Syria’s Up-and-Coming Rebels: Who Are the Farouq Brigades?

Amid the hodgepodge of groups that make up the armed opposition to Bashar Assad, one organization is coming dramatically to the fore

  • Share
  • Read Later
Sebastiano Tomada / Sipa USA

As the Syrian regime steps up its military campaing to regain control of the city of Aleppo, the unequpped FSA fighters keep battling Bashar Al Assads military inside buildings and on the streets.

The four men had journeyed for seven hours by bus from the southern Turkish city of Antakya for a meeting they considered crucial. It was about to take place on the patio of a three-star hotel in the southeastern Turkish city of Urfa. The men — two young Free Syrian Army (FSA) commanders from Raqqa province in eastern Syria, a prominent civilian activist from the area and an FSA military adviser from the outskirts of Aleppo — were concerned with just one thing: which rebel group would control the border crossing of Tal Abyad, which had been taken less than two weeks earlier, on Sept. 19, from the forces loyal to Syrian president Bashar Assad.

In the hotel patio were more than a dozen men, representatives of various rebel groups operating in Raqqa province, drinking water and milling about several tables organized into a long row. The four warmly greeted those they knew, but there were many they clearly did not. It was 8:45 p.m. The bordercrossing was a priority, but so too was dinner. Most of the group broke awayand headed to a nearby restaurant. The four men waited on the patio, along with several others, including a man named Abu Ahmad, who had participated in the fight for Tal Abyad.

(PHOTOS: Chaos and Killing in Syria: Photos of a Slow-Motion Civil War)

All it took was one question for the night’s schedule to be upended. “Who is now in control of the border post?” the civilian activist, Mohammad, asked Abu Ahmad. “The Farouq Brigades,” Abu Ahmad said, referring to the one of the largest, best organized and most well-known of Syria’s many military brigades.

Mohammad and his three companions exchanged exasperated glances.“Why did you all cede control to them? When did this happen? They aren’t even from here!” Mohammad said.

“We don’t want problems between revolutionaries now,” Abu Ahmad replied. “We don’t want to take them on. They said they are in control.”

And with that, just minutes after they arrived, the four men abruptly got up and left. There was nothing to discuss, they decided, giventhat the post was in the Farouq’s hands. “We as the sons of the area don’t want anyone to control the fate of our area,” Mohammad said. “The crossing is for everyone, for all the brigades that participated in its liberation, not for one group of outsiders.”

(WATCH: Why They Protest: Egypt, Libya, and Syria)

The Farouq Brigades emerged from the central city of Homs and nearby Rastan just months into the now 18-month Syrian uprising. In the period since, operating under the FSA umbrella, they have formed units across the country, from Daraa in the south near the Jordanian border to the northern region bordering Turkey. According to some of their leaders, they comprise a force of 20,000 fighters. The brigades take the name Farouq from Omar bin al-Khatab, a companion of the Prophet Muhammad, political architect of the caliphate and, historically, the second Caliph.

The brigades are both a source of envy and pride among the rebels. Dressed in their matching military fatigues emblazoned with the brigade’s black insignia, they look like a professional fighting force, unlike the many hodgepodge groups in their mismatched items of military and civilian clothing. The Farouq’s slick media operation ensures that their exploits are widely known. Their videos are quickly uploaded onto YouTube, along with the group’s statements. Most importantly, their support — both in terms of money and weapons — is strong and consistent.

As the Syrian uprising grinds on, rivalries between the disparate rebel groups have come more sharply into focus. There has always been competition for weapons, money and influence, but now they seem to be angling to take each other on — even before their common enemy of President Basharal-Assad falls. The potential for warlordism is great, and worrisome.

The Free Syrian Army was never more than an umbrella term that provided political cover for the loose franchise of defectors and armed civilians fighting Assad’s regime. It meant the difference between being perceived as part of a rebel army or a group of independent militias. New groups, or kataeb, continue to proliferate even amid efforts to unite the existing ones. Some of these kataeb consist of just 10 people. A large number of kataeb are also unaffiliated with the FSA, particularly those that exhibit varying shades of Islamist hues.

(MORE: Turkey Retaliates Against Syria: How It May Give Rebel Soldiers Cover to Expand)

Farouq al-Shemal (or the Northern Farouq), in particular, has drawn the ire of other FSA groups operating near the Turkish border, mainly because it controls two key border posts, Bab al-Hawa (near the Turkish city of Reyhanli) which was seized in clashes in mid-July, and Tal Abyad (near the Turkish city of Akçakale).

All in all, there are seven main border posts on the Turkish-Syrian frontier, and a smattering of smaller ones. Four are in the hands of rebelsunder the FSA umbrella. Of the other two posts, Jrablous is controlled by Liwa al-Tawheed, an Islamist coalition of military groups that is strongest in Aleppo and its surroundings; Bab al-Salam is controlled by the Northern Storm brigade, led by Ammar Dadikhi, a smuggler who kidnapped 11 Lebanese men months ago whom he claimed were operatives of the Lebanese Shi’ite Muslim group Hizballah but whom Beirut insists are religious pilgrims.

The border post at Tal Abyad remains closed and has continued tocome under heavy shelling from the Syrian army since regime forces were ousted from it and the town of the same name. Depending on who you talk to, the border post was liberated by two groups (Farouq and Ghoraba al-Sham ) or a combination of seven or eight groups, or two dozen.

Mohammad al-Daher, better known as Abu Azzam, is the local Farouq leader in charge. He says the Farouq has no intention of maintaining control of the crossing, and that it is in talks to establish a civilian committee comprised of representatives from the city of Raqqa and former employees at the post. “We’re going to leave just a few members of the Farouq for the security of the crossing and start working toward Raqqa,” he says, referring to the city which remains firmly in the regime’s hands.

(MORE: After November: 5 Middle East Headaches That Await the U.S.)

Before taking Tal Abyad, Abu Azzam was in charge of the Bab al-Hawa crossing hundreds of kilometers away. (His colleague, Abu Ali Thaier, has assumed his role.) The Farouq does not take customs duties at the border, unlike Liwa al-Tawheed at Jrablous. There was no battle for Jrablous which fell in mid-July. The customs officers simply fled. While others are vying to snatch control of border posts from the Farouq, Liwa al-Tawheed doesn’t face the same opposition, mainly it seems, because military units from Jrablous control it.

“It’s just like before,” says Sheikh Ahmad Mustafa, the head of the Revolutionary Council in Jrablous which incorporates all of the kataeb in the town as well as the revolutionary police. “Travelers with a passport pay 500 [Syrian pounds or about $7.50]. A private vehicle, 2,000, a public vehicle 1,000.” The sheikh, a soft-spoken 36-year-old who had served as the imam in the town’s mosque since 1997, doesn’t hesitate to say what the money is used for: “We buy weapons with it.”

In a home on the outskirts of Raqqa city, meanwhile, a group of local brigade leaders were discussing the Farouq and Tal Abyad. “The border posts are like gold,” says one. “If somebody wants to send you weapons, and [the Farouq] control all the border posts, can they do it except under the Farouq’s conditions? How will you get weapons in? Does anyone cement their door closed?”

Abu Azzam, the Farouq leader, dispels the fears, as well as allegations that the Farouq is involved in the smuggling of diesel, cement and even hashish along the border. It’s all a media campaign, he says, because “we don’t have good relations with the Muslim Brothers, and the Muslim Brothersdominate the media and its channels.”

The 33-year-old native of Raqqa says the crossings are a key part of the Farouq’s strategy to help carve out a liberated zone in northern Syria. “Naturally, we must work on the crossings, liberate them. We can’t leave areas behind us that are not liberated as we push forward.” At the same time, the Farouq continues to gain men and strength. Some 17 local military units from Raqqaprovince joined the Farouq in the past few days, swelling its numbers at thecrossing to about 500. The men were key for any push on Raqqa city, Abu Azzam said.

(PHOTOS: Escape from Syria: Photographs by William Daniels)

As he spoke, within the span of 10 minutes, three Syrian regime shells landed less than 50 meters away from where we sat, in the semi-destroyed main building at the crossing, kicking up thick plumes of grayish-black smoke. The first and second floors of the building have partially collapsed, pancaked atop a ground floor office that now functions as the Farouq’s headquarters. The shelling was coming from the nearest regime outpost, “it’s 17,850 meters away to be exact,” Abu Azzam said.

The Farouq  also faces opposition from rebels at Bab al-Hawa. It has already disposed of one of its rivals there, a Syrian Islamist extremist called Abu Mohamad al-Absi, who led a group of foreign jihadis who at one point controlled one of Bab al-Hawa’s two gates. Absi was kidnapped and killed in early September. The Jihadis are still waiting for the Farouq to hand over the 16 men who were reportedly involved in Absi’s murder.

“They can wait,” Abu Azzam says. “The man made many mistakes. He raised the al-Qaeda flag and Al-Qaeda is not welcomed by us in the country. … We do not want to raise our weapons against anyone who is also fighting theregime, but when these people forget about fighting the regime and start preparing armed groups with a view to what comes after the regime, this is unacceptable. If these people want to raise their weapons against us, we have the right to defend ourselves.” The Jihadis have now retreated to a small pocket inside the Bab al-Hawa outpost.

But the Farouq also faces some opposition from more secular forces, like General Mithqal al-Bateesh, a defector from Rastan who last week announced the creation of a joint command of all revolutionary military councils inside Syria. Bateesh, who holds court in a school in the Syrian village of Atme just across the Turkish border not far from Bab al-Hawa, says the crossing should be under civilian control and have a token military presence for security. “This is a transitional period. We want to bring interior security forces, police. We can’t have civilians there now because it’s still unsafe, still under threat from the regime, but once civilians take control, there will be no Farouq or anyone else,” he said. Bateesh said he was talking to the Farouq about it ceding control.

Abu Azzam, a burly man with a disarming smile and a neat Salafi-style black beard, smirked when he was asked about the general’s request. “When somebody other than the Farouq liberates an area, then he can make such a request,” he said. “The military councils, whether Colonel Mithqal or anyone else, with all due respect, we would respect them more if they picked up a gun and joined the fight with us. …  If he or anyone else like him came here and told me that I must hand over the position that I liberated, I will ask him ‘by what right?’ We are the ones who spilt our blood here, who are sleeping under artillery bombardments.”

WATCH: A Syrian Soldier Claims to Have Witnessed Atrocities

17 comments
fookalah
fookalah

the USA  is sponsoring terrorism in Syria.that is untenable, an utter disgrace. the only goal in syria is to implement sharia law and kill off minorities. the world knows ths yet somehow just because we dont like syria it is ok.???

we need to wake up and demand our govts renounce what the jihadists are doing in syria, destroying a once secular nation  in the name of islam/

mladenm
mladenm

I'd say Faruq brigades are very well financed from Gulf States and take their interests first. That means they are probably against free and fair democratic elections and all for Salafist state unacceptable not only to all minorities, but to secular and moderate Sunni as well. Even if regime is ousted from power (which can happened only by foreign invasion) and reduced to coalition of ethnic militias, it does not mean anyone else will be able to grab power. So Syria will become Libya without oil, therefore another Afghanistan.

Lonnie
Lonnie

Assag shall kill all of them and they can enjoy their 72 virgins with their invisible man in the sky.

Land Destroyer
Land Destroyer

Wow, they sound like very accomplished terrorists. Why is the West backing these people again? Oh, and anyone who buys into Time's "anecdotal journalism"  deserves the perpetual confusion they live their lives in.

mZahza
mZahza like.author.displayName 1 Like

These cowardly Terrorists Murder Syrian Civilians... The "Farouq" or ANY other brigade or gang in Syria are hiding behind civilians causing their murder either directly or indirectly by attacking the social structure of the country,  inviting a legitimate response from the government. The world should be made aware of their cruel tactics and strategy of using civilians as cover and blaming the government for any deaths that result, when in fact the insurgent gangs are the ones causing mayhem and death of civilians in and around their homes. There is precious little said about the tactics used by these insurgents by the news media... SHAME ON THEM ALL!!! 

homsy0
homsy0

mZahza,

 

Ignorance is a very powerful narcotic! Clearly you are taking too much of it.

 

Please do yourself a favor and  investigate the Syrian crises  and who are the Farouq Brigades for that matter.

You evidently formed an ill-informed views on the issue.

homsy0
homsy0

mZahza,

 

Ignorance is a very powerful narcotic! Clearly you are taking too much of it.

 

Please do yourself a favor and do more investigation on the Farouq Brigades and the Syrian crises for that matter.

crazy american
crazy american

Ignorance is a very powerful narcotic! Clearly you are taking too much of it.

you need to introspect ur self before u point the finger to others,stop watching fox news and drinking koolaid

AEB
AEB

Oh yes, I'm sure you arm chair imperialists know all about Syrian society and what the Syrians really think than the Syrians themselves, all the documented testimonies and video proof of regime atrocities. What next, do you support "legitimate response from the government" of Israel?! Such blatant hypocrisy 

crazy american
crazy american

Yawn

AEB
AEB

"I am left intellectually humbled by the disciplining that you have bestowed upon me, and thus find myself cowed to the extent that I wish to cover my retreat through a juvenile, counter-rational retort" 

There articulated your puzzled thoughts for you 

crazy american
crazy american

testimony where on fox news?

AEB
AEB

Oh yes Fox News. No, testimony on ARABIC, the language that you opinionated foreigners don't speak and don't care about unless it gives you an opportunity to show off your ideological macho, news channels and citizen journalist organizations. Ask the hundreds of thousands of Syrians being ethnically cleansed by Assad, the dozens of journalists who criticized the Americans and Israelis who are today conveying the crimes of Qaddafi and Assad. 

We Arabs don't care who bombs us, whether it's Bush, Blair, Olmert, Qaddafi, Assad, or Saddam. We want them all on a noose. 

Is that so much to understand? If you support us against some tyrants but not against others, then no thank you. Keep your opinionated xenophobia to yourself. 

TRUTHisHERE1
TRUTHisHERE1

The only terrorist is the Assad regime and his Iranians supporters. The FSA (Free Syrian Army) is helping the civilians by protecting them from Assad gangs. They also try their best to facilitate the escape of families to neighboring countries. FYI,  "Farouq" is a name of a brigade under the FSA control. Now, Assad is using his air force to bomb towns and villages indiscriminately in an attempt to force people into accepting him as a ruler!. mZahza: wake up and don't watch Assad propaganda.

AgeMingle. C 0 M
AgeMingle. C 0 M

Sadly my husband and I broke up last year. I’m 32 yr old. Maybe I should get going. Older men are usually more stable and mature so I’m looking to date older men. My friends suggest I take a try on AgeMīngle. Cᴏᴹ, which is a good place to meet older mature men. Now I got curious about it. Maybe I should give it a try.

Prawitz OBERG
Prawitz OBERG

Why in the world has this state of affair been ignored for so long? its this kind of nonpositive response to the plight of the ordinary Syrians that makes the Arabs not trust the west or the shall we call them the developed world? and again the Arabians have let them down!