As Aleppo Battle Rages, a New Brigade Joins the Fight
Outside Aleppo, Syria. At a desk and surrounded by wide-eyed children, Abu Maryam almost looks like the teacher he was training to be before he decided to form his own brigade in the Free Syrian Army.
But instead of a blackboard, behind him are two rows of would-be fighters, clutching a handful of weapons awkwardly. And the subject of the day is the creation of the Ibn Walid brigade.
A full-figured man with a thick beard and a confident bearing that makes him appear older than his 32 years, Abu Maryam says the decision to become a commander wasn’t easy.
“I hate killing,” he says emphatically. “When our revolution was peaceful, we were peaceful people, we protested without weapons, but the regime turned this into a war and this is the period when we have to fight.”
But when he decided to become a fighter, Abu Maryam didn’t want to join someone else’s brigade.
“I have my own notions and thoughts about how we should deal with the army, and the regime,” he said, laying out an ethical code for how he wants his fighters to treat their enemy.
“We don’t want to kill them, because they are Syrian like us. We will try to arrest them, and we have trained on that, and we will try to convince them to defect,” he says.
Over a cup of tea, he criticizes rebel forces accused of torturing their captives.
“They are doing what the army does to us. I have told my fighters that we have to make the change, we have to show the world that the FSA treats prisoners well, according to the international rules.”
Forming a Free Syrian Army brigade takes time, and Abu Maryam spent long days coordinating with the Liwa al-Tawhid, a commanding brigade that supervises much of the rebel activity in Aleppo.
He purchased weapons, ordered uniforms and filled out Liwa al-Tawhid forms, listing the names, birth dates, marital status and blood group of his fighters.
He recruited several dozen fighters and put them through military training as well as a program on religion and the ethical treatment of prisoners, taught by Sheikh Zakaria, the brigade’s spiritual leader.
But as Abu Maryam prepared to formally announce the creation of the brigade, Syrian army jets bombed the town, killing one person, and prompting four of his best fighters and his trainer to leave for Turkey with their families.
“I’m a bit confused, I must admit,” he says, looking off into the distance before righting himself and adding with a smile: “But we have good numbers, and we have lots more volunteers.”
Filming the brigade
And the early losses did nothing to dampen spirits as the fighters prepared for the formal announcement of the creation of their group.
On a stage in a hall in the town, members of the group pushed aside heavy red velvet curtains and debated how best to pin the rebel Syrian flag to a black backdrop.
Once the decision was made, several of them began to line up in preparation for the filming of the video that will be distributed on rebel websites.
“Those who don’t want to appear in the video, give your military vests to those who will be in the video,” the group’s media coordinator Mahmud shouted.
A few locals and a handful of children watch, some filming on their mobile phones.
Of the 22 members of the brigade present, only nine decide to appear in the video, along with Abu Maryam.
“I don’t want my face to be shown. I’m not afraid for me, but my family could be targeted,” says 23-year-old Abu Fida, a pharmacy student who helps his fellow fighters tie their checkered headscarves.
Mahmud, who is filming the announcement on his cellphone for distribution, surveys the scene on the stage.
“Should we have all the guns facing the same way?” he asks Abu Maryam, who agrees that would look better.
With the finicky precision of a teacher arranging schoolchildren for a class photo, Mahmud switches the position of the gun held by one fighter, and decides a formation of two rows, three fighters in front, six behind, looks best.
“Okay, let’s go. But the microphone in my phone is sensitive, so everyone else be quiet,” he says.
The room falls silent as Abu Maryam says a prayers and announces the creation of the brigade, tasked he says with fighting injustice and protecting freedom.
As he finishes, the newly-minted fighters chant “God is greatest” and wave their meagre firepower — just 10 Kalashnikovs for now — in the air.
“Tonight we will hear from Liwa al-Tawhid when we will go to Aleppo,” Abu Maryam says, as he oversees a draw to determine which men will be first to fight.
Shamseddine, who gives his age as 19 but sports not even the wisp of a beard, begs Abu Maryam to send him in the first group.
“It depends on the draw,” he tells him, with a gentle smile.
As the group await their marching orders, Abu Maryam reflects on the burden he has willingly embraced.
“I never knew my father. I was a fetus when he was arrested and disappeared in 1980. I tried to find out about him after the revolution started, but I found nothing and I believe he is dead,” he says.
“I am continuing his revolution, and if I am martyred, then God willing my sons will continue my revolution.”