October 4, 2018 Special Dispatch No. 7697

Defeated Opposition Fighters In Syria Are Sent By Regime To Northern Syria To Fight Their Former Brothers In Arms

October 4, 2018
Russia, Syria | Special Dispatch No. 7697

In recent years, the Syrian regime and its allies have subdued opposition strongholds across the country with national or local "reconciliation agreements," under which opposition fighters, as groups or as individuals, have faced a choice of either handing their weapons over to the regime and surrendering, or being expelled to Idlib province in the north of the country.[1] As a result, Idlib province has acquired a high concentration of opposition fighters determined to fight the regime, in addition to a substantial presence of extremist terror organizations including Hay'at Tahrir Al-Sham, a jihadi group comprising a number of factions, mainly the former Jabhat Fath Al-Sham, originally called Jabhat Al-Nusra.[2] Idlib is now the last rebel stronghold in the country.

In the past few weeks, the Assad regime, Russia, and Iran have been preparing for a military campaign in Idlib province, although under the agreement signed at Sochi on September 18, 2018 by Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan the battle is postponed to some time in the future. As part of the regime's battle preparations, according to Syrian media, the regime has sent sizeable military reinforcements to the lines of conflict in the northern rural region of Latakia and Hama; the Syrian daily Al-Watan noted that these are the largest concentrations of regime forces since the Syrian civil war began.[3]

The media identified with the Syrian opposition reported that these reinforcements include many opposition fighters who not long ago were fighting the regime forces and their allies in other areas of the country such as Dera'a province in the south, and who were ultimately forced to surrender and sign a reconciliation agreement. These former rebels have been put through fast-track training and sent by the Syrian regime to the north to join Iran- and Russia-sponsored factions. As a result, these former rebels may find themselves fighting in Idlib against their former brothers in arms, alongside whom they fought against regime forces and Iranian militias and who were expelled to Idlib because, unlike them, they had refused to sign the reconciliation agreements. These new additions to the regime forces have a tactical advantage over other regime troops: they are familiar with the rebel foes and their fighting methods.

These reports about former rebels joining regime forces aroused concerns among the various opposition forces; some announced that any rebels who joined the regime forces in the fighting in Idlib were traitors and could legitimately be killed.

Syrian regime forces (Source:, September 2, 2018)

This report will review the various reports on the drafting of opposition fighters and their integration into the forces of the Syrian regime and its allies.

Reports: Assad Regime Is Sending Tens Of Thousands Of Opposition Fighters To Idlib To Face Their Former Brothers In Arms

As noted, along with reports in the Syrian regime media about the dispatch of reinforcements to the northern fronts in Syria in advance of a possible battle there, there were also many reports in the opposition-affiliated media indicating that these reinforcements include hundreds of fighters from opposition factions who were forced to sign an agreement with the regime.

For example, the London-based Al-Quds Al-Arabi daily reported on August 14, 2018 that "regime forces have brought hundreds of fighters from various towns who reached a reconciliation [agreement] with them, particularly from Dera'a, Qalamoun, and the rural northern region of Homs, to the military airfield at Hama. They were placed under the command of Hama military intelligence head Wafiq Nasr, who previously headed military security in Al-Suwayda." The daily reported further that these forces will assist the Al-Nimr militia under the command of Suheil Al-Hassan, which belongs to the Syrian regime,[4] if a battle ultimately breaks out in Idlib. According to the reports, "in the fighting against the opposition forces in the north, the regime will especially rely on [opposition] members [who signed] reconciliation [agreements], since according to the regime, these men fought alongside opposition activists, or are familiar with the factions' fighting methods, giving them a tactical advantage over other [fighters]."[5]

Likewise, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported: "Regime forces have brought hundreds of fighters from Eastern Ghouta... to the fronts of the city of Idlib; a great number of them are fighters from the factions that signed 'reconciliation [agreements]' with regime forces, [and they were brought there] to join them and to fight alongside them. Idlib, in contrast, is controlled by the Islamist factions and fighters, who have been joined by over 500 [additional] fighters from Eastern Ghouta in Damascus and from the Jobar neighborhood in Damascus, who refused to [sign] the agreement of expulsion from Ghouta and were expelled to Idlib, where they joined the Hay'at Tahrir Al-Sham organization and the other factions in the region. Thus was created there a situation in which fighters from Eastern Ghouta in Damascus are to fight each other as bitter rivals in the coming battle in Idlib, after fighting alongside each other in the battles in Jobar and in Eastern Ghouta before the regime forces and their allies completely took over the cities and towns of Eastern Ghouta and put an end to the presence of the factions there."

According to the Observatory, "in recent weeks and months, regime forces have conducted a wide-ranging campaign recruiting young people in the regions where they obtained reconciliation [agreements]. The[se young people] were put through training courses, and then transferred to the fighting fronts in order to fight their former co-factionists." It added that since early April 2018, the regime had recruited some 53,500 men from the regions where reconciliation agreements were signed, and that this was done at the request of the Russian forces.[6]

Additionally, on September 4, 2018, the Syrian opposition website wrote that 400 fighters who support Ahmad Al-Awda – the former commander of the Syrian opposition faction Shabab Al-Sunnah who was the first in Dera'a province to sign a reconciliation agreement and who was harshly criticized and condemned for doing so by Syrian opposition elements – had come to the Idlib region to fight against the opposition factions in the upcoming battle.[7]

Reports Of Former Opposition Fighters Refusing To Fight In Idlib

The agreements signed in various regions by opposition members who surrendered require them to join the ranks of the regime forces within a certain period of time. According to one report, in southern Syria regime forces forced Dera'a residents to join a military unit or be arrested on terror charges.[8]

According to various reports, some opposition fighters refused to move to the north of the country in order to fight alongside the regime forces. The opposition website reported on September 16 that former faction fighters refused to fight in Idlib,[9] and the Syrian opposition website reported, on August 29, 2018, that regime forces had executed eight factions activists from Dera'a for refusing to take up positions against the opposition at Jabal Al-Akrad in Latakia.[10]

Iran, Russia Compete In Recruiting Opposition Fighters To Their Ranks

In this context, reported, on August 17, on rivalry between the regime's Fourth Division, commanded by Maher Al-Assad, President Bashar Al-Assad's brother who is thought to be close to Iran, and Al-Failaq Al-Khamis, a military force established in 2016 under Russian sponsorship, to recruit former opposition fighters from Dera'a. The website reported that 2,500 men had signed up with Al-Failaq Al-Khamis, while 1,500 had chosen instead to join the Fourth Division. It added that both forces were using various sign-up incentives to attract as many fighters as possible to their ranks.[11]

Likewise, the Saudi Al-Sharq Al-Awsat daily reported on attempts to integrate opposition factions into Al-Failaq Al-Khamis, the Fourth Division, and Syrian border guard forces. An element in one of the factions that signed a reconciliation agreement said that the sign-up incentives offered by the Fourth Division included an option to obtain a post in the security apparatuses in the Dera'a region and to remain in southern Syria, but that most fighters from the factions preferred to join Al-Failaq Al-Khamis.[12]

Syrian Islamic Council: Anyone Who Joins Our Enemies And Fights His Brothers In Idlib "Must Be Fought And Killed"

In response to the reports that former opposition fighters were being sent to fight with the regime in Idlib, the Istanbul-based Syrian Islamic Council, which was established to be a source of Islamic authority for Sunnis in Syria, announced that Syrians were prohibited from fighting in Al-Failaq Al-Khamis against other Syrians. The announcement stated: "The plots of the Russian occupier have gone as far as recruiting some members of our people [to fight] against other [Syrians], on the pretext of the war on terrorism... The Islamic Council is monitoring all these developments and plots with concern, and stresses the following: The blood of the Syrians who rose up against the criminal regime is sacred and protected; the Syrians' swords must be aimed at the chests of the Russian and Iranian occupiers and their obedient servant [i.e. the Syrian regime], and this fighting must in no way be between the Syrians who rose up against the corrupt and tyrannical regime, particularly when this fighting is carried out in obedience to the occupiers' order. It is forbidden to join any body established by the Russian occupier, or by its obedient servant, in order to achieve the goals of its plots. Accordingly, we hereby issue a ruling banning every one of our sons in Hauran [southwestern Syria] or in any other region in Syria from reaching the point of fighting against our sons in northern Syria. Anyone who does so becomes a supporter of the enemies of Allah and of the enemies of the [Syrian] revolution, which casts doubt on his [status as a member of the Muslim] faith... Anyone who joins the enemy, allies with him, or acts for the benefit of the foreign occupier and comes to fight his brothers residing in Idlib – his sentence is the sentence of the soldiers of Bashar Al-Assad – he must be fought and killed."[13]

Opposition Factions, Syrian Tribes Deny Agreeing To Fight For Assad – That Would Be Treason

For fear of being accused of treason, some opposition factions and tribes hastened to deny that they had agreed to fight with regime forces against the opposition. For example, the Al-Hariri tribe of Dera'a province said that no residents of the region had gone out to fight the opposition factions in the north, and that reports that they had were rumors spread by the regime media. The tribe did acknowledge that "a small number of mercenaries" had joined the Syrian regime's ranks but added that this was "an unusual and limited phenomenon" and warned its residents not to help spread the rumors of the Syrian regime because that would make them a pawn of the regime in its efforts to distort the image of the revolution. Fighting alongside the regime for any reason, it stressed, was "blatant treason."[14]

In addition, Ahmad Al-Awda, the former commander of the opposition faction Shabab Al-Sunnah, who reportedly joined Al-Failaq Al-Khamis recently, and who, as stated, was the first in Dera'a province to sign a reconciliation agreement and was harshly condemned for doing so by Syrian opposition elements, responded to the criticism against him and to the claims that he was sending his followers to fight in the north. He said: "How can any reasonable person imagine that we should direct our weapons at our free brothers in northern Syria[?] On the contrary, we will sacrifice our souls to defend them, just as they took up arms to help us. Our weapons will serve only as shields to defend them and their lives." He added, however, that his fighters' weapons would be directed at "any aggressor from any part of the world, whether he belongs to the mercenary militias or to the terror organizations,"[15] thus indicating that his followers may in fact fight in the north against whoever they choose to define as "terrorists."



[2] Jabhat Al-Nusra was Al-Qaeda's affiliate in Syria. However, in 2016 the organization  announced that it had severed its ties with Al-Qaeda and changed its name to Jabhat Fath Al-Sham. In January 2017 Jabhat Fath Al-Sham merged with several other jihadi factions to form Hay'at Tahrir Al-Sham.

[3] Al-Watan (Syria), August 15, 2018.

[4] The Al-Nimr militia is a special Syrian regime force; Al-Hassan is widely esteemed and supported by the Russian forces in Syria and is considered close to them.

[5] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), August 14, 2018.

[6], August 24, 2018.

[7], September 4, 2018.

[8], August 17, 2018.

[9], September 16, 2018.

[10] Zamanalwsl,net, August 29, 2018.

[11], August 17, 2018.

[12] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), August 30, 2018.

[13], August 26, 2018.

[14], August 26, 2018.

[15], September 3, 2018.

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