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 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.
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.
Free Idlib Army Twitter: https://twitter.com/free_idleb_army
Free Idlib Army YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCIZNbNc8ot04YXjqzyd35Uw