The Tawhid Brigade is one of Syria’s largest armed rebel groups fighting against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. It was formed in July 2012, in the days before the rebels advanced into the city of Aleppo. It is still considered one of the biggest groups in northern Syria, and it dominates much of the insurgency around Aleppo, having grown out of rural towns like Anadan, Marea, Azaz, Tel Rifaat, and Hreitan.
While the Tawhid Brigade has always had an Islamist bent, it has also been a primary recipient of support from the states backing the Syrian insurgency and was for a time considered part of the nebulous rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA). It supported the creation of the FSA’s most recent attempt at a joint command structure, the Supreme Military Council (SMC), in December 2012. But at the same time, the Tawhid Brigade had its own sources of support and didn’t seem to pay much attention to the SMC or its political wing, the Western-backed National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces.
From the start, two men led the Tawhid Brigade: Abdul-Aziz Salameh, its supreme leader in charge of political affairs, and Abdel Qader Saleh, who ran military affairs. Saleh, in particular, emerged as a popular figure within the insurgency, but in November 2013 he was killed in an airstrike, along with several other Tawhid Brigade leaders.
In September 2013, the Tawhid Brigade had begun to distance itself from the National Coalition and its budding executive branch, a government-in-exile led by Prime Minister Ahmed Toume. In October, the Tawhid Brigade was part of a group of Islamist factions that declared that any opposition member going to the planned Geneva II peace conference would be considered a traitor to the revolution. The following month, the Tawhid Brigade participated in the creation of the Islamic Front, a major coalition that has clearly marked its distance from both the SMC and the National Coalition.
Abul-Hassan is the name used by a Syrian media activist from the Aleppo countryside who has long served as the official spokesperson of the Tawhid Brigade. He has kindly agreed to answer some questions for Syria in Crisis.
How do you evaluate the military situation in Aleppo right now?
Militarily, the situation in Aleppo favors the mujahideen, or Muslim guerrilla fighters. During its recent advance, the Syrian regime suffered great losses and was exhausted. It cannot progress further, and it is now being hit. It’s trying to preserve face in order to trick others into believing in its superiority. But if the regime tries to remain for much longer in the areas that it recently occupied, it will suffer a war of attrition. It will be forced to pull out sooner or later anyway.
What about the recent attacks in which the regime dropped so-called barrel bombs, or barrels filled with explosives, shrapnel, and fuel from helicopters?
The massacres and the barrel campaign are mainly because of the inherent criminality of the regime, its love for killing, and its desire to avenge itself on the people. At the same time, they are evidence of its military bankruptcy at the frontline and of how it despairs of reclaiming Aleppo. Obviously, no one who has even the slightest hope of ruling an area in the future would destroy it in such a crazy, arbitrary fashion.
How are the people of Aleppo handling the situation?
The humanitarian situation is dangerous and difficult. There are no opportunities for medical and aid activity, and there are no areas that are safe from the bombing or places to which civilians can escape. Also, many of the facilities of civilian life have been destroyed.
Have you appointed a successor to Abdel Qader Saleh as leader of Tawhid’s military wing?
Saleh was the best-known military leader, but there are other leaders, and one of them has now been appointed military leader. We have not mentioned his name because of security concerns, but it may be revealed at a later stage.
Abdul-Aziz Salameh recently wrote in favor of “eradicating the Nusayris,” or Alawites. What is the Tawhid Brigade’s view of religious minorities?
The brigade’s view of minorities is what the martyr Saleh said many times, “people ask me so often about the minorities that I wish I was from a minority.” He also said, “the minorities will have a better life in Syria after Assad than they had during Assad’s rule.”
Regarding the recent tweet by the supreme leader Salameh about eradicating the Nusayris, it referred to the fighters who have been killing the Syrian people for fifty years, who have committed crimes against the Syrian people and against all the neighboring peoples. Most of them are from the Nusayri sect, but criminals must be punished regardless of whether they are part of a minority sect .
Everyone knows that the Tawhid Brigade has an Islamic orientation, but if the Islam that ruled the area for more than thirteen hundred years had been bent on eradication, there wouldn’t be a single Nusayri person or any other minority sect alive in Syria. What guaranteed the ability of all these sects to remain in Syria was Islam and nothing else. Eradication and ethnic or religious cleansing has never been done by Muslims.
There’s a difference between holding criminals accountable and punishing them, on the one hand, and eradication, on the other hand.
So far, the Islamic Front is a political umbrella movement. Will it try to merge its member factions into a single organization?
Unification is in full swing, and God willing, it shall turn into actual unity in the three months after the Islamic Front’s announcement. God willing, there will be real unity that fuses together all the factions and brigades that have joined the Islamic Front, and they will be a unit in terms of politics, military affairs, media, and funding. . . . We are certainly doing all we can to make this project succeed and turn it into a real project as well as to add new factions to the Islamic Front.
What is your relationship to the SMC?
Since Communiqué Number 1 [a statement issued by several Islamist factions, including Tawhid, on September 23, 2013], the Tawhid Brigade no longer recognizes the General Staff of the SMC, which adheres to the National Coalition.
What is your view of the planned Geneva II conference?
The Geneva conference is an attempt to extend the life of the regime and to replace it with another regime, one that looks different on the outside but is the same at its core. There is no way this conference will succeed.