Throughout the civil war in Syria, there has often been a tendency to talk about or analyse the various insurgent groups that have emerged over the years in semi-abstract ways. This tendency is a function of both the focus on policy analysis and the wider obstacles facing researchers.
Policy analysis, which aims to present insights to policy-makers, does not necessarily have the time or space to probe these groups in a level of depth that might be more satisfying to a historian. Instead, there was often talk about who was a 'moderate'/'radical' or a potential partner for external support for various policy goals such as putting military pressure on the Syrian government to agree to a 'political transition' or finding local partners to combat the Islamic State. This meant there was focus on more general aspects of various groups such as where they fell on the ideological and religious spectra (e.g. Islamist or jihadist as opposed to being more secular) and their banners and colours (with the Syrian flag associated with the political opposition often being taken as a sign of 'moderation').
As for the wider obstacles facing researchers, they can be summarised as the difficulty that has existed from the outset for researchers to conduct independent field-work among the insurgent groups in Syria for any extended period of time. Examples of these obstacles have included concerns for safety (e.g. the threat of kidnapping by jihadist groups or criminal gangs, or the risk of being killed on the frontlines), the problem that if one could get into the insurgent-held territory, then it would effectively be an embed with only one group, which would likely have an agenda in granting access for a limited time. Other factors include the complete lack of access granted by Jordan through the southern border in the days of the insurgency in Dar'a and al-Qunaytra, and the tightening of border control by Turkey in the north, such that one needs to get an official permit to visit the remaining insurgent-held areas in the north, and such permits are granted few and far between and not for extended periods of time.
The result then, is that we have not often had a detailed idea of the people who make up the various groups and their life stories, and we have not necessarily had a clear and detailed understanding of the day-to-day interactions between members of the same group and between members of different groups.
I propose that one avenue towards having a clearer idea of the people who make up these groups is to compile and study archives of their 'martyrs' over the years. Of course, such documentation does not amount to a 'holy grail' in researching the composition of insurgent groups, but it certainly helps in advancing a better understanding of a group's rank-and-file.
In this post I offer an example of such documentation with an archive of the 'martyrs' of the Northern Storm Brigade (Arabic: Liwa' 'Asifat al-Shamal), whose history I documented in a report back in early 2015 based on a research trip in December 2014. The Northern Storm Brigade, which originated in the town of Azaz in north Aleppo countryside near the border with Turkey, stands out (to my knowledge) as one of the longest continually-existing locally-based insurgent groups in Syria, with its origins going back to 2011-2012. Since the turn of 2014-2015, the Northern Storm Brigade has been part of the Shami Front (Arabic: al-Jabha al-Shamiya), which is presently integrated into the third corps of the Turkish-backed 'Syrian National Army.' Its branding is very recognisably that of the 'Free Syrian Army,' and it has fought against Syrian government forces, the Islamic State and the Syrian Democratic Forces over the course of its history.
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