Aleppo battle led by ragtag bunch of 'country boys'

The Tawhid Brigade is the most disciplined group of rebel fighters, but their backgrounds are not what you would expect of insurgents.

A Free Syrian Army sniper looks through the sights on his rifle inside a house in Aleppo. The fighters have been described as effective as 'they've learnt to cooperate, and they've learnt from their mistakes'.
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ALEPPO // Syria's most successful rebel force is being led by a honey trader, an agricultural merchant and the manager of a mini-market.

They head a ragtag collection of farmers and labourers from the countryside north of Aleppo known as the Tawhid, or Unity, Brigade, who have dealt the Assad regime its biggest setback since the uprising erupted 17 months ago.

Tawhid fighters launched an audacious assault on Aleppo last month, which threatens to wrest it from regime control.

The group has drawn suspicion, in part because of its conservative religious views and executions of Assad loyalists, but admirers regard it as the most disciplined of the disorganised mishmash of rebel fighting groups.

"What makes these guys from the countryside effective is that they've learnt to cooperate, and they've learnt from their mistakes," said Capt Mohammed Hadid, a fighter who joined Tawhid after fighting with other rebel groups near the city of Idlib.

The group has led the charge into Aleppo on a surge of momentum that has put it at the forefront of Syria’s rebellion.

Before the Aleppo attack, grassroots fighting groups from dozens of villages in the north began coordinating increasingly effective guerrilla attacks on military installations and government institutions.

The clashes came to a head at the border city of Azzaz late last month, when rebels captured a military intelligence base in the city and destroyed several tanks using rocket-propelled grenades and Molotov cocktails.

By then, most of the surrounding villages had been cleared of government forces, leaving large swaths of Syria’s north in rebel hands.

A few days later, rebel leaders agreed to unite their units after several meetings and decided to storm Aleppo.

“We took them by surprise,” said Abdel Qader Saleh, 32, a former agricultural products merchant from the village of Mari and now the group’s battlefield commander in Aleppo.

Government troops melted away when his fighters invaded the city, Mr Saleh said, holding out maps at a rebel base in Aleppo showing how he led Tawhid units to overwhelm the city from east and west.

Expressing pride about Tawhid to the thuds of rocket and mortar attacks in the background, he also explained how the brigade had become an elite force, unlike the disorganised units of rebel fighters under the Free Syrian Army banner.

“Not everyone can be Tawhid,” Mr Saleh said, wearing fatigues and with a pistol at his side as three armed men stood guard behind him. “You have to be a role model.”

He acknowledged his fighters had executed apparent Assad loyalists in Aleppo, but said they had been put on trial and found guilty of crimes.

Some Tawhid members were also critical of fighters from Aleppo in general, and said they were inexperienced warriors. Some were more blunt about their pride in Tawhid.

“People from Aleppo are not good fighters. When there’s any fighting, most of them just up and leave,” said Saleh Kafu, 22, a rebel media official in Aleppo who fought with Tawhid in Azzaz.

Mr Kafu said Tawhid had created special training programmes to teach residents guerrilla warfare.

Such activity has generated friction with the residents, who largely avoided the fray until Tawhid’s “country boy” rebels invaded.

The onslaught has invited devastating regime attacks on the city, killing and displacing thousands.

“In the city, we’re civilised,” said a 24-year-old Aleppan who gave his name as Kanu. He was suspicious of the largely rural rebels, even though he supported them. “They grew up shooting guns at weddings, celebrations, any time they wanted.”

Tawhid’s religious zeal may also be an issue in an uprising increasingly defined along sectarian lines.

Adherents to Sunni Islam, its conservative core of fighters – some of whom support imposing strict interpretations of Islamic law and wave the flag of Saudi Arabia – have surely alarmed Syria’s diverse array of religious minorities.

Some Tawhid-held villages are now governed by Islamist clerics.

But Tawhid’s leaders insist they believe in religious pluralism. Their problem, they say, is neglect. They complain that foreign powers deny them the weapons and supplies needed to topple the Assad regime.

“The West has let us down,” said Abdulaziz Salama, 47, the Tawhid commander from the northern village of An Nadan who worked as a honey trader before the uprising.

The general complaint among Syria’s fractious rebel forces is that countries such as the US and Turkey refuse to offer them heavy weapons.

But Mr Salama also criticised these countries for favouring other rebel units that operate beyond the Tawhid umbrella, such as the rival Military Council, which is run primarily by defected Syrian military officers who operate in and out of Turkey.

He said Washington and Ankara preferred coordinating small-arms shipments with the Council, not Tawhid, which captures most of its weapons from government forces.

"Maybe it's because they are afraid to deal with us and prefer guys with military backgrounds," Mr Salama said. "But it's our forces who are on the ground and leading the fight in Aleppo."


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