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Alwiya Ahfaad ar-Rasool: A Growing Force in the Syrian Armed Opposition

Alwiya Ahfaad ar-Rasool is a growing force against the al-Assad government in Syria. It is poised to become one of the most heavily observed and commonly cited fighting forces of the Syrian Civil War.

Alwiya Ahfaad ar-Rasool (Brigades of the Descendants of the Prophet) is an increasingly powerful national umbrella organization of locally-based Syrian Sunni Islamist armed opposition fighting groups which are active belligerents against the al-Assad government. It is a “franchise” organization whose constituent kata’ib (battalions) announce that they are formally part of, and fight under the banner of, the national “Alwiya Ahfaad ar-Rasool.” The number of kata’ib throughout Syria stating that they are a part of Alwiya Ahfaad ar-Rasool has been growing quickly since the organization’s founding in July 2012.     

The organization was first announced in Damascus, where three kata’ib in the city’s suburbs joined together to form the Liwa’ Ahfaad ar-Rasool (Brigade of the Descendants of the Prophet). This new group stated that it sought to fight jihad against the kuffar (unbelievers) — implied to be the al-Assad government which is considered to be dominated at its highest levels by Alawites — in the path of God and promote the victory of religion and truthful righteousness in Syria. It currently maintains this message, without the mention of fighting kuffar, and with a greater focus on striving for God and being willing to die in order to accomplish that goal. As part of a movement engaged in waging jihad, kata’ib of the Alwiya Ahfaad ar-Rasool encourage prayer and reflection before battle, and the organization advertises this concern for the spiritual well-being of its members through its official media.

Kata’ib of the organization are very active belligerents against the Syrian military, conducting operations in both urban and rural battle spaces. These operations are diverse, and include targets such as tanks and military checkpoints, attacking paramilitary barracks with Grad missiles, firing artillery at Syrian military bases, sniping, and shooting down Syrian military aircraft. It also claims to have successfully conducted three attacks against high-level Syrian government targets. The first occurred in August 2012 when Liwa’ Ahfaad ar-Rasool, then stated to be a part of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), claimed responsibility for a truck bombing that targeted a Syrian security forces center and military depot in central Damascus. The second operation, directed against Lieutenant Jamil Hassan, the head of the powerful Syrian Air Force Intelligence Directorate, resulted in his assassination by poisoning — an act that Alwiya Ahfaad ar-Rasool claims to have ordered. The third attack occurred on September 2 against an officers’ barracks in the General Administration Building in central  Damascus, which Liwa’ Ahfaad ar-Rasool claims killed or wounded approximately 200 Syrian soldiers.  

Organization, Ideology, and Alliances

Alwiya Ahfaad ar-Rasool claims to fight in 13 Syrian governorates, with particular strength in the north-western province of Idlib; in Damascus and its southern suburbs; in the central-western city of Hama and its suburbs; in the south-western governorate of Quneitra and the Golan region that borders Israel; and in the north-eastern governorate of Hasakah, particularly in the vicinity of the restive and mixed Kurdish and Arab city of Ras al-'Ayn. It also has growing strength in the city of Aleppo and its suburbs, and in the north-eastern city of Raqqa and its suburbs, where the organization is emerging as a major armed opposition combatant and administrator of local opposition-controlled civil society in coordination with other armed opposition organizations, including the al-Qaeda affiliated movement Jabhat al-Nusra (The Victory Front). Alwiya Ahfaad ar-Rasool also has constituent kata’ib in the north-western coastal governorate of Lattakia and in the central-western Homs governorate. At present, it is unclear how many fighters participate in the kata’ib of the organizaton, although one figure that has been proposed is approximately 15,000 throughout Syria.

Ideologically, the kata’ib of Alwiya Ahfaad ar-Rasool can generally be described as “Syrian Sunni-Islamist nationalist,” although some of them may also be inclined towards more secularist or militant Salafist ideological persuasions. Alwiya Ahfaad ar-Rasool’s logos are highly symbolic of the organization’s purported worldview. Its original logo, which remains the icon on its well-updated Twitter feed, features a green field upon which is laid a tall mosque, the shahada (declaration of faith), and the name of, and a benediction to, the Prophet Muhammad. Currently, the “franchise” logo of Alwiya Ahfaad ar-Rasool has become mostly uniform amongst the organization’s kata’ib throughout the country, a process which began to show in their Internet media output starting in late October 2012. The logo features the green, black, and white striped with three red stars flag of the original post-Independence Syrian Republic (1930-1958) shaped into a crescent, upon which is a gold plate with the shahada written upon it. A rifle and a sword cross beneath the gold plate.

Some of the kata’ib of Alwiya Ahfaad ar-Rasool also incorporate their own logos, including with the “black banner of the Prophet,” a simple black flag with the shahada written in white upon it. This banner is also popularly associated with Islamist movements, and in some contexts, with jihad and militant Salafism. The use of the black banner by some of the organization's kata’ib is diverse, and includes the banner in the hand of a warrior on horseback, wrapped around an AK-47 placed upon a Qur’an.

The national organization of Alwiya Ahfaad ar-Rasool does not currently state that it has a supreme commander. It does claim to have some type of command and control structure, even if symbolic, organized under the auspices and media outreach of its “General Command.” At the present time, Alwiya Ahfaad ar-Rasool appears to be led at the local level, at the initiative of the commanders of each of its kata’ib. Membership in the constituent kata’ib of the organization, based upon the author’s analysis of the videos released on the Internet by the battalions, appears to be a mix of defected Syrian soldiers, and local militiamen and youth. As a result of the diverse leadership of its kata’ib, and the incipient nature of the Syrian armed opposition as a whole throughout the country, Alwiya Ahfaad ar-Rasool's battalions maintain an ambiguous relationship with the other armed opposition organizations operating in their particular area.   

These organizations include the member fighting groups claiming to belong to the FSA and its ruling Supreme Military Council, Jabhat al-Nusra, and the two largest coalitions of armed opposition groups currently active against the Syrian government, the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front (SILF), which includes the large organization Kata’ib al-Farouq and its constituent fighting groups, and the Syrian Islamic Front (SIF), which is dominated by the large Syrian Salafist organization Harakat Ahrar ash-Sham. Alwiya Ahfaad ar-Rasool maintains active relations with all of these groups, particularly in militant operations.   

Frequently, Alwiya Ahfaad ar-Rasool actively joins in combatant “alliances” with other armed opposition groups in order to conduct larger offensives against the Syrian military. It also cooperates in civil society administration in regions of Syria that are under the control of the opposition, including in Idlib and in Raqqa, where it is reported to be working with several other organizations, including Jabhat al-Nusra and Harakat Ahrar ash-Sham, to install a system of shari'a courts to adjudicate local grievances through the interpretations of Islamic law. As a result of the participation of some of Alwiya Ahfaad ar-Rasool’s kata’ib in efforts to institute “Salafist” civil administration in these regions, and the general “Islamist” ideology that many of the members of the constituent kata’ib of the organization are reported to hold, Alwiya Ahfaad ar-Rasool is frequently referred to as part of the Salafist current in the ideological development of Syria’s armed opposition groups.

A captured leader of Alwiya Ahfaad ar-Rasool also recently made a “confession” on Syrian state-run television where he asserted that funding and weapons for the organization came from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, and Jordan, and that they prayed and fought with the al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra. This connection to Qatar as a major source of the organization’s funding has also been asserted by Reuters, which interviewed Western security and intelligence officials, and in The Washington Post. In addition to the foreign support that Alwiya Ahfaad ar-Rasool might receive, the organization’s national presence and willingness to fight in some of the fiercest fronts in the Syrian Civil War are qualities that are providing it with an authentic message that is a truly committed fighting force seeking the overthrow of the al-Assad government.

This willingness to fight against the Syrian government has led Alwiya Ahfaad ar-Rasool into two important combatant alliances: The Tajam’u Ansar al-Islam fee Qalab ash-Sham (Gathering of the Partisans of Islam in the Heart of Damascus) in Damascus and its suburbs, and the Ma’rakat aj-Jasad al-Wahad (The Battle of the Single Body). The Tajam’u Ansar al-Islam was formed in Damascus in August 2012 as an alliance of several constituent armed Sunni Islamist organizations in order to defeat the “criminal gangs of Bashar al-Assad.” Alwiya Ahfaad ar-Rasool is an integral fighting group within Ansar al-Islam. Its constituent kata’ib in Damascus and its suburbs have participated in some of the fiercest fighting in the city, especially in the diverse and restive southern suburbs around the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmuk and around the very important Shi’a shrine of Sayyida Zeinab. Ansar al-Islam also claims to have conducted a September 25, 2012, suicide minivan bombing attack against a Syrian military headquarters in Damascus that killed four Syrian soldiers. 

The Ma’rakat aj-Jasad al-Wahad was formed in late April 2013 following the massacre of 145 civilians in the western Syrian coastal city of Baniyas in the Tartus governorate. Syria’s opposition blames the al-Assad government and its paramilitary forces for perpetrating the massacre. As a result of the massacre at Baniyas, several armed opposition organizations with strong presences in Syria’s western governorates, particularly in Aleppo, Idlib, Hama, and Homs governorates, declared the formation of the Ma’rakat aj-Jasad al-Wahad in order to coordinate their activities to defeat the al-Assad government and avenge the deaths of the Baniyas civilians. Some of Syria’s largest and most powerful armed opposition groups, including Harakat Ahrar ash-Sham, Suqoor ash-Sham (Falcons of the Levant), Kata’ib al-Farouq al-Islamiyya (Islamic Farouq Battalions), Liwa al-Tawheed (Holy Unity Brigade), and Liwa al-Haqq (Brigade of Divine Truth) are fighting alongside Alwiya Ahfaad ar-Rasool in this campaign.

Alwiya Ahfaad ar-Rasool is an important constituent organization in this nascent effort, particularly in Idlib and Hama governorates where it has a plurality of its kata’ib. Both its Hama and Idlib battalions are active participants in the combat fought under the banner of the Ma’rakat aj-Jasad al-Wahad. The Hama and Idlib kata’ib of Liwa Ahfaad ar-Rasool are devoting most of their current operations to supporting the attacks that are performed through the Ma’rakat aj-Jasad al-Wahad’s new campaign, which is demonstrated by the media output that is uploaded onto their social media sites.  

Outlook

Alwiya Ahfaad ar-Rasool is growing in its influence as an armed organization on the ground inside of Syria. The willingness of the organization’s kata’ib to engage in fierce fighting with the Syrian military in battlefronts throughout the country, gives membership in the Alwiya Ahfaad ar-Rasool both wide geographical reach and a certain valorous panache that appears to be increasingly attractive to members of the armed opposition. Although it is ideologically inclined towards social, if not militant, Sunni Islamism — which is not necessarily a threatening or foreign philosophy to Syria’s Sunni rural and disenfranchised urban communities from which many of the fighters of the revolution come from — Alwiya Ahfaad ar-Rasool is careful to assert its “Syrian nationalist” credentials and focus on its country above all else. As a result, the organization does not yet appear to have foreign fighters in its ranks, or to have the stigma of fighting in the name of the global jihad that is applied to Jabhat al-Nusra. 

The ongoing Ma’rakat aj-Jasad al-Wahad campaign in western Syria is very important to Alwiya Ahfaad ar-Rasool. It is providing the organization with the opportunity to strengthen its ties with the other particularly powerful armed opposition organizations in the country, especially the Harakat Ahrar ash-Sham, with which it already had been building relations through coordinated attacks against the Syrian military. The camaraderie formed between some of Syria’s most powerful armed opposition groups in the Ma’rakat aj-jasad al-Wahad in several important and strategic western governorates, could have great repercussions in a post-Assad or transitioning Syria.  

While the anti-Assad international community seeks to better coordinate the movement of weapons and war material into Syria for the use of approved armed opposition groups, one of the conditions of continued support and largesse will be greater control and coordination of the armed opposition force on the ground. Those organizations, except Jabhat al-Nusra, that are best organized and most likely to inflict damage upon the Syrian military, will also be best placed to seek foreign support. Thus, the organized forces of Ma’rakat aj-Jasad al-Wahad, with Alwiya Ahfaad ar-Rasool constituting a vitally important part of its efforts, are building an incipient and increasingly coordinated network of fighting groups in strategic regions of western Syria that could be well-placed to justify increased foreign support.   

As a result of its current militant efforts, Alwiya Ahfaad ar-Rasool is seemingly well-placed to continue to increase the reach of its “brand” through Syria. Its constituent kata’ib, having chosen freely to join its ranks, display great pride in fighting under the “banner” of Alwiya Ahfaad ar-Rasool in continuous combat against the Syrian military. This is an esprit de corps that should benefit the organization into the foreseeable future. Alwiya Ahfaad ar-Rasool is a Syrian armed opposition organization that is poised to become one of the most heavily observed and commonly cited fighting forces of the Syrian Civil War.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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