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Syria Exclusive: The Western-Armed Insurgents Who Executed POWs and Captured UN Peacekeepers

 The Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade, filmed last Wednesday, explaining how they seized United Nations peacekeepers to force Assad to retreat from Jamlah village near the Golan Heights

The insurgent brigade that detained 21 UN peacekeepers near the Golan Heights last week, and that executed prisoners of wars day before that, is one of the groups that has obtained foreign arms, research by EA has established.

The revelation's follows last month's discovery, highlighted on EA, that the US is backing an effort by Gulf nations to arm elements within the Syrian opposition.

Last week, as the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade seized the UN peacekeepers, video evidence indicated that it had killed a group of captives in cold blood.

Now we have further video evidence linking the Brigade to the US-supported initiative, from at least January, to get advanced weapons through Jordan into the hands of fighters in Daraa Province in southern Syria.

The Execution of the POWs

Last Tuesday, we presented video that showed the Yarmouk Brigade holding men at the conclusion of a battle the previous weekend. In the clip, the guards taunt and beat their prisoners. Eventually they open fire.

Some viewers of the video suggested that there is a man inside the building with a gun, and the insurgent only opened fire on the prisoners after he was spotted. Before the shooting, the word "rasshash", or machine gun, is shouted many times, but it is unclear if the person shouting has spotted a gun or is encouraging the guards to shoot. Moreover, an EA translator says that the cameraman and the voices of other men are saying that they want to kill the prisoners. Aafter the firing is over, the word "khales" --- "done" --- is heard.

A second video showed an excitable, large, distinctive-looking man, taking his cameraman on a tour of a battlefield. The man, whom we now know is named Abu Jamal, says that all of the bodies shown are "Assad's people", who were killed by the Free Syrian Army because of this. He finds a bottle of arak, a strong alcoholic drink, and he is upset, but not surprised, that Assad's soldiers would be drinking it. Abu Jamal eventually takes his cameraman to a group of dead soldiers, heaped on the ground --- at the same location as the video showing the insurgents killing the prisoners.

Abu Jamal then explores more of the battlefield. He keeps repeating that this location is very close to Israel, though he never explains why this is important. Jamal also clearly states that with Allah's help the Free Syrian Army will kill all of "Assad's people" all across Daraa Province, including those in Jamlah.

The video is below is occasionally graphic.


Jamal's mentioning of Jamlah is important. This is a village, close to the demilitarized zone in the Golan Heights on the border with Israel. It is the village where the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade captured a convoy of United Nations peacekeepers, days after the incident with the prisoners.

On 5 March, only two days after a victory in Ma'arbeh, a village to the south, the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade moved north and attempted to attack Jamlah. Videos show Abu Jamal with a group of insurgents who have taken part of the village. In one clip, he stands on a captured BMP-1 armoured vehicle, captured by the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade and the Free Syrian Army.

The next, in the midst of this fighting, the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade captured the convoy of UN peacekeepers who are tasked with maintaining the cease-fire in the Demilitarized Zone. The Brigade continued to fight in Ma'arbeh until Thursday. In videos, Briagde units are shown very close to the DMZ. Regime artillery strikes in the area would complicated the release of the UN peacekeepers on Friday --- they were finally released the next day.

Group that Detained UN Peacekeepers Linked to Foreign Arms

In several of the videos posted between 3 and 8 March, Abu Jamal, who describes himself as a "media activist", says that he is traveling with the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade. In other videos during that time, he is seen traveling with another group, the Dawn of Islam Brigade. In the video below, taken in Ma'arbeh on 3 March --- the day that regime POWs were executed --- he says that both groups are involved in the battle.

The reference to the Dawn of Islam Brigade is important: they have played a key role in the international efforts to arm Syrian insurgents with foreign weapons. 

Last month, we reported on a restructuring of the Syrian insurgents as they received arms from foreign backers. The "Free Damascenes Movement" was to be a new alliance of Islamist brigades under the leadership of the Supreme Military Council in Daraa. Those brigades included the well-known Al Farouq Brigade, the Ahrar al-Sham Brigade, and the Dawn of Islam brigade --- all of whom had Croatian weapons, bought by Saudi Arabia, and delivered through Jordan into Daraa Province. These new units were to report to the SMC, led by Brigadier General Salim Idriss.

See Syria Analysis: A New Insurgent Alliance --- With New Weapons --- Is Changing the War

A video shows the Dawn of Islam Brigade organizing a training session, taught by the Al-Farouq Brigade, that instructs a group of men how to use the new Croatian arms --- the M79 Osa anti-tank weapon, the RBG-6 grenade launcher, the M60 recoilless rifle, and the RPG-22. The Brigades also training fighters on the best tactics to counter and to kill Assad's tanks.

Just after 3 minutes into the video, Abu Jamal --- the man who narrated the videos of last week's battles and the dead prisoners of war, appears:

In the video where the Yarmouk Martyrs and Dawn of Islam Brigades are operating side-by-side, several of the Croatian weapons are visible --- for example, in the preview of the clip, an RBG-6 grenade launcher can be seen hanging on the left shoulder of the fighter on the right.

This places the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade, the Dawn of Islam Brigade, the Croatian weapons, and Abu Jamal at the site of the killing of the POWs on the day of the incident.

In another video filmed on the same day, a fighter from the Dawn of Islam Brigade carries an RBG-6, while yet another holds what appears to be an RPG-27, another weapon that may have supplied from Croatia. Abu Jamal can be seen right behind the front line: in another video he speaks to the camera from the same location.

Insurgent Leaders Scramble to React

The programme to arm the Syrian rebels was organised through the Supreme Military Council (SMC), under the command of Brigadier General Salim Idriss. The SMC is a network of regional and local Military Councils that mirrors the organization of the Local Coordination Committees, a network of civilian leaders tasked with organising protests. Both groups work closely with the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, the opposition leadership headed by Moaz al-Khatib. For international backers, these groups are the most trusted, because they have both local and national presence and leadership, which means that in theory they have a system of accountibility.

The Dawn of Islam Brigade is a collection of "more moderate" Islamist units, groups that did not join the Jabhat al-Nusra out of fears that the group was too extremist. These units are part of the "Free Damascenes Movement", ultimately responsible for arming the insurgents. The Movement, a collection of Islamists and secular Free Syrian Army brigades, reports directly to the Daraa Revolutionary Military Council. This puts the Islamists under the direct control of Brigadier General Zaid Hahed, who in turn reports directly to Salim Idriss.

Idriss, therefore, is ultimately responsible for organising the arming of these units, as well as their overall strategy and, hypothetically, their behavior on and off of the battlefield.

According to a timeline constructed by journalist Zaid Benjamin, the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade pledged their allegiance on 3 March to Colonel Ahmed Fahd al-Nimah, the former head of the Daraa Military Council and an outspoken critic of Jabhat al-Nusra. Last August al-Nimah told the BBC that "jihadists would pose a real threat in the next stage for our society and our Arab and Western friends".

In February, he said in an interview that he had been in contact with Jordanian intelligence, who helped the Free Syrian Army track the movement of Assad's soldiers. Nimah also said that he was playing a role in the distribution of weapons, most which go to units in Daraa but some of which are then given to fighters in other regions. That explanation matches the movement of the foreign weapons observed in battle footage.

(It is unclear why Colonel Ahmed al-Nimah is no longer with the Daraa Military Revolutionary Council, though indications are that he is still a leader in the Joint Military Councils.)

Last Wednesday, as the news broke that the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade had captured the UN convoy, General Salim Idriss was in Europe on a speaking tour to convince the world to arm the Syrian insurgents. Idriss quickly released a statement condemning the kidnapping, and said that he would work to free the peacekeepers.

Hours later, the Damascus Revolutionary Military Council changed the story of the capture of the peacekeepers. They reported that the Assad Government, not the insurgents, had captured the UN observers.

The next day, the head of the National Coalition, Moaz al Khatib, suggested that the UN peacekeepers were indeed detained by the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade, but he said this was only to keep them safe from Assad's artillery.

Insurgent leaders leaned hard on the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade, convincing them to adopt Khatib's new narrative and to let the UN peacekeepers go as soon as it was safe. As blogger Asher Berman points out, the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade did change their statements, removing their more militant words and replacing it with the new story of "protection". Eventually, the UN peacekeepers were released on 9 March, after two days of negotiations and one aborted rescue operation.

A Test of Rebel Leadership and the International Community's Strategy

In some respects, the release of the UN peacekeepers was a success for the authority of Idriss and al-Khatib, who showed the opposition leaders have some control over individual units who go awry.

However, the episode from start to finish was also an example of the fundamental problems inside the insurgency. The United States placed a spotlight on the Islamist group Jabhat al- Nusra, claiming that they were Jihadis and radicals with ties to Al Qaeda in Iraq. But branding Al Nusra as terrorists and focusing on their rise has oversimplified the situation. The prevailing belief in the international community appears to be that if those who oppose Jabhat al-Nusra's radicalism can be armed, then they can win territory before the "bad" Islamist can do so, possibly forcing the regime to negotiate a political settlement.

This may be a sound strategy, perhaps the best that Washington can offer at this late stage, but it is a problematic one. To form a cohesive and powerful rebel coalition, the military commander Idriss has had to accept the membership of extremists and hard-line Islamists. Some of those groups have executed prisoners of war, or have engaged in behaviour likely to stoke sectarian fears. Those actions have contributed to a decrease in regime defections and a new, hardened resolve on the part of Assad supporters and soldiers.

The opposition leaders may have proven that they can assert some control after an event, but they cannot put bullets back into a gun after they have already been fired. And the "moderate" insurgents cannot win without the help of these supposedly "not-so-radical" groups.

Last week US Secretary of State John Kerry said that he knew about the efforts to arm the Syrian insurgents, and he pledged that the weapons would make it to the "right people". The events from the execution of POWs to the capture of UN peacekeepers indicate that this plegge may be unrealistic.

Large parts of the research for this article were done by EA Worldview's John Horne and Joanna Paraszczuk. Paraszczuk also did much of the translation.

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