Background: The Battle of Qate al-Wareed at Qarmeed Brick Factory
On August 14th 2013 in Idlib, Syria, after a month-long siege, rebel forces began a ferocious operation to retake Qarmeed Brick Factory, mapped here. This article studies the brigades involved, their weapons and their use of video graphics to further our understanding of how operations inside Syria are panning out.
Why, you may well ask, would the rebels assault a brick factory? Well, it is not a ‘brick factory’, it is the Brick Factory of Qarmeed. As CJ Chivers writes for the NYTimes, “Two of the most important (bases in the north) have been a pair of mutually supporting positions between Ariha and Saraqib known almost universally in the area as the “Brick Factory” and the “Youth Camp,” names derived from each position’s prewar use. These two positions are in the lowlands at the foot of the Jebel al-Zawiya range, the mountainous area of the Idlib countryside, and virtually astride one of the four-lane highways that crisscross the region”. For the first two years of the war, according to the Chivers and Amnesty International, the bases would shell surrounding Sunni villages and were responsible for ‘indiscriminate civilian death’. The bases, the Youth Camp and Brick Factory could support each other with mortar and artillery fire to repel rebel attacks.
But, in late may, the Youth Camp fell to rebel forces.
Since May, the rebels have regrouped and are now focusing their attacks on the Brick Factory; this article addresses the current and final rebel operation to retake the Brick Factory, an operation that the rebels call, ‘the Battle of Qate al-Wareed of Qarmeed Factory’.
Videos of the Assault
As I wrote earlier this week, the heaviest part of the assault that began on August 14th and involves not only light, but an unusual amount of light and heavy weaponry. I initially reported, based on activist claims, that the assault began with a VBIED; it is appear these claims are unfounded and I retract that story, apologies. It seems more likely that the rebels ignited a fuel dump on the perimeter of the camp with their artillery. Here is a video of the fuel camp exploding. Here is a video of the fuel camp exploding.
So what caused it? As I mentioned, there is an unusual concentration of very heavy, very serious and very deadly rebel equipment: tanks, BMPs, anti-tank, mobile artillery, mortars and the infamous, Hell Cannon. This article begins by looking at the equipment used in the attack.
Here is a video of the Liwa al-Haqq operating a 57 mm AZP S-60 Soviet-made AA gun - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=effyjFc44Ko&feature=youtu.be. Here is a video of the Liwa Dawoud brigade (Islamist faction) operating a BMP - BMP video. Here is a video of the al-Tawhid (in Idlib, undeclared) brigade operating a T72 tank – . Here is a video of al-Tawhid brigade operating an anti-tank missile - Here is a video of Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiya operating a recoilless rifle - Video. We shall return to the equipment used later, but for now we turn to that curious graphic from the beginning of each of these videos
Notice anything special about those videos?
Well /u/Dont_LookAtMyName did on the online forum, the /r/syriancivilwar subreddit on Reddit, which is dedicated to the Syrian civil war. The user pointed out that all the videos, although uploaded and edited from different activist accounts, use the same graphic to begin the videos.
This graphic is absolutely fascinating and provides some unique insights into events on the ground in Syria.
The title translates to, “the Battle of Qate al-Wareed at the camp of Qarmeed”. The graphic then lists ten groups that are stamped in the bottom right hand corner with “Together in the Battlefield”. Using a graphic with numbers imposed, thanks to Eliot Higgins, we can provide a list of these group’s names and English translations.
5. Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiya – (subgroup of Ahrar al-Shamal)
6. Jabhat al-Nusra - (Wahabist, jihadist and and fundamentalist)
7. Liwa Dawoud – (SILF)
9. Liwa Deraa al-Thawra – (Unknown; Fought before alongside Jabhat al Nusra)
10. Liwa Deraa al-Jebel – (Unknown)
What is noticeable about this list? Well for starters, there are no FSA brigades on it; these are all Islamist brigades.
The screenshot informs us that of the ten rebel brigades fighting at the Brick Factory that there is a broad range of groups involved from ‘moderates’, al-Tawhid, to extremists, such as Jabhat al Nusra. It should be noted that of the eight identified brigades none are FSA affiliated, but affiliated with Sunni Islamists: two of these groups are affiliated with the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front, the largest and most ‘moderate’ coalition of Islamists, three are affiliated with Sunni Islamic Front, a more extreme version of the Islamist intent on Sharia, and two, Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al Nusra are extremist Salafist groups. The other two groups, Liwa Deraa al-Thawra and Liwa Deraa al-Jebel are difficult to identify, but have fought alongside Jabhat al Nusra in the past.
Well, ten disparate opposition groups ranging from moderates to moderate Islamists to extremist Islamists want you to know that they’re ‘Together on the Battlefield’; take that as you will.
It would appear to me, that in this particular incident, the graphic makes it seem that the FSA are at the very least outnumbered and some would say, marginalized. Following recent trends, the graphic could be pointing out that Islamists, not moderate brigades, are forming the bulk of the fighters at flash points and bearing the brunt of the fighting.
It’s clear that at Qarmeed the FSA are not leading the operation, but are entirely absent from it; al Tawhid in Aleppo are FSA affiliated, but the brigade in Idlib has yet to declare its affiliation. Of the ten groups ‘Together in the Battlefield’, all but one are Islamist and two/three of those are jihadist – this doesn’t bode well for moderates hoping for a secular Syria post-Assad.
Perhaps, more interestingly, it’s better to look at who the list doesn’t include. ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant, are notably absent from the list. I wouldn’t have thought much of it, until Islamist activists began making a point of the fact that ISIS was ‘not participating in the Qarmeed operation’ on Twitter.
From this information it’s possible to put forward a couple of theories as to the purpose of the graphic.
It’s almost certain that this is a propaganda move intended to distance the groups from ISIS and its recent war crimes – summary executions, notably the execution of two Shiite teens in Aleppo last week. Whether these groups have actually distanced themselves from ISIS is harder to determine, but from this graphics, there appears to at least be a concerted effort to make it look that way
And possibly it’s a political message from Islamist groups. Perhaps they want the graphic to signal that they are on par with the FSA, if not dominating it; maybe, maybe not, maybe we’ll never know. But I hope you’ll agree, it’s interesting.
Would it be fair to say that the FSA has been marginalized? It’s necessary to turn to the leadership of the operation, which, is, at best, murky. In May, CJ Chivers wrote for the NYTimes: “the commanders, Hassan Aboud of Soquor al-Sham and Abu Ayman of Ahrar al-Sham, described an incremental approach”. So, at least, in May, it was SIF Salafist factions that were leading the attack, not the FSA. Until new information emerges, we’ll have to wait and see.
So, who’s using what?
If we return to the videos listed earlier, it’s very interesting to look at who’s using what in the operation.
You will have noticed that in each of the videos there is a stamp in the top-left corner that appears to identify the group being filmed; we can use this to deduce who operates what.
In this video, youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XTQC6sG_Vlg, al-Tawhid operate a T-72 tank. The tank advances a short distance, stops and fires a round, presumably at the Brick Factory. It can safely be assumed the al-Tawhid captured this tank. Not much to note here, apart from the fact that tanks are being used more and more frequently by the opposition.
In this video, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cTDyUK5or6g, al-Tawhid operate an anti-tank weapon. This could be a case of Saudi supplied anti-tank weaponry, making it to the right group. So what? Well, recently Saudi Arabia took the reigns from Qatar in supplying anti-tank weaponry and pledged to only arm moderate groups. In this instance, it would appear that al-Tawhid in Idlib, a non-FSA affiliate, have gotten their hands on anti-tank weaponry. This does not bode well.
Moving on, things begin to look very different.
In this video, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=effyjFc44Ko&feature=youtu.be, Liwa al Haqq, the Salafist SIF group, operate a very heavy piece of truck-mounted artillery, 57 mm AZP S-60 Soviet-made AA gun. The piece fires three rounds before reversing; these may or may not account for the fire shown in the second cut. The gun looks to have a new paint-job; perhaps it can attributed to a foreign donor. Perhaps Qatar or Saudi Arabia. These are not the groups the West would like to see armed and it raises questions about the origin of the weaponry.
In the next video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9C0RQ7TqHK0, Liwa Dawoud operate a BMP; it can be assumed that this was captured. It’s important to note that captured equipment stays in the hands of whoever captures it and Liwa Dawoud, an Islamist faction, now appear to have a BMP in their arsenal.
Lastly, and perhaps most worryingly, in this video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7VPxMai0Xn8, Kataib Ahrar al-Shamal, operate a recoilless rifle. How and from whom an extremist Salafist group like Ahrar al-Shamal received this weapon a fascinating question; it’s very possible it was donated by a generous Gulf donor.
Once again, these videos make it very clear that there are very few effective controls to the movement of heavy weaponry in Syria. The chaos of war, foreign aid, the black market, have all contributed to the distribution of heavy weaponry to a wide array of rebel groups: moderates, Islamists, jihadists now all have their hands on something that makes a big bang.
If the West is concerned about the feasibility of ensuring heavy weaponry only makes it to the hands of moderates, it should continue to be so; these videos emphasize that the controls, if there are any, for ensuring that heavy weaponry is only distributed to moderates in the opposition are currently failing.