يمكن ان يتذكر القارئ انني قد كتبت عن المقاومة الوطنية العقائدية (جيش الامام المهدي) من زمان, فهي مجموعة ذات علامة حزب الله السوري ومقرها الاساسي واصولها في منطقة طرطوس-مصياف بقيادة السيد هاشم محمد علي. قد قاتلت المقاومة الوطنية العقائدية في شتى مناطق (بما فها دمشق وتدمر وحلب) وقدمت عشرات من الشهداء (يعني القتلى), كما اعلنت عن تاسيس افواج في شمال شرق سوريا والقنيطرة.
طبعا ما زالت المقاومة الوطنية العقائدية موجودة على الارض, ومع علامة حزب الله السوري, يقول التنظيم انه مستقل بشكل رسمي. فقال لي السيد هاشم الامين العام للمقاومة الوطنية العقائدية في بيان:
Readers may remember that some time ago I wrote about the National Ideological Resistance (aka Imam al-Mahdi Army), a Syrian Hezbollah-brand group with its primary base and origins in the Tartous-Masyaf area and led by Sayyid Hashim Muhammad Ali. The National Ideological Resistance has fought in a variety of areas (including Damascus, Palmyra and Aleppo) and has claimed dozens of 'martyrs'. It has also proclaimed the establishment of affiliates in the northeast of Syria and Quneitra.
The elite Republican Guard is one of the main actors on the government side in the Syrian civil war that set up auxiliary formations. Prominent examples include the Popular Defense Forces (Quwat al-Difa' al-Sha'abi) primarily based in the Qalamoun area near the border with Lebanon and Liwa Sayf al-Haq, whose base is in the Sayyida Zainab area but has operated in the Qalamoun area. The Republican Guard has also aimed to extend its reach into towns where it might compete with other formations for influence, such as the 'reconciled' Damascus countryside town of al-Tal.
Fawj al-Karbala'i (The Karbala'i Regiment), named for its leader who goes by the name of al-Hajj Abu Ali al-Karbala'i, is a group that has most recently come under the Republican Guard umbrella of 'Ittihad Jaysh al-Asha'ir (Union of the Army of the Tribes). It should be noted that a Jaysh al-Asha'ir (Army of the Tribes) was also set up by the Republican Guard for the southern province of Dera'a in December 2017.
حاولت سابقا ان اكتب عن شبكة القوات المحلية المدعومة من الجانب الايراني . مثلا سرايا الوعد في دمشق ، كما يوجد وحدات للقوات مع صفحات على وسائل الاعلام الاجتماعية في محافظة حماه بما فيها قوات الغضب ومقرها في مدينة السقيلبية المسيحية .
عندما كتبت اول مرة عن قوات الغضب ما ادركت ارتباطها بقوات الدفاع المحلي ولكن وصفها كجزء من قوات الأصدقاء اتضح لي نهاية في الاشارة الى الدور الايراني في دعم هذه القوات ووحدات أخرى من قوات الدفاع المحلي .
وسرايا الرعد هي وحدة أخرى من قوات الدفاع المحلي ولكن في ادلب وسميت ب (سرايا الرعد) كاسم ثنائي يشير الى قائد السرايا والملقب ب رعد ابوجعفر. الجذير بالذكر انه يوجد قطاع ادلب لقوات الدفاع المحلي مع ان المتمردين يسيطرون على جميع المحافظة تقريبا, فحدد تشريع قوات الدفاع المحلي قطاع ادلب ضمن قائمة عدد عناصر القوات.
Previously on this blog I have sought to explore the Iranian-backed Local Defence Forces (LDF) networks beyond Aleppo province (where it is most prominent), such as the Damascus LDF affiliate Saraya al-Wa'ad. There are also LDF affiliates with visible profiles in Hama province, such as Quwat al-Ghadab based in the Christian town of Suqaylabiyah. When I first wrote about Quwat al-Ghadab, I had not quite appreciated the LDF connection, though the description of it as part of 'Quwat al-Asdiqa" ('Forces of the Friends') became clearer to me over time in alluding to the Iranian role (more specifically, Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps- IRGC) in backing this group and other LDF units.
Saraya al-Ra'ad is another LDF affiliate currently based in Hama but in fact is affiliated with the LDF Idlib sector. Although this point may seem confusing at first sight considering that Idlib is almost entirely in the hands of insurgents, an Idlib sector for the LDF was specified in legislation earlier this year regarding the LDF and military services. That is, that the government presence in a particular province may be/may have been limited does not mean no LDF sector was specified for it. A similar point has applied to Deir az-Zor province, where no LDF branch had been operating on the ground when I last inquired but an LDF sector was specified for it in the legislation.
For prior parts in this series:
This post features a statement by Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham's Abu Malek al-Shami and a response by Abu Humam al-Shami (aka al-Faruq al-Shami), who used to be the general military official for Jabhat al-Nusra.
For more information on Abu Malek al-Shami, see this post. It is Abu Humam al-Shami's statement that is of greater interest. Reports that he was killed in March 2015 turned out to be erroneous, but there was some biographical information provided about him at the time that he partially affirms in his statement.
According to Orient News, he travelled to Afghanistan in the late 1990s and gave allegiance to Osama bin Laden, but after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, he was entrusted with operations in Iraq a little before Baghdad fell in 2003. During his time there, he supposedly met both Abu Hamza al-Muhajir and Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi. The Iraqis then arrested him and turned him over to the Syrian authorities, who released him. But following a 2005 crackdown on jihadists by the Syrians, he fled to Lebanon, then returned to Afghanistan and was entrusted by Atiyat Allah al-Libi to operate in Syria. Detained in Lebanon for 5 years, on his release he joined the budding al-Qaeda wing in Syria, becoming Jabhat al-Nusra's general military official.
In his statement, Abu Humam al-Shami affirms that his loyalty to al-Qaeda dates back to the days Osama bin Laden was alive, and he did in fact travel to Afghanistan. Among other points/claims of interest that he makes:
- The discussion of the possibility of replicating a Hezbollah model in Syria. His point is not that the Sunni jihadist project should become a client of Iran, but rather that there is little prospect of securing something viable along the lines of a 'state within a state,' as Hezbollah's status in Lebanon is widely characterized. In any case, he argues that the model for the Sunni jihad should not be Hezbollah, but rather the Prophet's example. I have heard speculation inside Syria (though not from within Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham itself) that Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham may be aiming for a jihadist 'state within a state'-type project through the cover of the Turkish intervention in northwest Syria securing the supposed 'de-escalation' zone centred on Idlib. That is, the Turks might help to bring a more regularized security and governance structure to the area, but Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham would become a key part of that system and in parallel to it.
That interpretation might help explain the Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham coordination with Turkey over surrounding Afrin. More generally, as a former key member of Jabhat al-Nusra and then Jabhat Fatah al-Sham still inside Syria put it to me, "The Turks and the commission [Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham] are agreed on one policy in the region." Indeed, there is no real sign of a Turkish confrontation of Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham in the way it fought the Islamic State in north Aleppo countryside to create the Euphrates Shield Zone, contrary to some hopes before the Turks entered into the northwest.
- Abu Humam al-Shami has little confidence that Russia and Iran will actually adhere to the 'de-escalation' concept as agreed for Idlib. Right now a number of forces and militias have mobilized for the Syrian government's push against the insurgents in the Hama and Aleppo countrysides, beginning to push into Idlib, while the Islamic State is also putting pressure on Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham in the area. It is reasonable to note that more forces will likely be deployed once the eastern campaign is finished and the East Ghouta pocket is dealt with.
- Meetings with Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham to try to resolve differences, but impeded by the organization's arrest of Dr. Sami al-Oraidi and others (though as of the time of writing this post, Oraidi was released from jail four days ago).
- The advice Abu Humam al-Shami offered to Abu Malek al-Shami on fighting Islamic State in west Qalamoun. Abu Humam al-Shami's point on Abu Malek al-Shami's reluctance to fight Islamic State in the area is corroborated by evidence from the time. Whereas Jabhat al-Nusra joined with other Syrian rebels in most areas in fighting the Islamic State at the turn of 2014, west Qalamoun was a notable localized exception for some time. For instance, note this part of an apparent 'Jabhat al-Nusra in Qalamoun' statement in January 2014 that disavowed infighting: "Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham are on one manhaj even if politics differ."
- The claim that a large proportion of Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham's fighters remain with the group on the basis that there is still a secret allegiance to al-Qaeda as their amirs convinced them that the breaking of ties was only a media cover.
For prior parts in this series:
This post features a statement by one Abu Abdullah, identified as the external connection/communications official for al-Qaeda, and Abd al-Rahim Atoun's response to that statement. The debate concerns Abd al-Rahim Atoun's claims in his testimony regarding communication between al-Qaeda on one side and Jabhat al-Nusra and its successors on the other.
The texts are easy to follow and there is no need for summary. I reproduce them below with translation.
The previous posts in this series explored the testimonies of Sami al-Oraidi, Abd al-Rahim Atoun and Abu al-Qassam al-Urduni. This post features the testimony of one Abu al-Harith al-Masri of Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham. Abu al-Harith al-Masri has been identified in media as Osama Qasim, a figure involved on the Egyptian jihadi scene since the 1970s. Though it may seem as though this identification of Abu al-Harith al-Masri as Osama Qasim is only very recent, it was in fact reported much earlier in the pro-Syrian government newspaper al-Watan in March 2017.
Qasim came to join the Jihad group that was involved in the assassination of Egyptian president Anwar al-Sadat in 1981. Qasim was imprisoned as one of those accused of participation in the assassination operation. He denounced the revisionist notions of renouncing violence that began to be promulgated by imprisoned leaders of al-Gama'a al-Islamiya in the late 1990s, arguing that these revisions were produced under pressure of the Egyptian security apparatus.
Qasim was released in 2007. Following the 2011 revolution he showed an interest in the political process in Egypt on more peaceful terms, such as the idea of dialogue with 'liberals', though he did threaten that Islamists would resort to arms should they be targeted. As for Copts, he specified that they should pay jizya as traditionally demanded of certain religious minorities deemed acceptable to be living in the lands of Islam. On al-Qaeda, Qasim had asserted that he was supportive of al-Qaeda's actions but felt the group had rushed in carrying out operations without appropriate preparation.
Following the deposition of President Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood in a coup in 2013, Qasim is said to have left for Syria. He is now reportedly an important Shari'i official in Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham.
In this testimony as part of the split between Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham and al-Qaeda, Abu al-Harith al-Masri takes a harsh line against al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. Although he asserts that he has had a long-standing 'friendship' with Zawahiri, he says that the truth comes above that 'friendship'. It should be noted that Qasim has known Zawahiri since his days in prison, which may lend credence to the identification of Abu al-Hairth al-Masri as Qasim. Further, as Jerome Drevon notes, Qasim opposed Zawahiri's joining of al-Qaeda.
In addition, the language used in this testimony is quite complex, at least when the author is using his own words rather than quoting other texts. Qasim is said to have had a background in Arabic language study, which may also support the identification here with Abu al-Harith al-Masri.
The previous parts of this series looked at the testimonies of Sami al-Oraidi and Abu Abdullah al-Shami(Abd al-Rahim Atoun). This testimony is a much shorter essay by Abu al-Qassam al-Urduni, once the deputy of Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi. This essay was posted on Oraidi's Telegram channel in October 2017 and is a response to Atoun's initially internal essay that was commenting on Zawahiri's speech: 'We will fight you until there is no more fitna.'
Unsurprisingly, Abu al-Qassam follows Oraidi's line and makes these key points:
. Correcting Atoun's characterization of the status of Sayf al-Adel and Abu Muhammad al-Masri (Zawahiri's two deputies present in Iran).
. Explaining why he withdrew support for the Jabhat Fatah al-Sham project.
. Accusing Atoun and Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham of breaking the allegiance and disobeying/rebelling against Zawahiri.
. Attacking Atoun's characterization of the system of correspondence and problems of betrayal of trust as particularly unwarranted and egregious. Correcting the example Atoun gave of a message supposedly reaching Abu Julaybib before it reached Abu Muhammad al-Jowlani.
. Concluding with an urgent call for the mujahideen in al-Sham to unite, because of the global war against Islam.
. As a final note, denying links to or special knowledge of an al-Qaeda 'loyalist' group called Ansar al-Furqan that is rumoured to have been established in Syria.
Interestingly, in characterizing Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham's disobedience/rebellion against al-Qaeda, Abu al-Qassam quotes a well-known poem by Ma'an bin Aws, a poet who was said to have been born in the time before Islam (al-Jahiliya) but converted to the religion and lived beyond the Prophet Muhammad's death.
Note that in publishing a version of his internal essay, Atoun appears to have made a correction on his claims regarding a message that supposedly reached Abu Julaybib before it reached Jowlani.
The previous post in this series looked at the testimony of al-Qaeda 'loyalist' Sami al-Oraidi, who directed his criticisms at comments by Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham's Abu Abdullah al-Shami (Abd al-Rahim Atoun) on the speech by Ayman al-Zawahiri entitled 'We will fight you until there is no more fitna' and released in October 2017. Atoun has responded to the criticisms by releasing a long post on his Telegram channel in two main parts.
The first part is a version of Atoun's comments on Zawahiri's 'We will fight you until there is no fitna' speech, which did not mention Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham or its predecessors by name but implied that they had broken the allegiance pledge to him. Atoun's comments were circulated for internal consumption in Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham but were leaked to Oraidi. Thus, the material that Oraidi had obtained at the time in October 2017 was authentic.
Atoun gives a history of Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham and its predecessors with a focus on the relationship with al-Qaeda. The following key points and claims arise from this history:
. There was no illegitimate breaking of the original allegiance to al-Qaeda in the transition from Jabhat al-Nusra to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (July 2016) and subsequently Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (January 2017)
. For around two years and ten months (c. November 2013-September 2016), the ability of Jabhat al-Nusra and its successors to communicate with Zawahiri was cut off. In 2015 however, Abu al-Khayr al-Masri, who was considered to be the 'first successor' to Zawahiri and on this understanding his deputy, came to Syria after being released from custody by Iran in a hostage swap.
. In the transition to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, the idea was that the connection and allegiance with al-Qaeda should be secretly maintained, similar to Jabhat al-Nusra's status before its leader Abu Muhammad al-Jowlani publicly declared a 'renewal' of the allegiance to al-Qaeda in response to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's public attempt to subsume the group within the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham in April 2013.
. The transition to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham was overwhelmingly supported in the leadership of Jabhat al-Nusra, with around 60 out of 65 of the leadership agreeing to the idea. The project also had the blessing of Abu al-Khayr al-Masri. It should be noted that Oraidi's response seems to support Atoun's assertion of the level of support for the project here, in that Oraidi says many initially agreed with the Jabhat Fatah al-Sham project on the basis of a break in ties for media portrayal only.
. However, Zawahiri's other two 'successors' who were released from prison but barred from leaving Iran (Abu Muhammad al-Masri and Sayf al-Adel) rejected the idea. In particular, Sayf al-Adel (appears to be the 'third successor') supposedly got to communicate with Zawahiri first about the project, giving him a false impression of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham as marking a true break from al-Qaeda and being a fake merger initiative to break off from al-Qaeda.
. Zawahiri rejected the formation of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, supposedly on the basis of the false portrait he had been given of it by Sayf al-Adel. Jowlani's first message to Zawahiri on the nature of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham had apparently not reached him before the al-Qaeda leader wrote his response of rejection. In response, Jowlani and (allegedly) Abu al-Khayr al-Masri and Abu Faraj wrote letters to Zawahiri to try to explain that he had misunderstood the project. Here, there is a significant divergence from Oraidi's testimony, which claims that Abu al-Khayr al-Masri ceased to give his blessing to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and ceased to move forward with the project once Zawahiri's response of rejection came.
. Jabhat Fatah al-Sham was already involved in merger talks with other factions at the time Zawahiri's first message came (c. early September 2016). The basis of the thinking behind mergers was that it would bring about a more effective force that could realize an Islamic government project in Syria. It had also been presumed that mergers would lead to a real break of ties with al-Qaeda but in such a way as to be endorsed by Zawahiri. A decision was made by Jowlani to delay going forward with the merger at least until Zawahiri had a clearer understanding of the situation, fearing internal strife.
. The fall of Aleppo in December 2016 to the Syrian government and its allies gave rise to renewed energy for merger talks and initiatives. A second message had also come from Zawahiri, responding to Jowlani's first message on the nature of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham. In his second message, Zawahiri indicated he rejected the idea of secret allegiances because of the experience with the Islamic State, something Jowlani, Atoun et al. had not been aware of. Zawahiri also said that he wanted resolution of the matter to be limited to himself, Jowlani and Abu al-Khayr al-Masri. He supposedly added that were a merger to come about, the problem would be resolved, and he might bless it publicly.
. Merger talks focused on a merger with Ahrar al-Sham, whose main leadership ultimately pulled out of the project that was supposed to embody a merger of most of the rebel factions. However, since Jabhat Fatah al-Sham had already committed to a merger project, it joined with whatever factions remained to form Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham. Abu al-Khayr al-Masri was supposedly pleased with this project, met with its leadership after its formation and then wrote to Zawahiri before he was killed. Similar to Oraidi's testimony though this time with a positive spin, the formation of Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham is considered to mark the full break from al-Qaeda.
Atoun's historical account lays the ground work for the second part of his testimony: that is, a commentary on Zawahiri's most recently released speech entitled 'Let us fight them as a structured edifice.' This speech had in fact been recorded more than two months ago. Whoever had control over releasing it publicly likely put it out in light of the recent reports of arrests of al-Qaeda 'loyalists' by Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham, as Zawahiri makes a more general accusation along those lines against Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham.
Atoun's commentary is essentially a defense of the Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham project, making the following key points:
. No allegiance pledge was illegitimately violated/broken.
. Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham was deemed to be a true merger project and in the 'interest' of the jihad in al-Sham, thus the decision to join it and the wholesale breaking of ties: something that Zawahiri should in fact approve of if he understood it correctly. The goal itself was not to do away with ties to al-Qaeda: otherwise, Jabhat al-Nusra would have joined the Islamic Front in 2013 and used that as a pretext to do away with ties, but Jabhat al-Nusra refrained from doing so as it was not deemed to be a true merger. Zawahiri had apparently approved of the Islamic Front on account of the covenant it espoused.
. The rapid progression of events in the field, contrasting with the long time needed to communicate with Zawahiri, means that it is too late simply to go back and return to al-Qaeda as it was before.
. It is absurd to tie the decline in fortunes of the jihad/insurgency in Syria to the breaking of ties with al-Qaeda.
. We did not take the steps we did out of fear of the U.S. We know the U.S. remains an enemy whether or not we are al-Qaeda.
. We do not arrest people simply for advocating for al-Qaeda. Rather, the people we arrest are stirring up trouble only in the name of al-Qaeda, and often have disputes with us going back to the time when we were affiliated with al-Qaeda. They are driven by personal agendas and psychological complexes.
. The breaking of ties does not mean we have changed our ideological program. We reject the idea that we are only committed to the region we operate in (Arabic: qatariyya). In fact we are still committed to a wider jihadist project. We still respect you and hope the differences between us can be resolved.