In August, rebels in Aleppo named their attempt at breaking the siege of the city after Ibrahim Youssef. He was one of the militants of the Fighting Vanguard group, which, alongside the Muslim Brotherhood, led an Islamist insurrection against the Syrian regime in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Youssef headed the group that seized the Aleppo Artillery School in June 1979. At the time he separated the Alawite and Sunni cadets, before executing up to 83 of the Alawites. 

The Fighting Vanguard, Syria’s first true jihadi group, may be long dead, but its legacy lives on as an inspiration to today’s rebel groups. For example, militant factions in the Hama countryside dubbed their recent attack on regime-held positions the “Invasion of the Martyr Marwan Hadid.” He was the Fighting Vanguard’s charismatic founder and first leader, before dying in prison in 1976. 

The “events” (al-ahdath) of the late 1970s and early 1980s, including the Fighting Vanguard’s deeds, was long a taboo subject in Syria and a black box in the country’s history. That references to the group have recently multiplied in rebel circles, whether formally Islamist or not, has thus been seen by some as a “new low” for the Syrian opposition and as a sign of its “radicalization.” There is little doubt that, given the Syrian regime’s advances, helped by foreign Shia militias often perceived as sectarian, many rebel factions have drawn closer to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra, and its jihadi allies. But there is more to the Fighting Vanguard’s growing symbolic presence in rebel rhetoric than “radicalization.”

The “Heroes” of the 1980s    

It is striking that the Fighting Vanguard’s legacy was embraced early on in the uprising by groups affiliated with the Free Syrian Army that did not openly display an Islamist political or sectarian agenda. What seems to have driven them to hark back to the jihad of the 1980s was a widespread perception in Sunni opposition circles that, far from having been “criminals” or “terrorists,” as the Baath Party called them, Fighting Vanguard militants were in fact heroes to be celebrated for their sacrifices and struggles against the regime. 

The Fighting Vanguard was created in the early 1970s as an offshoot of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. Back then the group rapidly gained attention because of the radical Islamist tone of Marwan Hadid, who referred in a derogatory way to Alawites as “Nusayri dogs” and called for the establishment of an Islamic state in Syria. But what earned the Fighting Vanguard the respect of even secular Sunnis was its uncompromising opposition to a regime whose economic policy had alienated much of the urban middle class. 

Building on this popularity, the Fighting Vanguard started recruiting and, from 1976, had a sufficient number of militants to carry out targeted assassinations against regime officials. The Aleppo Artillery School attack pushed Hafez al-Assad to intensify his repression of the Syrian opposition—which brought the Muslim Brotherhood and the Fighting Vanguard together into an alliance to strike back against and overthrow the regime. They would both be defeated in February 1982 after a last stand in their stronghold of Hama.

The remaining supporters of the two groups were forced into exile. While the Muslim Brotherhood managed to survive and slowly regain a measure of political relevance, the Fighting Vanguard formally ceased to exist after the capture in 1982 of its then-leader, Adnan Uqla. Some of its former militants joined the Afghan jihad and later Al-Qaeda, whereas others remained independent. A small minority integrated into the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood in which some members, such as Adel Fares, reached significant positions.  

A struggle over heritage

The crisis in Syria starting in 2011, especially the regime’s massive use of violence to quell protestors, motivated many of these former militants to either fund the insurgency or come back home to rejoin the military struggle. They did so in very different ways. While some, such as Abu Firas al-Suri, joined Jabhat al-Nusra, Al-Qaeda’s Syria affiliate, others such as Abu Khaled al-Suri joined the Salafist Ahrar al-Sham, whose priority was fighting the Syrian regime. 

The return of these historical figures to Syria helped revive the tales of the Fighting Vanguard, pushing rebels to compete over who embodied its revolutionary legacy best. In 2012, when the militant opposition was still largely localized and fragmented, a flurry of groups in various cities began adopting names to suggest that they were inspired by the group. This included the Brigades of the Fighting Vanguard and the Brigade of the Martyr Marwan Hadid.

The Muslim Brotherhood joined the bandwagon even though it had over the previous decades expended much effort to distance itself from the Fighting Vanguard’s deeds. Indeed, as it gathered sympathetic rebel groups throughout 2013 under the wing of its Shields of the Revolution Commission, it became clear that some of them had deliberately assumed names alluding to the Vanguard’s history and its alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood. This was meant to attract funding and show that the Brotherhood still had a measure of jihadi legitimacy after all this time, thanks to its onetime ties with the Fighting Vanguard. 

In Islamist opposition ranks, however, the Muslim Brotherhood’s attempt at winning the hearts and minds of Syrian Sunnis by playing the card of the 1980s did not go down well. Many remembered that despite their alliance, it was the Fighting Vanguard that did the bulk of the fighting—and paid a heavy price for it. Such bitterness was best expressed in an online recording that surfaced in 2013 featuring the testimony of a former Fighting Vanguard militant recalling the alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1980s and accusing them of “betrayal.” A rebel faction made up of former militants from the 1980s then lambasted the Muslim Brotherhood for fraudulently exploiting its ties with the Fighting Vanguard. 

Using the Past as a Recruitment Tool

It is not surprising that the bulk of rebel groups claiming a link to the Fighting Vanguard are concentrated in Hama and its countryside. After all, Hama had been the seat of uprisings in 1964 and 1973, as well as the hometown of Marwan Hadid and other Vanguard commanders. But, even more importantly, it would witness one of the Middle East’s worst slaughters in February 1982, when the Assad regime crushed an uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood and the Fighting Vanguard in the city, killing some 25,000 people, mostly civilians. 

Several rebel groups and opposition parties have over the course of the past five years invoked the memory of the 1982 Hama massacre. The most successful so far has been Ahrar al-Sham, which, in 2015, released a graphic video linking the insurrection of the 1980s to the current situation, as a way of recruiting locals. The video yields insights into the ways in which Islamist rebel groups deemed “radical” in the West have embedded themselves in local society.

The video begins by casting the confrontation of the 1980s as a “popular struggle” against an atheistic elite that sought to change Hama and suppress social and religious local customs. It then features a Hama native and former member of the Fighting Vanguard who testifies with apparent pride that the group took a leading part in the militant activities in Syria at the time. But then he visibly becomes shaken as he describes the regime’s “horrible revenge,” and its slaughter of women, children, and the elderly. 

Much of the rest of the video is about using this narrative to entice locals into joining Ahrar al-Sham. It features a song promising to “fill the Orontes with blood” as revenge for the “martyrs” of the 1980s.  It then draws a parallel with the situation in Syria today by arguing that “the people who marched in 2012 are the sons of the people killed in 1982” and calls on these “sons of Hama” to “prepare for jihad to liberate the country” since “if you are Sunni [the regime] will kill you anyway.” 

The Many Facets of “Radicalization”

The recent multiplication of references to the Fighting Vanguard and the jihad of the 1980s acts as a case study of the paradoxes lying behind confident assertions about the supposed radicalization of the Syrian rebel scene. Groups often deemed “radical” in the West might not recruit primarily on the basis of an “Islamist” religious and ideological agenda, but in spite of it. What may attract fighters to a group sometimes has more to do with its capacity to frame its language in a way reflecting local identities and narratives. 
 
The “Hama rules,” according to which brutal repression often succeeds in silencing dissent, may have governed Syrian politics for 30 years, but the 2011 uprising and the rewriting by Syrian opposition factions of the history of the events of  the 1970s-1980s suggests that they no longer apply. The opposition’s historical revisionism, in this context, thus acts more as an endorsement of the Fighting Vanguard’s uncompromising hostility to the regime than of its radical Islamist ideology. Yet the lingering ambiguity of some on the rebel side is being used by the regime to discredit them. History, it seems, has itself become a casualty of war.