wire-guided (TOW) missile, a weapon that is perhaps the most interesting part of the Syrian opposition’s arsenal. TOWs have been supplied to CIA-vetted rebel groups across the country since 2013 through Jordan- and Turkey-based Military Operations Command posts, commonly known as the MOC and the MOM respectively. It appears that several of Usud al-Sharqiya’s TOWs were captured from IS who had seized some from local CIA-vetted opposition groups, as well as the Iraqi Army. Since then, according to Younes al-Salama, the army has received some of such anti-tank missiles from the MOC. This foreign support dates back to at least the beginning of 2016 and continues to this day, according to the press officer.

A member of Usud al-Sharqiya fires a TOW mounted to the back of a Toyota Landcruiser, March 2017. 

MLSRs began appearing in the army’s videos since October 2016, specifically the RAK-12 128mm and the BM-21 Grad 122mm. At least two launchers of each of the two models are displayed but only one of the BM-21’s is marked with the Jaysh Usud al-Sharqiya logo, implying the other rocket launchers possibly belong to Ahmed al-Abdo forces. One of the Grad trucks, first appearing in a video released on February 6, 2017, appears to be quite new and is shown with thirty rockets loaded. Younes al-Salama has subsequently confirmed in a digital interview with the author that the truck and rockets had recently supplied to Usud al-Sharqiya by the MOC. Hiluxes outfitted with American-made M2 .50 caliber heavy machine gun have also started appearing in the group’s media, presumably from the MOC as well.

Usud al-Sharqiya display an almost fully loaded BM-21 Grad, February 2017.
 

The Grad rocket truck recently supplied to Usud al-Sharqiya by the MOC, March 2017.

An American-made M2 .50 caliber machine gun mounted on a Toyota Hilux, February 2017. 

The Battle of Sarajna al-Jiyad

This uptick in MOC support corresponds with recent developments in al-Badiya and Eastern Qalamoun. Over the past three months, Jaysh Usud al-Sharqiya has taken part in large-scale rebel operations targeting IS, alongside the Ahmed al-Abdo Forces and other local FSA factions. The fact that this offensive and operations room, currently known as “Sarajna al-Jiyad”, is targeting IS and not the government is presumably why foreign aid appears to have increased. In other parts of southern Syria, the Jordanian MOC has attempted to prevent rebel escalation against the government through the decreasing and cutting off material support.

Abu Barzan al-Sultani during the Sarajna al-Jiyad battle (the logo can be seen at the bottom right), March 2017. 

The objectives of this battle have been to liberate the IS’s Bir Kessab pocket along the as-Suwayda-Rif Dimashq border and to connect rebel territory in Eastern Qalamoun and al-Badiya. The first of these goals was accomplished by March 29, 2017, according to a map released by Usud al-Sharqiya. The town of Bir Kessab itself was taken two days prior in coordination with Jaysh Ahrar al-Asha’er, another FSA group participating in the Sarajna al-Jiyad battle. While hostilities with nearby loyalist forces have not broken out, both Jaysh Usud al-Sharqiya and the Ahmed al-Abdo Forces recently reported being targeted in government airstrikes and artillery bombardment multiple times since March 27. This however is likely a continuation of past government and Russian behavior, not a sign of upcoming escalation. Several al-Badiya factions have had their bases randomly targeted by Syrian or Russian planes in the past, including Usud al-Sharqiya in July 2016.

A map from @FSAplatform portraying recent opposition advances in al-Badiya and Eastern Qalamoun. 

It appears likely that the Sarajna al-Jiyad factions will soon succeed in connecting Eastern Qalamoun to their territory in al-Badiya. As of March 29th it was reported that only ten kilometers of IS territory remained between the two pockets. In total, over three hundred kilometers of territory have been taken, though much of this is uninhabitable desert.

On March 30, Talas al-Salama told Arabi21 that many IS fighters have withdrawn east, most likely redeployed to Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor. While this means factions like Jaysh Usud al-Sharqiya should be able to quickly advance in the direction of the Euphrates, the porous nature of the desert frontlines mean IS infiltration and suicide vehicle attacks will remain a risk. Just recently, on April 9, IS launched a SVBIED-led attack on al-Tanf near the Syrian-Iraqi-Jordanian border, a location which Coalition forces use to train several local groups. Jaysh Usud al-Sharqiya sent a convoy of "six or seven vehicles" as reinforcements and lost two fighters in the process of defeating the surprise attack. The group released a statement on their new English language Twitter account regarding the al-Tanf on the same day. More such attacks should be expected as opposition groups continue to push IS east. Talas al-Salama has recently reiterated that Jaysh Usud al-Sharqiya is fighting to expulse the IS from the Syrian desert and eventually Deir ez-Zor. However in clearing the desert of IS opposition-loyalist frontlines will drastically increase. It remains to be seen if Usud al-Sharqiya and its allies will be able to maintain their focus on fighting the IS with the backing of the MOC, or whether these new frontlines with the Syrian government in eastern Homs will flair up.

 

Russian Marine Major killed in FSA TOW strike

 

On April 20th, Reuters reported that a Russian Marine Major by the name of Sergey Bordov was killed during fighting on a Syrian Army base in Hama. Bordov is one of the highest ranking officers to have been killed during Russia's involvement in the war. This news corresponds with a Furqat al-Wusta (the Central Division) TOW video released two days prior which allegedly targeted a group of Syrian and Russian soldiers. The video's title says that the strike occured around Rahbet Khattab, an army base just north of the town Khattab. A uniquely designed watertower features prominently in the video's background. After crossreferencing with other videos from the same front, it becomes clear that this is the watertower located on the western edge of the army base. The location of the target itself lies 1.7km northwest of the base, in front of a munitions depot. While RT.com initially reported that Bordov was killed in an assault on the base it was later confirmed by his widow that he was killed in a TOW strike. The death of Major Sergey Bordov places official Russian military fatality numbers somewhere in the low 30s.

"The Central Division targeted a gathering of Assad gangs and Russian troops In Rabhet Khattab with a TOW missile"

A still from the TOW video.

A Jaysh al-Izza (FSA) video from two days later that shows the same hill top. Source.

 
Target location circled in red.

Target location circled in red.

 

A still from a SMAART Agency video showing the watertower at Rabhet Khabbat. Source.

Rabhet Khattab army base. Location. 

Rabhet Khattab army base. Location. 

 

Jebel Zayn al-Abdeen's Importance on the Hama Battlefield

 

Jebel Zayn al-Abdeen viewed from the west. Source.

Sitting about five kilometers north of Hama city and under a kilometer east of the M-5 highway, Jebel Zayn al-Abdeen represents a key strategic position for Syrian government forces. Pro-Russian news agency ANNA News recently posted a video from just below the mountain's summit during the ongoing regime counter offensive. From this position, one has a commanding vantage point over the entire northern Hama plain. In the video, government artillery teams can clearly be seen shelling the town of Souran ten kilometers away. According to some accounts, one can see as far as fifty kilometers to the north from the mountaintop. Jebel Zayn al-Abdeen has an elevation of 619 meters, making the second tallest peak along the northern Hama frontlines. Only Jebel Kafra'a, sitting a couple kilometers to the east is taller. However, Jebel Kafra'a is significantly less fortified, due to its position further away from the M-5 highway and the city of Hama.

 

The view of Souran, 10 km away.

 

Through the study of recent satellite imagery on Terraserver.com (from 21 February 2017) one is able to make out numerous fortified positions on Jebel Zayn al-Abdeen, particularly on the mountain's northwest face. At the location of the video, here on Wikimapia, one can see two 130mm field guns (presumably M-46s), as well as several vehicles. Due to the quality of the images it is hard to verify, but the Grad rocket truck that appears in the video might be parked to the left of the field guns. At the bottom of the mountain a heavily fortified checkpoint can be seen right off the M-5 highway. This also featured what appears to be 130mm cannons, as well as numerous military vehicles.

Jebel Zayn al-Abdeen in relation to Hama, and the current frontlines

A topographically map of northern Hama. Jebel Zayn al-Abdeen can be seen just east of Qomhane. Source.

As pro-opposition news agency Shaam.org has pointed out, the possession of Jebel Zayn al-Abdeen has been key in the defense of northern Hama. On 22 March, a day into the most recent rebel offensive, a spokesman for FSA faction Jaysh al-Izza highlighted the mountain's importance to regime defense of both Hama city and the nearby military airport. In speaking to SyriaDirect.org, He stated that capturing Jebel Zayn al-Abdeen was the operation's main objective. However, this latest offensive has already begun to falter and lose territory to the loyalist counter offensive. The closest opposition groups have come to the mountain in 2017 was entering the town of Qomhane, which they were soon pushed out of.

Without capturing this strategic mountain, it appears doubtful that Syrian opposition forces will be able to sustain any advances within the vicinity of Hama city.

A 130mm M-46 on Jebel Zayn al-Abdeen, targeting rebel positions in Souran. 

Artillerymen on Jebel Zayn al-Abdeen. A Grad rocket truck can be seen in the background.

 

Grad rockets being fired from the same position.

 

The artillery position filmed in the ANNA news video. Two 130mm cannons can be seen in this satellite imagery from February. Location.

Fortified position on the mountain's NE face featuring what appears to be two tanks. Location. 

The Gov't checkpoint at the base of the mountain. Several large artillery pieces and military vehicles can be seen. Location. 

At mountain's summit lies a shrine to Shia Imam Ali Ibn Husayn Zayn al-Abdeen. Photo source. 

 

SDF take control of the Tabqa Dam's North Channel Outlet

 

On the 24 March, Grasswire.com posted an article titled "Geo-locating imagery of SDF fighters around the Tabqa dam, Raqqa." CivilwaralSham.com assisted in the geolocation effort. While many sources reported that the Syrian Democratic Forces had taken control of the entire Tabqa Dam, the images released by affiliated media showed that they in fact only occupied the Dam's North Channel outlet, located here on Wikimapia. The difference between these two parts of the dam has led to subsequent confusion and misinformation, particularly as people try to investigate the Islamic State's claims that Coalition airstrikes severly damaged the dam.

 
 

Imagery from the Grasswire.com article.

 

Location of Jaysh al-Izza TOW strike on loyalist tank

 

The ongoing rebel offensive in Northern Hama has featured a number of ATGM launches from various groups. FSA faction Jaysh al-Izza has possibly fired the most, including US-made BGM-71 TOW missiles. This video from 26 May has been geolocated to a field 2.5km south of the town of Maazraf, which was in opposition hands at the time.

Location on Wikimapia: here.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Map from 26 May showing Ma'azraf under opposition control. Source.

Verifying the frontlines between Qalamoun and al-Badiya

 
 
 

Fighting between opposition groups and the Islamic State has been ongoing in the country's southeast for the entirety of 2017. At the moment, rebel groups just as Jaysh Usud al-Sharqiya and Quwwat al-Shaheed Ahmed al-Abdo appear close to connecting their two pockets in the region: Eastern Qalamoun and al-Badiya. On 23 March, Jaysh Usud al-Sharqiya put out both a map of the current situation, as well as video scanning of the territory separating the two rebel-held pockets. The label, as seen below, labelled this territory to be only 18km wide. The only seemingly recognizable landmarks in the video were a highway that the video track as well as a cluster of houses to its left. This cluster of houses can be seen here on Wikimapia. Their location on the map below is at the uppermost white dot, where the distance label begins. 

 
 
 
 

https://twitter.com/osodalshrqia/status/844996879431712773

 

Upcoming Rebel unification in Eastern Aleppo?

al-Jabha al-Shamiya's Twitter logo. 

On 1 December, rebels in Eastern Aleppo announced an upcoming merger attempt following a loyalist offensive which managed to capture the northern third of opposition-held territory within the city. The new group will be known as "Jaysh Halab," or the Aleppo Army and a number of the prominent local factions have been named as participants. So far, however, the only group mentioned in all reports has been al-Jabha al-Shamiya, an Aleppo-based FSA group that descended from the now dissolved Liwa al-Tawhid. Abu Abdul al-Rahman Nour, a member of al-Jabha al-Shamiya, has reportedly been named Chief Commander, while Abu Bashir Amara has been given the title of Military Commander. 'Abu Bashir 'Amara (أبو بشير عمارة) is most likely a misspelling of 'Abu Bashir M'aara (أبو بشير معارة), who is a member of Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zenki mentioned in reports about recent rebel infighting between Zenki and Fastaqim Kama Umirt. 'Abu Bashir's Twitter account can be found here. It states that he is the 'Military Commander of the Aleppo Operations Room,' but so far doesn't mention anything about 'Jaysh Halab.' Both these two men's names are mentioned in tweets from 14 November reporting that a 'Unified Military Command' had been created for Eastern Aleppo and that these two men were its commanders. 

Map of recent rebel losses around Aleppo. Source. 

The al-Maqalaat Telegram account, which largely reports on Islamist news from Syria, claimed that at least eleven opposition groups are involved in this creation of a single army. Those listed are: al-Jabha al-Shamiya, Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zenki, Ahrar al-Sham, Jaysh al-Islam, Faylaq al-Sham, Jaysh al-Mujahideen, Kataib al-Safwa, Kataib Abu Amarah, al-Furqat 13 (now part of the Free Idlib Army), and Furqat al-Sultan Murad. These factions are the most significant Islamist and FSA (with some overlap) groups in Eastern Aleppo. Missing from this list is Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (rebranded al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra) other smaller jihadist groups (such as Jabhat Ansar al-Din), and local FSA group al-Fawj al-Awl.  

Whether or not this merger will become reality remains to be seen. It is possible that the coalition will end up existing on paper only, as has been the case with many such previous unification attempts in Syria (including one of the same name). It is also possible that this could also just result in a rebranding of al-Jabha al-Shamiya into 'Jaysh Halab.' What is known is that the Opposition of Eastern Aleppo is in an increasingly dire position as loyalist forces have continued to shrink the pocket since placing it under siege in July. Rebel infighting has not helped the situation. Just one month ago, Zenki, Furqat al-Abu Amarah, and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham essentially destroyed longtime Aleppo FSA mainstay Fastaqim Kama Umirt. This occurred a couple days into a rebel offensive designed to break the siege of Aleppo. Unlike the previous temporarily successful attempt in the summer, this early November assault featured very little activity from inside Eastern Aleppo itself, as some of the key opposition groups were embroiled in this inter-rebel conflict. If these factions manage to unify to some degree, they stand a better chance of surviving the ongoing loyalist offensive. 

A video made by a rebel supporter (likely from Aleppo), about Abu Bashir M'aata. Features footage he's in from both Zenki and al-Fawj al-Awl videos.

A screenshot of 'Abu Bashir's Twitter account. 'Abu Bashir is the fifth from the left, second from the right is Omar Salkhu, a local (and controversial) Zenki commander.

 

An update will come once more information comes out

Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zenki

The official logo of Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zenki.

The Syrian opposition is constituted by a broad spectrum of factions, polarized at one end by FSA-branded secularists and by international Salafi-jihadists at the other. Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zenki falls within the non-static independent Islamist middle ground. Its orientation has oscillated between these two poles throughout its five year history. From 2014-15 Nour al-Din al-Zenki was a CIA-vetted opposition group supplied with TOW anti-tank missiles through the Military Operations Command in Turkey (known as the ‘M.O.M.’ in Turkish). By the end of 2015, despite having lost its vetted status, the group came into direct conflict with al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra. In 2016, however, the group has drifted in the opposite direction, a trend which has led to Nour al-Din al-Zenki joining the Jaysh al-Fatah operations room alongside Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra) on 24 September.

History

Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zenki was founded on 4 November, 2011 in response to the Syrian government’s violent repression of the protest movement. The organization’s name refers to Nur al-Din, the 12th century Zengid atabeg of Aleppo and predecessor to Saladin, remembered for conquering a wide swath of territory across the Levant, including Aleppo and Damascus, and defeating Crusaders and Muslim rivals in the process. Zenki coalesced around the northwestern Aleppo town of Qabtian al-Jebel, home to the group’s founder Sheikh Tawfiq Shahabuddin. Shahabuddin, a former camel-meat butcher, reportedly sold most of his property in order to raise money for the opposition during the very beginning of the war. Over the past year Zenki has been estimated to field somewhere between 1,500 and 5,000 fighters.

Sheikh Tawfiq Shahabuddin. Source. 

Sheikh Tawfiq Shahabuddin. Source. 

In July 2012, at the outbreak of the Battle of Aleppo, Zenki entered the southwestern neighborhood of Salah al-Din fighting under the banner of northern Aleppo-based group Liwa al-Tawhid. According to Shahabuddin, the group spent forty four days fighting within the city but was forced to retreat back to the western countryside due to ammunition shortages. Zenki announced that it would be ending its association with Liwa al-Tawhid a couple months after this withdrawal. This one be the first in a number of local coalitions that Zenki would participate in.

Nour al-Din al-Zenki participated in the siege and taking of the Sheikh Sulayman Base towards the end of 2012. Base 111, as it is also known, was the last major base held by government forces in western Aleppo. The two month siege was reportedly led by Jabhat al-Nusra and allied foreign jihadist groups, but Zenki’s role was large enough for Sheikh Tawfiq Shahabuddin to be interviewed on the subject by the international press.

At some point in 2013, Zenki was a member group of Saudi-backed quietist Salafist coalition Jabha al-Asala wa’l Tanmiya. Then, as wide scale fighting between Syrian opposition groups and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham broke out in early 2014, it helped found anti-ISIS coalition Jaysh al-Mujahideen. Zenki reportedly left the group in May of the same year. A Carter Center report in September of 2014 suggests this falling out was largely due to Saudi-Qatari rivalry. Saudi involvement in the MOC was increasing in mid 2014 as Qatari influence declined. Jaysh al-Mujahideen “was reportedly considered by the MOC to be a Muslim Brotherhood outfit,” implying links to Qatar. Zenki became vetted, while the rest of Jaysh al-Mujahideen was passed over, leading to tensions. It would not be until after Zenki left the coalition that this vetted status would result in TOW shipments. From December 2014 to the following April they were a member group of Jabhat al-Shamiya. Jabhat al-Shamiya existed as a coalition of local Aleppo groups with an Islamist bent. It quickly disbanded and reappeared as a singular faction made up of former Liwa al-Tawhid elements.

An image from the group's twitter, demonstrating the use of the Jaysh al-Fatah logo within Aleppo city. Source.

An image from the group's twitter, demonstrating the use of the Jaysh al-Fatah logo within Aleppo city. Source.

Zenki has remained independent since the disintegration of the Jabhat al-Shamiya coalition, coordinating with other rebel organizations through several regional operations rooms. Within Aleppo city Zenki belonged to the Fatah Halab operations room since its founding in April of 2015. However since the group’s joining of the Jaysh al-Fatah coalition in September 2016 it has ceased to use the Fatah Halab logo on its official videos and images from inside the city, using Jaysh al-Fatah’s instead. On the northern Aleppo frontlines the group coordinates with other rebels through the Hawar Kilis operations room.

For most of Nour al-Din al-Zenki’s existence the group was led by its founder. However, on 30 April 2015, it was announced that Zenki’s Shura Council had decided to exempt Shahabuddin of his duties due to health reasons. Sheikh Ali Saido was selected to replace him. Some have speculated that this change was actually related to Saudi dissatisfaction with Shahabuddin’s ties to Qatar. Then, on September 17, Zenki announced another change in leadership following a merger with Harakat al-Zahir Baybar and City of Aleppo Brigade. The group’s Shura Council selected Mohammed Said al-Masri, a defected police officer and member of one of the two newly merged groups. On 16 April 2016 it was announced that Sheikh Tawfiq Shahabuddin would be returning as the group’s Commander in Chief, a title he still holds.

The T.O.W. Program 

It appears that Nour al-Din al-Zenki received its first BGM-71 TOW shipment from the Military Operations Center in Turkey in the summer of 2014 on the heels of its departure from Jaysh al-Mujahideen. On 11 July the group published a video of a TOW strike targeting a T-72 tank on the Sheikh Najjar front of northeastern Aleppo city. Zenki’s relationship with the MOC appears to have been tumultuous. The founding of al-Jabha al-Shamiya (Levant Front) on 25 December of 2014 and subsequent coordination with Jabhat al-Nusra appears to have angered Washington and possibly led to a suspension of TOWs. Zenki had managed to maintained MOC support prior to this, despite a late 2014 aid cutoff that affected Idlib and Hama following a rise in the power and assertiveness of Jabhat al-Nusra.

According to Charles Lister “Turkey led the move to cut [Zenki’s] funding” in July and August of 2015, with the group being completely cut off by the following month. Human rights allegations are among the main reasons given by pundits as to why MOC support for Zenki was severed. A recent Amnesty International report has accused Zenki of abductions and torture. The September 2015 severance of support for Zenki corresponded with its incorporation of Harakat Zahir al-Baybar, a local Aleppo Turkmen group, into its ranks. This group was allegedly involved in the kidnapping of two Italian aid workers who ended up in the hands of Jabhat al-Nusra. Interestingly, it appears that a Zenki court convicted one of negotiators for pocketing a large part of the 11 million Euro ransom.

A video of a TOW strike in Northern Aleppo, targeting an Islamic State position. July 23, 2016.

During July and August of 2015, while Turkey was reportedly pushing to cut them off, Zenki posted ten videos of ATGM strikes featuring TOWs. The situation did not change for Zenki despite the Russian intervention beginning in September of 2015 and the subsequent boost of rebel TOW usage in Idlib and Hama. The group posted no ATGM videos in September and only two in October. These two happened to be TOW videos, though this itself does not necessarily mean MOC support as the weapons could have either been stockpiled or acquired from another group. Zenki published three ATGM videos in November of 2015, but instead of TOWs they only depicted the Russian-made Metis and Kornet. Zenki would not fire an ATGM again until May of 2016. The group has posted around ten ATGM videos since, some of which do feature TOWs. However, it appears that the group is still outside MOC support. Some have claimed that these TOW videos actually feature operators and weapons from vetted opposition groups, though the reason behind such a move is unclear.

Conflict with Jabhat al-Nusra

Fighting between Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zenki and Jabhat al-Nusra broke out on October 6, 2015 in the western Aleppo countryside. Two Zenki checkpoints were attacked and a car bomb was detonated at one of their headquarters. The dispute was reportedly over a contested checkpoint between the town of Atarib and the Regiment 46 Base captured by the opposition in 2012. Tens of Zenki fighters were arrested by Nusra forces. Eventually an agreement facilitated by Ahrar al-Sham and civil and religious authorities was reached. Nour al-Din al-Zenki subsequently released a announcement apologizing for statements made by members on social media attacking Nusra. Charles Lister attributed the conflict to a hardline Nusra leader named Abu Hajer al-Homsi redeployed from Idlib to Aleppo and creating tensions between the two groups. At the time some feared that Zenki might be doomed to the same fate as Harakat Hazm and the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, two moderate groups that were attacked and completely defeated by Jabhat al-Nusra. Zenki has avoided such a turn of events however, and has militarily collaborated with Nusra since.

Abdullah Issa

An image taken from the beheading video, portraying Abdullah Issa surrounded by al-Zenki fighters.

An image taken from the beheading video, portraying Abdullah Issa surrounded by al-Zenki fighters.

Nour al-Din al-Zenki entered the international spotlight on July 19th 2016 with circulation of a beheading video throughout social media. Following a failed loyalist attack on the Handarat Camp (northern Aleppo city), a very young-appearing fighter named Abdullah Tayseer al-Issa was captured by Zenki. Abdullah Issa allegedly fought for the Liwa al-Quds loyalist militia, made up of ethnic Palestinians living in Handarat Camp and other Palestinian refugee centers. In the aforementioned video Issa is seen sitting the the bed of a truck with a cast on his right leg, surrounded by Zenki fighters. After asking to be shot rather than “slaughtered,” the men around him taunt him and one asks for his knife. Issa is laid face down off the bed of the truck and subsequently beheaded. Abdullah Issa’s identity has remained in dispute since the story broke, as rebel sympathizers have claimed him to have been a nineteen year old SAA soldier from Homs who suffered from Thalassemia, while government supporters maintain that he was a Palestinian civilian kidnapped by Zenki.

Omar Salkhu (on the left), one of the two Zenki commanders present at the beheading of Abdullah Issa, shown in Ramouseh, early August 2016. Source. 

Omar Salkhu (on the left), one of the two Zenki commanders present at the beheading of Abdullah Issa, shown in Ramouseh, early August 2016. Source. 

The beheader appears to have been an Aleppo local named Matin Abo Ahmad. Also seen in the video are Zenki Aleppo commanders Omar Salkhu and Mohammad Ma’yuf. The same day as the incident Zenki published a statement referring to the incident as an individual error not indicative of the group as a whole and announced that it had formed a judicial committee to look into the matter. Whether this actually occurred is unclear. Several days later it was reported that Matin Abo Ahmad had been killed in fighting on the Handarat front. Both Omar Salkhu and Mohammad Ma’yuf later appeared in Zenki media during the August offensive to break the siege of Aleppo, leading one to assume the appointed judicial committee had not found them culpable for the incident.

Ideology

Zenki members posting a banner featuring an Abdullah Azzam quote. Source. 

Zenki members posting a banner featuring an Abdullah Azzam quote. Source. 

While the group’s on-the-ground allegiances have changed throughout the war, Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zenki’s ideological orientation is general Islamist with Salafist leanings. According to analyst Charles Lister, Tawfiq Shahabuddin has maintained “strong connections to Salafist sources in the Gulf” since early on in the war. A twitter account exists for the group’s ‘Sharia Bureau,’ highlighting the da’wah activities the group engages in in the western Aleppo countryside. The account was only active from April to June of 2016 posting a total of five tweets, all featuring official Zenki pictures and video. These included youths undergoing Quranic studies, a public Sharia lecture by Sheikh Shahabuddin, a graduation of the movement’s members through a Sharia program, and the hanging of banners featuring Islamist and pro-revolution slogans in western Aleppo towns. One of these banners features a quote from al-Qaeda co-founder Abdullah Azzam, stating “to bear arms without raising the doctrine of Tawhid [the Oneness of God] would turn the weapon bearers to bandits and hooligans.” In public statements Zenki maintains that, for the time being, the group is primarily focused on the military aspects of the revolution. When asked about the group’s political aspirations for a post-Assad Syria, Sheikh Shahabuddin told al-Jazeera “We are not the only ones who will determine the political future of Syria, there are plenty of people marched and fought and fought to bring this system, when the system drops these are will determine the fate of Syria's political future.” On September 24 2016, Zenki published a press release declaring the group’s joining of the Jaysh al-Fatah military operations room. This announcement now places Nour al-Din al-Zenki in a formal military alliance with jihadist factions such as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra) and the ethnically Uighur ‘Turkistan Islamic Party,’ as well as the Salafist Ahrar al-Sham. Following the Abdullah Issa incident and the recent joining of Jaysh al-Fatah, it is doubtful that Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zenki will ever receive MOM support again.

Geographical Presence

Aleppo frontlines circa mid-October 2016. Red = Government, Black = Islamic State, Yellow = Syrian Democratic Forces, Light Green = Zenki areas of control, Darker Green = Zenki general presence. 

Nour al-Din al-Zenki’s home region is the western Aleppo countryside, where they maintain control over a number of towns. The group oversees local administration in Qabtian al-Jebel, Sheikh Suleiman, Mansoura, Hour, and other locations in the region. Zenki maintains a presence on practically all frontlines across Aleppo governorate. From the period of June to August 2016, the group’s social media accounts showed it to be active on the western edges of Aleppo city, targeting al-Zahra and the New Aleppo districts, in the city neighborhoods of Ramouseh, al-Ameria, and Salahuddin, in al-Aziza to the southeast, and on the northern fronts of Sheikh Najjar, Handarat, and Mallah. Outside of Aleppo city and the western countryside, the group is active the Azaz pocket to the north, and has been involved in the fight there, against the Islamic State. Nour al-Din al-Zenki is one of the rebel groups involved in the Turkish-led Operation Euphrates Shield, fighting both the Syrian Democratic Forces and the Islamic State in the territory south and west of Jarabulus.

Recent Activity

From June to August 2016, Nour al-Din al-Zenki published 79 videos on their official YouTube channel. The majority of these were under two minutes and highlight their use of different weapons, on fronts across Aleppo governorate. Six of these videos featured the use of ATGMs (Anti-Tank Guided Missiles). Three of these were U.S. made BGM-71 TOW’s, that enter northern Syria through the Turkish-based Military Operations Command (abbreviated M.O.M. in Turkish). Two of these took place just south of the Turkish border in northern Aleppo, during fighting with the Islamic State. The third TOW used in this time period was fired on the Mallah front, targeting a loyalist 23mm cannon.  Other Nour al-Din al-Zenki ATGM usage within this time period includes two firings of the Russian-made Kornet, and one of the Russian-made Metis. These were located in Kafr Kalbin, just south of the border town of Azaz, New Aleppo, a western Aleppo suburb, and on the Mallah front, respectively. Russian-made ATGMs are either supplied to opposition groups through the M.O.M., or are captured from loyalist forces.

A Hell Cannon being fired on the Ramouseh frontlines. 


Other videos published on the Zenki YouTube account portray the usage of an array of weapons, from mortars, to Katyusha rockets, to technicals mounted with 23mm guns, to the ‘Hell Cannon;’ an improvised ‘mortar-like cannon’ popular throughout Syria. On certain occasions, Nour al-Din al-Zenki’s media office has put out higher quality, longer length videos, such as for the holiday of Eid, or one highlighting the case of a man who lost three sons fighting within the movement’s ranks, or after offensives in Mallah, Northern Aleppo, and Ramouseh.

 

A Zenki video showing their members preparing for the holiday of Eid. 

A Zenki video posted after an offensive on the the Mallah front. 

As the end of 2016 approaches, Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zenki remains one of the most important factions across the front lines of Aleppo. The group has been particularly active within Eastern Aleppo city, attempting to hold off encroaching loyalist forces, and across the northern Aleppo countryside, fighting the Islamic State and the Syrian Democratic Forces alongside the Turkish Army. Zenki's size has continued to grow, as it was announced on 15 October that a former Liwa al-Tawhid faction was joining the movement. Since joining Jaysh al-Fatah in late September, Nour al-Din al-Zenki has ceased to use the Fatah Halab logo or hashtag on Twitter. Perhaps as a sign of their recent realignment, a recent video of theirs, featuring Zenki as well as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and Ahrar al-Sham fighters, ended with an image of the Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zenki logo in black and white, without the 'revolutionary' green.

 
 
"Do not forget he who includes you in his prayers"

"Do not forget he who includes you in his prayers"

 
 

Jaysh Idlib al-Hurr (the 'Free Idlib Army')

On September 19th, 2016 three Free Syrian Army groups active on multiple northwestern fronts declared the creation of “Jaysh Idlib al-Hurr,” or the Free Idlib Army (FIA). The new coalition was formed by Liwa Suqour al-Jebel, Division 13, and the Northern Division. All three component groups have been active within Aleppo, Hama, Latakia and Idlib governorates, the former being where each groups' headquarters are located. The FIA intends to continue using the Idlib towns of Ma'arat Nu'man and Kafr Nabl as the faction’s main bases. According to the deputy commander this new FSA faction fields 6,000 fighters, including 200 officers, making among the largest factions outside of nationwide groups such as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, Ahrar al-Sham, and Jaysh al-Islam. Each of the FIA's member groups have been longtime vetted TOW recipients through the Turkey-based M.O.M., and have been among the most prolific users of these U.S. anti-tank missiles (specifically Liwa Suqour al-Jebel) since mid 2015. The Free Idlib Army has already posted two videos of TOW strikes on loyalist targets.  

The announcement of the merger. Source. 

The Army’s leadership positions have been awarded to the previous leaders of the different component groups, with Hassan Haj Ali of Suqour al-Jebel being selected as the group's commander and the Northern Division's Fares becoming deputy commander. The official role of Division 13’s Ahmed al-Saud is currently unclear, though al-Saud has spoken to the media on behalf of the FIA. Idlib revolutionary mainstay Col. Afif Suleiman, a 2011 defector from the Syrian Arab Air Force and the former head of the Idlib Military Council, has been chosen as the group’s military council chief.

As of mid October 10, the FIA has released twelve public videos on its YouTube channel, the first being the official announcement of the group’s formation. Of these videos, four take place in Aleppo, four in Latakia, and three in Hama. The videos in Latakia have so far only featured the use of mortars on the Jebel al-Akrad and Jebel al-Turkmen fronts. However, prior to the merger, both Liwa Suqour al-Jebel and the Northern Division have used TOW's in Latakia. The two TOW videos uploaded each take place in northern Hama. Looking at the locations of the three component groups' prior activity, these two TOW crews were presumably former Northern Division members. The Free Idlib Army has also demonstrated its possession of BM-21 Grad's, truck-mounted rocket launchers, on both the Aleppo city and the southern Aleppo front lines.

Prior to the announcement of the F.I.A.’s creation, Liwa Suqour al-Jebel, Division 13, and the Northern Division were all active on the northern Aleppo front, fighting alongside the Turkish Army’s Operation Euphrates shield within the Hawar Kilis operations room. However, on September 17th Suqour al-Jebel announced that its fighters would be leaving northern Aleppo in order to reinforce the Aleppo City, northern Hama, and Latakia fronts. Despite neither the FIA twitter or YouTube mentioning the northern Aleppo front, former Division 13 and Northern Division elements presumably remain in the area. Both factions’ individual twitter accounts highlighted activity in northern Aleppo up until a week before the merger.

Approximate front lines in NW Syria, mid-Oct 2016. Green = rebels, Red = loyalists, Yellow = SDF, Black = IS. Besieged Gov't towns of Fu'ah and Kafriya (Northeast of Idlib city) not shown. 

On October 5, Suqour al-Jebel’s Second Central Battalion announced its defection from the group and joining of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (the former al-Qaeda franchise known as ‘Jabhat al-Nusra’). In the statement put out by the battalion and its leader Ahmad al-Qasom, the integration with Division 13 was given as the reason for the defect. In March of 2016, Division 13 came into direct conflict with Jabhat al-Nusra, in the town of Ma'arat al-Nu'man. Since then, the two groups have fought alongside each other on Aleppo front lines but relations have been tense.

If this new merger manages to last, which is no guarantee in the Syrian rebel landscape, the Free Idlib Army will become the largest and perhaps most influential FSA group across Syria’s northwest. Whether this will lead to conflict with Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and other jihadist opposition groups shall remain to be seen.

 

A Free Idlib Army TOW strike targeting a loyalist tank in Hama. 

A Free Idlib Army TOW strike targeting a loyalist BMP in Hama.