Posted by Aymenn Al-Tamimi on Thursday, January 19th, 2017
By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi
Emblem of Liwa al-Jabal.
Unity initiatives of various kinds among armed groups are foremost associated with the rebels in Syria. Despite some attempts to argue to the contrary, the popular conception of the wider insurgency and opposition as heavily divided is largely correct. Time and time again we have seen talk of uniting the various rebel factions only to see it amount to little if anything: the most recent case being the merger schemes discussed in the wake of the regime’s recapture of all of Aleppo city last month. Indeed, Sheikh Abdullah al-Muheisseni, the Saudi jihadi cleric based in Syria, recently admitted this problem of failure to achieve unity in the latest rounds of merger talks among rebel factions. Muheisseni had been working on a merger initiative principally involving Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, Ahrar al-Sham and Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zinki.
Meanwhile, discussions and a document concerning a third-way option that entailed the revival of a structure akin to the failed Revolutionary Command Council of 2014-2015 were leaked in the media. The signatories to the document outlining the formation of a “Syria Liberation Command Council” included major factions like Ahrar al-Sham and Jaysh al-Islam, with one important aim being to form a joint political committee and thus produce joint political stances that bear significance. Peace talks scheduled to take place in Astana (the capital of Kazakhstan) were an important context for such an idea, though that concept already seems to be in doubt with Ahrar al-Sham opting not to participate in the Astana talks for a number of reasons, whereas Jaysh al-Islam is set to participate. Besides, broader controversy plagues the proposed Syria Liberation Command Council as a betrayal of meaningful mergers and unity as well as selling-out to the whims of foreign backers, namely Turkey and Qatar.
However, it is important to note that unity initiatives and problems of divisions are not confined to the insurgency: they can also be found among militias on the regime side in Syria, even as it would be an exaggeration to portray them as wholly equivalent to the disunity and divisions in the insurgency and opposition. A case-in-point is the primarily Druze province of Suwayda’. The region is also known as Jabal al-Arab/Jabal al-Druze (Mountain of the Arabs/Mountain of the Druze), and a large number of militia factions have emerged. Broadly speaking, they can be divided into two categories of orientation. On the one hand, there are factions that are clearly regime loyalist, showing affinities with Assad and the wider war effort. On the other hand, there are also more ‘third-way’ militias whose goal is not to overthrow the regime structure in Suwayda’ but rather to reform it (e.g. reducing corruption), while focusing more on local defence of the province from external attack (whether by the rebels or the Islamic State) and pushing against conscription efforts into the Syrian army.
While larger militia players and brand names can be identified in the province, such as the loyalist Kata’ib Humat al-Diyar of Nazih Jerbo’ and the ‘third-way’ Rijal al-Karama movement, there is overall a high degree of localisation in how the militias have organised by town and village, even when they have an affiliation to a broader brand. For an example of localisation, see the case of Katibat Jalamid Urman that I profiled earlier this month: a local loyalist militia based in the Suwayda’ village of Urman. This trend not only has the potential to impede coordination in times of military crisis, but also gives rise to incidents of kidnapping and settling of personal and local disputes by militia force, undermining the rule of law. Compare this observation with a document recently issued by a new group calling itself Ama’im al-Jabal, claiming to be composed of religious Druze in Suwayda’. The document alludes to some of the aforementioned problems in its introduction.
One attempt to resolve the localisation problem has been unity initiatives, which are particularly apparent on the loyalist side. The most recent of these initiatives is the announcement of the formation of Liwa al-Jabal (The Mountain Brigade), which was publicised as follows in a post on social media earlier this month containing much flowery rhetoric and many platitudes:
“Amid the ongoing danger of the terrorist gangs and the threat of the takfiri groups, which do not know religion, homeland and mercy and have not shown respect for human and ethical values for a day, groups from the popular factions in Suwayda’ province have decided to form a military unit in a united organisational body in the name of Liwa al-Jabal.
For so long as self-defence has been a legitimate right established by God, who put in place its rulings and made Paradise the dwellings of loftiness for whosoever fulfils the trust in defending that right, and so long as Suwayda’ province has been an example of national unity and a true embodiment of good conduct and action in defending land and honour, and [so long as] its sons will remain the good example in values, ethics, religious consciousness and both patriotic and nationalist sentiment: so will its sons remain on the path of their just predecessors.
As they have pledged, so they have fulfilled. As they have promised, so they have been bound by their promises, confronted tribulation through their consciousness, fought adversity through their courage and audacity, and resisted internal strife through their wisdom and the soundness of their minds. Thus they have united ranks, have not rendered them asunder, brought hearts close together and not separated them, protected the one seeking protection, provided relief to the one in need, have never been content for a day with disgrace, have never applied injustice, while treachery and betrayal have never been among their traits. May God grant you success and make right your path- our brothers and loves ones of ‘Liwa al-Jabal’- and may He destine for our people and homeland peace and security.”
Ziyad Abu Tafesh, who is involved with Liwa al-Jabal and appears to have been the first to have put up the announcement above regarding the formation, spoke with me at some length regarding Liwa al-Jabal and the idea behind it. Ziyad began by pointing to continuity in terms of the composition of Liwa al-Jabal: “Liwa al-Jabal represents a formation of the popular fighting groups present in foundation from the beginning of the war on my homeland Syria. They have been supporting the army and the auxiliary forces in the areas of danger and clashes on the administrative borders of Suwayda’.” He also noted the point I have made above regarding the problem of so many militias existing on the ground: “The multiplicity of groups is a cause of confusion in military work on the ground, thus the groups [i.e. those constituting Liwa al-Jabal] have realised the necessity of unity in one organisational and administrative framework in order to raise readiness and preparedness in the event of danger from the forces of terrorism and the gangs of al-Nusra [Jabhat al-Nusra: i.e. Jabhat Fatah al-Sham] and Da’esh [Islamic State] under the banner of the Syrian Arab Republic and the Syrian army.”
At this point, one may ask what has become of other conglomeration initiatives in Suwayda’, such as the loyalist Dir’ al-Watan (Homeland Shield) set up in 2015 by retired Syrian army officer Nayef al-Aqil with support from Sheikh Yusuf Jerbo’ (one of the three mashayakh al-‘aql, the highest Druze religious authorities in Syria). It turns out Dir’ al-Watan was a failure and quietly vanished into obscurity, despite initial hype back in 2015 as al-Aqil and Jerbo’ visited various places in the province to garner support for Dir’ al-Watan. Indeed, Ziyad had promoted Dir’ al-Watan in its beginnings, but as he put it to me in somewhat vague terms, “There was an attempt to bring together the nationalist factions under the leadership of the Brigadier General Mr. Nayef al-Aqil in the name of Dir’ al-Watan but for particular circumstances and reasons, success was not destined for it.”
Turning to the organisation and structure of Liwa al-Jabal, Ziyad explained that the leadership of the formation is composed of a military council of five people dividing assignments among themselves, though he did not give any names for these people. He added that Liwa al-Jabal is not affiliated with any security apparatus (e.g. military intelligence or air intelligence) but at the same time is not independent “in the literal meaning.” Rather, as he put it, “There is foundational government support with the guarantee of the brigade’s independence.” Such a description should not come as a surprise: many regime loyalist militias in Syria might have no formal affiliation to a larger particular entity like one of the intelligence apparatuses or Rami Makhlouf’s al-Bustan Association, but still get support from the regime in some way, such as weapons provision.
According to Ziyad, so far five groups have come under the conglomeration of Liwa al-Jabal, though he declined to give any specific names for these contingents. He elaborated as follows: “The foundational nucleus is five groups and there is great interest and inquiry about the means of joining in the future. But our brothers do not want to rush and fall into the potholes of factionalism and entry of bad members. Therefore a specific strategy will be ratified, along with conditions for the means of joining and specifications of the groups and their personnel that will come subsequently.”
In short, it is important to appreciate that Liwa al-Jabal is not so much a new militia as yet another attempt to try to bring together local loyalist factions in Suwayda’ under one structure and banner. Nonetheless, if the past record is anything to go by, the prospects of meaningful success for this project are rather dim. If Dir’ al-Watan, which had backing from the mashayakh al-‘aql, could not achieve unity among factions, what gives Liwa al-Jabal- something very low-key by comparison- better chances of success? Localisation and factionalism will probably continue to play an important/dominant role in militia organisation on the ground in Suwayda’ province, just as it has shown itself to be a wider trend across Syria during the civil war, only overcome in considerable part by exceptional actors that take authoritarian/dictatorial approaches towards real and potential rivals and implement more comprehensive administration systems (e.g. the Kurdish PYD and the Islamic State). Such an overview fits in with Syria’s modern history as a highly unstable state in which the Assad regime eventually came to dominate for four decades prior to the Arab Spring, putting in place a dictatorial system that knew how to exploit localism and other divisions to ensure the regime’s grip on power.