Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk has evolved from a "moderate" Islamist, ostensibly pro-democracy Syrian militia into an affiliate of ISIS.
Readers of this blog will be familiar by now with the outline of the story of Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk (the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade) in the Yarmouk Valley/Basin in southwest Deraa province bordering the Golan Heights. An FSA-brand brigade that first emerged in the summer of 2012, the group maintained formal FSA affiliations into the summer of 2014, as it was a member of the Southern Front and signed onto a statement affirming democratic values. Subsequently, some changes emerged in the group's branding with the adoption of a more Islamic logo, but the brigade continued to coordinate with other factions.
Then in December 2014, Syrian al-Qa'ida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra clashed with Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk, accusing the brigade of links to the Islamic State (IS). Since that time, outwardly, Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk has openly moved in orientation towards IS as part of a 'reform' program devised by then leader al-Khal, adopting a new logo including the same flag as that used by IS, setting up an administrative model imitating to an extent the IS system of Diwans (government departments) and engaging in IS-style rhetoric and talking points. Despite these overt signs of leanings towards IS, the group has always denied allegiance to IS and has insisted in its official discourse that it is independent. However, the latest leadership shuffle in Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk – involving the surprise appointment of a new Saudi amir who was sent and put in power by IS and is portrayed as being the true successor to al-Khal – clearly points to links between the group and IS.
The evolution of Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk necessitated a slight change in logo.
But the question still remains of when real links were first established between Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk and IS. In my previous reporting, I established the open shift towards IS following the clashes with Jabhat al-Nusra but could not get a clear answer as to whether there were prior secret contacts between the brigade and IS. Interviewees either professed not to know or seemed unwilling to confirm, resorting, for instance, to talking points that the group was supposedly always Islamic in orientation.
Subsequent inquiries have finally established that there were connections between Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk and IS prior to the clashes with Jabhat al-Nusra. Roughly, the first connections were established in the summer of 2014, notably following the announcement of the Caliphate and the suspension of Amman-based MOC support to Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk on account of concerns about radicalism in the group despite the fact it was a signatory to the Southern Front commitment to a democratic vision for Syria. It is around this same time that the brigade abandoned its emblem with FSA connotations and moved to one more Islamic-looking. In addition, some localized clashes in July 2014 pointed to discourse foreshadowing the overt shift towards IS in orientation, with hints of takfirileanings in the language invoked against Harakat al-Muthanna al-Islamiya.
In my previous post on the appointment of the new Saudi amir, I noted the case of one Abu al-Waleed al-Baridi whose allegiance is to IS and was dispatched by IS to serve in the ranks of the brigade as it was no longer possible to go back and forth to IS-held areas. He has also served as the deputy amir of Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk's Diwan al-Hisba that is based on the model of the IS Diwan al-Hisba. He has explained to me that "the connections were old, before the clashes with al-Nusra, and before the Jaysh al-Jihad battles" (latter refers to clashes between rebels and Jaysh al-Jihad in Quneitra in 2015, as Jaysh al-Jihad was accused of being in league with IS). Approximately, Abu al-Waleed al-Baridi dates the beginning of connections between Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk and IS to "one and a half years ago" (i.e. roughly June-September 2014). Connections with IS were established by two means. One of these methods of connection was, unsurprisingly, online. The other involved visits to IS-held territory. Abu al-Waleed al-Baridi gave me his own experiences in this regard: "I went to see what was the situation, how life was there, and whether it was a caliphate of Haqq [truth] or not. And it was a Caliphate of Haqq. I went to Beir Qasab [in southern Damascus] and to Raqqa." He affirmed that he had already given his allegiance before going via contact with an IS Shari'i cleric, who answered some queries he had.
Abu Muhammad al-Masalama (left) with al-Khal (right).
To be sure, neither al-Khal nor his deputy Abu Abdullah al-Ja'ouni ever visited IS territory. Rather, the main Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk figure involved in the visits to IS lands was the Shari'i official and jihadist veteran Abu Muhammad al-Masalama, whom I mentioned previously in my biography of al-Khal. Though he is alleged to have been an associate of al-Khal even before the beginning of the revolution in Syria, it is clear he was not among the original founders of the brigade but joined at a later date. Abu al-Waleed al-Baridi put it as follows on Masalama's setting up of connections with IS, "The first relation was through him as he was the link." As part of his sojourn to IS lands, Masalama notably went to Raqqa. With knowledge of these IS connections, Masalama's assassination in November 2014 can be plausibly explained as the work of Jabhat al-Nusra, which probably knew of the links with IS via Masalama.
In a similar vein, Abu al-Layth al-Yarmouki, now an ex-member of Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk but still a supporter of the group and IS, said that he had heard of Masalama's visit to Raqqa in summer 2014 to establish relations with IS. He added that he heard that Khalid Msheleh (aka Abu Hamza – another Shari'i official in Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk) and a certain Samir Rabai'i (aka Abu Omar) had gone to visit IS territory as well for these purposes.
So what explains the decision to set up links with IS in the first place? Though I have previously noted potential problems of projection onto the past to portray Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk as always having been an Islamist brigade ideologically, it seems to me increasingly clear now that al-Khal was a radical from the outset and was part of the Sednaya contingent of Islamist and jihadist prisoners released in 2011.
Abu Obeida Qahtan (left) with al-Khal (right)
Abu Obeida Qahtan (left) with al-Khal (right)
This view is strengthened by the association with Palestinian-Syrian jihadist veteran Abu Obeida Qahtan, who was among the founders of Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk (corroborated to me now by multiple accounts). Therefore, in so far as the FSA brand was used, it appears that it was a tactical move to gain outside support and pander to local concerns – though the former will of course not be admitted. Abu al-Waleed al-Baridi thus affirmed the following: "His [al-Khal's] project was Islamic from the beginning, but when he entered here, he found armed young men affiliated with the Free Army [FSA], so he accepted these young men on condition of preparing his Islamic project, but he lacked Shari'i officials and mashayakh." In a similar vein,on the subject of the rejectionist policy towards muhajireen under al-Khal, he explained: "There were some muhajireen, with their presence here and knowledge of Shari'a: this was causing some problems because the young men (the brothers) in the brigade did not know these matters, therefore problems arose between the muhajireen and the veteran youth of the brigade."
The Baridi who was close to al-Khal (previously mentioned in my biography of al-Khal) accounted for the initial FSA branding thus: "In the beginning of the revolution, the name of every fighter against Bashar was Free Army. After that every faction took a path and preceded on it. And we have followed the Islamic program, being in reality al-Khal's ideology since the beginning of the revolution." It is evident that once al-Khal perceived the success of the IS project, he wished to follow it.
What then for the future of Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk? Since implementing the 'reform' program, it is certainly true that there has been some local opposition, foremost embodied in a confrontation in the locality of Nafi'a (population of around 4500-5000 people primarily of the Baridi clan, including some 1500 displaced persons) that occurred in October 2015. The incident began after members of the brigade demanded the removal of amplifiers and instruments from a wedding in the locality. Met with a response from an armed group of men, these members were forced to retreat, while the same armed group also attacked a group of Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk Shari'i officials in one of Nafi'a's mosques. In addition, an armed group of some 15 men attacked homes of those affiliated with the group, and one member used voice amplifiers in a Nafi'a mosque to call on Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham to capture the town. Subsequently, this group also blocked the main roads in Nafi'a and burnt tyres.
Order was eventually restored by Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk, and no other major incidents of unrest have been recorded in the Yarmouk Valley since that time. Abu Obeida Qahtan proved himself an incapable administrator, and the new Saudi amir, by virtue of his foreign origins, may well give rise to further resentment among some locals as Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk has long drawn a power base from local clan dynamics, but as is the case with IS, the rule of a single hardline authority may create a sense of order in the civil war environment that is seen as better than the alternatives. As one civilian resident of Nafi'a put it to me, "Yes, there is a good popular support base [for Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk]. For they have brought safety to the area." Thus it seems that for now, only the group's enemies among the rebels can bring the downfall of its control over the Yarmouk Valley.
Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a research fellow at Middle East Forum's Jihad Intel project.