Establishment and Beginnings (2012-2013)
Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk (The Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade) was formed in the summer of 2012 initially using the name Katiba Shuhada' al-Yarmouk and based primarily in southwest Deraa province. The group first came to prominence with the capture of UN peacekeeping troops in March 2013 in the Jamla area near the UN patrolled portion of the Golan Heights. In the initial statement on the hostage taking, Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk justified its actions as follows:
"At a time in which the UN is silent about the crimes of the regime against the Syrian people, here are the UN forces providing aid to the criminal regime forces besieged for days by the heroes of the Free Army [FSA] on frontline duty in the area defending our people there from the barbarity of the regime and its shabiha...at a time in which the Yarmouk Valley area is witnessing artillery and rocket bombing as well as continual Assad war plane bombing raids that have led to the destruction of a great number of homes and the killing of unarmed civilians without mercy, as well as displacement of families.
Why is this aid not offered to the unarmed civilians instead of the criminal gangs? Therefore we have decided to detain and keep hold of the aid together with its UN personnel until Assad's forces pull out their forces from the area and the Assad bombing and war plane raids stop. And these personnel will remain safe, and when the bombing stops and Assad's forces pull out their forces from the area entirely and the UN fulfils its humanitarian and international obligation for which it is present in the area, we will immediately release them.
Long live Free Syria and down with the criminal Assad regime."
However, Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk very quickly retracted this hostile statement, claiming it was actually protecting the UN personnel from the "barbaric bombing that Assad's criminal gangs are launching against the western villages of Deraa province and all of Syria." The group then called on the UN to hold a secure meeting to hand over the personnel. Eventually, the incident was resolved. Another kidnapping incident took place in May involving 4 Filipino UN peacekeepers , though they were also released. At the time, Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk seemed keen to assure outsiders of its supposedly good intentions, even telling the Times of Israelthat the group's quarrel was only with Assad regime and praising Israeli medical treatment for refugees.
Through 2013, Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk gained prominence as a player on the battlefield, acquiring some new local affiliates. In late March, the group coordinated with Jabhat al-Nusra in an assault on the 38th division air defence base. In May- at a time when Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk was participating in the "Yarmouk al-Karama" battle focused on localities to the south of Nawa town like Ain Dhikr– the Omar al-Mukhtar battalion for the Nawa area was announced, employing nationalist rhetoric typical of what one would associate with the FSA brand: "I swear by God the Great to defend my religion, my homeland [watani] and my honour, and expend what is dear and precious in liberating all the soil of the homeland from the claws of the criminal Assad occupation."
In July, Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk announced participation in the "Umm al-Ma'arak" ("Mother of Battles") to capture Nawa from regime forces, though that operation was ultimately unsuccessful. At this point, Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk's nationalist rebel affiliations were still apparent, and in October the group joined a coalition of 50 southern formations embodied in the "Revolution Leadership Council- Southern Region." In a show of military strength, a video emerged in November 2013 of a large military parade held by Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk. At the time, Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk's leader Ali al-Baridi (nickname: al-Khal) claimed that the group's control of territory extended from the area of Tel Shehab (near the border with Jordan) to the occupied Golan.
All that said, the group was not without its critics in 2013: for example, one page entitled "Secrets and Revelations of Shabiha and Thieves of the Free Army in Deraa" in September accused Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk of laziness under the leadership of al-Khal and his deputy Abu Abdullah al-Ja'ouni, asserting: "There is an abundance of arms yet it has stopped operating on many fronts like the Sheikh Sa'ad front in waiting for additional support...and today we have heard calls to provide relief from Sheikh Sa'ad so what will Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk and the other brigades sleeping in Tafis and the majority of the western areas?"
Developments in 2014
Moving into 2014, Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk continued to participate in rebel operations, being one of the declared participants alongside Jabhat al-Nusra and other brigades in the "Hold fast to God's rope entirely and don't separate" battleannounced in late February to capture strategic positions between Deraa and Quneitra. In that same month, Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk was also one of the declared components of the 'Southern Front' initiative backed by the West and Gulf states. At the end of April, the brigade along with some other groups announced a new offensive to take Tel al-Jumu' and other areas to the south of Nawa, though that came to nothing as an identical initiative with more participants including Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk was announced in June.
Even at this point, Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk's public affiliations were ostensibly clear in its appearance as a signatory to a statement signed by 54 southern groupsaffirming respect for human rights and democracy: as per the third clause, "We fight so that Syrian men and women may choose a free and democratic system that establishes a prosperous state respecting the aspirations of Syrians in the freedom and dignity for which they have fought."
It is in July 2014 that some signs of tension emerge between Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk and other factions, beginning with an apparent clash with Harakat al-Muthanna al-Islamiya, a Salafi group primarily operating in Deraa province. One may also argue that in this clash lies the first hint of links with the Islamic State [IS], as there is an echo of IS discourse in pronouncing takfir on the group with whom one clashes. Thus from a Facebook page in support of Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk at the time:
"Harakat al-Muthanna- which calls itself 'Islamic' but it has no connection to Islam- launches an attack on the al-'Alan checkpoint at which the heroes of Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk are based, blows it up and arrests the members of the checkpoint affiliated with Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk, exploiting the fact that most of the heroes of Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk are present in the town of Sheikh Sa'ad to liberate it from Assad's gangs and shabiha. And while the brigade was moving Mahmoud Suleiman al-Baridi, one of the most important field commanders in Deraa province, who was wounded during the liberation of Sheikh Sa'ad, they got in the way and held him back, which led to the aggravation of his condition...So, a question that suggests itself, Harakat al-Muthanna, which calls itself Islamic, is it Islamic in deed or....?"
In a follow-up statement, Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk's leader mentioned that the Syrian Revolutionaries Front and the al-Hamza Division had participated alongside Harakat al-Muthanna al-Islamiya in the attack, and had allegedly accused Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk of "apostasy and disbelief." Al-Khal gave an extended accountin which he claimed that after the capture of Tel al-Jumu' it had been agreed that Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk would participate on the Sheikh Sa'ad front but then members had been approached by a convoy of cars that also claimed to be participating on that front. Approval was granted for joint participation by the leadership, but soon after that, Harakat al-Muhthanna al-Islamiya, the Syrian Revolutionaries Front and the al-Hamza Division began the attack on Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk. Eventually, Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk's media office released a statement simply clarifying on which fronts it would continue to operate: Nawa town, Atman and Kharbat Ghazala.
Even so, Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk continued to identify with the Southern Front operations, participating in the Imam Nawawi offensive to take Nawa from regime forces. The group also participated in the wider fighting over Shaykh al-Maskin, Nawa and other parts of Deraa in November 2014 that eventually culminated in disaster for regime forces, with the total loss of Nawa and other holdings such as Liwa 112 base, in which Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk advertised its presence after the routing of regime forces.
The following month came a major conflict with Jabhat al-Nusra, from which point onwards Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk's pro-IS affiliations have become so obvious that it does not really make sense now to speak of the group as secretly pro-IS. Jabhat al-Nusra's fight with Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk in the Yarmouk basin was rooted in its perception of the latter as an IS cell, an allegation that Southern Front commanders apparently rejected at the time. Though the exact sequence of events remains somewhat unclear, the Dar al-'Adl (House of Justice), a southern rebel judicial body,initially called for a ceasefire and its own judicial investigation (15 December) with the backing of multiple factions, including the Al-Hamza Division, Ahrar al-Sham and Harakat al-Muthanna al-Islamiya. As in July of that year though, when Harakat al-Muthanna al-Islamiya had already clashed with Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk, it appears the group had also been involved on the side of Jabhat al-Nusra in the initial clashes with Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk. Eventually, Harakat al-Muthanna al-Islamiya proposed its own ceasefire and the Dar al-'Adl issued a new statement on 23 December, requiring the warring sides to return to frontline posts against the regime and for the Dar al-'Adl to receive the checkpoints set up within the Yarmouk basin.
Leaving behind the Southern Front: Moving overtly towards IS
Since the December clashes, multiple lines of evidence point to Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk's IS affinities that build a very clear case when taken together. To begin with, the group's current emblem featuring IS' flag:
Further, a key figure involved in the December 2014 clashes was Jabhat al-Nusra's Abu Mariya al-Qahtani, widely perceived as one of the most pragmatic members of the al-Qa'ida affiliate, though he has since been sidelined. He has been the subject of verbal attack from Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk using discourse identical to IS, namely in referring to him as 'al-Harari' (H/T: @AbuJamajem). For example, in a statement entitled "To our people in the town of Nawa," Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk says it released two people on verifying they had no link to Jabhat al-Nusra, while warning "our people in Nawa...to be careful of the conspiracy in which al-Harari is trying to embroil them, whereby he makes from among them cannon fodder for his ambitions that his agenda of deception, which is not hidden from anyone, imposes upon him. This already happened in reality when he embroiled some of the sons of Nawa, deceiving them, in the attempt to commit treachery against Saraya al-Jihad...and it was established to all that Saraya al-Jihad was in a state of defending itself." Saraya al-Jihad is a jihadi group in Quneitra that became part of the coalition Jaysh al-Jihad, also suspected of being an IS cell: its name appears to be used interchangeably with Jaysh al-Jihad here.
In this context, one should then note an interview uploaded on 1 May 2015 with the deputy leader of Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk, in which he denies that Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk has links with Jaysh al-Jihad but says Jabhat al-Nusra committed aggression against them. When asked as a follow-up whether Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk has allegiance to IS, he avoids giving a simple 'yes' or 'no' answer to the question. This interview followed on from a lengthy statement by the Dar al-'Adl on 30 April, which condemned Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk for violating terms imposed upon them. Though the brigade handed over leaders of sub-groups who had pledged allegiance to IS for questioning and verification as stipulated, the Dar al-'Adl claims that those handed over actually affirmed that the leadership of the brigade had also pledged allegiance and received financial support from IS.
According to the Dar al-'Adl, other violations on the part of Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk include re-opening an alternative court in violation of the agreement, declaring takfir on the Dar al-'Adl, kidnapping and torturing civilians and leaders of rival brigades (e.g. the leader of Liwa Buruj al-Islam affiliated with the First Legion), and running a cell to assassinate rivals in the town of Nawa. These patterns of behaviour are very similar to IS conduct in 2013 and in Fallujah in early 2014 (back when it was just ISIS), whereby an alternative proto-administration was set up (most often in the form of a da'wa office and/or Islamic court), combining an approach of outreach and subversion. Criticism of the Dar al-'Adl as a judiciary body was also the subject of an official IS Damascus province video.
Over the course of this year, Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk has further developed its administration along the IS model in the Yarmouk basin, with its own da'wa office, Islamic court, Islamic police force and apparently a Diwan al-Hisba, as per below.
Establishment of the Islamic court dated 11 Shawwal 1436 AH (27-28 July 2015): "Striving on our part to realize the religion and the ruling of God's law...over the land, supporting those who are wronged and standing in the face of wrongdoers and those who sow corruption, we announce the formation of the Shari'a court. This court is to be considered the sole legitimate place from which judicial rulings are to be taken in the Yarmouk basin area according to the Book of God and the Sunna of His Prophet Muhammad (SAWS) on the understanding of the just predecessors, may God be pleased with them. And we ask our people to be an aid to us in this court and that to restore rights to its people."
"The Shari'a court in the Yarmouk basis announces its desire to appoint Islamic judges affiliated with the court and working in it. Thus we ask all whom God has cultivated with Shari'i knowledge to be kind enough to undertake judicial work in the court. Appointment of the judges for work will be completed within the cadre of the Shari'a court according to specialities and suitability. To apply: base of the Shari'a court in al-Shajra everyday from 9-11 a.m. beginning from the issuing of this statement- 11 Shawwal 1436 AH." The al-Shajra court was mentioned earlier in the year by the Dar al-'Adl as something reopened by Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk contrary to its wishes.
In this vein, recent Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk photo releases mimic IS propaganda, portraying scenes of normality in the Yarmouk basin area it controls, as well as distributions of da'wa pamphlets and revelling in the destruction of its enemies, who have generally failed to dislodge it from its strongholds. For comparison, note that another group that eventually pledged allegiance to IS- Boko Haram- also had its own media outlet- al-Urwat al-Wuthqa- that imitated IS photo releases.
Given the numerous lines of evidence for the IS affinities of Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk, one may ask why IS has not already announced a new 'wilaya' (province), in this case a Wilayat Deraa, which would from a propaganda viewpoint mark a significant 'expansion' in that even its predecessor ISIS, which was much more widely (and thinly) spread across Syria, never had a foothold in the province on account of the loyalty of Jabhat al-Nusra affiliates to Jowlani. One answer may be that the problem for IS is that the territory currently controlled by Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk is not contiguous with the rest of its holdings in Syria and Iraq, or it may be the announcement is only a matter of time.
In any case, the growth of Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk poses a significant problem for the rebels, and the Dar al-'Adl continues to be targeted in sabotage operations, with the assassination of its deputy head most recently, but it seems no one has the strength to dismantle Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk's presence. This is particularly telling with regards to the relative strength of Jaysh al-Fatah in the south (which seems most keen to destroy Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk) as opposed to its much more successful counterpart in the north. More generally, southern rebel efforts have stalled with the faltering offensive on Deraa city despite the regime's thin line of control through the province.