A Brief history of the Syrian Sahwa: The Rogues Gallery

The ongoing battle among the Syrian opposition has created a confusing situation on the ground. Alliances are shifting quicker than nearly anyone can keep track of. New battalions and brigades are created on a daily basis only to be subsumed just as quickly. In order to make sense of the confusion it may be necessary to focus on the individuals at the heart of the storm. Below I’ve compiled a rogues gallery – a who’s who of Syrian opposition commanders who have made a name for themselves as the battle between moderates and extremists has heated up.

Abu Omar al-Shishani (a.k.a. Omar the Chechen, Tarkhan Batirashvili)

Screenshot 2014-01-20 22.41.00Commander of the Jaysh Muhajireen wal-Ansar or the Army of Emigrants and Supporters, al-Shishani is a native of Chechnya and may have fought against the Russians from 2006-2008. He has sworn allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the emir of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), and now oversees that group’s operations in northern Syria. Al-Shishani’s group was specially created by ISIS to absorb the stream of foreign jihadists pouring into Syria from Turkey. Al-Shishani gained notoriety for directing the attack on al-Menagh Airbase in Aleppo in August 2013, for which he gained praise from Free Syrian Army Colonel Abdul Jabbar al-Okaidi.

Al-Shishani has kept a relatively low profile as the fighting has heated up in the north between ISIS and the moderate opposition. As the commander of ISIS’s northern front he is likely to play a significant role as the fighting continues.

Hassan Aboud

Screenshot 2014-01-21 09.12.10Commander of Harakat Ahrar al-Sham, or the Movement of the Free Men of Greater Syria, one of the most powerful armed groups, and now the political leader of the Islamic Front, a grand alliance of several “moderate” opposition militias. Aboud learned the ins and outs of the shifting landscape of allegiances as the one-time political leader of the now-defunct Syrian Islamic Front (SIF). He is supported by Qatar (most likely) and has publicly blamed ISIS for conflict among the rebels. Hassan Aboud sits at the head of one of the most powerful militias at the center of the most powerful alliance in Syria right now.

Zahran Alloush

Screenshot 2014-01-21 08.40.20Though Aboud is the political leader of the Islamic Front, Zahran Alloush remains its military commander in the field. He is the leader of the Jaysh al-Islam, or Army of Islam, which boasts more than fifty brigades and close to 50,000 fighters. Alloush and his army are most likely supported primarily by Saudi Arabia and are not officially aligned with the Free Syrian Army/Supreme Military Council. He is the former head of Liwa’ al-Islam, the Islam Division, that operated around Damascus. Like Aboud, Alloush is one of the most powerful men in northern Syria and his group has been at the center of the conflict with ISIS. See this Al-Jazeera interview for more.

Ahmad ‘Aisa al-Sheikh (Abu ‘Aisa)

Screenshot 2014-01-21 13.09.53Leader of the Suqour al-Sham Brigade, or the Falcons of Greater Syria, who operate around Idleb. Suqour al-Sham was once a member of the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front (SILF), an umbrella alliance similar to SIF and the Islamic Front, and Abu ‘Aisa was the overall commander. Now that Suqour al-Sham has joined the Islamic Front, Abu ‘Aisa is the overall commander of that alliance.

Sipan Hemo (a.k.a. Salih Muslim Muhammad)

Screenshot 2014-01-21 13.09.53 of the Kurdish People’s Defense Units (YPG) and has been battling ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra for control of northern and eastern territory for months. The complex Kurdish situation in Syria and Turkey could make for some uncomfortable alliances for Hemo in the future. See this interview for more.

Jamal Maarouf (Abu Khalid)

Screenshot 2014-01-21 09.13.58Commander of Shuhada Souria, the Syrian Martyrs’ Brigade of Jabal Zawiya region of Idleb governorate, and also the head of the Syria Revolutionaries Front alliance. Maarouf has declared war on ISIS and units under his command were responsible for pushing al-Baghdadi’s fighters out of positions around the Bab al-Hawa border crossing. He is Saudi-supported and endorses the FSA/SMC command structure and Gen. Idriss. He has clashed with fighters belonging to the Islamic Front, but they are now operating under a ceasefire agreement.

Maarouf and his Syria Revolutionaries’ Front alliance have made a name for themselves by fighting ISIS and has been at the center of the struggle to expel that group from northern Syria and break its stranglehold of certain northern border crossing towns.

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