By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi for Syria Comment
Since the beginning of Russian airstrikes in Syria, the north Latakia fighting front has emerged as a key battleground as regime forces- including irregular militias like the Muqawama Suriya and the Syrian Social Nationalist Party’s Nusur al-Zawba’a– and Shi’a militias like the Iraqi Harakat al-Nujaba’ seek to make advances and consolidate the remaining rump state. Contrasting with the Aleppo front but similar to developments in north Hama, the north Latakia front has remained largely at a stalemate, with the two main frontline areas being Jabal al-Akrad and Jabal al-Turkoman. The question then arises of which insurgent factions are operating on this front. In general, these factions are diverse in nature, ranging from Western-backed groups to jihadists. Further, they tend to acknowledge that they do not operate alone but rather cooperate with multiple other groups. This is so despite the fact that the last two major offensives launched by rebel forces in Latakia province- summer 2013 (A’isha Mother of the Believers Battle) and spring 2014 (al-Anfal Battle)- were spearheaded by foreign jihadists, with the area having a reputation as a hangout for muhajireen.
For the purposes of this survey of factions, it is useful first to consider the distinctly local groups, and then contingents of more well-known and widespread rebel and jihadist coalitions and factions that are participating on the Latakia frontlines.
1st Coastal Division
The 1st Coastal Division, which operates in the Jabal al-Turkoman and Jabal al-Akrad areas, is a declared Free Syrian Army [FSA] faction that was announced on 21 October 2014 as a merger of three rebel groups in Latakia province: Liwa al-‘Adiyat fi al-Sahel al-Souri, the First Brigade in the Mid-West Front, and the Storm Brigade (Liwa al-Asifa). The FSA affiliation of 1st Coastal comes as no surprise. For example, Liwa al-‘Adiyat was previously involved in the Supreme Military Council (SMC)-affiliated conglomeration known as Ahfad al-Rasul, which has since become defunct. The Mid-West Front similarly had links with the SMC, as when SMC leader Salim Idriss toured the Latakia frontline in the summer 2013 offensive. The Storm Brigade was formed in early 2013 as a merger of five local brigades in Latakia province. Sub-formations of these brigades have evidently carried over into 1st Coastal, such as the A’isha Mother of the Believers Battalion that was also the name of a sub-formation of the Storm Brigade.
The 1st Coastal formation statement affirmed that “the mission of this division is to bring down the Assad regime, and secure stability and security for the free Syrian people.”
Further, the statement called on “all factions operating in the Syrian Sahel [coastal area] to unite for the sake of realizing the near victory.” The 1st Coastal has received TOW missiles, which it notably used to down a helicopter in a separate incident on the same day in late November that the Russian pilots and their aircraft were shot down by Turkey over north Latakia.
Though the leader of the Storm Brigade component- Basil Zemo- was killed in October reportedly in Russian airstrikes, 1st Coastal continues to have a prolific output of videos and other media content advertising its operations. Though the division does not espouse a particular ethnic or sectarian platform, its membership primarily consists of local Arabs. That said, at least one Turkmen contingent appears to exist within 1st Coastal: the Mustafa Battalion, whose leader- Abu Rashad al-Turkomani– was declared to have been killed in the Jabal al-Turkoman area in early October, along with his companion Abu Rabah.
2nd Coastal Division
As the group’s emblem suggests, the 2nd Coastal Division is a Syrian Turkmen brigade operating primarily in the Jabal al-Turkoman area. The group’s spokesman, whom this author interviewed, claimed that the brigade has some 2000 fighters and was formed approximately a year ago (some time after 1st Coastal) as a merger of some local brigades. The leader of the brigade is one Bashar Mulla. The group’s spokesman says that constituent groups of 2nd Coastal include the Yaldram Bayazid Brigade, the Sultan Abd al-Hamid Brigade, and the 1st and 4th Murad Brigades.
The claimed figure of 2000 is likely to be an exaggeration though, and the spokesman for another group on the Jabal al-Turkoman front- Katibat Jabal al-Islam- asserted that 2nd Coastal probably has no more than 500 members. The extent of media output and the ethnic minority composition of 2nd Coastal would suggest that the brigade is likely smaller than 1st Coastal. Similar to 1st Coastal, it identifies as part of the FSA, and offered condolences to 1st Coastal under this moniker on the death of Basil Zemo.
The 10th Brigade is another declared FSA faction. Like 2nd Coastal, it is based primarily in the Jabal al-Turkoman area, though it also operates in Jabal al-Akrad. According to the media representative for the 10th Brigade, the group’s beginnings ultimately trace back to a union of a number of local Latakia countryside battalions in August 2012. From the beginning these brigades considered themselves FSA.
That said, the brand of the 10th Brigade did not come to public light until the following year, as the 10th Brigade was announced to be a part of the SMC-linked Mid-West Front in the summer of 2013. Indeed, soon after that declaration, the 10th Brigade was identified as a participant in the offensive push towards Assad’s ancestral village of al-Qardaha, though its role back then could only be described as minor and auxiliary at best.
Moving forward to the present day, the 10th Brigade’s media representative offered a quite realistic view of the nature of operations in an interview with this author: “The 10th Brigade in the Sahel since its establishment and until today has participated in all the defence battles that have occurred in Latakia countryside, just as it answered demands to provide support on all the fronts that the Assad forces tried to assault: and the most important part is ribat [frontline maintenance duty], for as is well known on the ground of reality but not well known in the media, ribat on the frontlines constitutes more than 80% of the military operations that include battles, provisions of assistance and the like, and it constitutes most of the operations, which lead to attrition.” In total, the representative put current ribat operations at six fronts in Jabal al-Turkoman and Jabal al-Akrad.
Despite its FSA identity, the 10th Brigade has also provided training for fighters not necessarily linked to the FSA networks. The most notable case concerns fighters from Homs who later emerged as the Jaysh al-Sunna faction that is part of the Jaysh al-Fatah coalition, which controls the majority of Idlib province. As explained by the 10th Brigade representative: “After the fleeing of the fighters from besieged Homs, we received some of them in the 10th Brigade camp in the Sahel that is considered the largest camp for a military faction…but the revolutionaries who fled from Homs and whom we received did not have any moniker at that time except ‘Revolutionaries of Besieged Homs’, and there was not among them at that time any military activity. But after that they decided to head to the regions of Idlib and we heard as others had heard that they had called themselves Jaysh al-Sunna and had become part of the Jaysh al-Fatah operations room, and we have no connection with them outside of the aim of bringing down the regime of the dictator Bashar al-Assad and building a state guaranteeing a life of dignity and freedom and securing a future for the children of Syria in the most preferable manner possible.”
In keeping with an FSA identity, the 10th Brigade professes rejection of sectarian and ethnic distinction in its language, insisting that its members are of Syrian identity alone.
Farqat Asifat al-Hazm
Farqat Asifat al-Hazm is a faction whose name translates as the “Determination Storm Division.” Its members are mostly local Arabs from Latakia and Baniyas, the latter having once been a focal point of insurgent unrest in Tartous province until put down through sectarian massacres by regime forces aided by the Muqawama Suriya militia in 2013. Farqat Asifat al-Hazm operates solely in the Jabal al-Turkoman and Jabal al-Akrad areas in Latakia province, and it was established in April 2015. The establishment of the group was announced in a video by one Abd al-Majid Dabis, who summarised the division’s aims as “freedom, security and equality for the Syrian people in all its components.” Abd al-Majid Dabis had been involved with the SMC, also known at the time as the Council of Thirty. The opposition site all4Syria notes that alongside Abd al-Jayyid in the announcement video appears Hadhifa al-Shughri, who is the leader of a local Latakia province brigade called Farqat Abna’ al-Qadisiya (Sons of Qadisiya Division). Based on this point and the similarities in emblems for the groups (see below for Farqat Abna’ al-Qadisiya emblem), it is likely that the two organizations are closely linked to each other. Interestingly, Farqat Abna’ al-Qadisiya also maintains a da’wa office, which has engaged in activity in the Latakia countryside.
According to Farqat Asifat al-Hazm’s spokesman, [outside] aid for Farqat Asifat al-Hazm stopped three months ago and the group is hoping that Turkey will provide support. He also emphasized that the brigade’s primary aim above all is the downfall of the regime: “Before the talk of a civil or democratic state, we want to bring about the downfall of the regime and get rid of Russia and the regime on account of their crimes against the people. After the downfall, let the people choose what it wants. We will not interfere with their will.”
Overall, Farqat Asifat al-Hazm appears to be a more minor component of the north Latakia insurgency in comparison with 1st Coastal, 2nd Coastal and the 10th Brigade.
Liwa al-Sultan Abd al-Hamid
Liwa al-Sultan Abd al-Hamid translates as the Sultan Abd al-Hamid Brigade. It will be recalled that the 2nd Coastal claims that a formation with this name is affiliated with it. However, the Sultan Abd al-Hamid Brigade profiled here is claimed by its own media representative to be an independent Syrian Turkmen faction, so to avoid confusion it will hereafter be denoted as Liwa al-Sultan Abd al-Hamid.
Liwa al-Sultan Abd al-Hamid, under the leadership of one Omar Abdullah and operating in Jabal al-Turkoman, first emerged in January 2015 as a merger of three local battalions: Omar al-Mukhtar, Omar ibn Abd al-Aziz, and Othman Ghazi. Omar Abdullah at the time claimed the new formation’s numbers exceeded some 300 fighters- considerably smaller than the numbers 2nd Coastal claims. Ideologically, Liwa al-Sultan Abd al-Hamid seems similar to the other FSA-identifying formations in north Latakia. As the media representative for the group stated to this author: “Our manhaj [program] is that we want to remove oppression from this people. We do not want a Turkmen authority or state, but rather we want to bring down this tyrant and oppressor Bashar.”
Katibat Jabal al-Islam
Katibat Jabal al-Islam means the “Mount Islam Battalion.” According to the media representative for this group interviewed by the author, Katibat Jabal al-Islam was established in 2012 and is independent. The group operates in the Jabal al-Turkoman area and is primarily Syrian Turkmen in ethnic composition, though it also claims to have Arabs in its ranks as no distinctions are supposedly made on ethnic grounds in accordance with the group’s ideology, which appears to be of jihadist orientation. Indeed, the group’s representative affirmed that the ideological program is the same as that of Syrian al-Qa’ida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, and that the group strives to “make God’s law the rule of law in the land.” In this context, it should also be noted that on its Facebook page, Katibat Jabal al-Islam shared the Jaysh al-Fatah statement rejecting “foreign projects” seeking to impose “democracy and secularism” in Syria.
The representative claimed that the group is the largest Syrian Turkmen faction in the area and leads the operations in Jabal al-Turkoman, putting the number of fighters for the group at 300.
Other Rebel Factions
Besides the six distinctly local factions profiled above, there are also a number of more familiar rebel groups that participate in the Latakia fighting. Either they are more widespread as individual factions or they are part of bigger coalitions. The most notable actors here are Ahrar al-Sham, Jaysh al-Islam, Ansar al-Sham and Jaysh al-Mujahideen. Of these groups, Jaysh al-Mujahideen- a rebel coalition native to Aleppo province that was once part of the Shami Front merger but subsequently split off- is arguably the smallest, serving as a very minor auxiliary force in Jabal al-Turkoman. In a somewhat similar vein, Jaysh al-Islam, being primarily based in the Damascus area, has much less influence in the northwest of Syria and seems to serve in a supportive role in the Latakia front through firing of projectiles and rockets at regime positions.
Ahrar al-Sham and Ansar al-Sham- both officially groups of the Islamic Front that has ceased to function as a real political coalition- have more established presences in Latakia province. Besides regularly advertising its operations in Latakia via photos on social media, Ahrar al-Sham was an important participant in both the 2013 and 2014 Latakia offensives, and currently has local affiliates such as Liwa Ahrar al-Jabal al-Wustani, whose commander Ahmad Ali Abu Ayham was announced to have been killed on 28 November in the fighting in the Jabal al-Akrad area.
Ansar al-Sham primarily operates within Latakia province and was previously a part of the Ahrar-led Salafi coalition known as the Syrian Islamic Front in the late 2012-2013 period. Like Ahrar al-Sham, it participated in the 2013 and 2014 Latakia offensives. It is also notable for having jihadist fighters of North Caucasian origin in its ranks and leadership, such as one-time leader Abu Musa al-Shishani, a faction under Abdul-Hakim al-Shishani that subsequently split off from Ansar al-Sham in October 2014 to give rise to Jamaat Jund al-Qawqaz/Ajnad Kavkaz, and Hanif al-Kabardini, the deputy leader of Ansar al-Sham who was recently killed in the Jabal al-Akrad area . According to a source of Ajnad Kavkaz origin, Kabardini was from Russia and was born to a Circassian father and a Russian mother. There are also conflicting claims that he was killed alongside a certain Muslim al-Shishani. Though pro-opposition Enab Baladi’s Latakia correspondent denies that the Muslim al-Shishani of Georgian nationality who leads jihadi faction Junud al-Sham has been killed, this author’s source says that the slain Muslim al-Shishani is another Muslim al-Shishani who was serving as leader of Ansar al-Sham.
Interestingly, Ansar al-Sham has tended to keep quiet in its own media channels about the issue of foreign jihadists in its ranks, but one sign of recent key losses and trouble may be a new statement issued on 7 December by the group’s Shari’i council, entitled “The Syrian Sahel between abandonment and attrition”:
“Indeed what our Syrian Sahel [coastal area] is being exposed to in Jabal al-Akrad and Jabal al-Turkoman from a vicious campaign in which the nations of the earth have gathered against the oppressed from the Muslims requires every Muslim capable of fighting and supporting his brothers to support them and relieve them as far as he can, just as it requires the factions operating on all of the liberated lands to unite their military capabilities and powers and send what goes beyond their needs from weapons and equipment or manpower support in order to be an aid to their brothers in the Syrian Sahel and foil the plot of the plotters.
Our mujahideen brothers, the continuous succession of strikes on these areas and the repeated daily attempts by the regime supported by Russian aircraft are coming down heavily on the battalions and factions present in these areas, and indeed all following what is going on know the extent of attrition that these factions are being exposed to and the extent of material, military and manpower weakness that has caught up with them especially with the continuous succession of these attacks and the falling of frontline maintainers and defenders between the two fires of securing their people and relatives and protecting the frontlines.
Our brothers…be a source of support for your brothers, make preparations and send aid and arms to support your brothers. Otherwise, be prepared to be the next ones to face this regime after it is done with your brothers. We ask God for guidance and steadfastness for us all: indeed He is the best to be implored.
As mentioned in the introduction, Latakia province has had a reputation as a hangout for muhajireen. Indeed, a number of well-known jihadist factions with foreign components/leadership set up base in Latakia province, such as Suqur al-Izz, which was led by Saudis and merged with Jabhat al-Nusra last year, and Harakat Sham al-Islam, a Moroccan-led faction that first emerged in 2013 and has remained separate from Jabhat al-Nusra in being affiliated with the Jabhat Ansar al-Din jihadi coalition, despite the clear al-Qa’ida affinities and the merger of that coalition’s leading component- Jaysh al-Muhajireen wa al-Ansar– with Jabhat al-Nusra earlier this year.
Other notable actors have included the North Caucasian-led Junud al-Sham, which has recently been off the radar of social media, Jaysh Muhammad in Bilad al-Sham, whose leader Abu Obeida al-Masri initially headed to Latakia after being forced to withdraw from the Azaz area in summer 2014. However, one must distinguish between using Latakia as a hang-out place as opposed to trying to consolidate one’s influence there in the long-run. For instance, Jaysh Muhammad in Bilad al-Sham seems to have primarily focused on riding the wave of Jaysh al-Fatah-led advances in Idlib province since spring 2015 and building influence among the local populations there. This contrasts with Harakat Sham al-Islam, whose attempts to engage in outreach to local populations in Latakia province have long been apparent.
Overall, based on media output and the testimony of other Latakia groups, the most important jihadist factions operating on the Latakia frontlines at the present time are Jabhat al-Nusra, Harakat Sham al-Islam and the Uyghur-jihadist Turkistan Islamic Party, the last of which has also been involved in heavy fighting in the Sahl al-Ghab plains to the west and can wield influence in Latakia province on the basis of Turkic ethnic solidarity with the Syrian Turkmen. The spokesman for 2nd Coastal had noted the role of Jabhat al-Nusra and Harakat Sham al-Islam in particular but sought to downplay their numbers, while the spokesman for Farqat Asifat al-Hazm pointed to the role of Jabhat al-Nusra and Turkistan Islamic Party in the fighting but attempted to minimise the Jabhat al-Nusra presence and characterize its role as one of occasional auxiliary support. The Jabal al-Turkoman operations room according to Katibat Jabal al-Islam includes Jabhat al-Nusra and Harakat Sham al-Islam.
From the jihadist propaganda, the Turkistan Islamic Party seems to stand out here recently. On 27 November, one account linked to the group claimed 30 ‘martyrs’ over the past two weeks in the Jabal al-Turkoman area, pointing to deep involvement on the front lines.
The Latakia frontlines present a myriad of insurgent actors, with no single faction taking the lead across the entire front. In general, the dynamics seem to have shifted from the jihadist-led failed offensives of largely symbolic and diversionary value to a stalemate with constant localized back-and-forth, requiring insurgent groups of all stripes to coordinate their efforts. With the failure of the jihadist-spearheaded offensives, FSA-brand forces in particular also seem to have become better organized and better equipped to play a more serious role in the fighting, balancing out the playing field somewhat.