Nicholas A. Heras

One of the most prominent, U.S.-vetted Syrian armed opposition groups that currently fights against the al-Assad government and its allies, as well as against the Islamic State (IS), is Liwa Suqur al-Jabal (Mountain Hawks Brigade), an organization with over 2,500 fighters spread in northwestern Syria’s Idlib, Lattakia, and Aleppo governorates (Viber Interview, April 28; Twitter; Al-Hayat, February 26; Revolutionary Forces of Syria Media Office, December 24, 2015). [1] Currently, the Mountain Hawks Brigade is one of the major constituent armed opposition groups in a nascent, primarily U.S.-backed Syrian rebel campaign against IS in areas northeast of Aleppo (Viber Interview, April 28; Twitter). The commander of the Mountain Hawks Brigade is Captain Hassan Haj Ali, 36, who is one of the most important moderate armed opposition leaders in northern Syria (Al-Safir [Beirut], February 2, 2016; Shaam [Damascus], November 26, 2015).

Captain Haj Ali is likely one of the original “Trusted Commanders,” which are Syrian rebel leaders that media reports indicate have been vetted by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (for the potential role of the C.I.A. in vetting and facilitating U.S. military assistance and training, see: Wall Street Journal, January 26, 2015; PBS Frontline, May 27, 2014). He states that he and his organization are seeking a post-conflict Syria where all Syrians have equal rights and duties on the basis of citizenship and law (Viber Interview, April 28). Captain Haj Ali further states that Mountain Hawk Brigade fighters have been provided with U.S. military training in Qatar and Saudi Arabia (on receiving U.S. military assistance and training in Qatar and Saudi Arabia, Viber Interview, April 28). This U.S.-approved military assistance includes BGM-71 TOW anti-tank missiles, which have been particularly effective against the al-Assad government’s mechanized forces. The Mountain Hawks Brigade has received a steady supply of the anti-tank missiles—and the permission to fire them—since 2014 (Viber Interview, April 28; Twitter; YouTube; YouTube).

The Mountain Hawks Brigade was one of the first targets of the Russian Aerospace Forces when Russia’s military intervention in Syria began in September 2015, including targeting the group’s bases and weapons storehouses (Reuters, December 15, 2015; Reuters, October 24, 2015; YouTube, October 7, 2015; Al-Araby Al-Jadid, October 7, 2015; Halab Today [Aleppo], October 1, 2015; Radio Al-Kul [Aleppo], October 1). Over the course of the fall of 2015, the Mountain Hawks Brigade has repeatedly and successfully deployed TOW missiles against al-Assad government armor, drawing regional and international media attention (Twitter, December 1; The Daily Beast, October 24, 2015; Reuters, October 19, 2015; Los Angeles Times, October 12, 2015). This attention on the Mountain Hawks Brigade has catapulted Captain Haj Ali into the role of a front-line spokesman for the U.S.-supported armed opposition in Syria.

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