Rebel cooperation in Syrian town shows challenge of isolating Islamists


McClatchy Newspapers

Sophisticated new weapons now in the hands of rebels in north-central Syria underscore how difficult it will be, once more lethal aid begins to arrive, to keep those weapons from Islamist extremists who’ve become key to rebel military advances throughout the country.

Rebels who belong to the Victory Brigade – a group whose alliance with the Hama provincial military council makes it acceptable to U.S. officials who are deciding where aid should go – were giddy as they showed off their new weapons this week. They included Russian-made RPG-27s – shoulder-fired rocket-propelled grenades capable of piercing the armor on the Syrian military’s most advanced tanks – and RG6 grenade launchers, another Russian-designed weapon, this one capable of spewing projectiles that explode on contact.

But the brigade doesn’t fight alone, and a video that another rebel group, the Islamist Ahrar al Sham, posted to YouTube this month showed fighters using the same kinds of weapons in an assault that was coordinated with the Victory Brigade.

“Of course they share their weapons with us,” said Ali Ankir, a spokesman for Ahrar al Sham. “We fight together.”

Indeed, Victory closely coordinated its offensive in December to seize the town of Kfar Nbouda from forces loyal to President Bashar Assad not just with Sham, but also with fighters from the Nusra Front, which the State Department has designated a terrorist organization aligned with al Qaida in Iraq. Nusra and Sham share the goal of establishing an Islamist state in a post-Assad Syria, and unlike Victory they don’t recognize the authority of the Hama military council.

Victory rebels were cagey about how they’d gotten the new weapons. “We have our ways,” said Ahmed Darwish, a brigade leader. The timing of the weapons’ arrival suggests they were part of a recently publicized shipment brokered by Saudi Arabia from Croatia. The RG6 rounds the rebels displayed this week were manufactured in Serbia.

The new weapons are a far cry from the light weapons the rebels in this part of Syria possessed when the largely peaceful uprising against the Assad regime became violent in the spring and summer of 2011. But as the rebels’ backers step up military and other aid, the battle for this city reveals the difficulty of controlling which of the myriad rebel groups take possession of that aid.

The provincial military council with which Darwish’s group is allied, along with similar councils formed in each of Syria’s 14 provinces, nominally answers to Salim Idriss, a defected general who’s the commander of the Supreme Military Command, which is based in Bab al Hawa, just inside Syria’s northern border with Turkey. It’s the group that Secretary of State John Kerry said Thursday would begin receiving food and nonlethal aid directly from the United States.

But the military command isn’t the only source of Victory’s weapons, Darwish said. The group also procures weapons on the black market, and, Darwish said, has private backers in Qatar who’ve also supplied weapons and money. One commander from the group is in Libya attempting to secure funding for weapons from backers there.

The U.S. government has expressed concern that backers in Saudi Arabia and Qatar were empowering rebel groups who call for the establishment of an Islamic state in Syria, as opposed to those who envision elections after Assad is deposed.

But it’s difficult here to see a difference between the groups. For example, Victory and Sham maintained a joint operations center during recent fighting. On a recent day, the local commanders of Sham, Victory and a third rebel faction, the Farouq Brigade, were spotted together in the same car; Farouq also doesn’t recognize the authority of the Hama military council.

On repeated visits to Kfar Nbouda, this reporter has seen the groups share weapons and expertise. Last June, one bomb maker was providing munitions to various fighting groups, and a video that Sham posted to YouTube on Feb. 17 by clearly shows fighters using RPG-27s and RG6 grenade launchers, the same type of weapon Darwish bragged about receiving in recent weeks.

They’re not housed together but it’s not odd to see fighters from each organization visiting one another’s quarters.

Asked whether Sham also had the sophisticated weapons that Darwish was showing off this week, Ankir, Sham’s spokesman, said, “Yes, we do, and we have others.”

Enders is a McClatchy special correspondent. Email:; Twitter: @davidjenders

Read more World Wires stories from the Miami Herald

In this undated photo provided by New Zealand Police, John Henry Tully, 48, poses for a photo. A manhunt for Tully is underway Monday, Sept. 1, 2014, after police said a gunman killed two people and injured a third at an unemployment office before escaping on a bicycle in Ashburton, New Zealand. According to police, a man entered a Work and Income New Zealand office and started shooting.

    New Zealand gunman kills 2; suspect faces charges

    A man suspected of killing two unemployment-office workers and seriously wounding a third in a South Island town was charged Tuesday with murder.

ADDS THE WORD "METRIC" TO TONS AND THE TONS EQUIVALENT - Blocks of seized cocaine are presented to the press at a police base in Lima, Peru, Monday, Sept. 1, 2014. According to police, the packages are part of a 7.7 metric tons (8.5 tons) cocaine seizure made in the northern town of Trujillo on Aug. 26, and is the largest cocaine seizure in Peru's history.

    Peru police display record 7.7-ton cocaine haul

    Peruvian police displayed in a Lima airport police hangar on Monday what officials called the largest cocaine haul ever in the Andean nation, 7.7 metric tons (8.5 tons).

Workers from a company outsourced by Mexico's state-owned oil company Pemex try to remove fuel after a pipeline spill of premium gasoline contaminated the Hondo River near the town of Tierra Blanca, Mexico, Sunday, Aug. 31, 2014. According to PEMEX, the Aug. 27 spill was caused by an illegal tap in the pipeline by criminals trying to steal fuel.

    Mexico sees massive fish die-off at lake

    Mexican authorities say a mass die-off of fish at a lake in western Mexico was not due to natural causes, but the causes are still being investigated and one research said that low water levels could have been responsible.

Miami Herald

Join the

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category