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The Salafist Roots of the Free Syrian Army

by | Feb 28, 2022

The Salafist Roots of the Free Syrian Army

by | Feb 28, 2022

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“At the same time, we see that there is almost no difference between the group called Free Syrian Army or other jihadist groups and ISIS. For instance, these ‘moderate’ opposition groups burned the churches down, when they entered Kessab. They entered Malula, where there is still an ancient Christian community speaking Aramaic. They destroyed that place too. There are many other examples like these.” – Harout Ekmanian

In the Western press, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) was viewed as a moderate, secular, rebel force fighting to topple the Syrian government and to establish a democratic state in its place. It is presumed the FSA consisted primarily of defected soldiers and officers from the Syrian army, who refused to fire on peaceful protestors, and who instead took up arms against the Syrian government itself to protect civilians. It is further presumed that the FSA was later “Islamized” and hijacked by extremist Salafi-Jihadi groups, including the Syrian and Iraqi wings of al-Qaeda, the Nusra Front and Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), respectively.

For example, pro-Syrian opposition journalist Rami Jarrah claims that  the Syrian conflict “started as a peaceful and secular uprising that later turned into an armed and secular uprising and finally an armed and Islamic one.”

When taking a closer look at the origins of the FSA, however, it becomes clear that the mainstream narrative about the originally democratic and secular nature of the FSA is simply not correct. Rather than secular and democratic, the largest original FSA factions were Salafist and Islamist from the start (note that the terms Salafist and Islamist tend to be used interchangeably throughout Arabic language media reporting about the Syria conflict).

Saudi-owned Al-Hayat described for example how the FSA was first established in July 2011 by a group of army deserters, but then numerous Islamist armed factions, including Liwa al-Islam, Saqour al-Sham, Alwiya Ahfad al-Rasoul, and Kata’ib Farouq, soon began fighting under the FSA banner.  Liwa al-Tawhid was another prominent Salafist armed group fighting as part of the FSA.

In October 2012, four of these five major FSA brigades, namely Liwa al-Tawhid, Liwa al-Islam, Kata’ib al-Farouq, and Saqour al-Sham dropped any pretense of secularism. These groups abandoned the FSA brand and formed the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front (SILF), thereby acknowledging their Islamist orientations even more explicitly. Reuters quoted Saqour al-Sham leader Abu Eissa al-Sheikh, who was named head of the SILF, as explaining, “We are proud of our Islamism and we are Islamists. . . . we want a state with Islamic reference and we are calling for it.” Syria expert Aron Lund noted at the time that the SILF was “pretty much the new mainstream face of the insurgency.”

In the words of one FSA officer, the Salafist armed groups that dominated the insurgency had themselves “emerged from the mantle of the Free Army,” and later formed more explicitly Salafist coalitions like the SILF because they believed that “that the application of Islamic law is a duty for all Muslims in all places and times.”

Despite pro-opposition propaganda to the contrary, even prominent secular opposition supporters have quietly admitted that the armed groups fighting the government were not, and never had been, of a secular or democratic orientation. Prominent Syrian dissident Yassin al-Haj Saleh acknowledged that, “Democrats in the country did not resort to arms to defend the people” and that this was the most important reason why “various sorts of Islamists are in leading positions in the armed resistance.”

Another prominent government critic, Michel Kilo, similarly observed in the French newspaper La Figero in 2020 that the armed groups fighting the Syrian government were Islamists, rather than secular Syrians fighting for democracy. In reflecting on the disaster that befell Syria after 2011, Kilo explained that the Islamists “came with their weapons, they absorbed the revolution of freedom to lead a counter-revolution.”  Kilo failed to acknowledge in La Figero, however, that he had himself previously praised the Islamist armed groups, including the Nusra Front, in February 2013, after their invasion and occupation of Ras al-Ayn.

A Red Cross employee who worked in both opposition and government-controlled areas stated the matter succinctly: “If there are secularist rebels, I haven’t met them.”

The Salafist and Islamist roots of both the broader protest movement and nascent armed insurgency ensured that the so-called Syrian revolution lacked any significant popular legitimacy. Though Syria’s population is majority Sunni, this does not translate to support for Salafism, an innovative ideology which is rejected by the Sunni Muslim mainstream.

As Syrian Muslim Brotherhood leader Ali al-Bayanouni acknowledged, “Their influence is limited. Salafism has weak foundations in Syria, as the majority of Sunni Muslims subscribe to Sufism.”  Many Syrian Muslim Brothers are themselves Salafists, also raising questions about the group’s ability to win wide support in Syrian society, leaving even the violent and sectarian history of the group itself aside.

The Salafist orientation of the armed groups that Kilo and other secular opposition supporters were depending on to topple the government is yet more problematic because, as Syrian dissident Nidal Nuaiseh acknowledged, “Salafist calls for the murder of Alawites are not new, but are at the core of the Salafist ideology, and have been at its core for hundreds of years.”

As a result, Syrians most often feared the Salafist armed groups of the FSA invading their towns and cities. Acknowledging this, al-Jazeera commentator and opposition supporter Azmi Bishara wrote in his book, “Syria – A Path to Freedom from Suffering,” that, “Islamic jihadist groups were part of the Free Army” and that their “presence aroused significant fear among Syrians,” due to the “spread of black Islamic flags making reference to al-Qaeda, and the appearance of religious sharia courts.”

That Syrians broadly feared the FSA is not surprising given the brutal tactics used by these groups. Writing for al-Quds al-Arabi, journalist Wael Essam notes that, “Many believe that what distinguishes ISIS is the role of foreign jihadists and the practices of its extremist elements in beheading, for example,” however, “the moderate Islamic factions and the Free Army carry out many similar practices. . .  but the difference is advertising.”

This is a further indication that there were no secular armed groups fighting on the ground, and that secular opposition supporters were relying on an array of widely feared sectarian Salafist militias, including the Nusra Front and its army of foreign suicide bombers, to topple the  Syrian government for them.  As Syrian academic Mark Tomass observed, Syria’s secular opposition mistakenly believed that “street protests could topple the regime” and that when this “proved to be an illusion, the secular opposition believed that a violent overthrow of the regime would still bring them to power. Since they had no armed groups representing them on the ground, they served with the blessings of their Western and Arab sponsors as the spokesmen for the Islamist fighters, including al-Qaida.”

In the remainder of this essay, I review the Salafist origins of the major FSA factions fighting against the Syrian government and receiving U.S, UK, Gulf and Turkish support.

Salafism Defines the Revolution

Members of Syria’s Salafi community, as opposed to religiously mainstream Sunnis, formed the backbone of the anti-government insurgency that emerged from the 2011 protest movement. Writing for the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, Muhammad Abu Rumman of the University of Jordan explains that, “Salafists deeply penetrated the armed revolution, thus defining the revolution’s social role,” while noting the only “modest Sufi presence in the armed factions in particular and in the peaceful revolution in general.”

Journalist Bisam Nasir similarly observed that “Salafist groups in the Syrian arena top the list of armed groups, organizations and movements fighting the Syrian regime and its allies, as they are the most present and the most powerful on the military level.” Though the Western press discussed the insurgency as if it was divided into “moderates” from the FSA on the one hand, and “extremists” from the Nusra Front and ISIS on the other, Nasir notes that according to the Kuwaiti Islamic writer and researcher, Ali al-Sanad, the primary distinction between the various armed groups fighting the Syrian government was in the kind of Salafism they adopted, whether quietist, activist, or jihadi.

Nasir further cites Syrian preacher and Islamic researcher, Jamal Al-Farra, as noting the influence on the broader insurgency of “Surouri Salafism,” an innovative and radical ideology that marries the concern with politics and organization of the Muslim Brotherhood with the theological creed of traditional Salafism.

Sarouri Salafism derives from the thought of Muhammad Sarour, a Syrian cleric from Deraa that spent most of his life in exile in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Britain, and whose anti-Shia beliefs inspired al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi to advocate genocide against the Shia in Iraq before his killing by U.S. occupation forces in 2006. Muhammad Sarour provided not only the ideological inspiration for many of the armed groups fighting to topple the secular Syrian government, but “was quietly active in the Syrian uprising” itself and was eulogized by the U.S.-backed opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) upon his death in 2016.

Sarour’s influence is an indication that not only the armed insurgency, but also the anti-government protest movement itself, had largely Salafist roots. Muhammad Abu Rumman explains further that, “When the Syrian popular protests broke out in March 2011, Islamic symbols – and their material manifestations – were conspicuously present. Their visibility and influence increased further with the ascendance of spiritual discourse, the elevated role of mosques and their preachers, and the contribution of religious scholars. The Islamic groups and the militant Islamists have become key players in the ongoing military and security struggle.”

A Salafist Insurgency from the Start

The first indication that the Syrian insurgency did not start as secular and democratic, only to be hijacked by Salafi groups, arises from that fact that the first armed group to begin fighting the Syrian government was not the Free Syrian Army, but a Salafist militia known as the “Islamic Movement of the Free Men of the Levant,” or “Ahrar al-Sham.”

While the establishment of the FSA was formally announced in July 2011, Ahrar al-Sham’s leadership had begun organizing armed cells and attacking Syrian security forces months before, as early as March 2011, the same month that anti-government protests in Syria began. Rania Abouzeid of Time Magazine reported that according to one fighter from Ahrar al-Sham, the group “started working on forming brigades ‘after the Egyptian revolution . . . well before March 15, 2011, when the Syrian revolution kicked off with protests in the southern agricultural city of Dara’a.”

Writing in Al-Monitor, Syrian journalist Abdullah Suleiman Ali also indicates that Ahrar al-Sham was active in the early months of the uprising. He reports that according to his source within the group, foreign fighters, “including Saudis, were in Syria as the Ahrar al-Sham movement was emerging, i.e., since May 2011.” Suleiman notes that these Saudi fighters joined Ahrar al-Sham based  on recommendations from senior al-Qaeda figures, and that long time al-Qaeda operative and former Fighting Vanguard member Abu Khalid al-Souri played an important role in establishing the group.

Opposition activist and later McClatchy journalist Mousab al-Hamadee explained that “One of my friends who is now a rebel leader told me that the moment the group announced itself in 2011 it got a big bag of money sent directly from Ayman al Zawahiri, the leader of al Qaida.”

After spending time with Ahrar al-Sham fighters in June 2012, McClatchy journalist David Enders notes that “Ahrar al Sham draws its members from followers of a conservative strain of Islam known as Salafism; its followers see themselves as fighting in part for the right to preach their doctrine and the fall of a government that jailed them for doing so.”

Additional Salafist militias were formed in Syria as funding and weapons from foreign intelligence agencies and Salafist networks in the Gulf flooded the country in the first weeks and months after the start of anti-government protests in March 2011. In a rare admission of the armed nature of the fledgling anti-government uprising, Anthony Shadid of the New York Times reported on May 8, 2011 that, “American officials acknowledge that some protesters have been armed,” and that “Syrian television is suffused with images of soldiers’ burials.” By this time, at least 81 soldiers and police had been killed.

One month later, on June 5, 2011, hundreds of Salafist militants in the northern town of Jisr al-Shagour attacked government buildings under the cover of a protest, killing 8 Syrian security force members. The militants then killed some 120 Syrian soldiers who had been dispatched as reinforcements, and threw their bodies into mass graves. As journalist Rania Abouzeid reports in her book, “No turning back,” the militants contrived the story that the massacred soldiers had been defectors killed by their own Alawite officers.

The false narrative of defecting soldiers refusing orders to shoot civilians was reinforced by a flurry of videos spread on social media alleging to show Syrian soldiers and officers declaring their defection. These videos were then promoted by the Western and Gulf press. On June 7, 2011, two days after the massacre of Syrian soldiers by opposition militants at Jisr al-Shagour, al-Jazeera reported the defection of First Lieutenant Abdal al-Razzaq Mohammed Tlas from the town of Rastan near Homs. Tlas’ defection was considered significant because the Tlas family were prominent Sunni supporters of the Syrian government, with Mustafa Tlas and his son Manaf Tlas each serving as Defense Minister under Hafez al-Assad and Bashar al-Assad respectively. On June 9, 2011, Syrian army colonel Hussein Harmoush publicly declared his defection and formed the Free Officers Movement after allegedly “receiving orders to shoot on protesting civilians” in Jisr al-Shagour. Harmoush had fled to Turkey where he spoke with Western journalists. Similarly, Syrian army Colonel Riad al-Assad publicly announced his defection to the Free Officers Movement on July 4, 2011.

The publicity given to Harmoush, Tlass, al-Assad, and others (and to the false stories about Syrian soldiers being murdered by their own commanders for refusing to shoot civilians) provided public relations cover for a nascent Salafist-led insurgency that had already been active for months. When the Free Syrian Army (FSA) was established on July 29, 2011, the myth of a secular rebel army comprised of defected officers fighting to establish democracy and protect civilians was officially born.

What is the Free Army?

Syria expert Aron Lund argues that the “FSA doesn’t really exist” as an actual army, but was simply a “branding operation,” likely run by Turkish intelligence. According to the BBC, the small number of defected army officers that initially founded the FSA in July 2011 were based in Turkey and “had little or no operational control over what was happening on the ground in Syria.”

Instead, the FSA leadership was tasked with issuing press releases for Western media consumption and coordinating weapons shipments to the armed groups fighting on the ground in Syria.  Joseph Holliday of the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) noted in December 2011 for example that “[T]here is little hard evidence to suggest that the Free Syrian Army is anything more than a media outlet” and potential weapons conduit.

Azmi Bishara similarly observed that the media reported statements from the leadership of the FSA as if this leadership knew what was happening on the ground in Syria [when in fact they did not], and that some of the FSA officers spoke from Istanbul about events they themselves had only heard about from the media.

The public relations activities of the FSA leadership in Turkey gave a secular veneer to the  Salafist militias fighting the Syrian government on the ground and over which they had no actual control. The handful of defected officers forming the FSA leadership provided public relations support and weapons not only for Salafist militias fighting under the FSA banner, but for al-Qaeda’s Syria affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, or the Nusra Front. As one opposition activist noted, in many cases, “Operations that were really carried out by al-Nusra are publicly presented by the FSA as their own.” Reflecting on six years of U.S. support for so-called rebels in Syria, The Century Foundation (TCF) contributor Sam Heller wrote that FSA factions “have functioned as battlefield auxiliaries and weapons farms for larger Islamist and jihadist factions, including Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate.

To understand the Salafist roots of the Free Syrian Army, a closer look at the most prominent FSA factions, and their importance to the broader anti-government insurgency, is in order.

Saqour al-Sham

Saqour al-Sham, or the “Falcons of the Levant” was founded in September 2011 in the northern Syrian town of Sarjeh in Idlib province. The group’s founder, Ahmed Issa al-Sheikh, had been imprisoned for 11 months by the Syrian government in the Palestine Branch in 2004 for his Salafi proselytizing activities. Al-Sheikh’s father was killed by the government while in Tadmur jail in the 1980’s during the conflict between the government and the Muslim Brotherhood.

When the events of 2011 began, al-Sheikh was a relatively unknown figure. He and a group of fighters, including his two brothers, Daoud and Abu al-Fadhl, participated in armed clashes against Syrian security forces during the summer of 2011. After both of his brothers were killed, al-Sheikh established Saqour al-Sham in September 2011 and adopted the FSA moniker.

The group became a magnet for funding from the Gulf, and al-Sheikh quickly became one of the most prominent commanders and most powerful men in Idlib province. In a sermon al-Sheikh delivered in late April 2012, “Abu Issa called on the Syrian people to turn toward their religion and to view politics as a vehicle for elevating God’s word. He also said that Muslims had lost their honor because they had abandoned Jihad, replacing aspirations for martyrdom with a fear of death.” Journalist Wael Essam notes that the most prominent religious advisor for Saqour al-Sham was an Egyptian jihadist who later joined Ahrar al-Sham. Aron Lund notes that the Saqour al-Sham “has used suicide bombers and frames its propaganda in religious rhetoric,” while its “website features a link to the Levant Islamic Commission, an Islamic aid organization set up by supporters of the Deraa-born salafi scholar Mohammed Surour Zeinelabidin, which is presumably another source of funding for the group.”

The most effective of the brigades constituting Saqour al-Sham was the Daoud Brigade (or Liwa Daoud, named after al-Sheikh’s deceased brother). The brigade was led by Hassan Aboud from the town of Sarmin in Idlib province. Aboud had traveled to Iraq to fight against U.S. occupation forces in 2004 in Falluja and was seen in a video with the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) at the time, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. After returning to Syria in 2005, Aboud led an unremarkable life as a mason and laborer, though locals from Sarmin speculated he was sent back to Syria as part of an al-Qaeda sleeper cell.

Aboud participated in anti-government protests starting in March 2011, and then founded Liwa Daoud as the opposition movement quickly became militarized. His brigade had expertise in using improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and Aboud later became a double amputee after an improvised rocket accidentally exploded near him.

Reporting from C.J. Chivers of the New York Times provides insight into the origins of Liwa Daoud, including Aboud’s participation in the massacre of the 120 Syrian soldiers in Jisr al-Shagour noted above. Chivers writes that, “In June 2011, while Syrian protesters appealed for international support, Mr. Aboud participated in the ambush of an army convoy near Jisr al-Shoughour, four associates said. The little band in which he fought with a friend, Dawood al-Sheikh, had only seven or eight rifles. It was a quixotic clash. Mr. Sheikh was killed. The road remained open. Crackdowns continued apace.” The deaths of 120 soldiers indicates that the ambush was not nearly as quixotic as Chivers suggests.

Chivers reports further that, “Mr. Aboud soon formed a fighting group, named it the Dawood Brigade and left protests behind. His brigade started small. But it set up a guerrilla base among olive groves and caves, where it trained, manufactured weapons, and extended its fight. By late 2011, it joined Suqour al-Sham, or Sham Falcons brigade…Many early rebel groups lacked experience, money, training, and cohesion. The Dawood Brigade was different, Mr. Aboud’s townspeople said. It tended to details necessary to become a fighting force.”

Aboud became one of the most important military leaders in Saqour al-Sham after participating in several key battles against the Syrian army, including at the Taftanaz military airport, the Shabiba military base, the Air Defense College and the Madajin checkpoint in Aleppo, the Jadida checkpoint in Hama, and the Hamishu checkpoint in Idlib.

In July 2013, militants from Liwa Daoud kidnapped and killed 14 conscripts from the Palestinian Liberation Army (PLA), a Palestinian division of the Syrian army, as they were heading back to Nairab Palestinian refugee camp by van on a weekend break from training exercises. The conscripts were divided into two groups – half were shot, while the other half were tortured and then beheaded.

In 2014, Hassan Aboud defected with his fighters to ISIS, bringing with them weapons and a convoy of armored vehicles and tanks. Aboud became a prominent ISIS commander and led the ISIS assault on the Aleppo countryside in August 2014. He was known for singing songs in which he threatened to kill his former FSA counterparts. Aboud helped lead the attack to capture the ancient town and heritage site of Palmyra, after which ISIS publicly murdered Khalid al-Asaad, the retired director of antiquities for the site. Hassan Aboud was killed in March 2016 when his convoy struck a roadside bomb.

Kata’ib al-Farouq

The most prominent of the early FSA groups was Kata’ib al-Farouq, or the “Farouq Brigades,” which became dominant in the Syrian city of Homs, near the Lebanese border. Syrian journalist Malek al-Abdeh noted Farouq’s importance, writing in Foreign Policy that, “the Farouk Brigades was, at one point, the lynchpin of the West’s effort to build a ‘moderate’ opposition.”

One of the founders of the group, a lawyer named Abu Sayyeh, explained to journalist Rania Abuzeid that the group chose a name with “clear sectarian overtones tied to Assad’s alliance with Shiite Iran. The Farouq Battalions were named for Farouq Omar bin al-Khatab, a sahaba or companion of the prophet Muhammad, political architect of the caliphate and the second caliph who conquered the Sassanid Persian empire, among other territories. ‘We wanted to be called Farouq as an indication of our desire to confront Persian ambitions in our Arab lands,’ the lawyer Abu Sayyeh said.’”

The most important founder of the Farouq Brigades was a Salafi preacher named Amjad Bitar, who was able to fund the group via donations from Salafi networks in the Gulf states.  Opposition activist Walid al-Faris notes in his book “Homs: the Great Siege” that Bitar was a young student of Islamic law with a Salafi orientation.  Before founding Farouq, Bitar supported various armed groups in Homs, most notably in the neighborhoods of al-Khalidiya and Baba Amr, which were the two most important gathering points for opposition fighters in the city. Among the fighters were some who had fought in Iraq previously. Training camps for the fighters and bomb-making factories were set up in orchards on the outskirts of the city. These orchards provided cover for the fighters and facilitated their movements.

Walid al-Faris also notes the dominant role played by Salafists generally in the establishment of Farouq. He writes that “the biggest part of the financial support came from religious students of the Salafi methodology in Homs and outside it. This was confirmed by the announcement of the actual leadership of the brigade, which originally belonged to the Salafi methodology, and this was not apparent initially.”

The Salafist orientation of Farouq was not apparent initially because the group was publicly led by a defected Syrian army officer, Abd al-Razzaq Tlass, who defected from the Syrian army in June 2011, as mentioned above. This gave Farouq a secular veneer and allowed the group to be presented as moderate in the Western press.

Al-Faris notes however that while Tlass handled military responsibilities, it was Bitar who was the actual leader of the group. After a trip to Syria in August 2012, opposition activist Ammar Abd al-Hamid similarly confirmed that although Farouq was apparently “run by a charismatic young defector, Captain Abdurrazzaq Tlas, it was guided from behind the scenes by a Salafi scholar by the name of Amjad Bitar.”

French journalist Jonathan Littell also reports in his book “Syrian Notebooks,” that while Tlass was a commander in Farouq, various activists he met when visiting Homs in January 2012 denied that Tlass was the group’s leader, further suggesting that Tlass was used as a front man to the give the group a secular veneer for public relations purposes. Littell explained that while the defected officer Tlass “attributes to himself a leading role” in Farouq, this was something “which other interlocutors contest.” One opposition activist asserted to Littell that Tlass was not the commander of Farouq, but that “He doesn’t want to say the name of the real commander.” Littell provided additional insights into the nature of the insurgents fighting the Syrian army in Homs at this time. Littell writes that one FSA commander in Homs explained to him “that Zarqawi is his idol, because he came to Iraq to confront Iran and the Shiites,” while one FSA fighter that helped smuggle Littell into Homs showed him a photo of al-Qaeda leaders Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and Osama bin Laden on his phone, and expressed affection for both.

Defectors?

It was also commonly claimed that Farouq consisted primarily of army defectors who had refused to fire on peaceful civilian protestors. However, Farouq fighters consisted primarily of civilians from the Salafi community in Homs. Rania Abuzeid reports for example that “Opposition media activists pushed the idea that Farouq and the broader Free Syrian Army were largely comprised of defectors, but they were mainly armed civilians.” She quotes a Farouq commander named Abu Azzam as explaining that, “We are a civilian revolution, not a revolution of defected soldiers.”

McClatchy journalist David Enders spent time with Farouq fighters in April 2012. He notes that the group’s commander refused to say how many of his fighters were defectors. Enders notes however that several fighters eagerly acknowledged to him that they had fought in Iraq against U.S. occupation forces, including in 2004 in Falluja, after Enders indicated he himself had reported from Fallujah at the time. The tactics these fighters learned in Iraq were invaluable for waging a guerrilla war against the Syrian government. Enders also notes that Farouq was “capable of inflicting heavy casualties whenever the Syrian army attempts to enter rebel-held areas,” because “the Syrian army, as a force built for a potential conflict with Israel, is poorly equipped for the type of asymmetrical combat the guerillas engage in.”

Similarly, al-Jazeera journalist James Bays observed that the Farouq Brigade he was embedded with in al-Qusayr in May 2012, “includes many more civilian volunteers. Many don’t wear uniform, and some cover their faces with the keffiyeh, or arabic scarf. We were told some of these fighters had fought in Iraq.”

Opposition activist Walid al-Faris also observes for example that, “The number of defected officers in Homs remained small, and the [opposition] fighters feared dealing with them in the beginning due to security reasons,” and that although the defected army officer Abd al-Razaq Tlass, “played a prominent role in the training the revolutionaries” in Homs, “most of the defected officers went outside of Syria, as most officers wanted a large salary and administrative roles far away from the front and from the war, and this made benefiting from their expertise difficult.” Al-Fares notes that the armed groups in Homs benefitted most from local jihadists who had previously fought abroad, explaining that, “On the other hand, a number of Syrians participated in the defense of Iraq during the American occupation and gained expertise from both theoretical and practical training exercises. A small number of the people of Homs participated in the numerous wars in Lebanon and Afghanistan, and most of those who had a large role in training the fighters in the use of weapons and laying mines and military tactics were ‘Islamist-Jihadists.’”

What was true of Farouq was true of other FSA factions as well. Azmi Bishara writes that the “firm truth that has accompanied the revolution since the beginning of militarization is that most of the revolutionaries that became armed were civilians that were not trained with carrying weapons, and not soldiers or officers who had fled, in contrast to what spokespersons of the revolution claimed.” This propaganda played an important role in obscuring the Salafist orientation of the Syrian insurgency and the various FSA groups fighting within it, for outside observers.

Farouq was formally founded in August 2011 in Homs, but Farouq militants had been organizing militarily much earlier, from the start of the anti-government protests. For example, Jonathon Littell met an FSA commander in Homs who claims the FSA began organizing in April 2011. Littell writes, “Abu Ahmad, who commands the north zone of al-Qusayr. An officer who deserted, a mulazim. Thick beard, moustache shaved, Islamist style. He had quit the army before the uprising, because of a personal conflict, and joined the FSA at its start. In April already, they were trying to organize themselves militarily, but there weren’t yet any confrontations.”

The assassination of Syrian army officers and civilians in Homs also began at this time. On April 19, 2011, unknown gunmen killed Abdul Qadr al-Telawi and his two sons and nephew, as well as two other officers in separate incidents, Mu’ain Mehla and Iyad Harfoush.

By July, Syrian police and security forces were engaging in regular clashes with opposition militants in Homs, many of which claimed to be from the Khalid bin al-Walid Brigade based in nearby Rastan. Then al-Jazeera journalist Nir Rosen described the situation as follows: “Spend enough time in Homs and you will be confronted with the battles between security forces and their armed opponents. On July 21 Syrian security forces clashed with opposition fighters in the city’s Bab Assiba neighbourhood. The following day I met several members of state security. They were saddened by the loss of a captain in the Ministry of Interior’s SWAT unit – he had been shot in the neck just above his vest. I was told that the day before, opposition fighters had used a rocket propelled grenade in Ashiri on the outskirts of Homs. One State security man called Shaaban complained that Bab Assiba had become its own state. The day before, he had taken part in heavy fighting there and helped transport 35 wounded soldiers out. ‘It was like a wedding,’ he laughed as he described the shooting.”

Assassinations in Homs accelerated in July 2011 as well. According to Amnesty International, on July 24, 2011 Rida Drei’, a 31-year old Shia supermarket owner from the al-Bayada neighborhood in Homs was abducted and murdered by opposition militants. His body was found with a bullet wound in the upper neck, cuts to the head and nose, and bruised lips, while his car was found burned and in a graveyard.

Azmi Bishara noted that in just one day in July 2011 in Homs, about 30 people were kidnapped and killed by opposition militants, but that the public appearance of weapons in the streets did not begin until August 2011. Bishara also noted that in Homs, opposition activists accused the Syrian government of assassinating several prominent civilians, when in fact it was known that anti-government armed groups were responsible. According to Bishara, opposition activists justified passing unconfirmed, exaggerated, and fabricated information of this kind (falsely blaming the Syrian government) to the media because of their belief that it “served the revolution.”

Farouq also received support from Salafi networks in nearby Tripoli, Lebanon, starting in the summer of 2011. Der Spiegel quoted a Salafi preacher in Tripoli who participated in sending money and fighters to Syria in support of Farouq at that time as saying, “Assad is an infidel…It is the duty of every Muslim, every Arab to fight the infidels…There is a holy war in Syria and the young men there are conducting jihad. For blood, for honor, for freedom, for dignity.”

These Salafist fighters from Lebanon included militants from an al-Qaeda affiliated group known as Fatah al-Islam. Dr. Haytham Mouzahem, director of the Beirut Center for Middle East Studies explained that, “When the uprising in Syria began in 2011, many of the remaining Fatah al-Islam members crossed the border and joined groups in the Free Syrian Army.”

Once the reality of armed struggle to topple the Syrian government became apparent, it then became common to claim that opposition militants only used violence to protect civilians. However, then al-Jazeera journalist Nir Rosen wrote in September 2011 that according to an opposition activist in Homs, the militants publicly say they are fighting “to defend the civilians but most of their operations involve attacking checkpoints.’” According to the activist, “They say ‘we attack the ones who attack us; this is our way of defending civilians.’”

These offensive attacks continued over subsequent months in Homs, allowing the opposition militants to expand their control of larger and larger sections of the city. Jonathon Littell wrote that after an interview with Farouq commander Abd al-Razzaq Tlass on January 24, 2012, “Tlass is leaving to launch an attack against some army checkpoints and things might go sour, and we leave…In twenty minutes more or less, we’re in Khalidiya. There, first surprise: an FSA checkpoint at the entrance of the neighborhood, with sandbags and armed guys. Ra’id is surprised, that didn’t exist in November; it means the FSA has gotten seriously stronger, if they dare show themselves openly here, so close to the center.”

Two weeks later, the Syrian army responded to these advances by launching a military offensive against opposition militants in the Khalidiyya neighborhood in Homs. Nir Rosen writes that the Syrian army operation “was interpreted by leaders of Homs’ uprising as a response to their recent gains,” and that opposition “Fighters announced that they attacked security forces in Rastan, expelled them from Talbiseh, and took control of more territory in Homs city, launching two attacks on the State Security and Military Security headquarters. On February 3 [2012], the day government forces began their offensive, opposition fighters attacked at least three army checkpoints, including one at Homs’ Qahira roundabout, where they reportedly seized a large armoured vehicle – either a personnel carrier or a tank. They also captured many Syrian soldiers and released a video of interviews with the officers of the captured unit.” Rosen also quoted a member of the Homs Revolutionary Council who claimed that “We control most of Homs.” As a result, the city came to be viewed as the “capital of the revolution.”

The Daily Beast reported that during the same Syrian army offensive, three groups of FSA fighters from the Farouq brigade successfully attacked two high rise buildings occupied by the Syrian army, “killing about 60 security forces and capturing another six, whom they handed over to the brigade’s interrogators. Farouq often then executed most of the Syrian soldiers it captured. Amnesty International reported that, “One armed opposition commander linked to the FSA who was active in the Homs governorate and the Damascus suburbs told Amnesty International that out of every 10 captured soldiers, around six would be usually killed. He went on: ‘When we were still in control of Baba Amr, every time we killed a captured soldier or officer, we kept his military ID, his cell phone, and other possessions all in a safe place. The soldier would be buried in Basateen Baba Amr [Baba Amr’s orchards]. But in the last few months, we stopped being as organized…the government started using air strikes, so we have to leave the battlefield as quickly as possible…and captured soldiers would slow us down. So [the FSA] would just kill them on the site and leave.’”

Journalist Sharmine Narwani reports that according to a leaked March 25, 2012 email summarizing a meeting of armed opposition groups in Homs, the groups’ leaders acknowledged that more recent Syrian army shelling in the Khalidiyya neighborhood was also in response to an Farouq attack on a Syrian army checkpoint, and that Farouq’s financial backers in Saudi Arabia were “urging the targeting of loyalist neighborhoods and sectarian escalation.”

Though clearly a response to Farouq’s efforts to capture all of Homs, opposition activists from the Local Coordination Committees (LCC) nevertheless characterized the Syrian Army response as simply massacring protestors when speaking with the press. This gave foreign leaders the pretext to call for regime-change in Syria, a long-standing U.S. foreign policy objective. Referring to the violence in al-Khalidiya in February 2012, President Obama described Syrian army actions as “indiscriminate violence,” while claiming that “Assad must halt his campaign of killing and crimes against his own people now. He must step aside and allow a democratic transition to proceed immediately.”

This and other events led British historian and Syria expert Patrick Seale to argue in the Guardian that: “The strategy of the armed opposition is to seek to trigger a foreign armed intervention by staging lethal clashes and blaming the resulting carnage on the regime. It knows that, left to itself, its chance of winning is slim. For its part, the regime’s brutality can be explained, if not condoned, by the fact that it believes it is fighting for its life – not only against local opponents but also against an external conspiracy led by the United States (egged on by Israel) and including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Britain, and France. The regime’s strategy is to prevent – at all costs – its armed opponents from seizing and holding territory inside the country, as this might give foreign powers a base from which to operate. As soon as it identifies pockets of armed opponents, it sends in its troops to crush them. That it often uses disproportionate force is not in doubt: this is all too predictable when a conventional army faces hit-and-run opponents. Trapped between opposing forces, civilians inevitably pay the price.”

In late 2013, after several schisms in the group, the majority of the original Farouq militants joined ISIS. Wael Essam notes that, “the most important contingent of the Farouq Brigades joined the organization [ISIS]. Farouq was the most prominent [armed group] at the beginning of the revolution in Homs. In addition, a number of prominent revolution activists, such as Abu Yazan al-Homsi, joined the organization [ISIS] early on.”

Liwa al-Islam

Another prominent Salafist armed group fighting under the FSA banner was Liwa al-Islam, or the Islam Brigade. As Syria expert Aron Lund details, Liwa al-Islam was founded by Zahran Alloush, a Salafi activist from the town of Douma in the Eastern Ghouta region in the Damascus suburbs. Alloush’s father, Abdullah, was a prominent Salafi preacher and the Imam of the Tawhid mosque before emigrating to Saudi Arabia in the mid-1990’s. After beginning a degree in religious studies at Damascus University, Zahran continued his studies in Saudi Arabia under prominent Salafi scholars, including Abd al-Aziz Bin Baz, the Saudi Grand Mufti. Upon returning to Syria, Zahran was engaged in underground Salafi missionary activity and detained in Sednaya prison by Syrian authorities in 2009 as a result.

When the Syrian uprising began in March 2011, Alloush was still in prison, but was released as part of a presidential amnesty in June 2011. Alloush immediately joined the nascent anti-government armed insurgency, and by September 2011 had organized his own armed group, the Islam Company, which began with a core group of 14 religious students and received support from a local Salafi preacher, Sa‘id Delwan.

By early 2012, Alloush’s group, now known as the Islam Brigade, or Liwa al-Islam, had become the most powerful armed group in Eastern Ghouta. As an FSA faction, Liwa al-Islam was able to procure weapons that had been collected in Libya by the Muslim Brotherhood and smuggled to Syria with the help of Qatari and Turkish intelligence. Alloush’s control over the distribution of these weapons also helped Liwa al-Islam to become the most powerful local armed group in the Damascus suburbs, at the expense of the rival Douma Martyr’s Brigade.

In July 2012, Liwa al-Islam participated in large offensive to take Damascus, dubbed operation “Damascus Volcano and Syrian Earthquake,” which was made possible by weapons shipments organized by U.S. planners two months before. In May 2012, the Washington Post had reported that “Syrian rebels battling the regime of President Bashar al-Assad have begun receiving significantly more and better weapons in recent weeks, an effort paid for by Persian Gulf nations and coordinated in part by the United States, according to opposition activists and U.S. and foreign officials.” The Post noted further that “Materiel is being stockpiled in Damascus” and that according to an opposition figure, “Large shipments have got through. . . Some areas are loaded with weapons.’”

Reuters notes that the 14 July 2012 offensive involved 2,500 opposition fighters, many of which were redeployed from other parts of the country. The fighting spread to three other districts the next day, including the Midan district in the heart of Damascus, with battles flaring within sight of Assad’s presidential palace. Opposition militants hid in narrow alleyways and battled government tanks using rocket-propelled grenades and roadside bombs.

The offensive was highlighted by the bombing of the National Security building in Damascus on July 18, for which Liwa al-Islam took credit. The bombing killed 4 top Syrian security officials, including the defense minister Dawoud Rajha, national security chief Hisham Ikhtiyar, and Assad’s brother-in-law, deputy defense minister Assef Shawkat.  Opposition militants claimed the bombing was “a turning point in Syria’s history” and the “beginning of the end” for the government

The Syrian army was able to repel the offensive, however, re-taking control of the Midan district on July 20, 2012. However, the rebel withdrawal from the heart of Damascus was merely tactical and opposition militants would try to take the capital again in the coming months. Al-Monitor reported that “The regime appears to have won Round 1 in the fight for Damascus, but the war is far from over.”

Alloush was soon able to incorporate other groups under his command and build a powerful army thanks in large part to Gulf funding. Lund notes that “Gulf-based Salafi preachers like Adnan al-Arour, a Syrian televangelist-in-exile and old acquaintance of the Alloush family from Saudi Arabia, collected huge sums in donations from the faithful. By offering strong leadership, religious legitimacy and a regular salary, Alloush was able to poach members from the smaller Free Syrian Army factions in Douma, which were often no more than poorly organized local gangs. By 2013, the group had expanded from Douma to the wider Eastern Ghouta region and was even spawning affiliates in northern Syria.”

In September 2013, Liwa aI-Islam was joined by 45 smaller FSA factions to form Jaish al-Islam, or the Army of Islam, under Alloush’s leadership. Lund notes further that the summer and fall of 2013 is the time when Jaish al-Islam began to enjoy significant and open support not only from Salafi networks in the Gulf, but from Saudi intelligence directly.

Consistent with the Salafi ideology he long preached, Alloush has called for the ethnic cleansing of Shia and Alawi communities from Damascus and has stated his support for the establishment of an Islamic state and his explicit opposition to democracy.

Jaish al-Islam gained notoriety for parading Alawite captives in cages through the streets of Douma.  The group was also known for executing civilians accused of collaborating with the government by beheading and crucifixion, and is widely believed to be responsible for the abduction and killing of prominent secular opposition figure and human rights lawyer Razen Zeitouneh and three of her colleagues.

Despite a clear record of extremism and sectarianism, Jaish al-Islam has been praised as moderate by Western journalists, think thank analysts, and U.S. officials because the group expressed no interest trans-national jihad, which would presumably entail attacks on Western targets.

For example, Washington Post journalist Josh Rogin defended Jaish al-Islam as moderate, strenuously insisting that the group not be viewed as a terrorist organization after then Secretary of State John Kerry made public comments suggesting as much in July 2016. Rogin quoted an Obama administration official as explaining, “For months, we’ve been arguing to make sure the Russians and the Syrian regime don’t equate these groups with the terrorists,” but that “Kerry’s line yields that point.”

In October 2013, Syria analyst Hassan Hassan argued in Foreign Policy that the rise in influence of Alloush and Jaish al-Islam is “not all bad news,” because, “The rise of Salafi-leaning rebel groups offers an opportunity to combat the real extremists—al Qaeda-linked groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS).”

However, Jaish al-Islam fought closely with Nusra in many instances, and Jaish al-Islam’s later conflict with ISIS was part of a broader intra-Jihadi civil war. The conflict did not result from any fundamental ideological opposition to Salafi-Jihadism, the ideology undergirding groups spawned by al-Qaeda, including ISIS. While U.S. planners may have viewed Jaish al-Islam as “moderate” based on their own self-serving criteria, there is no reason why Syrians (outside the group’s narrow Salafi support base) would have come to the same conclusion.

Why Was Alloush Released?

Much has been made of Alloush’s release from Sednaya prison in June 2011, in the early months of the conflict. Syrian opposition members have attempted to cite this as proof that Assad released various Islamist prisoners at that time to “Islamize” and militarize an otherwise secular and peaceful uprising. Presumably, this was a way for Assad to discredit the protesters as terrorists, and to shift the conflict to a military arena, where the Syrian government would more easily prevail.

This explanation makes little sense, however. There was not a way for the Syrian government to know in advance that Alloush would become a prominent guerrilla commander upon his release, as Alloush did not have an obviously violent past. Aron Lund explains that “Alloush was arrested in 2009 and charged with gun possession, though the main reason for his arrest seems to have been his Salafi activism.” To its grave discredit, the Syrian government had imprisoned many Salafist activists for peaceful activities in the years leading up to the 2011 crisis. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), most Syrian political prisoners were Salafists as of 2009. This is confirmed by the fact that most clients of Razen Zeitouneh were Salafists imprisoned by the Syrian government.

For this reason, the Syrian opposition was calling for the release of political prisoners throughout the early months of the protests. Many assume that the demand to release political prisoners referred only to secular human rights activists, but this is not correct.

According to the pro-opposition activist, Abd al-Qader al-Dhoun, protestors demanded the release of political prisoners, including specifically Islamists, at the start of the first major anti-government demonstration in Syria, in Deraa on March 18, 2011.

Alloush was among these political prisoners and any blanket call for the release of political prisoners would necessarily include Salafists. The government was incentivized to release Salafist political prisoners to diffuse pressure against it from the protest movement, which included the Salafi community. Khaleej Online reports for example that Alloush was released due to popular pressure, as his father was a well-known Salafist preacher based in Saudi Arabia. The prominence of the Alloush family in Douma, a town considered a Salafist hotbed in Syria, explains why local activists and protestors would demand his release.

Saqour al-Sham founder Ahmed Issa al-Sheikh himself rejected rumors that he and Alloush had been imprisoned together in Sednaya, which formed part of the conspiracy theory claiming Assad had deliberately released both men from Sednaya together to militarize and “Islamize” the insurgency. Al-Sheikh denied that he had met Alloush while in prison, as al-Sheikh had been imprisoned at the Palestine Branch in 2004, while Alloush was imprisoned in Sednaya from 2009-2011.

While some jihadists were released from Sednaya as part of the amnesties in 2011, this does not mean these men were released deliberately to strengthen al-Qaeda, initially in the form of Nusra and later ISIS. Possible reasons for the release of such men include incompetence, corruption, or Syrian government efforts to infiltrate the Salafist insurgency that was carrying out attacks against Syrian security forces in the first months of the uprising. For example, according to Saudi-owned al-Hayat, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi initially advised his deputy and Nusra leader Abu Mohammad al-Jolani to not accept former prisoners from Sednaya as members of Nusra “for fear of penetration (by the regime forces).”

Further, opposition circles never sought to exclude Alloush or Jaish al-Islam from the broader political opposition, including after Liwa Islam dropped the FSA moniker. This indicates that the opposition’s accusations that the Syrian government sought to “Islamize” the Syrian armed opposition were not sincere. Alloush was considered a key player in the Syrian opposition until his assassination by a Russian airstrike in December 2015. The New York Times viewed Alloush’s death at the time as “a significant blow to the armed opposition.”

Further, Alloush’s brother and fellow Jaish al-Islam commander, Muhammad Alloush, was strongly embraced by the Syrian opposition. Muhammad was named senior negotiator with the Saudi-backed Higher Negotiations Committee during UN-sponsored peace talks in Geneva in 2016 and in peace talks backed by Russia and Turkey in Kazakhastan in 2017.

There is simply no indication that Zahran Alloush, or Salafists like him, were not embraced and welcomed by the Syrian opposition, even despite the widely held belief that Alloush was responsible for the 2013 kidnapping and likely murder of Razen Zeitouneh and her three colleagues. As I have discussed elsewhere, such efforts to falsely blame the Salafist orientation of the armed groups fighting the Syrian government on Assad himself were meant to hide the embarrassing nature of the armed groups championed by the political opposition abroad.

Liwa al-Tawhid

Liwa al-Tawhid, or the Monotheism Brigade, was formed in the northern countryside of the city of Aleppo. According to Qatar-owned al-Jazeera, Liwa al-Tawhid was among the most important FSA brigades and was led by Abd al-Qader al-Saleh and Abd al-Aziz Salama, both of whom were inclined towards Salafist ideology.

After visiting Syria in August 2012, opposition activist Ammar Abd al-Hamid (mentioned above) pointed to the Salafi orientation of the group as well, writing that, “As for Al-Tawhid Brigades, their Salafi orientation is known to all, but their funding comes from both the MB [Muslim Brotherhood] as well as Salafi sympathizers in the Gulf.” Abdulhamid noted that al-Tawhid was led by four men, Abd al-Aziz Salama, Abd al-Qader al-Saleh, Abu Tawfiq, and Ammar Dadikhi, and that al-Saleh’s Salafist views were stricter than those of his counterparts.

The Associated Press similarly noted the Islamist orientation of al-Tawhid, explaining that the group was “strongly backed by the Muslim Brotherhood, the fundamentalist political organization that is closely allied to Qatar.” Reflecting language consistent with Muslim Brotherhood ideology, al-Tawhid proclaimed its mission was to establish a “civil state in Syria with Islam being the main source of legislation.”

Pro-opposition al-Dorar al-Shamiyya noted that before the war, Tawhid leader Abd al-Qader al-Saleh was a grain merchant from the town of Marea in the Aleppo countryside and had previously done missionary work in Jordan, Syria, Turkey, and Bangladesh after completing his military service in a chemical weapons unit in the Syrian army. Al-Saleh was one of the first organizers of anti-government demonstrations in Marea. He transitioned to armed action a few months after the beginning of the revolution and was chosen to be the commander of a local brigade in Marea, before being chosen to lead Liwa al-Tawhid. Al-Saleh then became a member of the Staff of the FSA as a representative of the Northern Front.

Just as the role of Salafists in the earliest FSA brigades is often overlooked, so is their role in the early anti-government demonstrations. Acknowledging this, al-Saleh told the New York Times that, “We were secretive. . . The public knew there was someone named Hajji Marea who led the demonstrations. But nobody knew who he was,” speaking in reference to himself.

The Lebanese al-Safir notes that al-Tawhid was founded in the summer of 2012, at a time when Turkish intelligence took the decision to have opposition armed groups move to capture Aleppo. Liwa al-Tawhid partnered with Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian wing of al-Qaeda, to invade Aleppo city in July 2012. Al-Saleh appeared in a video with a Nusra commander to announce the operation, which they named “Furqan,” or “Volcano.” In August 2012, correspondents from the Guardian observed seeing fighters from other parts of the Islamic world in Aleppo, including from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Algeria and Senegal, further pointing to the role of Nusra in the initial invasion of the city alongside Tawhid.

Most of Aleppo’s residents were apparently opposed to the Tawhid/Nusra invasion of the city. An FSA commander in Aleppo acknowledged this, telling the Guardian, “Yes it’s true…Around 70% of Aleppo city is with the regime. It has always been that way. The countryside is with us and the city is with them.”

As noted above, the mainstream view of the FSA suggests that an initially secular and democratic rebel army of defected officers and soldiers began an armed revolution against the Syrian government, only for the revolution to be hijacked by Islamists later. In the case of Liwa al-Tawhid, the group was fighting alongside al-Qaeda affiliated fighters from the Nusra Front, including many foreign fighters, from the first military operation it carried out (the invasion of Aleppo).

The close integration of Tawhid (fighting under the FSA banner) and Nusra was illustrated by comments from a Nusra commander in Aleppo named Abu Ibrahim in August 2012. According to the Washington Post, which had journalists embedded with Nusra, “Abu Ibrahim said his fighters are part of Liwa al-Tawhid, or the Unity Brigade, a newly formed battalion of rebel groups fighting in and around Aleppo. ‘We are together,’ he said. ‘There is good coordination.’” The commander noted as well that “his contingent included men from Morocco, Libya, Tunisia and Lebanon, as well as one Syrian who had fought in Iraq against the Americans.” The Post also quoted Abu Feras, a spokesman for the FSA’s Aleppo Revolutionary Council who claimed that fighters of Jabhat al-Nusra are regarded “as heroes” in Aleppo, and that “They fight without fear or hesitation.”

Martin Chulov of the Guardian reported in January 2013 that in Aleppo, Nusra had “set up a headquarters in plain sight in the centre of the city, alongside the base of a regular Free Syrian Army unit, Liwa al-Tawhid,” further illustrating the close cooperation of the two groups.

FSA commander Abdul Jabbar al-Okaidi, leader of the U.S.-backed Revolutionary Military Council in Aleppo, also confirmed that Nusra fighters were essentially part of the FSA itself. Al-Okaidi spoke positively of Nusra and stated in an interview with pro-opposition Orient TV that Nusra fighters “constitute perhaps 10% of the FSA in the city of Aleppo and in Syria.”

Al-Okaidi became an intermediary between the Salafist fighters in Aleppo and U.S. and other foreign intelligence agencies that also wished to topple the Syrian government. Al-Okaidi enjoyed close relations with former U.S. ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, and in this way was able to provide a secular façade for the FSA-branded Liwa Tawhid, allowing the Western powers to channel aid to groups that would under other circumstances be viewed as terrorists and extremists.

When Liwa Tawhid leader Abd al-Qader al-Saleh was killed in a Syrian government airstrike in November 2013, Syria analyst and opposition supporter Charles Lister noted al-Saleh’s importance, stating, “As an individual, he was a very important person, and many in Aleppo and all of Syria viewed him as a true representative of the revolution,” and that Saleh’s killing would constitute a “big blow” to the armed opposition.”

Shortly after al-Saleh was killed, the group’s other founder, Abd al-Aziz Salameh wrote in favor of “eradicating the Nusayris,” a derogatory name for Alawites. Salemeh tried to limit the damage from his comments in an interview with Syria analyst Aron Lund, claiming that he was referring only “to the fighters who have been killing the Syrian people for fifty years, who have committed crimes against the Syrian people and against all the neighboring peoples. Most of them are from the Nusayri sect, but criminals must be punished regardless of whether they are part of a minority sect.”

Alwiya Ahfad al-Rasoul

The Alwiya Ahfad al-Rasoul, or the Descendants of the Prophet Brigades, is an FSA group that enjoyed a strong presence throughout Syria. Al-Quds al-Arabi described Ahfad al-Rasoul as a brigade “with an Islamic orientation but linked to the Free Syrian Army, which forms an umbrella for most of the opposition fighters, and is linked to the National Coalition of Revolution and Opposition Forces,” while the Associated Press described Ahfad al-Rasoul as among the brigades with a “conservative religious ideology” that enjoyed strong backing from Qatar. Middle East analyst Nicolas Heras noted that in Idlib and Raqqa, Ahfad was working with the Nusra Front to  “institute ‘Salafist’ civil administration” and “Alwiya Ahfaad ar-Rasool is frequently referred to as part of the Salafist current in the ideological development of Syria’s armed opposition groups.”

Ahfad announced its formation by video from the Damascus suburbs in July 2012. The group’s spokesperson began the announcement quoting a verse from the Quran in which God admonishes Muhammad to strive against the unbelievers. He then declares that the Ahfad was established, “so that God’s word may be the highest and for victory for the true religion” and that “we will persist in this path until we obtain one of two rewards, either victory or martyrdom.”

Ahfad served as an umbrella group for various fighting brigades throughout Syria, including the al-Haqq Battalion, Shuhada al-Jolan Battalion, Suqour al-Jolan Battalion, and the Suqour Jabal al-Zawiya Battalion.

Ahfad gained prominence in September 2012 after it claimed responsibility for a series of bombings targeting military academies in Damascus, which the group claimed resulted in the killing of several Syrian army officers as well as dozens of soldiers and pro-government militia fighters. Syrian journalist Maya Naser was shot in the neck and killed by an Ahfad sniper while covering the attack on the Ministry of Defense on September 29, 2012.

In October 2012, Ahfad claimed joint responsibility, along with Kurdish jihadist group Ansar al-Islam, for the bombing of a state security compound in Damascus.  Also in October 2012, an Ahfad commander claimed that his fighters had killed and captured 90 members of Syrian army, and that Ahfad was in full control of Idlib governate. In December 2012, video emerged showing Ahfad fighters executing a Syrian army soldier for heresy in Idlib, after the group had abducted some 100 men in the same area.

Fighters from the FSA’s Ahfad al-Rasoul brigades, led by FSA Colonel Khaled al-Mustafa, participated in the November 2012 Nusra Front-led assault on the majority Kurdish city of Ras al-Ayn, which lies on the Turkish-Syrian border and was controlled at the time by Kurdish militias known as the People’s Protection Units (YPG).

Consistent with the typical pattern, most media coverage focused on the role of the FSA in capturing Ras al-Ayn, while omitting the fact that Nusra had actually led the operation. For example, Al-Jazeera made no mention of the Nusra role, while quoting a local Syrian tribal leader who claimed that “The Free Syrian Army has completely seized control. The last remnants of the regime were terminated yesterday and they captured weapons that were being used against the revolutionaries.”  McClatchy later noted however that, “Shortly after rebels seized control of Ras al Ayn from government forces last November [2012], it became clear that Nusra made up the bulk of the fighters that had taken over. Within days, Nusra and Kurdish militias were battling.”

Cradle of the War

Ahfad al-Rasoul was particularly strong in Syria’s Eastern Deir al-Zour province, home to the country’s largest oilfields. Ahfad brigades originating in Deir al-Zour included the al-Qaqaa’ Brigade from the town of al-Qawriah, and the Allahu Akbar Brigade from al-Bukamal, a town on the Iraqi border. The al-Qaqaa and Allahu Akbar Brigades were joined by smaller FSA brigades from the town of Muhassan.

On November 17, 2012, fighters from Ahfad al-Rasoul’s Allahu Akbar brigade captured the Hamdan airport, allowing them to take control of the town of al-Bukamal. The offensive was led by Saddam al-Jamal, a local smuggler turned FSA commander. Al-Jamal gave a celebratory speech atop a captured tank in which he dedicated the victory to the “heroic mujahideen.”

Al-Jamal claims he organized an armed group in the early months of the uprising in response to the killing of six protestors by Syrian military intelligence. He notes that because al-Bukamal is a border town, many residents had long been involved in smuggling and were therefore already well armed.

Ziad Haj Obaid emerged as the leader of Ahfad, and both Obaid and al-Jamal enjoyed prominence in the FSA. Obaid was appointed to the Arms Committee for the U.S.-backed Supreme Military Command (SMC), while al-Jamal became a top FSA commander for the whole of Syria’s eastern region.

Saddam Al-Jamal famously defected to ISIS with his fighters and military equipment in late 2013 and later became notorious for burning alive the Jordanian fighter pilot, Moaz al-Kasasbeh, and for massacring 700 members of the Shaitat tribe in Deir al-Ezour. Al-Jamal also led the ISIS operation to capture his own hometown, al-Bukamal, which became the group’s last Syrian stronghold before its defeat in 2017.

Another FSA group, Liwa Janud al-Haqq, or the Soldiers of Truth Brigade, helped al-Jamal’s Allahu Akbar Brigades capture al-Bukamal and the nearby Hamdan airport. Janud al-Haqq was led by Firas al-Salman, who had joined al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) to fight against U.S. occupation forces in Iraq in 2003, and who had a close relationship with AQI leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. After the start of protests in 2011, al-Salman formed Janud al-Haqq, which was active in planting land mines and bombs targeting the Syrian army. Al-Salman and his fighters later pledged allegiance to Nusra in 2013, placing al-Bukamal fully under Nusra’s control. Al-Salman and his fighters and then pledged allegiance to ISIS in 2014, after al-Bukamal fell to the organization.

The FSA’s November 2012 capture of Hamdan airport and al-Bukamal city was part of the broader FSA and Nusra campaign to capture Deir al-Zour province in Eastern Syria. McClatchy reported on November 21, 2012 that “Syrian rebels have captured two of the three major oilfields in the country’s southeastern Deir al Zour province and are extracting oil that they say is helping to support their rebellion. . . . Among the groups profiting from the wells are Jabhat al Nusra.”

The next day, McClatchy reported that FSA and Nusra fighters had captured an airbase in the nearby city of Mayadeen, and that, “The flags that were hoisted by the rebels at the base were not the one used by rebels groups that have pledged allegiance to the secular Free Syrian Army. Rather it was a black flag flown in particular by Islamist groups that are heavily involved in the fight against the government in this province. One building at the captured base flew the flag of Jabhat al Nusra, a group of fighters that have called openly for the establishment of a Syrian state based on Islamic law and that some fear has ties to al Qaida. ‘They are just one of the groups that is fighting here,’ said a rebel commander after the capture of the base.’”

Cradle of the War

The close relationship between FSA groups and Nusra in Deir al-Zour was confirmed by reporting from journalist Ghaith Abdul-Ahad of the Guardian, who visited the towns of Muhassan and al-Shuhail in July 2012. Abdul-Ahad explained that several jihadi organizations were establishing a foothold in the east of the country and that their presence was an open secret among locals. Abdul-Ahad quoted a Nusra commander named Abu Khuder from Muhassan who explained that “Some people are worried about carrying the [black] flags…They fear America will come and fight us. So we fight in secret. Why give Bashar and the west a pretext?” Abdul Ahad writes further that, “According to Abu Khuder, his men are working closely with the military council that commands the Free Syrian Army brigades in the region. ‘We meet almost every day,’ he said. ‘We have clear instructions from our [al-Qaida] leadership that if the FSA need our help we should give it. We help them with IEDs and car bombs. Our main talent is in the bombing operations.”

The cooperation between the FSA Brigades and Nusra in Deir al-Ezour is not surprising, given that al-Qaeda had had an underground presence in Deir al-Ezour since shortly after the 2003 U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, long before the start of anti-government protests and the establishment of the FSA in 2011.

Abdul-Ahad noted that “Al-Qaida has existed in this parched region of eastern Syria, where the desert and the tribes straddle the border with Iraq, for almost a decade. During the years of American occupation of Iraq, Deir el-Zour became the gateway through which thousands of foreign jihadis flooded to fight the holy war. Many senior insurgents took refuge from American and Iraqi government raids in the villages and deserts of Deir el-Zour. . . . . [The regime had] for years played a double game, allowing jihadis to filter across the borders to fight the Americans while at the same time keeping them tightly under control at home.” Abdul-Ahad writes that, “In the pre-revolutionary days when the regime was strong it would take a year to recruit someone to the secret cause of jihad,” but according to a Nusra fighter, who had himself fought in Iraq as a young man after 2003 and participated in early demonstrations against the Syrian government in 2011, “Now, thanks to God, we are working in the open and many people are joining in.”

The small desert town of al-Shuhail played a particularly important role. Abdul-Ahad noted that al-Shuhail, which lies 50 miles west of Muhassan, “has become the de facto capital of al-Qaida in Deir el-Zour. More than 20 of its young men were killed in Iraq. In Shahail the al-Qaida fighters drive around in white SUVs with al-Qaida flags fluttering.”

Abdul-Ahad notes further that the origins of the so-called Syrian revolution in Deir al-Zour were not secular, as was typically assumed, and that FSA commanders were exploiting religion to manipulate the young men fighting in their ranks. He writes that “Religious and sectarian rhetoric has taken a leading role in the Syrian revolution from the early days. This is partly because of the need for outside funding and weapons, which are coming through well-established Muslim networks, and partly because religion provides a useful rallying cry for fighters, with promises of martyrdom and redemption. Almost every rebel brigade has adopted a Sunni religious name with rhetoric exalting jihad and martyrdom, even when the brigades are run by secular commanders and manned by fighters who barely pray.” He quotes an FSA commander in Deir al-Zour city as explaining that, “Religion is the best way to impose discipline. Even if the fighter is not religious, he can’t disobey a religious order in battle,” as well as a local activist who described how, “Religion is a major rallying force in this revolution – look at Ara’our [a rabid sectarian preacher], he is hysterical and we don’t like him but he offers unquestionable support to the fighters and they need it.”

American journalist Theo Padnos, a fluent Arabic speaker who was held captive by Nusra for two years, including for ten months in al-Shuhail, also pointed to the importance of Deir al-Zour in the anti-government insurgency that erupted in 2011. According to the fighters, fellow prisoners, and civilians with which he managed to speak, the Syrian revolution was not about democracy or human rights, but about waging war against the Alawites from the Syrian government and establishing an Islamic state. Padnos writes that during his captivity, “I suspect now that the true cradle of the war in Syria wasn’t Deraa, where the famous graffiti ‘The People Want the Fall of the Regime’ first appeared on a schoolyard wall, but rather the Euphrates River Valley, especially the eastern portions of it, downstream from Raqqa, where Syria’s oil and gas fields lie,” and that “I suspect I quizzed dozens if not hundreds of Deiris, as people from this region are known (after the provincial capital, Deir Ezzor). . . . As it happened, I did not encounter a single person in the eastern half of Syria who believed that peaceful demonstrators in Deraa—or mosque goers in the restive suburb of Duma or citizens anywhere else in the west—were the true fomenters of a rebellion in Syria. The true fomenters, in the opinion of my prison interviewees, were the men of the jihad.”

We are Proud Islamists

While the Salafist origins of the FSA were initially murky and obscured for outside observers, by late 2012 it was no longer tenable to view the FSA as democratic, secular, and moderate, despite opposition propaganda claiming as much. In October 2012, Liwa al-Tawhid, Liwa Islam, Kata’ib al-Farouq, and Saqour al-Sham all abandoned the FSA brand and instead formed the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front (SILF), thereby openly acknowledging their Islamist orientation. As noted above, Reuters quoted SILF leader Abu Eissa al-Sheikh as explaining, “We are proud of our Islamism and we are Islamists…we want a state with Islamic reference and we are calling for it.”

Reuters reported further that, “Many rebel leaders were angered” that FSA head Riad al-Asaad “was based in Turkey, saying it stripped him of any legitimacy among fighters who were dying inside the country,” and that according to al-Sheikh, whose son had been killed in the fighting six months before, “We are tired of paper tigers outside the country who have no link to the battlefield.”

The FSA groups that publicly announced their Islamist orientation at this time were not fringe FSA factions, but rather the most powerful FSA groups fighting on the ground against the Syrian government. Syria expert Aron Lund noted at the time that the SILF was “pretty much the new mainstream face of the insurgency.”

Lund also described the general demise of the FSA brand at this time, explaining that, “The heyday of the FSA was in early/mid 2012, when new factions were being declared at a rate of several per week. But by mid-2012, the brand seemed to have run its course, as people soured on Col. Asaad and his exiles. The FSA term slowly began to slip out of use. By the end of the year, most of the big armed groups in Syria had stopped using it altogether, and one by one, they dropped or redesigned the old FSA symbols from their websites, logotypes, shoulder patches and letterheads. Their symbolic connection to the FSA leaders in Turkey was broken – and since no connection at all had existed outside the world of symbols, that was the end of that story [emphasis mine].”

This abandonment of the FSA brand was not the result of a sudden transformation of these early FSA groups from secular to Islamist, but rather an admission of their ideological orientation (and their Gulf-funders) from the outset.

Though the member groups of the SILF had abandoned the FSA brand and asserted their Islamist orientations, they continued to receive support from Western and Gulf nations, including the United States. Shortly after the establishment of the SILF, in December 2012, the U.S. and other Western and Gulf powers created the Supreme Military Council (SMC) of the FSA, based in Turkey. The establishment of the SMC allowed U.S. planners to keep the FSA brand alive and continue supplying weapons to the Salafist armed groups of the newly formed SILF, even though these groups had abandoned the FSA label.

The BBC notes that the SILF members “which ranged from moderate Islamist to ultraconservative Salafist in outlook, recognised the SMC and made up the bulk of its fighting force,” while the New York Times reported that the SMC, led by Salim Idriss, “effectively replaced the loose network of defected officers who were considered leaders of the Free Syrian Army, many of them outside the country,” including Riad al-Asaad.

Despite the “moderate Islamist to ultraconservative Salafist” nature of the armed groups being supplied by the SMC, the secular opposition based abroad continued to demand that the U.S. and other foreign powers escalate weapon shipments.

For example, opposition leader George Sabra, who is both a Christian and communist, was elected as head of the U.S.-backed Syrian National Council (SNC) in November 2012, one month after the major FSA factions publicly declared their Islamist orientation and created the SILF. Upon his appointment, Sabra immediately called for the Syrian “rebels” to be armed, telling the Saudi daily al-Hayat, “Quite clearly, we want weapons.”

That Sabra had no issue arming Islamists was made further clear when in December 2012 he explained that al-Qaeda’s Syrian franchise, the Nusra Front, was “part of the revolutionary movement.” This is perhaps not surprising, given that Islamists appeared to hold sway even over the secular opposition leaders based abroad. The SNC was widely acknowledged as dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, and prominent Brotherhood leader Mohammed Farouq Taifour was named Sabra’s deputy.

As noted above, Syrian academic Mark Tomass observed how Syria’s secular opposition mistakenly believed that “street protests could topple the regime” and that when this “proved to be an illusion, the secular opposition believed that a violent overthrow of the regime would still bring them to power. Since they had no armed groups representing them on the ground, they served with the blessings of their Western and Arab sponsors as the spokesmen for the Islamist fighters, including al-Qaida.”

Softening the Image

During this time, the Western press and think tank analysts continued to describe the armed groups supported by the U.S. and its Gulf allies as “moderate” due to their connection to the SMC, while Riad al-Asaad continued to command a small number of fighters which continued to use the FSA brand. Efforts to wrongly portray the fighters receiving weapons from the U.S.-backed SMC as moderate were promoted by a public relations firm contracted by the British government called Analysis Research Knowledge (ARK).

Journalist Ben Norton writes that according to leaked documents from ARK, the firm “oversaw the PR strategy for the Supreme Military Council (SMC)” and created a complex PR campaign to “provide a ‘re-branding’ of the SMC in order to distinguish itself from extremist armed opposition groups and to establish the image of a functioning, inclusive, disciplined and professional military body.” Norton notes further that “ARK admitted that it sought to whitewash Syria’s armed opposition, which had been largely dominated by Salafi-jihadists, by ‘Softening the FSA Image.’”

U.S. intelligence analysts were privately more forthright about the nature of the armed groups they were backing. The U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) had already issued a memo in August 2012 assessing that “the Salafists, the Muslim Brotherhood, and AQI [al-Qaeda in Iraq] are the major forces driving the insurgency in Syria.”

As journalist Brad Hoff notes, when the memo was made public in May 2015, then Presidential hopeful Donald Trump used it to claim that the Obama administration was supporting al-Qaeda. Both Michael Morell (who was Deputy CIA Director in 2012 when the memo was issued) and the Washington Post attempted to downplay the memo’s significance and cast any view that the CIA had been supporting extremists as “loopy” and a “conspiracy theory.”

However, it was not necessary to trust the assessment of the DIA memo to know that the Obama administration was providing support to jihadist groups in Syria. In October 2012, the New York Times had already reported that according to U.S. officials, the bulk of Saudi and Qatari weapons shipments, for which the CIA provided “intelligence and other support,” were going to “hard-line Islamic Jihadists.”

One Purpose, Many Flags

Shortly after the formation of the SILF, these former FSA groups also publicly acknowledged their alliance with al-Qaeda’s Syria branch, the Nusra Front, in the fight against the Syrian government.

In December 2012, the U.S. State Department placed Nusra on its official list of terror groups. The New York Times reported at the time that, “The lone Syrian rebel group with an explicit stamp of approval from Al Qaeda has become one of the uprising’s most effective fighting forces…The group is a direct offshoot of Al Qaeda in Iraq, Iraqi officials and former Iraqi insurgents say, which has contributed veteran fighters and weapons. . . As the United States pushes the Syrian opposition to organize a viable alternative government, it plans to blacklist the Nusra Front as a terrorist organization, making it illegal for Americans to have financial dealings with the group and most likely prompting similar sanctions from Europe.”

In response, the Syrian opposition organized nationwide protests with the slogan, “The only terrorism in Syria is Assad’s,” which according to Time journalist Rania Abouzeid was “a clear rebuke to the naming” of Nusra as a terrorist organization. Abouzeid noted further that dozens of anti-government armed groups also publicly declared, “’We are all Jabhat al-Nusra,’ while even the leadership of the political opposition in exile has condemned the terrorist label.” Opposition leaders extending moral support for Nusra included Sheik Moaz al-Khatib, head of the then newly formed and U.S.-backed Syrian National Coalition of Revolutionary and Opposition Forces.

Liwa Tawhid leader Abd al-Qader al-Salah was among those who condemned placing Nusra on the terrorist list, also saying to al-Jazeera that “there is no terrorism in Syria except the terrorism of Bashar Al-Assad,” and “We participate in the fighting with [Nusra] and may disagree with some political ideas and visions, but we do not accept that they or other fighters be placed on the terrorist list.” Salah’s reference to fighting with Nusra referred to the two groups’ joint invasion and occupation of Aleppo, Syria’s second major city, five months previously, in July 2012.

Correspondents for the pro-opposition Zaman al-Wasl reported that an activist street movement in Aleppo and the Idlib countryside organized demonstrations calling for “Victory to Nusra” and that pictures were circulating in recent days of FSA officers in Aleppo raising banners such as “Nusra fights with me in the battlefield. We are not terrorists.” Zaman al-Wasl further noted the close collaboration between FSA groups and Nusra at the Menagh airbase in Aleppo, to which Nusra was laying siege with support from FSA factions.

Summarizing the alliance between the FSA factions and Nusra, the Pan-Arab newspaper al-Quds al-Arabi noted that 2012 was a time when, “there was no enmity between Nusra and the FSA. Everyone was fighting for one purpose, even if there were many flags.”

Why Now?

This raises the question of why the United States place Nusra on the terrorism list at this specific time. CIA analyst and targeting officer Nado Bakos notes that Nusra’s link to al-Qaeda in Iraq had already been widely acknowledged almost one year before. She writes that, “Shortly after al-Nusra claimed credit for one of its early suicide bombings in January 2012, the Obama administration made known al-Nusra’s connection to al Qaeda in Iraq, a group with which I was intimately familiar in my capacity as an analyst and targeting officer at the Central Intelligence Agency. The administration’s position was reinforced when Director of National Intelligence James Clapper one month later testified in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee that ‘…we believe al-Qaeda in Iraq is extending its reach into Syria.’”

But why did the Obama administration wait one full year to designate Nusra as a terrorist organization, despite clear knowledge of its ties to al-Qaeda in Iraq in early 2012? Why did this occur in December 2012 specifically? If one acknowledges that Nusra was the “one of the uprising’s most effective fighting forces,” as the New York Times described it, the obvious take away for those with concerns about terrorism and the growth of al-Qaeda would be to place Nusra on the terrorism list and then halt weapons shipments to the insurgency as a whole. This would be particularly important given that Western and Gulf-backed FSA factions had so clearly shown their close cooperation with, and reliance on, Nusra in so many military battles, and given the acknowledgement that, as noted above, the bulk of these weapons shipments were going to “hard-line Islamic Jihadists.”

Instead, U.S. planners placed Nusra on the terrorism list at this time for the exact opposite reason. U.S. planners did not wish to block support for the al-Qaeda dominated Syrian insurgency, but to increase it.

From spring 2011 to December 2012, most military and financial support for anti-government armed groups flowed from U.S. allies, in particular the intelligence agencies of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey, with CIA head David Petraeus playing a supervisory and coordinating role. For U.S. planners to provide direct material support to an insurgency dominated by an al-Qaeda affiliate would create clear legal and public relations difficulties. By placing Nusra on the terrorism list, however, U.S. planners were able to create an artificial dichotomy in the Syrian insurgency. With the insurgency now split between allegedly “moderate” and “extremist” wings, U.S. planners could begin to directly provide weapons and aid to the allegedly “moderate” elements of the insurgency without incurring the risks mentioned above. This was despite the obvious awareness that increasing aid and providing weapons to groups fighting and cooperating closely with al-Qaeda would also benefit and strengthen al-Qaeda.

As a result, after acknowledging that Nusra was the “lone Syrian rebel group with an explicit stamp of approval from Al Qaeda” and “one of the uprising’s most effective fighting forces,” the New York Times explained the purpose of placing Nusra on the terrorism list this way: “The hope is to remove one of the biggest obstacles to increasing Western support for the rebellion: the fear that money and arms could flow to a jihadi group that could further destabilize Syria and harm Western interests [emphasis mine].”

In short, U.S. planners placed Nusra on the terror list, not out of a genuine concern for terrorism, but to provide themselves with political and legal cover for continuing to arm the Syrian insurgency, in which these planners knew al-Qaeda played the dominant role. U.S. planners could publicly feign opposition to al-Qaeda for public relations purposes, while privately increasing support for the group in practice.

Shortly after Nusra was placed on the State Department terror list, U.S. and Gulf weapons shipments to FSA factions did dramatically increase, in preparation for a new assault on Damascus, in a replay of the failed assault on the Syrian capital the previous summer, in July 2012. As expected, many of these weapons were passed on by the FSA factions to their partners in Nusra.

In March 2013, the AP reported that the U.S. and its regional partners had “dramatically stepped up weapons supplies to Syrian rebels” in recent weeks as part of a “carefully prepared covert operation” to help “rebels to try and seize Damascus.” Despite claims that the weapons were meant for “secular” fighters, and that U.S. officials were “wary of arming the rebellion, fearing weapons will go to Islamic extremists,” the AP observed that “there is little clear evidence from the front lines that all the new, powerful weapons are going to groups which have been carefully vetted by the U.S.” Instead, “Many videos have appeared online showing militants from the various Islamic extremist rebel factions — including Jabhat al-Nusra, which the U.S. has officially labeled a foreign terrorist group — with such weapons in recent weeks.”

The flow of weapons to Nusra via the FSA continued in this manner for years. In October 2014, the New York Times reported that Shafi al-Ajmi, a Nusra fundraiser, told a Saudi satellite news channel that, “When the [U.S.-backed] military councils sell the weapons they receive, guess who buys them? It’s me.”

U.S. planners were aware of this phenomenon, but turned a blind eye, suggesting they were satisfied with where their weapons were ending up. In 2015, journalist Sharmine Narwani asked U.S. Central Command spokesman Lieutenant Commander Kyle Raines about why Pentagon-vetted fighters’ weapons were showing up in Nusra hands. Raines responded: “We don’t ‘command and control’ these forces—we only ‘train and enable’ them. Who they say they’re allying with, that’s their business.”

No Better Alternative

These U.S. and Gulf weapons shipments were soon justified by the bizarre claim that additional support to the FSA factions fighting side by side with Nusra was somehow needed to weaken Nusra, while obscuring the obvious fact that such weapons shipments were strengthening the al-Qaeda affiliated group. A cottage industry of Gulf-funded think tank analysts quickly arose promote this disingenuous line of thinking.

Some went so far as to explicitly endorse cooperating with al-Qaeda directly. Writing in Foreign Policy, Syria analyst Charles Lister of the Brookings Doha Center argued in May 2015 there “still remains no better alternative to cooperating with al Qaeda, and thus facilitating its prominence. If the West wants a better solution, it must broaden and intensify its engagement with Syria’s insurgent groups and considerably expand its provision of assistance to a wider set of acceptable groups.” Such open advocacy for al-Qaeda might appear shocking. However, this is expected when one is reminded that the same government paying Lister’s salary, Qatar, was also the biggest state supporter of the al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front.

Lina Katib of the Carnegie Middle East Center also advocated for a U.S. partnership with al-Qaeda to topple the Syrian government. In March 2015 she wrote that, “The West currently sees the Nusra Front as a threat. But Nusra’s pragmatism and ongoing evolution mean that it could become an ally in the fight against the Islamic State…While not everyone likes Nusra’s ideology, there is a growing sense in the north of Syria that it is the best alternative on the ground—and that ideology is a small price to pay for higher returns.” U.S. planners were of the same view, providing TOW anti-tank missiles to FSA groups supporting Nusra’s campaign to capture Idlib province from the Syrian government at that time.

Despite this later open and public advocacy for al-Qaeda, opposition propaganda meant for Western consumption initially obscured the close relationship between FSA factions and Nusra. This was done by turning reality on its head and blaming the Syrian government for creating Nusra, which was necessary to maintain the narrative of a peaceful secular uprising that only later morphed into a violent Salafist insurrection in response to Syrian government violence.

McClatchy observed in December 2012 for example that “At first, many anti-Assad activists denied that the group [Nusra] was working with the rebels, claiming that the Syrian government had created it to discredit the opposition. Now, however, Nusra’s influence has surged over the rebellion, not only with bombings in Damascus and other cities, but in more traditional military operations where battalion-size Nusra units have been instrumental in insurgent successes across the country.”  Despite the obviously intimate relationship between the mainstream Syrian opposition and al-Qaeda, which was clear and undeniable in December 2012, the opposition continued for years to spread rumors and conspiracy theories that Assad created Nusra and ISIS to hijack a peaceful and secular revolution.

Why Does It Matter?

Acknowledging the Salafist orientation of the Free Syrian Army is important because it helps us understand the nature of the bloody conflict that erupted in March 2011. Rather than a popular grassroots revolution against a dictator that became militarized due to the violent suppression of peaceful protest, the so-called Syrian uprising was a foreign-backed sectarian dirty war devoted to destroying the Syrian state, for the benefit of its U.S., UK, Israeli, Gulf, and Turkish sponsors.

U.S. planners continued their support for the Salafist militias terrorizing Syrians long after the ideological orientation of these groups became undeniable. This was clearly illustrated by journalist Robert Worth of the New York Times, who wrote in 2017 that “In Latakia, some people told me that their city might have been destroyed if not for the Russians. The city has long been one of Syria’s safe zones, well defended by the army and its militias; there are tent cities full of people who have fled other parts of the country, including thousands from Aleppo. But in the summer of 2015, the rebels were closing in on the Latakia city limits, and mortars were falling downtown. If the rebels had captured the area—where Alawites are the majority—a result would almost certainly have been sectarian mass murder. Many people in the region would have blamed the United States, which armed some of the rebels operating in the area. In this sense, the Russian intervention was a lucky thing for the Obama administration too. Andrew Exum, who worked in the Pentagon at the time, told me that the military drew up contingency plans for a rapid collapse of the regime. The planning sessions were talked about as ‘catastrophic success.’”

About William Van Wagenen

William Van Wagenen has a BA in German literature From Brigham Young University and an MA in Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School. You can read his other writings on Syria for the Libertarian Institute here. Follow him on Twitter @wvanwagenen.

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