Military Adventurers and Modern History, Issue Nine
Bism Allah Al-Rahman Al-Rahim
Ibrahim Moiz, Rights reserved 2021.
This month we plow into Chad, Somalia, and Syria, where regional politics played a major role in the trajectories of the military adventurers in question. I begin and end with Allah’s Name, and prayers that this pandemic is removed.
Nour Abdelkarim. Chad. We have discussed how Chad’s peculiar dynamics – the plethora of ethnic groups, a fairly brittle but profitable state structure, a largely Saharan landscape with relatively few strongholds and thus a potentially quick path to power, and a long, on-and-off conflict fuelled by and fuelling neighbouring conflicts – have led to a series of military adventurers making their stake for the top. Idriss Deby, the most successful such adventurer to date, has largely maintained his thirty-year reign by navigating, manipulating, coercing, or coopting various other roving adventurers, dealing with many commanders but only trusting his own network within the Zaghawa ethnic group. Deby’s decision to run an unconstitutional third term in the mid-2000s provoked the most serious challenge to his regime, when a series of adventurers took up arms and attempted to oust him by force. An important early character was Captain Mahamat Nour Abdelkarim, a Tama mercenary who came close to capturing the capital Ndjamena in 2006, only to be forced into reconciliation and even serve briefly as defence minister after losing the support of other rebels.
The Tama group, like the larger Zaghawa, is among several Muslim ethnic groups – including the Masalit, Baggara Arabs, Hadjerai, and others – in the Chad-Sudan borderlands that has been profoundly affected by years of conflict and the peculiarities of modern power politics. Traditionally each group was ruled by an indigenously selected paramount chieftain – called, with usually some exaggerated grandeur, a sultan – who dispensed justice and mediated with external groups. These sultans’ power was challenged by both the state structure, which dispatched government authorities to the region, and warfare in both Chad and Sudan, the militarization spawning a series of military adventurers in each community. Nour was well-connected in both sections of the Tama people; one relative, Haroun Abdoulaye, was the Tama sultan, while Nour’s uncle Mahamat Garfa led an armed group in the 1980s Chad conflict. This war meant that Nour grew up in a militarized atmosphere; he was perhaps still in his late teens when he joined his uncle in assisting the Zaghawa commander Deby, who triumphantly swept west from his base in Sudan’s Darfur region and conquered the capital Ndjamena from his predecessor, Hissein Habbre, in 1990.
We have already seen elsewhere how Deby juggled the various commanders, and thus the communities they ostensibly represented, in his government while trying to hammer out a political process. Latent opposition – with Habbre’s loyalists still at large and various opposition in southern Chad – meant that he learned only to trust a fairly narrow base within the Zaghawa, where his own authority was by no means unquestionable. As such, he shuffled official portfolios among various leaders – often militia commanders. Mahamat Garfa, Nour’s uncle, was promoted both to the army command and as a minister in the cabinet during 1993-94. Nour took up a role in the Chadien army – really a collection of disparate militias.
However – in the pattern of Deby’s allies breaking with him – Garfa defected and fled to Cameroon with about six hundred fighters, including Nour, during September 1994. He claimed mistrust of Deby and opposition to his politics. He spent the next year collecting a coalition that appears to have included the swashbucklingly-nicknamed Adam Bazooka, recently sacked commandant for the eastern city Abeche. In November 1995, Garfa mounted a short-lived insurgency from Sudan, but this never posed a serious challenge to the regime.
Instead, over the next few years the Chadien fugitives plied their wares in Sudan, which was beset by its own destructive war. The Islamist government was pitted in warfare against a secularist southern insurgency – which eventually yielded the seceded state of South Sudan in 2011; this campaign often employed militias in league with the army, and Nour appears to have fought for the Sudanese government.
Meanwhile, a series of factors led to a more slow-burning conflict in Darfur. These factors included the southern rebels’ attempts to infiltrate Darfur; the resentment of certain Darfur groups against continued government domination by the Nile riverine elite; and the holdover of militarized Arab chauvinists in Darfur, who had been radicalized by Libya in shared opposition to Habbre during the 1980s, when many Darfur Arabs were recruited by the Chadien commander Acheikh Oumar. Though Libya and Oumar eventually recanted – the latter, in classic Chadien style, even serving briefly as Habbre’s foreign minister – the residual holdover poisoned the Darfur landscape.
In its counterinsurgency at Darfur, Khartoum found it expedient to encourage pastorialist Arab raiders, who would earn from their enemies (and much of the international media) the dreaded nickname “janjaweed”, or “mounted fiends”, because they mounted bloodcurdling raids against sedentary targets from such ethnic groups as the Fur. Though it is not certain that Nour worked with the janjaweed, as his enemies later claimed, it is true that they both worked effectively as mercenaries for the same Sudanese government. On the other hand, Adam Bazooka – the ambitious Abeche commander who had rebelled with Mahamat Garfa and Nour in the mid-1990s – fought for the opposition, who included not just Fur but his own Massalit community, and he was killed early in the war.
Bazooka was something of an anomaly in his opposition to both the Sudanese and Chadien regimes; as a rule, rebels against one government avoided antagonizing the other, if only to cover their bases in case they needed a fallback. This was somewhat counterintuitive for these regimes, since Deby – who had been helped by Sudanese dictator Omar Bashir’s then-fledgling regime in his path to power – had traditionally had good links with Khartoum. These links steadily cooled in the 2000s, however, when the Sudanese Zaghawa doctor Khalil Ibrahim founded the insurgent Musawat group, drawn largely from Khalil’s Kobe clan in the Zaghawa.
Musawat gave Bashir a headache for several reasons: it was relatively efficient and well-organized; it shared the regime’s Islamist ideology and was could thus attract defectors; and also shared the Zaghawa background of the Ndjamena regime. It was this last factor that piqued Bashir’s suspicion that Deby had perhaps betrayed him; though Deby in fact tried to allay these suspicions by helping Bashir with an early sweep against Sudanese rebels in eastern Chad during 2003, Bashir’s suspicion persisted and were not unfounded. For though Deby did not originally help the Zaghawa insurgents in Chad, several of his advisors and aides increasingly sympathized with them and, as global opinion turned decisively against Sudan, Ndjamena did form links with the Zaghawa rebels in Darfur. Part of the reason was the toll of the war, whose refugees spilled into Chad; and part was their indignation at the cost that their Zaghawa brethren were now bearing.
It was no difficult task for Bashir to assist Deby’s opponents in retaliation. The Tama and Arabs in eastern Chad were increasingly unhappy with the Ndjamena regime. With his uncle Mahamat Garfa having reconciled with Deby in 2003, Nour was the most promising Tama rebel leader; the main Arab commander meanwhile was Abdelouahid Mackaye, a seasoned fighter and former official who had broken with Deby in the same year, 2003. They formed one of the many abbreviated coalitions by which Chadien commanders called their alliances, in which Nour served as leader and Mackaye as secretary-general.
Whatever Bashir’s machination, Deby’s increasing difficulty was largely self-inflicted. By 2005 he had decided, against the constitution he himself had set up, to run for a third term: this not only antagonized existent opponents but provoked new ones, even within his Zaghawa clan. In autumn 2005 two rebel formations appeared in eastern Chad; the first was the coalition between Nour and Mackaye, and the second was a largely Zaghawa coalition led by Yaya Djarou, who belonged to Deby’s Bidayat confederation and attracted mass Zaghawa defections from the army. In 2005-06, both rebel groups adopted different routes in their attempt to take over; while Djarou worried Deby by attracting regime defections from deep within the ruling circle, Nour and Mackaye attempted lightning offensives.
Much as Khalil Ibrahim had worried Omar Bashir for his ability to attract regime defections, Yaya Djarou worried Idriss Deby more. His army commander, Saleh Kaya, had to be replaced after refusing to suppress the mutiny, while a number of senior regime officials – including Deby’s nephews the Erdimi brothers Timane and Tom, as well as Kaya’s successor as army commander Seby Aguid – were persuaded to defect and join Djarou. With the regime in such disarray, Nour pounced. In December 2005 he attacked the border town Adre, and it took a serious defence by the garrison, led by Deby’s other nephew Abbakir Youssouf, to beat back the assault.
Deby condemned the attackers as janjaweed – with an eye to international sensibilities – and claimed that Nour was a collaborator of the bloodthirsty janjaweed commander Moussa Hilal; this may or may not have been true, but it was largely irrelevant – in fact, a few years later Deby himself married Moussa’s daughter. Nor did it prevent over two thousand soldiers from various garrisons, led by senior officers such as the Bicharas Farid and Ahmat, from joining Mackaye and Nour. There was neither need nor attempt for Mackaye to hide the Sudanese connection, since Deby himself had swept to power with Bashir’s assistance fifteen years earlier and these latest rebels now expected to follow suit. No wonder Nour was buoyant; claiming that the winter battle had been a mere test run, he promised to march on the capital and blithely informed a reporter, “We will invite you to Ndjamena when we arrive.”
Deby, meanwhile, was scrambling to cover his bases. Having promoted his nephew Abbakir Youssouf to army commander, he now tried to mend his fences with Bashir; Muammar Qaddafi, the Libyan dictator who had long hobnobbed with both and was reinventing himself as an elder peacemaker, invited the pair to sign the first of many accords at Tripoli in February 2006, where they promised to abstain from helping each others’ insurgents. No sooner than the ink dried than Deby’s rebellious nephews, the Erdimi brothers, and former army commander Seby Aguid tried to mount a coup, led by his longstanding bodyguard Bakhit Ramdane. Deby only narrowly survived, but no sooner was this mole whacked than the other reared its head.
Making good on his word, Nour burst from Darfur in April 2006; he overran Adre, where army commander Abbakir Youssouf was slain, and blazed down the well-worn trail to Ndjamena. A fierce battle ensued, but Nour’s second boast proved premature: Deby was no pushover in the field, and the result was a rout. Hundreds of attackers, including Nour’s second-in-command Issa Ousmane, were slain in the fray, and hundreds more captured to be paraded by the regime in the city streets, while the triumphant and newly confident Deby sneered that the attackers had been amateurs and promptly cut links with Sudan.
As they licked their wounds, the rebels turned on Nour, accusing him of regionalism and incompetence. In autumn 2006 Mackaye expelled Nour from their coalition; he would soon join the Erdimi brothers in a coalition with Deby’s former interior minister Mahamat Nouri, a leading northern commander whose links to both France and the United States, dating to the 1980s, made him a more attractive counterpart; Sudan in turn threw its support behind this coalition.
Suddenly left high and dry, Nour decided to reconcile with Deby. He still had over three thousand troops under arms, and this meant that the Chadien regime stood to gain by a peace deal. Qaddafi again stepped in as broker, and in December 2006 Deby and Nour signed an agreement at Tripoli, whereby Nour and his fighters would be integrated into the Chadien government. The following spring – not yet a year after his attack on the capital – prime minister Noureddine Koumakoye named Nour defence minister, effectively in charge of the same army he had attacked: a bizarre yet typical Chadien arrangement.
Unsurprisingly this arrangement did not last long. By autumn 2007, when the Erdimis’ rebel bloc was again on the warpath, tension between Nour’s fighters and other soldiers in the eastern garrisons – whom, the Tama fighters claimed, tried to disarm them – compounded mistrust in the capital. Fearing for his life, Nour escaped to the Libyan embassy; in his wake, he was dismissed from the cabinet. Shortly thereafter – perhaps intending to cover its bases – the government intervened in Tama politics, replacing sultan Haroun Abdoulaye with Yaya Garfa, brother of Mahamat and thus uncle of Nour. Though both were related to Nour, it appears that Ndjamena was more confident in the Garfa brothers’ fealty and quite prepared to overrule the traditional election of sultans to cover its bases.
Nour’s short stay at the top had ended, and he played no further part in the war; notably, however, the very next year his former lieutenant Hassan Djinnaidi more successfully followed a similar course: switching from rebel leader to army commander and helping suppress other rebels. The war finally ended, at least for the moment, when in 2010 Deby and Bashir finally reconciled.
Nour meanwhile drifted in Chadien politics. In 2019 his brother Abderrahmane Abdelkarim was arrested along with the major rebel leader Mahamat Nouri by France; whether Nour was involved in whatever collusion may or may not have occurred between the pair is unclear, but only a few months later he reconciled with Deby and was given an advisory rolej. In the militarized factionalism of Chadien politics, there is only a thin line between state official and enemy of the state.
Omar Masale. Somalia.
Somalia is often taken as the case study of a country that, despite a relatively short unity mostly under a dictatorial state, soon collapsed into mayhem after that state was stripped away. This analysis can, however, divert from the fact that the early years of the war were very much dominated by leading figures in the former state, who in its absence were forced to carve out their own careers amid a regional tumult in the Horn of Africa that was hardly limited to their country. One such leader was Major-General Omar Haji Mohamed Masale, once the Somali defence minister and among the more interesting soldiers-turned-militia commanders. In the army, Masale had a reputation as a professional disciplinarian; yet when the institutions collapsed in 1991, he was forced to fall back on his Marehan clan, on whose behalf he embarked on a particularly unpredictable career partly coloured by the politics of neighbouring states, including Somalia’s former archrival Ethiopia.
Masale hailed from the same Marehan clan, within the Darod confederation, as the military dictator Siad Barre, whose regime officially denounced clan-based bigotry but increasingly relied on clan links. Nearly immediately after seizing power in October 1969, Barre ruthlessly maneouvred to sideline or eliminate rivals, a process in which he increasingly came to rely on his Marehan clan. There is little to suggest that Masale himself relied on favouritism to scale the ladder – he had a reputation as a stern professional – but a shared clan could hardly hurt his standing.
Nonetheless, Somalia briefly emerged as a regional power with one of Africa’s strongest armies. It was also a promising period for Somalis within and without the country: in spring 1977 France withdrew, much to Mogadishu’s satisfaction, from largely Somali Djibouti, while the neighbouring archenemy Ethiopia – an African heavyweight and one of the few states on the continent whose military outweighed Somalia’s – was in existential crisis. Somalia had long contested Ethiopian rule over the ethnically Somali Ogaden region on their border, and when the monarchy was ousted in revolt and replaced with a bloodthirsty communist regime, Ethiopia spiralled into mayhem. Just months after Djibouti’s independence, Somalia capitalized on Ethiopia’s weakness and swept into Ogaden.
In the military headquarters, Omar Masale and Nur Galal helped army commander Abdullahi Fadil direct operations, though Galal was soon sent to the battlefield to command the troops in person. The early stages of the invasion, meeting a sympathetic Ogaden population who welcomed them as liberators, went well, and by the summer’s end it seemed that Somalia would win the day, especially since Ethiopia’s longstanding ally the United States had washed their hands of the communist regime in Addis Ababa. But in autumn 1977, Ethiopia scored a major coup by enlisting – in a neat Cold War geopolitical flip – the critical and direct assistance of the Soviet Union, along with the Cuban army. The Soviet Union had hitherto supported Somalia in its rivalry with Ethiopia, but now Vasily Petrov arrived to assist the Ethiopians against a Somali army whose top rungs he had helped train. While several Muslim countries – excepting nearby South Yemen’s leftist regime – dispatched some aid, no state was as directly willing to help Mogadishu. In early 1978, a major Ethiopian campaign drove most of the Somali army back across the border; the last Somali troops were expelled in 1980, around the same point that Omar Masale was promoted to defence minister.
The defeat in Ogaden sent a tremor down the regime; not a month after the defeat in spring 1978, Barre survived a coup attempt; most conspirators belonged to the hitherto trusted Majerteen clan dominant in central Somalia’s Puntland region, against whom Barre now turned the first of several clan-based mass punishments. The conspirator who escaped, Abdullahi Yusuf, had been a field commander in the war against Ethiopia, but soon fled across the border and became a client of its regime in his quest to topple Barre, founding the Majerteen-based Badabatinda faction and thus becoming the first of many Somali military officers to turn militia commander.
As increased American armaments trickled in during the 1980s, Barre became steadily more brutal in his repression and narrower in his regime base; before long the regime was based not only around his Darod clan confederation, but more specifically around his family, while opponents were often subjected to collective punishment. One notorious example was his cousin Hashi Gaani, who was dispatched as prefect for the restive northern province Somaliland, where his harsh governance only sharpened alienation among its dominant Isaq clan confederation. Since Barre’s basic base within formal institutions was the army, he tried increasingly to fill it with loyalists, often from his personal network.
Though Masale himself belonged to Barre’s Marehan clan, he objected to regime favouritism and in spring 1982 lost his job. Worse followed; in summer 1982, Barre conducted a mass purge and imprisoned several leading government veterans who could potentially serve as rivals: these included his influential second-in-command Ismail Abukar; former foreign minister Omar Arte; finance minister Yusuf Weyrah; ministers Aden Sheikh, a noted intellectual, and Osman Jelle, a junta member; secretary Warsame Farah; and Masale, who could have been a Marehan rival for military loyalty.
This purge, like others in the regime, soon backfired; within days the Ethiopians invaded, assisted by Abdullahi Yusuf, and captured the border city Galdogob in central Somalia from Barre’s son-in-law Said Morgan; the regime responded, again, with collective punishment against the Majerteen clan for Yusuf’s sins. In the longer run, the purge provoked the resignation of another minister, Ahmed Silanyo, who fled abroad to found the Wadaniya insurgent group based around his marginalized Isaq clan; like Majerteen officer Yusuf in the Badabatinda clan, the Wadaniya military command was held by a veteran of the Ogaden war, Isaq officer Abdulqadir Kosar.
As the regime base narrowed steadily through the 1980s, with more and more defectors setting up opposition groups in the maquis or abroad, Barre’s regime became increasingly corrupt and brutal. Masale had opposed favouritism, but the army was soon dominated by outright nepotism; by the decade’s end Morgan was promoted to defence minister and Barre’s son, Maslah, to army commander. Morgan became particularly notorious when, in response to a Wadaniya campaign in spring 1988, he pounded Somaliland’s major city Hargeisa into submission, killing thousands and sending many more fleeing for their lives. Such brutality only provoked more unrest and more scattered insurgent fronts, usually led by major regime defectors. By winter 1990-91, Barre had alienated much of the Hawiye clan confederation that dominated Mogadishu. When Hawiye officer Farah Aidid stormed into Mogadishu and another Hawiye general – Nur Galal, another former defence minister and Omar Masale’s old colleague – turned on the regime from within, it was the last blow and Barre fled the capital.
Yet by now clan polarization and militarized factionalism had formed a toxic cocktail. Much as the ancien regime had employed collective punishment, the Hawiye militias that streamed into Mogadishu now embarked on an indiscriminate killing spree against the Darod clan confederation, which was held collectively responsible for the escaped dictator’s sins. Many of them were hastily recruited militiamen with more sudden access to weaponry than restraint, and even had their officers wanted to restrain them – which was by no means evident across the board – they proved unable to stop a wide series of massacres.
This in fact gave Barre a potential route back to power. With the Darod confederation now under fire, not only his loyalists but also many non-affiliated Darod fighters mobilized under his leadership in the western Gedo region. Barre formed one of the several abbreviation-marked militia groupings – in order to distinguish it from other Somali National militia names, we will call it Jabhada, the Somali word for its distinctive description Front – which represented the Darod confederation. Having hastily drawn together many disparate Darod, it was very much a loose front rather than an organization – it included not only major former regime loyalists such as Said Morgan, who now controlled the eastern seaport Kismayo, and Hashi Gani, but also other Darod commanders such as Barre’s former prisoner Omar Masale; what united them was the interests of a Darod community that felt itself under attack.
This was not lost on Farah Aidid, who now emerged as the major leader of one of two coalitions that contested Mogadishu. A powerless prime ministry existed – held by Omar Arte, the formerly imprisoned finance minister – but Aidid fought for overall leadership against a rival coalition led by the well-connected merchant Ali Mahdi, who was widely recognized abroad as the rightful ruler. While Aidid claimed that Mahdi, who generally lacked his ruthlessness, was offering regime holdovers a lifeline, in fact he himself was more pragmatic than this stance indicated, and soon sent Omar Masale a warning to not cooperate with Barre. Yet after his militia had conducted a massacre against the Darod clan in Mogadishu, this appeal failed to move Masale, who held the rearguard in Gedo when Barre unsuccessfully tried to attack Mogadishu in spring 1992 before he was expelled for good into exile.
In Barre’s absence, the Darod coalition fragmented and southern Somalia became a collection of competing commanders – many from the top rung of the collapsed Somali institutions. These included at least four former defence ministers – Morgan and Aden Gabyow, who tended to cooperate; as well as Galal and Masale – as well as former military spymaster Omar Jess. Nor could any claim a monopoly on their clan: Jess and Gabyow, for instance, both belonged to the Ogaden clan, but the former fiercely opposed Morgan in Kismayo while the latter tended to support him.
A more potent factor that entered the fray at this point was the Islamist Itihaad network, largely built around the networks of preachers – often but not exclusively Salafi preachers – who had been persecuted under the regime. In 1992 they made two major campaigns in Somalia: we have encountered the first, which was swept aside by Abdullahi Yusuf in Puntland, and the second emerged in the south. When Farah Aidid repulsed Barre’s attack on Mogadishu, he thundered southward, aiming to take Kismayo from Said Morgan. On the way he was met with a small Itihaad force, led by Farah Hussein; though this resistance was quickly brushed aside, the campaign lent the Islamists a major leader in Aidid’s former lieutenant Dahir Aweys, a pietistic officer who had been sent to negotiate with the Islamists but joined them instead.
Though Aidid’s attack on Kismayo quickly sputtered out, it left an impact in the south as the Darod coalition crumbled for good. The fearful Morgan became an independent adventurer in Kismayo; meanwhile, further west, Omar Masale and Hashi Gaani withdrew from Gedo into Kenya. Thus they played no notable role in the United Nations’ campaign during 1992-95, which included the infamous American misadventure against Aidid in Mogadishu. Masale did, however, participate in an Ethiopian-backed endeavour to form an interim government led by Ali Mahdi, in 1993-94; this came to nothing, but signalled the beginning of a complex relationship with Addis Ababa. During the mid-1990s, most Somali commanders – including the former defence ministers Gabyow, Masale, and Morgan – seem to have done so in shared enmity with Farah Aidid. But such arrangements had their problems: though the ethnic federation that now ruled Ethiopia was distinct from Somalia’s older monarchic and communist archenemies, they retained their predecessors’ suspicions of Somali nationalism and a willingness to enforce their interests ruthlessly if need be.
The Islamists in Gedo provided another mutual opponent. The vacuum in Gedo was quickly filled by Itihaad, who set up an important local front led by the quiet but effective Marehan commander Mohamed Yusuf. In a way this was to be expected: Islam was perhaps the only binding factor that overrode factionalism among Somali clans, and the overall stability and justice that Islamic courts provided were a welcome antidote to years of militia misrule. Yet Omar Masale was not entirely convinced of their sincerity; in a televised debate by a correspondent of British television with the Itihaad leader Dahir Aweys, he claimed that Itihaad was a stalking horse for Hawiye infiltration. Clearly suspicion and the instinct for clan preservation still ran deep, even if events proved him wrong.
Ethiopia was even more suspicious, and blamed Itihaad for a number of attacks in the neighbouring Ogaden region – one of whom targeted its ethnically Somali premier, Abdulmajid Hussein. Though Abdulmajid himself doubted the attack’s responsibility, Addis Ababa seized the opportunity to mount an invasion of Gedo in summer 1996, temporarily sweeping Itihaad forces aside. In 1997, Omar Masale participated in similar campaigns – becoming yet another veteran of the 1970s war to join forces with the Ethiopians. His case appears to have been a Marehan equivalent of the Rahanweyn Resistance Army, led by Hassan Shatigudud and Adan Madobe, that we have elsewhere reviewed.
But unlike other southern Somali commanders – such as Gabyow, Morgan, and Shatigudud who formed long-term partnerships with Ethiopia – Masale’s collaboration soon ended. By the late 1990s other regional powers, including Masr and Djibouti, were attempting to mediate the Somali conflict; the Masri ambassador Abdullah Mahmoud tried to mend fences between Ali Mahdi and Farah Aidid’s son Hussein. It is not clear if Masale cooperated because of his rivalry with Morgan over Marehan leadership, or because the Masri deal seemed sweeter, or simply because he decided that the younger Aidid lacked his slain father’s menace – but he signed onto the venture. Its first order of business was the removal of Morgan from his Kismayo stronghold so that the southern seaport could be connected to Mogadishu under one coalition. In April 1998 Masale attacked Kismayo, but he was beaten back by Morgan.
This prompted Masale to mend his fences with Itihaad. In summer 1998, Marehan clan leaders mediated a deal between Masale and Itihaad commander Mohamed Yusuf, the latter turning over the region to Masale’s control and retiring to Arabia. With Hussein Aidid and Ali Mahdi momentarily reconciled in Mogadishu, and Masale ensconced in Gedo, the opportunity looked ripe for a coalition to seize southern Somalia. Yet events rapidly overtook them: Ethiopia and its northern neighbour, Eritrea, had entered a full-fledged war in spring 1998. This played out in Somalia when the Eritrean regime flung its support behind Hussein Aidid in an attempt to divert Addis Ababa. Instead Ethiopia – which, unlike Ethiopia, borders Somalia – upped the ante; they ratcheted up support to their clients, Said Morgan and Hassan Shatigudud, while subverting the factions led by Aidid, Mahdi, and Masale by backing mutineers in each faction.
Masale’s Jabhada faction was no more unified than the others, and a pro-Ethiopian wing soon emerged, led by Ali Nur and Ahmed Burale. In spring 1999 Nur was suddenly murdered, and – amid the tension between Burale and Masale – Ethiopia once more invaded Gedo and brushed aside Masale with ease. Their campaigns elsewhere in the south were more mixed. They helped Shatigudud establish his Rahanweyn militia in the Baidoa region; on the other hand Said Morgan finally lost Kismayo – ironically enough, the city was overrun by Ahmed Warsame, who had served as Morgan’s right-hand man during the sack of Hargeisa a decade earlier but now led a separate militia. Yet militia politics helped Ethiopia deny Eritrea and Masr a victory in Mogadishu, where the infighting in Hussein Aidid and Ali Mahdi’s factions flung the city once more into turmoil. In another irony, this weakening of the Eritrean-backed factions unintentionally prompted a resurgence for the Islamists in the capital, as Dahir Aweys led a collection of Islamic courts on a campaign to restore order.
Masale, however, had largely passed by his sell-by date. He continued to prioritize his shrunken Darod faction long after the 1991 crisis had passed. This was epitomized in the attempt, led by Djibouti, to form a grassroots government in Mogadishu, led by former interior minister Abdi Salad, during 2000. Masale initially supported the venture, but by 2001 – in what turned out to be his last political venture of note before his retirement – he joined both Hussein Aidid – now reconciled, after Ethiopia’s victory over Eritrea, with Addis Ababa – and such longstanding Ethiopian clientele as Abdullahi Yusuf, Hassan Shatigudud, Aden Gabyow, and Said Morgan in opposing the venture. The coalition, which successfully sabotaged the weak Djibouti-led coalition, spoke volumes about Ethiopia’s ability to win and manipulate Somali clientele.
But it also spoke volumes about Masale’s political career. Such an about-face, barely a year after condemning Ethiopian intervention, was especially surprising for a man with a patriotic and relatively respectable – certainly by the standards of Somali militia commanders – reputation. Yet it tallied with his previous moves – in joining his former opponent Barre, in joining Ethiopia during 1997, and even in opposing Ethiopia during 1998-99 – which were done largely to maintain his clan’s immediate perceived interest against a mutual enemy. Clan polarization might have forced Masale into such tactical positions, but it was a far – and, given his inability to track a consistent course with any long-term success, largely unimpressive – cry from his career as a professional soldier.
Abdul-Aziz Salameh. Syria. Though the Syrian war seems largely to have become an arena for the competing interests of Iran, Russia, Turkey, and the United States – with much of the original insurgency coalescing in the Turkish camp – the war’s early years were quite different. Back then, the multiplicity of both insurgent factions – a predictable handicap for a broad-based revolt with no single leader – and regional backers meant that different commanders had to maneouvre in trying to coordinate or unite their factions. One influential such commander was the Aleppan merchant Hajj Abu Jumaa Abdul-Aziz Salameh Anadan, who tried to wangle his faction’s provincial strength around Syria’s biggest city into a platform for various cooperatives. Eventually, however, Salameh’s initiatives sunk under the weight of both internecine conflict, regional states’ strength, and the entrance of Daaish into the Syrian arena.
A honey merchant, Salameh came from Anadan, an airbase-dotted town to Aleppo city’s east. Like many Syrian Sunnis of similar background, he seems to have had little love lost for the Alawite-dominated, secularist, and often practically sectarian Baathist regime. This could also have translated into at least informal links or sympathy with members of the long-banned Muslim Brethren; though their role was often exaggerated by a regime that portrayed any Sunni militancy as an Ikhwani stalking-horse, it is true that the Ikhwan or fellow-travellers had a bedrock of sympathy among middle-and-lower-class Sunnis, many of whom suffered economically and politically under the Baath regime. For the same reason, Ikhwani links were useful in the early years of the revolt: the neighbouring Turkish government, which has been the main foreign backer, had many Ikhwan sympathizers, and until the mid-2010s the Brethren or similar groups were quite able to work, fundraise, and organize in the Gulf states as well.
Compared to provinces such as southern Daraa, northwest Idlib, or central Homs, Aleppo – the biggest city and economic stronghold of Syria – was relatively quiet in the war’s first year. This changed in summer 2012, when a lightning insurgent campaign – largely comprising rural Sunnis from the provincial countryside – swept across much of the province, capturing about half of Aleppo city as well as many of the towns around it, including Anadan and the sizeable suburb Safira. The speed of the insurgent offensive was stunning and owed to several factors: firstly, the Sunni population in at least the province’s periphery, if not always its financial upper-class, harboured strong resentment against the regime; secondly, many Sunni military officers defected; and thirdly, perhaps prodded by Turkey, many of the regime security forces collapsed.
The Tauhid front that Abdul-Aziz Salameh founded benefited from each factor: it was partly funded by regional Muslim sympathizers, including the Muslim Brethren; it recruited principally among Sunnis in rural Aleppo or in the city’s lower class; it was abetted by such army defectors as Yusuf Jadir and Zaki Loula; and it benefited from the flight of the seasoned regime constable in the province, Muhammad Muflih, who escaped to Turkey during the offensive. While Salameh provided the political and financial link, the field command was led by Abdul-Qadir Saleh, who came from the northern town and typified the type of rural Sunni fighter that dominated the Aleppan insurgency.
Saleh was widely admired, not only because he assumed the lion’s share of the summer 2012 assault, but because he and Salameh took an early lead in attempting to unify the insurgents. As leaders of what was then Aleppo’s strongest faction, they were well-placed to mediate during the numerable disputes that accompany any broad-ranging insurgency. Tauhid brigade espoused the sort of uncomplicated Islamic principles that attracted many Sunnis without squabbling over such specifics – as had the Muslim Brethren and other purely political factions – that might lead to partisanship. Also early among the largely Sunni insurgency, they tried – albeit without notable results – to ease Alawite apprehensions about what an Islamic Syria would entail: Jadir took care, for instance, to distinguish the Assads, whose forebears had served the French mandate, from the anti-French Alawi leader Saleh Ali.
Yet the very diffident approach that enabled Salameh to mediate between factions on the ground also equated to a lack of discipline that struck outsiders as unreliable; it did not go unnoticed, for example, that Salameh’s own son Abdul-Rahman was a member of the Nusra Front, another strongly rooted organization that was nonetheless linked at the leadership level to Qaida. While events would eventually prove correct the frequent retort to much of Nusra’s membership had little to do with Qaida, that link nonetheless prevented many states from throwing their support behind the insurgency.
The Aleppan campaign had catalyzed foreign powers who expected the regime to soon fall; while Iran and its Lebanese militia Hezbollah increasingly moved to support the regime, a number of otherwise disparate powers – Turkey, the Gulf States, and briefly the United States – scrambled to get a foot into whatever might succeed the regime; in at least the United States’ case, this was partly done in order to avoid such groups as Qaida from dominating the field.
Thus a largely ceremonial “shadow cabinet” was formed, and with it a military command led by Salim Idris, one of the higher-ranked army officers. Yet in reality the shadow cabinet was split between personalities and their respective backers, while Idris’ military command was really just a list of autonomous field commanders whom he tried to coopt while meanwhile trying to navigate the partisanship in the shadow cabinet to whom he was technically responsible.
That commanders’ list included Abdul-Qadir Saleh as well as Abdul-Jabbar Ukaidi, a professional soldier who was named the insurgents’ provincial commander. This was a largely ceremonial title and Ukaidi knew it, and so he worked closely with field commanders – and in particular Saleh – in trying to link both fronts within Aleppo into a coordinated command, and such a command with the rest of the insurgency. When in spring 2013 Hezbollah mounted a major campaign into Homs province to the south, Ukaidi and Saleh were the only commanders to send reinforcements of any note, though they could not prevent Hezbollah from overrunning the strategic town Qusair – a battle that helped turn the war’s momentum, hitherto been entirely in the insurgents’ favour.
With the shadow cabinet and its military command proving largely ineffective, the Aleppan commanders – Salameh, Saleh, and Ukaidi – tried to coordinate other groups in the province. This was not always a good thing in retrospect; at the end of summer 2013, for instance, Ukaidi acquired the help of Abu Jandal Masri, a rabidly sectarian commander of what soon became known as Daaish in besieging the Minnagh airfield to Aleppo’s east. Daaish also became embroiled in a bitter dispute with the major militia in the northern city Azaz, led by the unpopular commander Samir Ammouri. This militia controlled the northern Babul-Salameh border town and thus a significant proportion of revenue. It had already been accused of corruption before Daaish, building on resentment, attacked it in autumn 2013: among the earliest Daaish attacks on the Syrian rebels.
The Tauhid brigade, then the strongest militia in the north, was forced to mediate, but the resultant compromise only papered over the crack in October 2013. Ammouri, blamed for the corruption, was exiled to Turkey; his successor, Mahmoud Naddoum, eventually joined the Tauhid brigade, which briefly took control of the border post. This was an early case of Daaish confrontations with other rebels, which would soon escalate into warfare.
Meanwhile, with the shadow cabinet and its command led by Idris largely proving ineffective, Salameh and Saleh tried to build links with other major groups in the field. Along with their aide Abu Omar Huraitan, both men played a major role in assembling the first such coalition, the “Islamic Front” between several major Islamist groups who tried to avoid both the Qaida links of Nusra and the growing Daaish on one hand, and complicating international control on the control. The coalition also included the shadowy but increasingly important Ahrarul-Sham movement founded by Hassan Abboud and Abdul-Nasir Yasin; the Islam Army led by Zahran Alloush and mostly based in the Ghouta region near Damascus; the Hama front led by Muhammad Ratib; and the Idlib front led by Abu Issa Shaikh. Only days before the coalition was announced in November 2013, however, the Syrian army counterattack in Aleppo began with a series of airstrikes. This campaign, whose employ of devastating “barrel bombs” would soon earn international infamy, was employed with particular vehemence against Tauhid brigade: one airstrike killed the faction’s spymaster Yusuf Abbas, while another wounded Salameh and killed Saleh. Within days, the regime campaign, led by the swaggering commander Suhail Hasan, had seized Safira; Abdul-Jabbar Ukaidi, incensed at both the lack of ground coordination and the lack of supplies from the external command, quit in frustration.
This coalition came amid an increasingly frenetic and complicated winter for the insurgency. On the external level, the shadow cabinet was fragmenting between factions sympathetic, respectively, to the increasingly divergent Gulf states Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Salim Idris himself had no problem with the field Islamists – to whom he instructed his nephew Bassam Idris to turn over the Babul-Salameh border post in December 2013 – but this earned him the approbation of the shadow cabinet, which unceremoniously ousted him in spring 2014, when the shadow cabinet and military command both split down the middle and lost what little coherence they had. In the field, meanwhile, the Islamist coalition was immediately hit from two sides: first by the regime campaign, and secondly by Daaish, whose regional commander Amr Absi mounted a series of murderous attacks against them.
Their concurrent conquests in Iraq lent Daaish brash confidence, and they now openly embarked on a killing spree of Islamist commanders in the region including Tauhid military commander Adnan Bakkour. Some commanders – such as Abu Issa Shaikh’s peg-legged lieutenant Hasan Abboud (not to be confused with the similarly named Ahrarul-Sham emir), who led a well-armed front in Aleppo – also defected and joined Daaish. Over the winter, therefore, the Aleppan insurgency waged a bitter war against both Daaish commander Amr Absi and regime commander Suhail Hasan.
Daaish was eventually ousted from the region, but it came at a price: the Islamic Front, with officers assassinated and fighters airbombed, was battered into inoperability. None were hit harder than Abdul-Aziz Salameh’s group – epitomized by the breakaway of a key field commander, Adil Nasir, who had won fame for his innovative usage of tunnels, modelled after Hamas’ Ghazzan defences against Israel, in order to survive regime aerial bombardment. Nasir’s breakaway indicates that Salameh was no longer able to provide the services he needed on the ground.
Another factor that transformed the northern battlescape was a brief but important influx of sudden American patronage, aiming primarily to forestall the Daaish campaign, into northern Syria. There were several beneficiaries of varying natures: they included the maverick preacher Taufiq Shihabuddin, who soon founded the Zanki Movement faction that has persisted in western Aleppo; the career officer Abu-Bakr Bakkour, whose insurgent force played a particularly key role against Daaish; the Idlib-based adventurer Jamal Marouf; and a network of commanders, led by Bilal Attar, who received political support from the still well-connected Salim Idris. The main significance of these groups was that they watered down considerably the influence of already struggling “Islamic Front”, which soon ceased to exist as a coalition as its constituent groups went their own ways.
2014-15 saw two polarizations in northern Syria. The first was between the United States, which abandoned any idea of ousting Assad and flung its weight behind Kurdish communists hostile to the insurgency, and a Turkey that was the primary target of the Kurdish communists. The second was between Nusra and the American-backed commanders, such as Marouf, who were soon expelled from Idlib.
Both polarizations necessitated another attempt at a “third way”, similarly to the Islamic Front, into which Abdul-Aziz Salameh again flung himself. This occurred at both a Syria-wide level – when another coalition was formed, comprising both the Islamic Front member groups and the American-backed fronts, under the overall leadership of former shadow justice minister Qais Shaikh – and at the Aleppan level. In the latter, Salameh founded the so-called Shamia Front – a coalition with Abu-Bakr Bakkour, Taufiq Shihabuddin, and two other Aleppan commanders, Mustafa Saqr from within the city and career officer Ibrahim Majbour.
Yet neither coalition lasted long in its official form. The Nusra question continued to haunt the Syria-wide groups under Qais Shaikh’s leadership: Ahrarul-Sham, for instance, was involved in a militarily profitable coalition with Nusra at the same point as Nusra was elsewhere attacking Attar and Marouf, who were officially its co-members in Shaikh’s coalition. At the Aleppan level, meanwhile, Salameh’s own diffidence and his lack of reliable funds – because both Turkey and such private donors as the Muslim Brethren were now exploring other options in the insurgency – hampered his control over the other Shamia member organizations, and by spring 2015 Shamia collapsed amid internal infighting. A brief relaunch two months later in fact simply brought it under the control of the more disciplined Ahrarul-Sham, who sent their Aleppan commander Muhammad Harkoush to take over a coalition that soon ceased to exist.
In the ensuing years, the polarization within the insurgent camp between the former collaborators Ahrarul-Sham and Nusra Front, and in the international scene where the insurgency was largely abandoned except by an increasingly beleaguered Turkish regime, wrought important changes. Salameh’s former coalition partners Abu-Bakr Bakkour, Muhammad Ratib, Mustafa Saqr, and Abu Issa Shaikh sooner or later joined Ahrarul-Sham, now the largest integrated faction outside Nusra. Ahrarul-Sham, Nusra, and an increasingly active Turkey now formed the same coordinating functions in northern Syria that Salameh and Abdul-Qadir Saleh had tried in their 2012-13 heyday. Ultimately, organizing far-flung militants in a broad, leaderless insurgency required more clout than a modestly well-connected honey merchant from Anadan could muster.