free syrian army
Free Syrian Army

How a Free Syrian Army unit uncovered the rebels’ Israeli connection and switched sides

Before the Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebel group the Golan Brigade was targeted for destruction by Israel and Al Qaeda, it was allied with them.

By Rania Khalek / AlterNet

QUNEITRA, SYRIA – Ahmad Kaboul has big shoes to fill. Earlier this summer, his childhood friend and commanding officer of the Golan Brigade, Majed Hamoud, was killed by Jabhat Al Nusra, Syria’s al Qaeda affiliate, which now goes by the name Hayat Tahrir Al Sham.

Founded as one of the dizzying array of fighting units in Syria’s six-year civil war, the genesis of the Golan Brigade was one of the most remarkable. The brigade was established in 2014 by Syrian fighters who had defected from the Free Syrian Army rebel group after they made a shocking discovery: their unit had been coordinating with the Israelis.

After switching sides to support the Syrian government, they witnessed the Israeli military providing direct air cover for attacks launched against them by Al Qaeda. The Israelis even tried to kill Majed on several occasions before Al Qaeda’s Syrian franchise, Nusra, finally did him in.

This July, I met veterans of the Golan Brigade and heard their stories. They painted a picture of the war that stood almost entirely at odds with the dominant narrative of the conflict spun out in Western mainstream media. And this is perhaps why they have received so little attention.

The Golan Brigade is one of four battalions that comprises Syria’s National Defense Forces (NDF), a coalition of paramilitary groups formed in mid-2012 to recruit and organize non-soldier citizens who wanted to fight as volunteers against the armed insurgency that was overrunning the country. Those who joined come from all backgrounds, including retired military personnel, young men who weren’t eligible for conscription because they were the only son in the family, and even a dentist.

Ahmad was Majed’s right-hand man and now he is his replacement. He’s 28, but looks 22. With his shy demeanor and soft eyes, it’s hard to believe he now leads a brigade of over 300 fighters.

The defectors

Majed, the founding leader of the Golan Brigade, was a former bodybuilding champion who defected from the Syrian army in 2011 due to mistreatment from his superior officers. “He was angry about the corruption in the Syrian army,” Majed’s father told me at a Golan Brigade outpost in Majed’s hometown of Khan Arnabah, located by the separation fence with Israel.

Majed joined the FSA out of spite and encouraged other guys from his village to do the same. Ahmad had also been dealing with mistreatment by his superior officers after being injured by shrapnel at the T4 oil pipelines near Homs where he was stationed. Ahmad told me he defected to the FSA out of anger and because he was caught up in the revolutionary fervor sweeping the region at the time.

For two years Majed and Ahmad fought against the Syrian Army in an FSA unit called Liwa al-Mutassim Bilaa. They launched attacks in the towns and villages that run along the separation barrier with the Israeli occupied side of the Golan Heights. But over time Majed and Ahmad became disillusioned with the corruption and shadiness they witnessed among the loose coalition of FSA divisions they fought alongside. The last straw came when they discovered the FSA’s relationship with the Israelis, which included logistical, military and medical aid.

“At first we didn’t know about it. But then the Israelis offered to open a gate for us at the Israeli fence for Khan Arnabah. Majed confronted the FSA guys who were working with the Israeli officers in Beir Ajam and he immediately told them that we won’t deal with anyone cooperating with the Israelis. The rebel groups tried to assassinate him at this time. We didn’t have any other choice, so we decided to come back to Khan Arnabah and contacted the reconciliation committee there.”

Khan Arnabah reconciled with the government in 2014. It’s one of dozens of Syrian towns that were held by the opposition but ultimately chose to reintegrate into the Syrian state.

Since as far back as 2012, the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF), the peacekeeping mission responsible for monitoring the 1974 ceasefire line between Israeli and Syrian forces in the Golan Heights, has documented dozens of interactions between Israeli and Syrian insurgents. It is also an open secret that the Israelis have been providing medical treatment to insurgents, including al Qaeda and possibly ISIS fighters, in Israeli hospitals and then sending them back into battle against government-controlled areas.

According to an investigative report by journalist Nour Samaha, Israel has dramatically expanded its support to include “facilitating cross-border travel for residents into Israel, regular deliveries of food, clothing, construction equipment and educational materials, airstrikes on pro-government positions and the establishment of an Israeli-backed opposition faction in rebel-held southern Syria.”

Soon after learning of Israel’s involvement with the FSA, Majed struck up a relationship with the head of the National Defense Forces, who had been reaching out to Syrian army defectors in an attempt at reconciliation. The leader of the NDF, who asked not to be named, told me he became very fond of Majed. For eight months the two communicated over the phone, building up a trusting relationship. It wasn’t easy. Majed’s brother had been imprisoned by the government and the NDF leader’s brother had been killed in an ambush by the FSA. But with time they grew close and after intense negotiations with the security apparatus, Majed decided to defect from the FSA and join the NDF as head of the Golan Brigade in Khan Arnabah.

“It was the first real reconciliation in the whole Syrian conflict. It was completely organic,” said the head of the NDF.

They created four battalions. Majed was the leader of the first battalion which was responsible for the towns of Khan Arnabah and Jeba. And he convinced many of those in his FSA faction, around 40 people, to defect with him to the NDF. They all received amnesty from the government. Majed’s main argument was that they were duped, that this wasn’t a real revolution and that foreign hands were behind the FSA, with the most unacceptable being Israel’s. As young men from the Golan, an area of Syria that remains occupied by Israel, Israel’s support for the FSA was particularly objectionable. About ten people remained with the FSA and were absorbed by other opposition units, recalled Ahmad.  The Golan Brigade has since swollen to around 300 people in Majed’s battalion and some 1,500 overall.

Majed Haymoud Golan Brigade
A poster of Majed Haymoud, former head of the first Golan Brigade battalion, on the wall at a military outpost in Khan Arnabeh. It says “I swear by the blood of the martyrs you will not enter it so long as we are alive. That is my vow/promise and I am the greatness of Quneitra.”

ISIS headquartered on Israel’s border, Israeli air support for Al Qaeda

The Israelis tried to kill Majed on at least two occasions in targeted airstrikes but failed, according to Golan Brigade militiamen. What the Israelis couldn’t accomplish, Al Qaeda did.

In June, a Syrian member of Jabhat al Nusra from the Daraa neighborhood of Nawa, Mohammad Abdul Hamid al Mitheab, followed Majed into the office of one of his colleagues. Wearing an army uniform and a backpack filled with explosives, the attacker blew himself up, killing Majed.

Those I spoke with who knew Majed expressed affection for him, describing him as charismatic, tough and extremely persuasive. People in Khan Arnabah referred to him in terms reserved for superheroes. His fellow militiamen reminisced about him constantly.

“He was a good guy, a true leader,” the NDF commander said. “That’s why Nusra targeted him. They thought if they killed Majed, the city and our forces would collapse. They were wrong.”

Five days after Majed’s death, Nusra launched an attack on Medinet al Baath, or Baath City, in cooperation with FSA units. The Israelis provided air support for the Al Qaeda-led offensive, striking at Syrian army and NDF forces and equipment during the battle, suggesting direct coordination with the jihadist groups.

“This is the first time the Israelis helped Nusra openly,” said the NDF commander.

The battle was fierce and lasted around 10 days, with the NDF and Syrian army repelling the attack.

“We lost count of how many times the Israelis have attacked us,” said Ahmad. “They killed two of our soldiers last year. They confuse us and the Syrian army with Hezbollah.”

According to senior sources in the Syrian army, Hezbollah does not have a military presence in the Golan. Hezbollah has a light presence in the Damascus countryside near Quneitra, but that’s it. But the Israelis insist otherwise and have openly stated their preference for al Qaeda at the Golan border over Hezbollah or anyone allied with them, including the Syrian government.

Meanwhile all of Nusra’s command centers and bases are located at the border between Syria and the Israeli-occupied side of the Golan. I’m told there is a Nusra hospital located next to the barrier beside the U.N. command center in the ceasefire zone between the Israeli and Syrian forces. “We can’t attack there because we don’t have precision weaponry. We can’t risk hitting the U.N. command,” says a senior Syrian army source, showing me a map of the area.

Guiding me through the different colors on the map, he continued, “Nusra controls about 15 kilometers of territory along the separation fence in Quneitra all the way to west Daraa, where there is some mixed control between Nusra and the FSA. ISIS controls the Yarmouk triangle. Al Yarmouk valley, where the Yarmouk river flows, is entirely controlled by ISIS. The jihadist group’s leaders are headquartered in Jamla, nearly 300 meters from the Israeli border. How do you want to convince me that Israel is not supporting them?” he asked.

Majed Haymoud Golan Brigade Khan Arnabah
Majed Haymoud hangs on the wall at the Golan Brigade outpost in Khan Arnabah.

The black flag behind the green flag

According to the NDF leader, the de-escalation agreement implemented in southern Syria is holding in Quneitra between the Syrian government and the FSA. Nusra, however, has continued to launch attacks.

“Where there is Nusra, there is no de-escalation,” he said. “The main players in Syria are the Russians and Americans. The agenda to destroy Syria was planned by the American government, so when the Americans and Russians reach an agreement, we can see the results on the ground. The FSA attacks that we faced in 2012 and 2013 have stopped 100%. There are no attacks from the so-called Free Syrian Army against our bases or military checkpoints. Now we are only fighting ISIS and Nusra,” he said.

“The main thing I want to explain to you, all this revolution, the FSA logic from the beginning was based on Wahhabism and takfirism [an extremist theological doctrine that enables Muslims to brand other Muslims as infidels and sanctions violence to punish their heresy]. But it was hidden behind this green flag. America and Israel want to support that, but they can’t do it openly under the black flag, so they need this green flag to facilitate their support,” he said.

“They always claim that the Syrian government is sectarian. How come we are sectarian? Yes, the president is Alawite. And his wife is a Sunni from Homs. The minister of defense is a Bedouin Sunni. The minister of Interior is a Sunni. The foreign minister is a Sunni. The head of intelligence in Syria, which oversees all intelligence, is a Sunni from Damascus. Why is America selling a lie that our government is sectarian?”

He went on to stress that the Golan Brigade represents the diverse social fabric of a country whose minorities are estimated at 30 to 40 percent of its mostly Sunni population. “You can find Sunnis, Alawites, Druze and Christians in this brigade. One battalion is led by a Sunni, another by an Alawite, another by a Christian. That’s why we’re strong. Go to the other side. Can you find an Alawite or Christian?” he asked.

As for the Israelis, “they are still playing a dirty game. When you are supporting Nusra at your border and let them put their tanks at the demarcation fence with the flag of Nusra, you are playing with fire,” he warned.