The Story of Al-Tawhid Brigade: Fighting for Sharia in Syria

The Syrian armed opposition's al-Tawhid Brigade has its own medical and media units as well as its own Sharia court.

al-monitor Abo Abedi, commander of the Al-Tawhid Brigade, fires his weapon in celebration during a mass wedding ceremony of members of his brigade in Aleppo's countryside city of Al-Bab, March 15, 2013. Photo by REUTERS/Giath Taha.

Topics covered

syrian conflict, syrian army, salafist jihadist groups, salafist gunmen, muslim brotherhood in syria, liwa al-tawhid, jihadists in syria, jabhat al-nusra, islamic state of iraq and al-shab (isis), aleppo clashes

Oct 22, 2013

The rapid developments in Aleppo and its countryside point to an impending confrontation between the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and the al-Tawhid Brigade, which is considered one of the biggest fighting factions in Aleppo and its countryside.

Special sources provided As-Safir with highly credible information that the al-Tawhid Brigade’s military commander, Abdul Qadir al-Saleh, is on a secret visit to the United States. The visit started about a week ago.

Saleh recently praised Jabhat al-Nusra and “the high coordination between them and the rest of the factions fighting on the ground. … [There is] great coordination with them on the military side.”

That was not the first time he made such a statement. In April, he expressed his “complete rejection to include Jabhat al-Nusra on the US terrorism list,” adding that the group didn’t engage in terrorism.

His remarks are not surprising considering the relationship between Tawhid and Jabhat al-Nusra. Information from the field confirms that Saleh was one of the architects of adding Jabhat al-Nusra to the list of factions that signed the so-called Declaration #1, in which the factions announced “the revocation of revolutionary legitimacy from the oppositionist Syrian National Coalition.” Also, Tawhid and Jabhat al-Nusra were established at about the same time. Some Jabhat al-Nusra fighters participated in the Radio Battle under the Tawhid banner.

So what is story of the al-Tawhid Brigade?

Tawhid’s formation, and its entry to Aleppo

The al-Tawhid Brigade was founded on July 18, 2012, through the merger of a number of armed groups in the countryside north of Aleppo, which is adjacent to the Turkish border. Tawhid later joined the “Revolutionary Military Council in Aleppo and its countryside,” which is led by Col. Abdul Jabbar al-Aqidi. It was a purely organizational council and didn’t have its own forces on the ground. Tawhid also played a key role in forming the Aleppo Sharia Council in an alliance with Jabhat al-Nusra and the Ahrar al-Sham Movement. But Jabhat al-Nusra later withdrew from that council.

Tawhid’s formation is mainly linked with a decision to make opposition gunmen enter Aleppo. Accurate accounts confirm that the decision was at the behest of Turkey directly. According to the accounts, Turkish intelligence coordinated with the head of the Military Security branch (then Mohammed Mefleh) to facilitate the entry of the gunmen to Aleppo and that Tawhid be the first organized armed faction to enter the city via the so-called al-Furqan battle on July 20, 2012.

Sources from Tawhid told As-Safir that the group entered Aleppo according to the following account:

“Fighting groups gathered in the north [Aleppo] countryside of Mareh, Andan, Tal Rifaat, and others. They were joined by the Nur al-Din al-Zanki Brigade from the west countryside. Then fighters of special moral and combat quality were selected and entered [Aleppo] in successive batches of 200 fighters each through Bab al-Qadim and settled in al-Ard al-Hamra, in a school on the junction of al-Sheikh Najjar al-Qadim. Meanwhile, the Nur al-Din al-Zanki Brigade entered the Salahuddin neighborhood under the Tawhid banner.”

According to the source, the “regime faced this move by moving a column of tanks on the Hanano–al-Indharat Housing highway. And then the clashes began. Three tanks were destroyed and one was captured.”

Tawhid gunmen fanned out toward Bab al-Nairab, where they clashed with the Berri clan, which is loyal to the regime. They captured, tortured, and killed Zaino Berri, accusing him of “leading the Shabiha [regime thugs] of that group.” In August 2012, Amnesty International condemned the incident, saying that it “represented a serious violation of international humanitarian law and is a war crime.”

Jabhat al-Nusra gunmen join the fight on the side of the al-Tawhid Brigade

The Nur al-Din al-Zanki Brigade entered the Salahuddin neighborhood under the Tawhid banner. Jabhat al-Nusra had formed in secret and its gunmen fought the Radio Battle under the Tawhid banner. Most Jabhat al-Nusra fighters had been released from Saidnaya prison under the June 2011 general amnesty.

The gunmen seized many Aleppo neighborhoods in a relatively short period to time. Tawhid declared the neighborhoods extending from Salahuddin to Sakhour as “neighborhoods that were liberated in battles in which 20 Tawhid martyrs had fallen,” according to sources from within Tawhid.

Then the Syrian army launched a major operation to recover Salahuddin. The fight lasted nearly a month and recovered the neighborhood, but the battle was not akin to the “mother of all battles.” It didn’t end the armed presence in Aleppo, as was announced at the time.

Afterward, the Nur al-Din al-Zanki Brigade announced that it was withdrawing from Tawhid and returning to the west Aleppo countryside, while Tawhid gunmen pressed forward and took control of the neighborhoods around the Hanano barracks, which they surrounded.

Then Jabhat al-Nusra revealed itself publicly and its gunmen stormed the Hanano barracks alongside Tawhid gunmen. But the Syrian army recovered the barracks with a force backed by T-82 tanks and with air and artillery support. Tawhid and Jabhat al-Nusra withdrew from the barracks after taking the weapons and ammunition stored there. Then the battle for Aleppo’s old city started. Tawhid gunmen took up position there and Aleppo’s historical markets were burned amid mutual accusations over who was responsible.

The relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists

The Muslim Brotherhood has fully supported Tawhid since its inception. Despite that, Tawhid commanders assert that “this doesn’t mean that Tawhid is subordinated to the Brotherhood.”

Opposition sources confirm to As-Safir that the denial by Tawhid officials is a “media denial.” In reality, there is full coordination between Tawhid and the Brotherhood. Other sources consider Tawhid the primary armed wing of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, noting the close relationship between Haji Andan and some Brotherhood officials.

It is interesting that Tawhid has good relations with the Salafists, with whom Mareh coordinates. Mareh has close relations with the Salafists, including, for example, Kuwaiti National Assembly member Waleed al-Tabtabaie.

Opposition sources in the field confirmed to As-Safir that Tawhid is a unique example in terms of its ability to coordinate with parties having conflicting political orientations, whether internal or external.

These sources considered Tawhid a key factor in the convergence between political Islam represented by the Muslim Brotherhood, which is backed by Turkey and Qatar, and Salafist Islam, which is backed by Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

It should be noted in this context that the Carnegie Institute report by researcher Rafael Lefevre quoted a non-Brotherhood activist, who helped finance the armed groups, as saying, “I have met with members of the al-Tawhid Brigade at a certain stage, when they took aid from the Muslim Brotherhood. But they also took [aid] from the Salafists. And they took [aid] from everyone. Their aim was not to form alliances, but they said ‘we’ll accept aid from whoever gives it to us.’”

It should also be noted that at one time Tawhid fighters wore black headbands on which was written “There is no God but God and Muhammad is the Messenger of God.” But they later started wearing white headbands on which nothing was written.

The al-Tawhid Brigade today

Tawhid tried to take the form of an institution whose activities are not just military. So it created the Tawhid Medical Foundation and the Tawhid Media Foundation. Tawhid has 38 regiments, comprising nearly 11,000 gunmen. Tawhid also has 10,000 administrators.

Tawhid pays its members non-periodical payments in the form of rewards. The group’s media is also very active. Some even call the group, “The Photography Brigade.”

Opposition sources in the field told As-Safir that the group weakened in recent months and that its fighters lacked training and preparation and were not of high quality. Tawhid’s role in the last six months was symbolic. Some factions that wished to avoid appearing in the media, because of their secretive nature, attributed their gains to Tawhid. That’s what happened in the Brigade 80 battle, next to Aleppo’s civilian airport.

Tawhid officials profess neutrality toward the rest of the brigades’ differences. They boast of having good relations with everyone, which allows them to play the role of mediator in resolving disputes. The latest mediation was in the ongoing conflict between ISIS and the Northern Storm Brigade in Azaz.

Tawhid has its own prison and Sharia court. In August 2012, Tawhid formed the so-called Revolutionary Security Bureau. Two months later, an agreement was reached with the other brigades to grant the bureau broader powers. The bureau was given its own military unit, made ​​up of gunmen contributed from each brigade, but they stayed members of their original units. When necessary, the bureau could get reinforcements, especially from Tawhid.

Tawhid seeks to enshrine Islamic rule in Syria. And it declares that “minorities should be treated like all other citizens.”

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