[Marxism] Which rebel groups are in control of northern Aleppo?

Michael Karadjis mkaradjis at gmail.com
Sun Feb 21 01:38:34 MST 2016

Following the post I sent yesterday on the decision of the PYD 
leadership to send the YPG in as ground forces for the Russian 
Blitzkrieg against the anti-Assad rebels of Aleppo province, the other 
main issue often arising in discussion is that of which rebel groups 
control the various parts of Aleppo now under attack.

For many, this is a good excuse to support this thoroughly 
counterrevolutionary action: Oh, but that area is controlled by Nusra, 
so it’s good that the “democratic” forces are ejecting them (even if 
with Russian air power – let me try that: Oh, but Iraq is run by Saddam 
Hussein, who is an extremely brutal tyrant, so of course we need to 
fight on the side of the US Blitzkrieg to unseat him, etc etc).

A particularly disgusting, not to mention disappointing in the extreme, 
example of this was a tweet sent by the head of the 
leftist/Kurdish-based HDP in Turkey, Demirtaş: “Davutoğlu says #Azez 
won't fall. Who's in Azez? Al Nusra and Ahrar ash-Sham. Rapists & people 
who sell women” 

Now the level of outright racism and dehumanisation in this tweet is 
unbelievable (so ordinary Arabic people don’t live there?), and of 
course it is also a lie that either Nusra or Ahrar al-Sham engage in a 
policy of rape (that would be the Assad regime) or sell women (ISIS). 
But as we will see, it is also a lie about who is actually in control of 


First I have to say that I disagree with the premise in any case. It is 
up to the local peoples to choose their political/military leaderships 
in revolutionary situations (in the same way as the PYD/YPG is in 
control of Kurdish regions), and to change them; and even if we dislike 
some of them, it is not up to an outside force; still less one operating 
with Russian air support, to forcefully eject them; and the ethnic 
factor in a military attack cannot be ignored, even if the SDF may 
theoretically be very good on the multi-ethnic issue.

In addition, most areas have been controlled by coalitions of rebel 
groups. Trying to single out areas allegedly controlled only by “Nusra” 
would be very frustrating; in general there is a loose military alliance 
between all the factions confronting the Assad regime/ISIS, necessary 
due to the overwhelming military superiority of those two (especially 
the regime), and their cooperation. Politically, Nusra tends to stand 
out on a limb compared to all other groups, but in military terms, not 
attacking Nusra now is entirely sensible (though the FSA often finds 
itself clashing with Nusra *in defence* against Nusra transgressions); 
and in any case, as we’ll see below, Nusra has much less to do with the 
Aleppo fighting than is commonly made out.

But anyway, I did a little research to do a summary.


First, on Azaz. In September 2013, ISIS seized Azaz from the ‘Northern 
Storm’ brigade of the Free Syrian Army. Before that, Northern Storm had 
put up a several-month resistance to furious ISIS siege, thereby also 
protecting PYD-controlled Afrin further west; the YPG did not lift a 
finger. But in January 2014, the FSA and other rebels drove ISIS out of 
the whole of western Syria (and temporarily much of eastern Syria), and 
so it was of course driven from Azaz. Since January 2014 Azaz has again 
been the major connection between the rebels and sources of funds, arms, 
trade, refuge etc in Turkey. That is why it is so crucial for the rebels 
to keep control of Azaz.

Since then, the main militia controlling it has again been FSA Northern 
Storm (Liwa Asifat al-Shamal (according to this well-researched article 
from January 2015: 
just as it was before September 2013; therefore, the YPG has attacked, 
with the aid of Russian airstrikes on children’s hospitals, those who 
previously protected it. This article continues: “also present within 
Azaz town but lacking any governing authority is Syria's al-Qa'ida 
affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra (it runs a mosque) … Northern Storm also 
solely controls the (nearby) town of Sawran” 

Notably, despite long-term tension between Azaz and Afrin, there has 
also been significant cooperation, which underlined the potential, and 
the folly of the YPG’s siege of Azaz:

“However, there was some limited cooperation of convenience in the fight 
to drive ISIS out … Since Northern Storm returned to Azaz officially 
under the authority of Liwa al-Tawhid and the Islamic Front in Aleppo 
(now the Levant Front), there has been official neutrality despite 
suspicion that reinforcements come from Afrin to the regime-held Shi’a 
villages of Nubl and Zahara. Securing water from Afrin would therefore 
require greater outreach to the PYD, which may be one of the underlying 
reasons behind the agreement publicly announced in February (2015) 
between the PYD’s military wing the YPG and the Levant Front, 
stipulating a united judicial system, establishing joint Shari’a and da’wah 
offices in Aleppo and Afrin, and working together to crack down on 
crime. Of course, Jabhat al-Nusra is opposed to any such arrangements 
with the PYD/YPG, which it considers to be apostate entities” 

Menagh airbase

Syria Direct 
reports that the base had been held by a combination of Ahrar a-Sham and 
Jabha al-Shamiya (also known as Shamiya Front, or Levant Front). 
Meanwhile, we also read that the “YPG has sent an ultimatum to the FSA 
and Ahrar Al-Sham and other groups, either give them the Menagh Airbase 
or they will take it militarily” 
(https://twitter.com/VivaRevolt/status/697096507250581506), while a 
statement by the FSA FastaqemUnion claims it was “under the national 
brigades of the FSA” 
(https://twitter.com/FkoUnion/status/698990013007196168). Rudaw also 
claims the YPG seized it from “the Levant Front,” ie, Shamiya Front 

“FSA” could well refer to either Northern Storm or, more loosely, to the 
Shamiya Front, or other smaller FSA groups. The claim that “Nusra” was 
there at all now seems most likely to just be standard YPG propaganda. 
Ahrar al-Sham is a relatively hard-line Islamist militia (though one 
that has continually condemned violations by Nusra and even clashed woth 
it recently). However, the Shamiya Front, while broadly speaking it may 
be called ‘Islamist’, this is only true in the same sense that various 
Christian liberation theologists could be described as “political 
Christian” (for those who immediately express outrage, I recommend 
checking your Islamophobia levels). A coalition of starkly moderate, 
FSA-aligned ‘Islamists’ – nothing remotely like Ahrar al-Sham or Jaysh 
Islam for example – who have all played leading roles in the war against 
ISIS, the Shamiya Front’s ‘Islamist’ credentials are best shown in this 
video where they treat ISIS prisoners to a mock execution, with a 
terrific ending: 

In a recent Op-Ed in FP, Shamiya Front leader Abdallah al-Othman says 
they are “local fighters who wish to attain democracy and defend our 
hometowns from slaughter,” and declares “the Levant Front desires a 
Syria that is free and pluralistic, with respect for human rights, 
peaceful elections, and the rule of law” 

If an ‘Islamist’ group like this deserves to be attacked by YPG/SDSF 
thugs supporting by Russian terror bombing, then we clearly are not on 
the same page.

Tel Rifaat

It is very difficult to get a clear idea of who exactly “controls” the 
iconic revolutionary town Tel Rifaat, if not simply a coalition like 
elsewhere. What we do know is that it was in Tel Rifaat that ISIS 
mastermind, Hajji Bakr, was killed by rebels as the anti-ISIS war began 
in earnest early January 2014; and his family was taken prisoner by Liwa 
al-Tawhid, the strikingly moderate ‘Islamist’ brigade that previously 
dominated Aleppo before breaking apart when its leader was killed by 
Assad. So ‘moderate’ in fact, that one former part of it, the Northern 
Sun Brigade, is now with SDF (so they have ‘Islamists’ too!), though 
most simply became Shamiya Front.

Tel Rifaat has seen months of demonstrations in support of the 
revolution, demanding that the revolutionary brigades unite to face 
their enemies (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1hEBtN-RK-Y), where the 
only flags we see are FSA flags; activists in Tel Rifaat released a 
statement demanding leaders resign to take responsibility for recent 
defeats , leading to the deputy commander of the Shamiya Front doing 
just that, in a small sign of grass-roots democracy in action 
Not quite the kind of town that needs to be “liberated” by hundreds of 
Russian air strikes (as one of the sources I posted yesterday 

Meanwhile, here is a charming video showing victorious YPG fighters 
(well, that is if you call victory by Russian air strikes a “victory” by 
the YPG) gloating over the bodies of FSA defenders of Tel Rifaat: 

Mare (Marea)

In fact it is still uncertain whether or not Mare – another iconic 
revolutionary centre and the front-line in the war against ISIS – has 
fallen to the Russian-YPG offensive or not. Some days ago, YPG sources 
claimed that the local rebels had reached a deal with them. Of course 
this is possible – when confronted with the dilemma “do you want to let 
our Russian allies obliterate you, and Assad forces take over, or just 
give up and let us take over?” Which is hardly an argument that that YOG 
is carrying out a humanitarian operation. But in any case, FSA sources 
claim to still be in control.

Mare is run by the Mare Operations Room. According to the very reliable 
‘archcivilians’ site 
this consists of the Suqor al-Jabal Brigade (FSA, also known as the 
Falcons of Mount Zawiya Brigade, previously part of the 5th Corp), the 
Fursan al-Haq brigade (FSA, now fused with other FSA groups as the 
Northern Division), Liwa Ahrar al-Surya (FSA), the Fastaqim Kama Umirt 
Union (FSA), and Faylaq al-Sham, the Muslim Brotherhood connected 
brigade, also loosely associated with the FSA on the same ‘soft-Islamist’ 
wavelength as the Shamiya Front. A Wikipedia page adds the Shamiya 
Front, which would seem likely. Some sources 
add the Turkmen-based Sultan Murad Brigade (FSA), and some add Ahrar 
al-Sham, both of which also seem probable. No sources anywhere suggest 

It has been the Mare Operations Room that has been signing ceasefires 
with the YPG over the last 6 months of on and off skirmishes connected 
to the appearance of a handful of embittered ex-FSA fighters known as 
‘Jaysh al-Thuwar’ (the main non-YPG component of the SDF in Aleppo). The 
last ceasefire in December called for neither side to cross into the 
other side’s territories (which Jaysh al-Thuwar had done in December, 
seizing four FSA-held towns, with Russian air support). It is pretty 
obvious who has now broken the ceasefire.

According to this article, ISIS and the YPG are both attacking 
revolutionary Marea at the same time: 

Aleppo City

As for Aleppo itself, a mega-coalition, Fatah Halab (Aleppo Conquest), 
dominates here, initially set up by 31 mostly FSA brigades (all the big 
ones, eg Fursan al-Haq, Divisions 13, 16 and 101, others listed above in 
Mare), along with all the soft-Islamist brigades (Shamiya Front, Nour 
al-Din al-Zenki, Authenticity Front, Jaysh Mujahideen, Faylaq al-Sham), 
and also Ahrar al-Sham (just one of 50 brigades), but not Nusra 
It was later joined by another 19 small, locally-based FSA brigades 
(https://twitter.com/BosnjoBoy/status/626060428519571456). Much has also 
been written about the system of local councils in Aleppo 
though years of barrel bombing have no doubt made these as dysfunctional 
as life is unbearable.


It is interesting to note that, despite the constant refrain of “Nusra” 
being everywhere, this close reading of the sources suggests Nusra only 
has a secondary presence in Azaz, that it may or may not be represented 
at the Menagh base (and if it is, again in a very secondary role), that 
it does not exist in Mare or Tel Rifaat, and that in Aleppo it is the 
only militia excluded from the grand military coalition. Of course, 
Nusra does exist, and operates more on its own, as well as in a separate 
military front with Ahrar al-Sham (Ansar al-Saria, ie, Ahrar operates in 
both Fatah Halab and in Ansar al-Sharia); and appears to be more present 
further south, near the Shite towns Nubl and Zahra which the regime just 

But its relative absence is in fact no mystery: mid-last year, when 
Turkey began calling for a “safe zone” along the Turkish border to 
settle refugees, allegedly to include a Turkish-backed push by rebels to 
expel ISIS from the region between Azaz and Jarablus – a plan blocked by 
the US – Nusra was the only brigade in Aleppo to oppose this plan. 
Strikingly, for a group that is often bandied about as “Turkish-backed,” 
Nusra declared Turkey to be motivated only by its “national security 
interests” and not by Syrian interests, declaring it to be “not a 
strategic decision emanating from the free will of the armed factions,” 
though the rebels “have the ability to combat ISIS -- if they unite 
through means sanctioned by sharia law… without seeking the help of 
international or regional forces” 
Therefore, Nusra  announced its withdrawal from Azaz, Marea, Tel Rifaat 
and all the more northern and eastern regions, which have now been under 
attack (thus even the first link above, which in January 2015 said Nusra 
had a secondary presence in Azaz, may be old information).

In a later interview, Nusra chief Joulani explicitly declared that 
Turkey’s “national security” issue, which Nusra did not want to be 
involved with, was “the Kurds,” and clarified, that Nusra withdrew from 
northern Aleppo countryside not to ease the way for the Turkish zone as 
some had suggested, but because “we don't see it permissible to fight 
ISIS under a Turkish or an international coalition air cover” 

(As an aside: Much as I detest Nusra, this declaration actually showed a 
strange political intelligence; much as I would be sympathetic to the 
reasons for the entire non-Nusra rebellion supporting such a Turkish 
move, it is interesting that the most reactionary organisation seemed to 
have the clearest understanding that Turkey may be acting in its own 
interests which do not necessarily coincide those of the Syrian masses. 
So calling Nusra a Turkish-backed group has no basis. And the fact that 
Nusra saw these Turkkish interests, which it wanted no part of, as being 
primarily anti-Kurdish, indicates that Nusra’s hostility to the PYD is 
more political (opposed to the PYD’s politics) and monopolistic (Nusra 
has attacked FSA brigades far more than it has attacked the YPG), rather 
than “anti-Kurdish” as such). 

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