Mustafa Sejari: A Rising Star in Northwest Syria’s Militant Opposition

Nicholas A. Heras

The United States military and its coalition allies are working to expand the number of local Arab Sunni armed opposition groups that are participating in the anti-Islamic State campaign in Syria. One of the first and most effective U.S.-supported, anti-IS Syrian armed opposition coalitions is Liwa al-Mutasem, which is active in the country’s northwestern Aleppo Governorate (Revolutionary Forces of Syria Media Office [Marea], June 30; Revolutionary Forces of Syria Media Office, June 16; Zaman al-Wasl [Marea], June 8). Liwa al-Mutasem has over 1,500 fighters and is beginning to receive substantial U.S. military assistance to fight against IS in the front-line area centered around the strategic town of Marea, northeast of the city of Aleppo (Viber Interview). [1] The head of the Political Office of Liwa al-Mutasem is Mustafa Sejari (a.k.a. Assad Islam), who is one of the most important, and increasingly powerful, U.S. military-backed Syrian armed opposition leaders.

Sejari, 32, was born and raised in the city of Aleppo, and moved to the city of Lattakia in 2004. Shortly after he relocated to Lattakia in 2004, Sejari joined an underground youth protest movement against the al-Assad government, Shabab Tghayr (Youth for Change), which met clandestinely and which printed and distributed pamphlets and painted graffiti calling for greater political and civil rights (Viber Interview). In 2006, Sejari was arrested by the al-Assad governments’ security forces. He was held in solitary confinement in a local prison run by the Lattakia Political Security Department until his release from prison in 2008 (Viber Interview).

Following the start of the Syrian Uprising in March 2011, Sejari was arrested on four separate occasions while participating in anti-Assad government demonstrations in Lattakia city (Viber Interview). In May 2012, after a cycle of particularly violent repression of the local protest movement in Lattakia city by the al-Assad government, Sejari and several of his activist colleagues left the city for the resort town of al-Haffah in the Sahyoun Mountains, located twenty miles east of Lattakia city (Viber Interview). There Sejari and his colleagues joined with local opposition members and formed the armed opposition group Liwa Suqur al-Sahel (Hawks of the Coast Brigade), which had approximately 1,500 fighters. Sejari became the group’s deputy commander, an influential member of its leadership council, and a leader within the Free Syrian Army’s Lattakia Military Council (Viber Interview; YouTube, August 23, 2012; YouTube, August 18, 2012; YouTube, July 20, 2012).

The Hawks of the Coast Brigade’s early campaigns against al-Assad government security forces were ultimately unsuccessful, which led the group to move to the region around Jabal al-Akrad (Kurdish Mountain) and Jabal Turkman (Turkmen Mountain), further northeast of the city of Lattakia (Viber Interview). After arriving in this area, Sejari worked with a number of smaller, FSA-aligned armed opposition groups to form Kata’ib Ezz bin Abd al-Salam (Ezz bin Abd al-Salam Brigades), which became one of the larger and more active FSA-aligned armed opposition organizations in the area (Viber Interview; YouTube, January 16, 2015; YouTube, October 26, 2012). His group enjoyed popular local support in this mountain region, working closely with local opposition councils (YouTube, December 7, 2012; YouTube, August 28, 2012; YouTube, August 24, 2012).

The Ezz bin Abd al-Salam Brigades also demonstrated foreign influence, particularly from Saudi Arabia, in the ideological orientation of the group toward a more militant Islamist ideology. This is not uncommon among FSA organizations seeking foreign assistance in isolated, besieged areas of Syria (YouTube, December 23, 2012). Sejari himself has at times demonstrated a conflicted personal ideological perspective as well, ranging from secular nationalist to militant Islamist. He currently states that he supports a future government in Syria that is democratic and inclusive of the country’s multi-sectarian, multi-ethnic demography (Viber Interview; Vice News [Idlib], April 26, 2014; Vice News [Idlib], March 16, 2014; YouTube, October 24, 2012). By the spring of 2013, the Islamic State had begun to infiltrate the Jabal Turkman/Jabal al-Akrad area, and it increasingly came into conflict with the Ezz bin Abd al-Salam Brigades. As a result, the Ezz bin Abd al-Salam Brigades was one of the first armed opposition groups to directly push back against IS in western Syria (Viber Interview).

In July 2013, IS operatives assassinated the leader of the Ezz bin Abd al-Salam Brigades, Abu Basir Ladani, who was a prominent and popular local armed opposition commander and rising leader within the broader Free Syrian Army organization (Viber Interview; YouTube, YouTube, January 16, 2015). Following Abu Basir’s assassination, Sejari became the de facto leader of the Ezz bin Abd al-Salam Brigades. He faced the immediate challenge of maintaining the unity of his group, while pushing for punishment of the local Islamic State affiliates who had killed Abu Basir (Viber Interview; YouTube, January 16, 2015). In the following months, Islamic State fighters seized several Ezz bin Abd al-Salam Brigades’ warehouses, which stored weapons, ammunition, medicine, and media equipment to record fighting, further undermining Sejari’s group (Viber Interview).

Concerned for the future viability of the Ezz bin Abd al-Salam Brigades, Sejari decided to relocate the group to the Syrian-Turkish border town of Darkoush in Lattakia’s neighboring Idlib Governorate (Viber Interview). After establishing his group’s headquarters in Darkoush, Sejari worked to organize a multi-factional armed opposition offensive against the Islamic State in areas throughout Idlib Governorate and Lattakia Governorate (Viber Interview). His activities to coordinate an anti-IS campaign brought him to the attention of the powerful, armed opposition commander Jamal Maarouf, who led the umbrella coalition Jabhat Thuwar Sooria (SRF-Syrian Revolutionaries Front) (Viber Interview; see also MLM Briefs, April 30).

Sejari led the Ezz bin Abd al-Salam Brigades into membership within the SRF, and he was an important coordinator for the SRF-led anti-IS offensive that began in December 2013 and lasted throughout the winter of 2014. This offensive achieved the near total defeat of Islamic State forces throughout the governorates of Lattakia, Idlib, and part of Aleppo (YouTube, January 17, 2015; Vice News [Idlib], April 26, 2014; Vice News [Idlib], March 16, 2014; PBS Frontline [Idlib], February 11, 2014). Due to his role in the anti-IS campaign, Sejari was named the SRF commander for Lattakia Governorate. He was later tasked with trying to negotiate a peaceful resolution to the brewing conflict between the SRF and the Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra (Viber Interview; YouTube, February 4, 2014). His efforts were ultimately unsuccessful, and over the months of June and July 2014, while the Ezz bin Abd al-Salam Brigades were locked in battle with al-Assad government forces, Jabhat al-Nusra attacked and seized the group’s warehouses (Viber Interview).

This forced Sejari to relocate the Ezz bin Abd al-Salam Brigades to the Jabal al-Zawiya region in Idlib, where Jamal Maarouf has established the overall headquarters for the SRF (Viber Interview; Nasaem Syria Radio [Idlib], November 1, 2014). The growing conflict between the SRF and Jabhat al-Nusra led to skirmishes between the groups, and the defeat of the SRF in Jabal al-Zawiya (See MLM Briefs, April 30). With the SRF defeated in Jabal al-Zawiya and its organization disintegrating throughout northwest Syria, Sejari and most of the Ezz bin Abd al-Salam Brigades’ fighters left the country for exile in Turkey, where he kept a low profile because he was a high value target of the al-Assad government, the Islamic State, and Jabhat al-Nusra (Viber Interview). While in exile in Turkey, Sejari worked to harmonize the political and armed opposition. He also played a role in organizing the Syrian Revolution Command Council in November 2014, and he participated in the December 2015 Riyadh Conference (Viber Interview; YouTube, December 5, 2015; YouTube, January 17, 2015; YouTube, January 12, 2015; see also Terrorism Monitor, December 17, 2015). Sejari’s activities in Turkey attracted the attention of the U.S. military, which was seeking to build out its Syria Train and Equip Program to prosecute the anti-IS campaign that had been launched in September 2014 (Viber Interview).

Sejari asserts that he was contacted by the U.S. military and that was able to reconstitute 1,000 fighters from the Ezz bin Abd al-Salam Brigades into a new organization, Jabhat al-Azz, for the Train and Equip Program (Viber Interview). However, his reported refusal to join the Train and Equip Program due to its focus on the Islamic State, while forbidding fighters from also confronting the al-Assad government, was expressed by Sejari to the international media in late May 2015. The story became a powerful symbol of the difficulties that the Pentagon-run program was having in recruiting Syrian partners (YouTube, June 5, 2015; YouTube, June 1, 2015; The Daily Beast, May 31, 2015). In spite of Sejari’s initial disputes with the implementation of the U.S. military’s Train and Equip Program, over the course of 2015 he worked to create the Liwa al-Mutasem coalition and joined the coalition as its political head (Viber Interview). He now actively seeks to expand the size and geographical reach of this Pentagon-backed, anti-IS force (Viber Interview).

Sejari is a rising leader within the Syrian armed opposition, who is generally respected by a broad range of rebel groups across the ideological spectrum. He is media savvy and charismatic, which makes him an effective spokesperson for the broader Syrian opposition movement. Sejari’s personal story is also a compelling example of the journey of a revolutionary. He transformed himself from a political activist to a combatant as the civil war began, and he has publicly wrestled with the ideological currents within the revolutionary movement. Sejari’s active relationship with a wide range of Syrian opposition and international actors that support the revolution potentially buttress his appeal as a future leader. Further, Liwa al-Mutasem’s growing role in the U.S.-backed Syrian armed opposition coalition, including its direct military support from the U.S. military, including airstrikes and potentially the embedding of U.S. combat advisers within Liwa al-Mutasem, also enhances his importance as a commander in Syria’s civil war.

[1] Viber Interviews conducted by the author with Mustafa Sejari on June 27, 26, 25, 24, 19, and 12.