The Northern Storm Brigade: It’s History, Current Status, and Why It Matters
By Chris Looney [firstname.lastname@example.org] reporting from Turkey
For Syria Comment, March 18, 2014
The Northern Storm Brigade (NSB: Arabic – Liwa Asifat al-Shamal) has been called many things since it was first formed in the early days of the uprisings in Syria. For some, it is a part of a contingent of secular FSA groups that represent the best chance for the West to counter the Islamification of the revolution. For others, it is a brigade of opportunists – smugglers and kidnappers with an ill-defined agenda willing to revise their ideology in order to maintain their influence and power.
In reality, the NSB is all of the above. In many ways, its story mirrors the story of the revolution; early on it was unable to coordinate effectively with other rebel groups or to secure significant western support, and later its downfall at the hands of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) foreshadowed the expanding role of extremists in the conflict. Because of these parallels, the NSB is to some extent a microcosm of the revolution, making its story essential for a thorough understanding of the war.
The Formation of the NSB and the Liberation of Azaz
The NSB was formed midway through 2011 in Azaz, a town in northern Aleppo right across the border from the Turkish city of Kilis. Strategically, this area was very important because of the Bab al-Salam border crossing, one of the main conduits for goods and people flowing into Syria. According to one founding member present at the initial meeting, the group rallied unanimously around Ammar Dadikhi, known to his followers as Abu Ibrahim.
Dadikhi had his roots in `Azaz, where he was a prominent businessman before the uprisings. While he had been known to tell reporters that he was in the fruit trade, activists and even members of the NSB acknowledge that he was a smuggler. However, it is important to note that this was not an entirely stigmatized profession in border towns, and in fact was seen by many residents as a natural part of the economy. While he focused primarily on cigarettes, the conflict opened new opportunities to expand the group’s operations into fuel and weapons trafficking.
Funding for the group came mostly through the business elite (smugglers) of Azaz, who were eager to contribute to the fight against Bashar al-Assad. Members of the NSB deny having received any sort of foreign backing, state or private, though this is impossible to confirm. But activists familiar with the NSB speculate that their story is true – support within Azaz and profits gained through continued smuggling were likely enough to sustain the small, local brigade.
This is in part why the NSB rarely coordinated with other brigades early on. Its geographical scope was at the start limited to Azaz, and that coupled with its self-sufficiency gave Dadikhi little incentive to integrate with other groups or, later, with the Supreme Military Council (SMC). As one activist put it, “(the NSB) was independent because smugglers like full control over everything.”
But this was hardly problematic as the NSB, alongside two other rebel brigades, fought the Syrian Army for control of Azaz. According to activists and members of the NSB, the group enjoyed widespread support during this period. When the town was finally liberated in July of 2012, the group turned over the task of governing to a local council, and despite some squabbles with residents retained its popularity.
Still, during the battle for Azaz there was some discord within the brigade. In early 2012, a commander known as Ahmed Ebed split from the NSB and formed a new group called the Amr bin al-Aas Brigade. A schoolteacher before the revolution, Ebed was upset with Dadikhi’s focus on smuggling and unnerved by his secularism. He was by no means an extremist, caution two people familiar with the situation, but did believe politics should be informed by Islamic principles.
Because of Dadikhi’s popularity among his men, Ebed was not able to take many NSB fighters with him. Moving his operations outside of Azaz, he began to fill this void by recruiting and training the slow trickle of foreigners that had begun to make their way into Syria. According to the sources mentioned above, the first two men to join Ebed were two Iraqis who went by the noms de guerre of Abu Suhaib al-Iraqi and Abu Staif al-Iraqi. Both had extensive networks throughout the Muslim world, and they were able to leverage them in order to bring more fighters into Syria. By the end of 2012, the Amr bin al-Aas Brigade had largely fallen apart, many of its members leaving in order to join two newly formed groups with a more radical tilt – Jaysh al-Muhajereen and Jaysh Muhammad.
Jaysh al-Muhajereen was formed during the summer of 2012 by Abu Omar al-Shishani, a Chechen who later would become the northern commander for ISIS. In March of 2013, it merged with Jaysh Muhammad and another group to form Jaysh al-Muhajereen wa-Ansar (the Army of Emigrants and Helpers) under al-Shishani’s leadership. After its forces were consolidated, al-Shishani reportedly controlled over 1,000 fighters. He would later leave and join ISIS, taking some of his fighters with him.
The Battle for Menagh Airbase
The NSB was at the height of its power when Azaz fell. One senior member estimates the group’s strength to have been roughly 1,100 at the time, though others have estimated it to be as high as 2,000. Yet its influence was concentrated almost exclusively in Azaz. It had no competition for the town, as Ebed and Shishani were operating elsewhere in Aleppo province. So with a hard fought victory now under its belt, the NSB quickly moved south to Menagh Airbase, a Syrian Army stronghold between Aleppo and Azaz that was being used by Assad to carry out airstrikes on Aleppo city.
The siege of Menagh began in August of 2012 but quickly stagnated. The base was surrounded by open fields and heavily fortified with tanks, artillery, and snipers, making it difficult for the rebels to break through.
Complicating the situation for the NSB was the fact that the battle took a heavy toll on its senior leadership. In January of 2013, Dadikhi was wounded in a skirmish and evacuated to Turkey, where he would later pass away. Other commanders, including Hadi Salo and Samir Akkash, were killed during the campaign as well, forcing younger, less experienced fighters into high-ranking roles.
In addition, the NSB began to lose some of its forces to brigades with more Islamist orientations. According to one source close to the group, these defections were not too substantial, but did signal the growing role of Islam in the conflict. “(At this time) a lot of Syrians (were becoming) much more religious because of the war,” he says.
As the siege of Menagh wore on, the groups taking part in the fighting mushroomed. By the time the base finally fell on August 5, 2013 extremist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra (Al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria) and ISIS had played important roles in its capture. The NSB was part of this victorious coalition, but came out of the fight somewhat weakened.
Hostages, McCain, and Amouri
During the struggle for Menagh, the NSB was also dealing with three separate issues that, according to its members, would profoundly affect the future of the organization. The first stemmed back to an incident that had occurred on May 22, 2012. A bus full of Lebanese citizens had been making their way home from a Shi’a pilgrimage in Iran when they were stopped by the NSB at a checkpoint outside of Azaz. In an interview with NPR, Dadikhi claimed the men in the group introduced themselves as military experts from Hezbollah, believing he and his troops to be government soldiers. The NSB would hold 11 of the men captive, setting off a hostage crisis that would last 17 months.
Dadikhi’s claims were vehemently denied by both the hostages and their families, and were met with intense speculation in the media. Yet the debate within the NSB and other rebel groups was not over the identity of the prisoners – of that they were certain. Rather, it was over what they should be exchanged for. For Dadikhi and many of his followers, they hoped to barter for the release of activists held by the Assad regime. Yet this was hardly unanimous. Liwa al-Tawhid, a moderate Islamist group that enjoyed a friendly relationship with the NSB, pushed Dadikhi to return the hostages only in exchange for a significant supply of weapons. According to one source, this became a mild dispute between Abdul Qader Saleh, Liwa al-Tawhid’s leader, and the NSB.
On May 27, 2013, with the hostages still being held and negotiations largely stalled, a visit from US Senator John McCain would again push the NSB into the spotlight. McCain traveled to Azaz with General Salim Idriss, then the commander of SMC, to meet with a contingent of FSA leaders from across Syria. Among these groups was the NSB, and McCain drew considerable criticism for allegedly crossing paths with Dadikhi and Muhammad Nour, another member of the brigade that was directly involved in the kidnappings. Despite the fact that at this point Dadikhi had been killed and the connection to Nour was later refuted, the speculation still sullied McCain’s visit and made his push for further funding of the FSA ring hollow.
But according to members of the NSB, the aftermath of the visit was much worse for the brigade. At this point, the group had taken significant losses in the battle for Menagh, and was hoping McCain’s trip would translate into tangible aid. “We expected him to at least send food, if not weapons or money” spat out one fighter, bitterly. “But he did nothing.”
As several other fighters and activists explained it, the visit turned out to be an inflection point for the brigade. Not only did they fail to secure the support necessary to revive the NSB, ISIS later used McCain’s visit (among other things) as an excuse to attack Azaz. Despite the fact that the fighters acknowledge that this would have happened anyway, the hostility with which McCain is held by many NSB members suggests that he became a scapegoat for the group’s problems as their situation deteriorated.
Another reason the NSB had begun to decline was the death of Dadikhi. While he was alive, his fighters had described him as a “charismatic leader”, a sentiment still echoed today. He is remembered with nostalgia and spoken about with reverence, his followers reminiscing about how he was “more concerned about civilians than his fighters” and “cared about his people” rather than personal gain.
This contrasts heavily with their opinions regarding Samir Amouri, who would take Dadikhi’s place after his death. Amouri had been a political leader within the brigade and was in charge of the Bab al-Salam border crossing, an important source of revenue for the NSB. One journalist recalls being charged up to $300 to cross into Syria, and with Dadikhi gone this proved to be an important source of power for Amouri. In addition, he also had several family members in influential positions within the brigade and thus was the natural successor to Dadikhi, a decision that it seems was not highly controversial at the time. Though in hindsight several NSB members say they knew it was the wrong decision, there is no evidence presented of anyone actively opposing Amouri or splintering away from the group at the time.
Under Amouri’s leadership, however, the hostage crisis would eventually be resolved in a complex deal brokered by Qatar that involved the NSB, the regime, Lebanon, and Turkey. Believing the Turks had the ability to influence the NSB, a group calling themselves the Visitors of Imam Ali al-Rida kidnapped two civilian Turkish pilots in Lebanon on August 9, 2013 and held them as collateral for the release of the Shi’a hostages. By this point, only nine men remained with the NSB, as the group had released two as a gesture of good will. Despite claims in the media that they had been transferred to another rebel group known as the al-Islam brigade, NSB members assert that the prisoners were never outside of their control. Eventually, a deal was struck that released the hostages in October in exchange for 200 women being held by the Assad regime and the Turkish pilots.
ISIS Takes Over Azaz
According to one member of the NSB, after the fall of Menagh, ISIS “went straight for Azaz.” In reality, the group had established a presence there as early as July 2013 through the provision of services and da’wah outreach to the local population. Yet up until September there was no military component to this, and while the NSB remained wary of ISIS there were no outright clashes because the ISIS contingent was at the time very small and did not directly challenge NSB authority.
But this precarious peace did not last. In mid-September, tensions escalated because of a German doctor working in the local hospital in Azaz. ISIS accused the doctor of being a foreign spy and charged the NSB with aiding him, using this as an excuse to send in military reinforcements and begin attacking Azaz. What followed has been documented in great detail, with Liwa al-Tawhid temporarily securing a ceasefire between the two groups that ISIS would later violate, leading to renewed clashes and the eventual takeover of Azaz by ISIS in early October.
What has not been widely reported is the nagging reluctance within the NSB to engage in combat against ISIS, even after ISIS had begun to assassinate its leaders. While one senior commander in the NSB says he was suspicious of ISIS during the battle for Menagh and warned other brigades about them, within the rest of the group this conviction appears to hardly have been universal. Two activists tell of a meeting in a local mosque that occurred shortly after the incident with the German doctor, where dozens of members of the NSB and locals debated the escalating clashes with ISIS. The room was divided, says one of the men present at the meeting, but eventually those present agreed that they should avoid further conflict if possible and seek a mediated solution. The rationale behind this was not based on the fact that the NSB felt they were not powerful enough to take on ISIS; rather, it was founded on a hesitation to fight with their “Muslim brothers.”
It must be stressed that this was before ISIS, as one activist put it, “revealed (its) true colors.” After having fought alongside the group at Menagh, some members of the NSB were still uncertain of ISIS’ true intentions and skeptical that skirmishes between the two would evolve into full-fledged warfare. Wanting to return their focus to the regime, a quick, peaceful resolution to the dispute seemed not only practical, but also possible.
Of course, ISIS had other plans, targeting NSB’s already weakened leadership and decimating it even further. Now, NSB members say that ISIS fighters are “less than animals… We will burn them.” The war is now entirely against ISIS, they add. “We can deal with the regime after we deal with (them).”
Naddom and the Current Situation
Though some NSB members initially had doubts about direct confrontation, ISIS’ disregard for the agreement mediated by Liwa al-Tawhid quickly spurred them to action. Yet the brigade was no match for ISIS. According to one member, they were fighting with only Kalashnikovs and two machine guns at their disposal, and thus were easily overpowered. Another problem was leadership. Amouri proved to be entirely inadequate in battle, fleeing into Turkey as ISIS gained control. “We failed because of him,” says one senior commander, who notes with a wry smile that Amouri is now wanted by both ISIS and the NSB.
Taking his place would be Mahmoud Naddom, who by all accounts has been a much more effective leader. He would continue the resistance against ISIS, moving what was left of the brigade outside of Azaz and continuing to strike when he had the opportunity. Yet he was constantly losing men and thus had little impact. There were few leaders left, and many fighters fled into Kilis, the Turkish city just across the border. Here, the group remained organized, changing its strategy in an attempt to remain afloat. Realizing it needed help, the NSB began reaching out to other groups in an attempt to develop relationships and begin coordinating with other rebels, something it had been hesitant to do in the past. Its leaders are now actively seeking foreign support as well, maintaining that they are the West’s best hope to counter the Islamification of the revolution. “By encouraging the NSB and supporting us, we can get others to defect from Islamic groups,” says one member.
But there is little evidence that these efforts are working. On February 28, ISIS withdrew from Azaz in order to reinforce its positions in other parts of the country. At the time, one senior member of the NSB estimates that the group had only 300 men inside Syria. While some fighters (~70-100) went back to Azaz from Turkey, Liwa al-Tawhid still took control of the town. In addition, approximately 150 NSB members left the brigade to join Tawhid, leaving the current number of NSB troops inside Syria hovering around 200. Despite this, the group’s leaders are still confident that they can rebuild the brigade and are unwilling to merge with any other factions.
In many ways, the story of the NSB parallels the story of the revolution. Originally formed to combat the regime, internal funding interests impeded the group from actively coordinating with others, hurting the cohesiveness of the rebellion. The influx of foreign fighters and extremists would later weaken the NSB to the point where it ceased to be a factor on the ground. In the wake of the uprisings against ISIS, it now sees the opportunity to reestablish itself. But the road ahead will not be easy, and in a large part depends on securing foreign support. The NSB is not perfect, as one of its fighters acknowledged, but “we are good people… focused on combating (extremism).” Adds another, “we just want freedom for our country.”
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