Much has been written of the variety of factions and fragmentation on the rebel side of the Syrian civil war, but comparatively little analysis exists of the various pro-Assad militias, commonly known as shabiha, who as Aron Lund notes can be Sunni, Alawite, Kurdish, or Christian. Here, I intend to examine one such group called al-Muqāwama as-Sūrīya ("The Syrian Resistance"—TSR), under the leadership of a Turkish-born Alawite by the name of Mihrac Ural, also known as Ali Kayali. (Previous posts on Syria Comment dealing with Ural/Kayali include those found here and here.)
TSR had prior to the uprising and civil war operated under the name of "Popular Front for the Liberation of the Sanjak of Alexandretta," referring to the strip of land around Hatay in southern Turkey with a substantial Alawite population, the loss of which has never truly been accepted by Syria. Since the outbreak of the conflict in Syria, however, the group adopted TSR as interchangeable with its original name, and is confining operations entirely within Syria, with headquarters in Latakia.
Ostensibly, in line with many other self-declared liberation groups (e.g. the Basque Country's ETA, and the early Kurdish PKK which established links with Hafez al-Assad through Kayali), TSR's ideology is Marxist-Leninist, with particular reverence accorded to the symbol of communist resistance, Che Guevara.
Figure 1: Screenshot of a speech by Kayali on the anniversary of the Sabra and Shatila massacres. Note the background portrait featuring Bashar al-Assad, Che Guevara, and Kayali himself.
Figure 2: Photo of Kayali with Che Guevara in the background.
The concept of Syrian nationalism also features heavily in TSR's public discourse and rhetoric, tied in with the Assad regime's promotion of 'resistance' to Western imperialism. Thus, in a statement to me from TSR's press office, I was told that TSR does not get involved in "internal politics, the penal code, disputes or disagreements." Rather, "our problem is with the foreign enemy and with the terrorists who want to destroy our nation."
Concomitant with the Syrian nationalist image is the claim from the press office that "our members are from the various fabrics of Syria, from all the religions, sects and ethnicities. We fight together." Similarly, in an interview with me, Kayali emphasized that TSR supposedly has supporters among "Ahl as-Sunnah" and Christians.
In the context of messaging, songs unique to TSR—with lyrics featuring distinctive Syrian dialect—have played a key role. For instance, one song recently released to the accompaniment of oud includes the lyrics: "We are the men of Muqāwama, we are not content with bartering…we want to uproot terrorism." At the same time the group has not forgotten the aspirations for the liberation of Alexandretta, as this song also features the line: "Antioch is resting in my heart." Here is another song released by TSR combining motifs of protecting the waṭan of Syria while referencing Alexandretta. Further, here is a TSR song entitled "We are the men of the Syrian Resistance." Opening lyrics include, "We are the men of the sun. We are from the people….[by] your people, Syria, we resist/are resistance." Many of these songs feature a familiar slogan from Kayali: "Syria will never bow."
[Update: Note that in the last song mentioned above, we have the Arabic bisha'abak Souria munqawim, using Syrian Arabic munqawim rather than standard Arabic nuqawimu for 'we resist/are resistance'].
However, beneath this image of Syrian nationalism and leftist ideology lies a more narrow sectarian emphasis on defending the Alawite and Twelver Shi'a communities. Despite the admiration shown for the atheist Che Guevara, Kayali himself cares deeply about his religious heritage and is in this respect similar to most Turkish Alawites who have generally clung to their religious traditions in contrast to the multi-faceted nature of Alawite identity in Syria (see my articles here and here on this matter). Indeed, in his interview with me, Kayali spoke at length of Alawite reverence for the 'Ahl al-Bayt': that is, the household of Prophet Mohammed and his descendants.
Besides the widely circulated footage of Kayali from earlier this year in which he apparently calls for the necessity of cleansing Sunni areas on the coastline (most notably Baniyas), Kayali is also frequently shown in TSR media output appearing with Alawite sheikhs, one of whom was the well-known Muwaffaq al-Ghazal, who enjoyed close ties with Kayali and was later killed by Jabhat al-Nusra as part of the "Eye for an Eye" revenge operations announced by Sheikh Abu Mohammed al-Jowlani against Alawite villages in retaliation for the chemical weapons attacks in East Ghouta.
Figure 3: From left to right in a recent meeting at TSR's Latakia headquarters: Kayali, an unidentified Alawite sheikh, and Ali Haider, who heads the government-aligned Syrian Social Nationalist Party and current minister for National Reconciliation.
Looking at TSR's range of operations is also relevant here. In fact, it is sometimes thought that TSR is not a meaningful military force on the ground in Syria, but this perception must be corrected. According to Kayali and one other TSR fighter, TSR has participated in operations against rebels in Latakia, the Homs area (where sectarian warfare has played a key element in the fighting), the al-Ghab plain (an area of fertile land east of Latakia and covering parts of Hama and Idlib governorates), Jisr ash-Shughur in Idlib, and the two Twelver Shi'a villages of Nubl and Zaharā in Aleppo Governorate, from which TSR has also drawn recruits.
Of these areas of operation, Latakia is of course the most relevant. Here is a video from last month of Kayali rallying TSR fighters in rural Latakia. Kayali addresses his fighters as "the true Syrians" and speaks of their opponents- from Jabhat al-Nusra and the Free Army- as "foreigners," who have "no religion, faith, book, or Lord." Rather, they are "these kuffar [Islamic term for disbelievers], these takfiri Salafists." These remarks, in pronouncing takfīr on the Salafi militants, clearly frame the struggle in religious terms. Kayali also speaks of the necessity of defending the women and the elderly.
Figure 4: Ali Kayali rallies his men in rural Latakia last month.
As Kayali put it to me, the fighters leading the rebel offensive on Latakia in the summer were primarily from Chechnya, Afghanistan [i.e. Afghan Arab veterans and the like], the Maghreb, Libya, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf area. Kayali's testimony is corroborated by examination of the claimed mujahideen martyrs during the Latakia offensive, whose sole aim was to score a psychological victory against the Assad regime by ethnically cleansing Alawites and capturing Assad's ancestral village Qardaḥa by Eid (as the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham's [ISIS] leader had hoped).
Despite the mujahideen's initial successes in capturing numerous Alawite villages and apparently being only several miles away from Qardaḥa, pro-Assad forces ultimately pushed back and by mid-August, jihadi circles began circulating messages to pray for the mujahideen as the offensive ultimately failed, with fighting now confined to the Jabal al-Akrād area. Below is a list of claimed jihadi martyrs from the Latakia offensive ('Liberation of the Coast'), which Kayali tells me also cost hundreds of Alawite lives (not necessarily in large-scale massacres of villages).
Figure 5: Abu Ashraf al-Tunisi, a Tunisian fighter for ISIS.
Figure 6: Abu Rahmat al-Lībī, a Libyan fighter for ISIS.
Figure 7: Abu Ayyub al-Tunisi, a Tunisian fighter for ISIS.
Figure 8: Abd al-Hakim al-Alaiwi, a Saudi fighter for ISIS.
Figure 9: Abu Turab al-Lībī, a Libyan fighter for ISIS.
Figure 10: Abdullah ash-Shishani, a Chechen fighter for ISIS but also claimed for the ISIS front-group Jaysh al-Muhajireen wa Anṣār.
Figure 11: Abu al-Waleed al-Tunisi, Tunisian fighter for ISIS.
Figure 12: Two Libyan fighters in the lush forests of rural Latakia as part of the mujahideen offensive. According to Anṣār ash-Sharī'a supporters from Tripoli (Libya), the two men are from the northwestern Libyan town of Zāwīya.
Figure 13: Photo of Latakia forestry taken by the Libyan Shari'a official for the ISIS-front group Katiba al-Muhajireen: Abu Ṭalḥa al-Lībī.
Nubl and Zaharā are also relevant in this context because both towns have come under bombardment at the hands of ISIS mujahideen. Following the ISIS-led capture of Mannagh airbase in August, a video emerged showing a large convoy of ISIS fighters preparing to head out to besiege Nubl and Zaharā.
Figure 14: The ISIS convoy on its way to Nubl and Zaharā following the capture of Mannagh airbase.
This month, another video emerged showing the ISIS banner flying on a barren outpost in the Nubl area. The area itself looks deserted, and one might feel tempted to conclude that ISIS has conquered the village. However, Kayali tells me that this is not the case.
Figure 15: The ISIS banner on an outpost in the Nubl area.
The claimed numbers of both TSR members as well as martyrs still need to be scrutinized. The fighter for TSR whom I interviewed claimed that the group has "thousands" of members. This figure may invite doubt, but the number of claimed martyrs—as conveyed to me by both this fighter and Kayali—seems relatively modest and reasonable: 30. In fact, Kayali sent me his database of martyrs for TSR so far. I reproduce it below:
|Name||Marital Status||Number of Children||Parents Still Living||Date of Death||Location of Death|
|Maher Ali Zaini||Married||3||1||17 September 2011||Al-Janudiya Road (Jisr ash-Shughur)|
|Maṭī' Mohammed Ghandur||Married||7||Deceased||23 February 2012||Jisr ash-Shughur|
|Thā'ir Abdullah Abd al-Man'am||Married||1||2||7 July 2012||Al-Qasatil Road (Jabal al-Akrad, Latakia)|
|Reyhan Abdullah Abd al-Man'am||Married||1||2||7 July 2012||Al-Qasatil Road|
|Nawar Adil Reyhan||Unmarried||0||2||7 July 2012||Al-Qasatil Road|
|Rumayl Fu'ad Debo||Married||2||1||11 August 2012||Bayt Sabera (Latakia)|
|Namir Aṭa Gharib||Married||3||1||11 August 2012||Bayt Sabera|
|Hisham Adeeb Ismail||Unmarried||0||2||11 August 2012||Bayt Sabera|
|Adnan Ibrahim Ismail||Married||4||1||11 August 2012||Bayt Sabera|
|Sumar Izz ad-Din Hurmuz||Married||0||2||11 August 2012||Bayt Sabera|
|Shadi Yunis Mansur||Unmarried||0||1||11 August 2012||Bayt Sabera|
|Osama Medhat Manā'||Unmarried||0||2||3 September 2012||Al-Kandisiya (Latakia)|
|Haitham Mohammed Ma'ala||Married||1||1||21 September 2012||Bayt Fāris (Jabal Turkoman, Latakia)|
|Imad Yasin Masṭo||Married||4||1||24 October 2012||Jisr ash-Shughur|
|Ayham Mahmoud al-Bahrī||Married||0||2||19 November 2012||Al-Midan (Latakia)*|
|Suhail Saleem Feham||Married||2||1||19 November 2012||Al-Midan|
|Mohsen Saleem Feham||Married||3||1||19 November 2012||Al-Midan|
|Kenan Ibrahim Feham||Unmarried||0||2||19 November 2012||Al-Midan|
|Salim Ali Kusa||Married||4||2||21 November 2012||Tarīq Fasṭal al-Ma'āf (Latakia)|
|Wael Mahmoud Ghandur||Married||1||2||21 November 2012||Tarīq Fasṭal al-Ma'āf|
|Majid Ahmad Qarifli||Married||1||2||21 November 2012||Tarīq Fasṭal al-Ma'āf|
|Kamal Ahmad Ghandur||Unmarried||0||1||21 November 2012||Tarīq Fasṭal al-Ma'āf|
|Ibrahim Malik Suleiman||Unmarried||0||1||21 November 2012||Tarīq Fasṭal al-Ma'āf|
|Milad Rajab Said||Unmarried||0||1||16 December 2012||Al-Midan|
|Aamer Mumtaz Zanbili||Married||0||2||17 December 2012||Manṭaqa al-Tanaf (Latakia)|
|Man'am Mohammed Hurmuz||Married||0||2||21 January 2013||Darayya (Damascus?)|
|Basil Salah Nasir||Unmarried||0||2||30 March 2013||Bayt Yashout Road (Latakia)|
The above list comprises 27 martyrs for TSR: the casualties are largely concentrated in the defense of Alawite areas of Latakia. A more recent martyrdom was announced this month for the group (see photo below with further images).
Figure 16: "Martyr of the Homeland and the Syrian Resistance: Aamer Mahmoud Ṭaha." His death was announced on 9 September 2013. He was killed while fighting rebels in the Jabal Arbaeen area of Idlib. His brother Ibrahim was wounded in the same clashes and subsequently taken to a hospital in Latakia.
Figure 17: Portraits of the 27 martyrs from the above database.
Figure 18: Close-up photo of Basil Nasir, from the opening of a lengthy video of his funeral that was held on 31 March, the day after his death.
Figure 19: Mourners hold Basil's portrait and wave the flag of Syria.
Figure 20: Close-up photo of Nawar Adil Reyhan from a video made by a TSR supporter.
As Syria continues to fragment, one can expect that a breakdown in centralized command structures will also happen on the regime side, allowing for the continued growth of groups like TSR. Indeed, anecdotal evidence already suggests the possibility that shabiha figures are managing imports through the Mediterranean coastline for distribution among the populations in pro-Assad areas. Examining in greater detail the activities of the pro-Assad militias is therefore more important than ever.
Updates (17 September 2014)
1. There are multiple localities in Syria called 'al-Midan': after some further examination, I was able to determine that the locality specified was Latakia, not Homs province. It has been corrected accordingly in the * mark in the table above.
2. Katiba al-Muhajireen was not an ISIS-front group as I once thought: see this for further info.