Northern Democratic Brigade
|Northern Democratic Brigade|
|Syrian Civil War|
|Active||c. 2013 – present|
Federalization of Syria
|Area of operations||Northern Syria|
|Part of|| Free Syrian Army
|Originated as||al-Qa'qa' Brigade|
|Battles and war(s)||Syrian Civil War
The Northern Democratic Brigade (Arabic: لواء الشمال الديمقراطي, romanized: Liwa al-Shamal al-Democrati) is a Free Syrian Army unit, led by Alexander Khalil, that is closely allied to the Syrian Kurdish YPG and YPJ in Afrin Canton since 2014. It also joined the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in November 2015. The initial members of the group originated from Jabal Zawiya in Idlib, and it has recruited Arabs from Idlib, Aleppo, and other cities in northern Syria since allying with the YPG.
Formation and alliance with the YPG
The unit was formed in Idlib Governorate around 2013 and was originally known as the Free Syrian Army's al-Qa'qa' Brigade (Arabic: لواء القعقاع), part of the Free Zawiya Brigade based in the Jabal Zawiya region of Idlib. In the course of 2014, it first joined the Free Syria Brigade, and then switched to the Syrian Revolutionaries Front (SRF). When the SRF moved closer to radical Islamist groups, it expelled the al-Qa'qa' Brigade, whereupon the militia became part of the Syrian Salvation Front in May 2014. When the al-Nusra Front–SRF/Hazzm Movement conflict broke out, the al-Qa'qa' Brigade, then as part of the Syrian Salvation Front's Free Zawiya Union, was pushed out of the region by the al-Nusra Front, Jund al-Aqsa, and Ahrar al-Sham by November 2014, and withdrew north to the YPG-held Afrin Canton.
In November 2015, the al-Qa'qa' Brigade was one of several FSA groups from the Idlib and Aleppo Governorates that officially joined the newly founded Syrian Democratic Forces, and also became part of the Army of Revolutionaries. Soon after its accession into the SDF and the Army of Revolutionaries, the al-Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham accused the al-Qa'qa' Brigade of apostasy and launched an attack on the SDF in northern Aleppo. Nevertheless, the unit managed to send some of its forces to the Kobanî and Jazira Cantons to fight against Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), for example taking part in the offensive to capture al-Hawl. By January 2016, one of the al-Qa'qa' Brigade's leaders, Absi Taha ("Abu Omar al-Idlibi"), was appointed the military commander of the Army of Revolutionaries. Nevertheless, the brigade eventually left the Army of Revolutionaries in February 2016, adopted its new name "Northern Democratic Brigade", and became an independent group within the SDF.
Continued operations against pro-Turkish forces and ISIL
In August 2016, the Northern Democratic Brigade and other pro-SDF FSA groups condemned the Turkish military intervention in Syria and the international coalition for supporting it, accusing the Turkish-backed forces of committing "massacres" in villages near Jarabulus, and announced their support for the SDF's Jarabulus Military Council. Soon after, the brigade participated in the Western al-Bab offensive against ISIL forces in northern Aleppo, and captured Harbul, Maarat Umm Hawsh, and several other villages in the area. In October 2016, the group participated in the second Western al-Bab offensive, during which it helped to capture the village Tal Malid from the Turkish-backed rebel groups (TFSA). In course of the following Battle of al-Bab, the Northern Democratic Brigade again fought TFSA groups, including at al-Samakia.
In the final phase of the Battle of Aleppo in December 2016, the Northern Democratic Brigade called upon FSA groups encircled in the city to join the SDF, claiming that one local unit, the "Complete Military Battalion" had already joined it. Since June 2017, the Northern Democratic Brigade also sent its fighters to take part in the SDF campaign to capture Raqqa from ISIL. Units from the group were stationed in Tabqa while others participated in the Battle of Raqqa.
On 2 July, the military commander of the unit declared that the Northern Democratic Brigade was ready to help "liberate all Syrian territory from the Turkish occupation" and called on TFSA groups to defect to the SDF. This statement was in response to alleged Turkish plans to invade Afrin Canton and the Shahba region. He repeated this declaration four days later in course of a joint statement by several Arab SDF groups against Turkey. After the Turkish Armed Forces intervened in Idlib Governorate against both Tahrir al-Sham as well as the YPG/YPJ, the Northern Democratic Brigade denounced this move as an attempt of the "Ottoman state" to besiege Aleppo and Afrin. In response, the group announced that it would attempt to form a military council with other FSA remnant factions in order to fight against both the Turkish Army as well as Tahrir al-Sham, affiliated with al-Qaeda, in Idlib. In December 2017, a Northern Democratic Brigade commander also accused Turkey of sending ex-ISIL fighters into Idlib Governorate in order to expand its influence there.
When Turkey began to prepare its military intervention in Afrin, a commander of the Northern Democratic Brigade declared that his men are "ready and are responding to any source of fire"; the militia consequently took part in the fighting against the Turkish-backed forces at the villages of Marnaz, Ain Dukna, Shirwa and Mount Lilon in late January 2018. On 6 March 2018, the Northern Democratic Brigade's contingents in eastern Syria, based in Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor Governorate, announced that they would be transferred to Afrin. By September 2018, 25 fighters of the militia completed a special forces training at the Zaqour al-Zawiya camp. By early 2019, the Northern Democratic Brigade had rejoined the Deir ez-Zor campaign against ISIL, and was taking part in the Battle of Baghuz Fawqani.
The Northern Democratic Brigade portrays itself as Syrian nationalist group that wants to ensure a "colorful and democratic Syria on the basis of co-existence and justice" and thus rejects authoritarianism and Islamism. The militia has also voiced support for the federalization of Syria. As result, it is opposed to both the al-Assad family's rule as well as much of the Syrian opposition, believing that the latter has betrayed the Syrian revolution by allying with Islamist forces. The group also rejects the influence of Turkey and the Gulf states on the Syrian rebels, as it considers these states to be primarily motivated by self-interest instead of genuinely supporting the revolution. The Northern Democratic Brigade believes that Turkey's interventions in the Syrian Civil War are motivated by imperialistic ambitions (Neo-Ottomanism) and has accused it of supporting Jihadists, including ex-ISIL forces.
After allying with the YPG, the militia aligned its ideology with that of the YPG, namely the political thought of PKK founder Abdullah Öcalan. Supportive news sites, most notably Point Media, often show Northern Democratic Brigade fighters waving the Syrian independence flag, but also Öcalan and YPG flags. This has "endeared them to many of the Kurds they work with", but also generated much opposition from other Syrian rebel groups. Furthermore, the Northern Democratic Brigade has joined the left-wing, multi-ethnic Syrian National Democratic Alliance, a party that is active in the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria. The militia, along with several other SDF groups in the area, attended the second conference of the Syrian National Democratic Alliance in Afrin in late May 2017. The militia aligned itself with the Syria Future Party sometime after the latter's foundation in March 2018.
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