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.
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.
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.
Before the Golan Brigade was targeted for destruction by Israel and Al Qaeda, it was allied with them. 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.
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