The Trotskyist León Sedov Brigade in the Syrian Revolution
The León Sedov Brigade were a rare phenomenon in the Syrian Revolution and the conflict which followed. While almost all of the armed Syrian Opposition could be categorized as either Free Syrian Army (FSA) originally made up of deserters and officers of the Syrian Arab Army or independent Islamists whose ideology varies greatly, León Sedov Brigade stand out as fitting into neither of these categories. For the period that the Brigade fought as a distinct armed group, they were an internationalist leftist organization of workers who put Trotskyist theories of permanent revolution and the forming of united fronts into practice, battled the Assad regime, defended themselves against the YPG, and rejected the involvement in Syria of what they regarded as imperialists (the US, France, UK, and their proxies including Turkey and Gulf states such as Qatar) and countries whose leadership they have harshly criticized such as Russia and Iran. The key to understanding the Brigade today is the Fracción Leninista Trotskista Internacional (FLTI), and it is three of their members who I spoke to in order to gain more insight into their role in the conflict.
The story of the León Sedov Brigade begins not in Syria, but Libya. During an interview with founding member of the Brigade Abu Muad, journalist Leandro Hofstadter (who was on the ground in Syria at the time the Brigade were militarily active), as well as fellow FLTI member and co-author of the book Syria Under Fire: A Bloodied Revolution Carlos Munzer, I was able to get key details of how the group came to be formed, their ideology, and their activities. The FLTI have their base of support in South America and I was able to talk to them in November, 2017. Abu Muad had previously visited Palestine and fought in the 2011 Libyan Revolution, aiding the rebels there to successfully overthrow the regime of dictator Muammar Gaddafi. During this time, Muad was shot in the head by a sniper in Misurata, Libya — he mentioned the bullet from this wound hasn’t been removed and causes metal detectors to go off at airports. During the fighting in Libya, Abu Muad was thought to have been killed until two Argentinian journalists found him still fighting on the battlefield along with the Libyan rebels and recorded an interview with him. The following year, Abu Muad formed the León Sedov Brigade while still in Libya on June, 2012 with 10–12 other individuals from across the Maghreb. Named after Leon Trotsky’s son Lev Lvovich Sedov, they believed this group would form the nucleus of a leftist movement that would help spread the revolutions of the Arab Spring across the Maghreb and the Middle East. Upon seeing the emerging situation in Syria, they believed this was the best place to continue the struggle and entered the country via the then porous border with Turkey for the first time in July, 2012. It is worth noting that the experience of the South American revolutionary Abu Muad has some parallels with Libyan-Irish revolutionary Mahdi al-Harati, who took part in the Libyan Revolution as part of the famous Tripoli Brigade before also traveling to Syria to continue fighting for the Arab Spring by forming and leading the group Liwaa al-Umma in 2012.
They were beset by adversity immediately, as 5 members abandoned the Brigade soon after arriving when seeing the difficulties that confronted them in the North of Syria. However, the remaining members carried on by establishing a base of operations in Aleppo city, and were able to count 200 mostly Syrian members among their Brigade at its peak according to Abu Muad (with some members as far afield as Daraa and Homs). The most notable members were Abu al-Baraa and his father Mustafa Abu Jumaa, the latter of whom the FLTI consider the founder of Syrian Trotkyism. Although apparently the largest leftist group active among the Syrian Opposition, León Sedov Brigade were not unique in this respect as at least one other significant leftist Syrian Opposition group is known to have existed — Faction to Liberate the People was affiliated with the Marxist political organization Revolutionary Leftist Movement in Syria, they numbered less than 60 and were active in Hama, Aleppo and even Kobanî in Raqqa between June 2014 and late 2015. An important characteristic of León Sedov Brigade is that it was made up of worker militia and not soldiers — they would earn money in factories and through construction work then use it to fund excursions to different battle fronts. Leadership of the Brigade was voted upon and rotated.
It is important to note that groups using leftist symbolism and rhetoric have appeared on other sides of the Syrian conflict, often involving non-Syrians. On the side of the Assad regime, Mihraç Ural leads the Syrian Resistance (Arabic: المقاومة السورية), the only significant overtly leftist regime militia of its kind. Ural is a Turkish Alawite with a long history of militant group activity who was infamously involved in the killings of tens of civilians at the Sunni villages of Bayda and Baniyas in Tartus, 2013; the sectarian motives and implications of this war crime hardly need to be elaborated upon. Somewhat more controversially considered leftist, the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) of Lebanon have sent volunteers to Syria, as have the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party — Lebanon Region. Meanwhile, on the side of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) dominated and PKK-linked Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), many leftist international volunteers mostly from the West and Turkey have fought in a multitude of minor groups. These groups and individuals tend to be most easily relatable to people in the West, with these foreign fighters and the SDF itself seeming to seize upon the obvious propaganda value of foreign female militia members espousing feminist rhetoric and young white males connecting the SDF’s US-backed fight against ISIS to Western based movements such as Antifa. An alleged group that was created in particular, a supposedly “LGBTQI” Battalion, was dismissed by the SDF itself as non-existent and harshly criticized by one Syrian commentator as “imperial” and “colonial.” It seems clear that this group TQILA, itself claiming to be a subgroup of another small and largely insignificant group of international volunteers known as IRPGF, was essentially a publicity stunt as the group has not been heard from since and there is no evidence to suggest it ever engaged in combat independently.
León Sedov Brigade state they participated in hundreds of skirmishes, assaults and sieges, which include some of the major battles of the conflict against the Assad regime from 2012 onward.
Battles against the Assad regime
- Liberation of the town of Urem al-Kubra in Aleppo
- Liberation of the town of Salqueem in Idlib
- Battle at the the airport of Taftanaz in Idlib
- Battle at Bab al-Hawa in Aleppo
- Battle at Khan al-Assal in Aleppo
- Battles for the neighborhood of Asharafiya and Siege of Sukari neighborhood in Aleppo city
- Siege of the Central Prison of Aleppo
- Battle in Mansoura in Aleppo
- Siege of Aleppo: Battle of Castello Road (where Mustafa Abu Jumaa, father of Abu al-Baraa, was martyred), capture of Ramouseh Artillery School, Battle of Rashdin (where Abu al-Baraa was martyred), Battle to recover Khantoman and its defense, Battle to capture Hamdaniya neighborhood of Aleppo
Battles against the YPG
- Defense of Āţimah, Idlib (2013)
Battles against ISIS
- Mobilization against ISIS in Taladah, Idlib (2013)
- Defense of Marea (2015)
Clashes with the Syrian Opposition
- Clashes with Nour al-Dien al-Zenkey at Kafr Naha, Aleppo (2013)
- Clashes against Ahrar al-Sham, who “stole all the loot” from Taftanaz Air Base, Idlib (2013)
- Defense factory expropriated in Urem al-Kubra, Aleppo for worker control of production (2016)
- Mobilization of militiamen to head to FSA barracks on the edges of Aleppo Governorate, to look for the weapons that had been “monopolized by the FSA generals” (2016)
A significant factor that distinguished León Sedov Brigade from other rebel groups is that they did not receive backing from any foreign countries (this was an issue also faced by the aforementioned Faction to Liberate the People). FSA and aligned groups in Northern Syria received funding and weapons from the CIA-backed and Turkish-based MOM (a Turkish acronym for “Joint Operations Center”) starting in mid-2013, which ran into several difficulties when these foreign backers attempted to micromanage the battlefield activities of rebel commanders. To make matters worse, respective backers preferred different groups active on the ground fighting the Assad regime, leading to US favored groups falling out with Turkish favored groups. All this resulted in a confusing situation where the US abandoned the armed Syrian Opposition when US President Trump ended the covert program in July, 2017 that was started under Obama as they continued to fight against the Assad regime, Jabhat al-Nusra and the PKK-linked SDF, while the US instead focused all efforts against the so-called Islamic State in Eastern and North-Eastern Syria (in effect exclusively backing one of the armed Syrian Opposition’s enemies, the SDF, in this task).
In this latter regard, Abu Muad mentioned that he witnessed many of these foreign-backed groups selling US weapons they had been given. He said major FSA groups would sell these weapons to smaller minor groups, who would in turn make promotional videos in which they would waste the ammunition firing inaccurately at regime positions. Abu Muad himself considered buying a US M16 rifle, but decided against it as it was too expensive and the 5.56×45mm NATO ammunition for it was hard to obtain — Western rifles and machine guns that were given to so called Vetted Syrian Opposition (VSO) and other covertly supplied groups use totally different ammunition to Soviet Union and Russian originating weapons usually available in Syria such as the AK-47. This is a fact that is often omitted when it is reported that US-supplied weapons are being sold off. The more common forms of support Abu Muad witnessed were food rations and salaries that MOM-backed groups received. The weapons León Sedov Brigade used included the following:
- Russian RPGs
- .32 Automatic Colt Pistol
- Beretta M9
The bulk of weapons the Brigade had access to, like most other groups, were of Soviet and Russian origin. Seizing these types of arms from the Assad regime is what Hama-based Major Jamel al-Saleh of FSA Al-Ezzah Army has stated had always been his group’s primary way of arming itself in November, 2017. As an aside, Abu Muad mentioned having had access to a SAM-7 MANPADS in Bani Walid during his time in Libya.
They were unable to give some details of members due to persecution the León Sedov Brigade members had faced from other rebel groups. A notable incident was with Nour al-Dein al-Zenkey in early 2013, involving what Abu Muad described as a “shabiha” named Mohamed al-A’attrash that was living in the liberated areas of the West of the Governorate of Aleppo. He had stolen property from people living in the area, but the people could not reach him to reclaim their possessions and bring him to justice due to three Brigades associated with Nour al-Dein al-Zenkey defending him. One of the Brigades was under the command of Mohamad al-Khal Jzriyah, of the people of the village of Kafr Naya in Northern Aleppo and allied to another group under the command of Zakur Sawan, of the same place. The third group was from the countryside of Muhandisin, Nidhzam Barakat. While Mohamed al-A’attrash was alone and unprotected, the people of the area took their opportunity—the León Sedov Brigade were there and arrested him, while the people entered his house and recovered what belonged to them. Hearing of the events that had unfolded, the three Brigades aligned with Nour al-Dein al-Zenkey arrived, demanding León Sedov Brigade release the prisoner, which they refused to do due to evidence of his criminal (i.e. shabiha) activity in the form of payment receipts and letters, which they found when they had raided the house. Upon the León Sedov Brigade’s refusal to release the prisoner, the three opposing Brigades “made a show of weapons,” to which they did not back down. Upon seeing this had not worked, the Nour al-Dein al-Zenkey aligned groups called on the aid of Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra to “mediate” and act as an “impartial judge” (it is important to note at this point that Jabhat al-Nusra and its successor groups Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham are notorious for refusing to abide by valid Sharia rulings that do not favor them). According to Abu Muad, upon arriving Jabhat al-Nusra stated “all documents are false, [the] people lie, we know that he is a good man, free him.” Again the León Sedov Brigade refused, leading Jabhat al-Nusra to send a group of Central Asians (possibly Uzbeks) “who arrived shooting in a planned attack,” forcing León Sedov Brigade to release the prisoner and escape.
Another dire incident involved ISIS in the village of Taladah, Idlib. While in this location in 2013, Abu Muad was abducted by members of ISIS, including some individuals he recognized from his time in Libya. He says he was beaten and had his possessions taken from him including a laptop, while they attempted to “blackmail” him. He was kidnapped and briefly held prisoner under guard in a local school, while locals rallied outside to call for ISIS to release him. A village member found a hole in the wall and helped Abu Muad escape in the confusion. He said ISIS later returned all his possessions and offered him Ramadan food to apologize.
It seems during their time on the battlefield the Brigade members attempted to form a united front with elements from other groups who dissented from their leadership, in order to launch unified attacks on the regime. Leandro related that they were minor groups including the following from the Aleppo area: Jaysh Mohamed, Usud al-Sunna, Majmuaa Islamiya and Faylaq al-Sham. Abu Muad and Leandro stated that the León Sedov Brigade joined the major Northern Syrian FSA group Levant Front in May–June 2015, the reason being that they had voted to link to groups where they felt left-wing elements existed and they could work politically. Leandro mentioned that factions within other groups, citing Ahrar al-Sham and FSA groups, were “breaking with these organizations and acting individually” due to them not engaging the Assad regime or acting passively. This process began in May of 2016 with the Battle of Khantoman in South Aleppo, with leadership and rank and file members not seeing eye to eye. The León Sedov Brigade was again organizing independently as a faction in June 2016 because of the general discontent with the leadership of major groups during the time of the Siege of Aleppo. Ultimately, the León Sedov Brigade had largely broke with the FSA in September and left the Levant Front completely in October 2016.
The recorded martyrs of the León Sedov Brigade are as follows:
- Abu al-Baraa
- Mustafa Abu Jumaa (Abu al-Baraa’s father and founder of Trotskyism in Syria)
- Abu al-Jud
- Abu Issac al-Janubi
- Hamza al-Twil
- Mohammed Sheikh al-Jeb
- Mohammed Abdallah
- Mohammed al-Hamudi
- Abu Attia
- Abu Nur
- Abu Mwawyah al-Massry
- Abu Mussa al-Jazaery
- Abu al-Qayss Hesham
- Abu Salamah
- Sanad Abu Khattab
The FLTI is a Marxist-Leninist-Trotskyist political organization that is part of the 4th International tendency. What might be surprising to some is that Argentina is a country with an active Trotskyist political scene, and Abu Muad was critical of “politicians who call themselves Trotskyists” (likely referring to political parties like the Workers’ Left Front including Partido de los Trabajadores Socialistas who are represented in the Argentine Chamber of Deputies), stating that the fighters of León Sedov Brigade acted in a far more Trotskyist manner regardless of what their religious or political views may have been. During my interview with the FLTI members, they stated that they have organized in solidarity with anarchists to bring attention to the situation in Syria. The position of the FLTI that was clear during the interview was that the last battle worldwide is with unions and other socialists, with Carlos Munzer stating the “true war is against leftist parties” and that Syria will be a “stain on their forehead and [they] can never speak of socialism again.” The FLTI also point out that they have developed links with revolutionary Marxist organizations in Japan.
Upon discussing the group’s political views, I found them to be quite rigid and dogmatic; for example, they only consider it possible for Western and Western-backed countries to be imperialist, specifically rejecting the notion that Russia or Iran could be could also be considered imperialist. This seems to go against the views of many Syrians, and Syrian intellectual Yassin al-Haj Saleh has discussed the issue of Western-centric notions of anti-imperialism. Many of their arguments for this revolve around placing a great deal of importance on historical analysis of World War II and its aftermath which they state divided the world, with Carlos Munzer underlining this by making clear he considered “Russia […] a great power and heir to the Soviet Union.” They see the current conflict in the world as little more than Western imperialist powers such as the US, Germany and Turkey competing, and especially single out the negative influence of oil companies as well as the role of Zionism (they repeatedly made clear the significance of the Palestinian cause). As for their policy on the PYD/YPG, Leandro stated that despite being critical of the actions and polices of these groups and having defended rebel civilian areas from YPG attacks, “The León Sedov Brigade raised the fight for the right to self-determination of the Kurdish people as part of the consigns of the revolution.”
FLTI have faced criticism from other groups for this stance including from fellow Trotskyist political organization Revolutionary Communist International Tendency, with RCIT stating that FLTI “ignore the imperialist nature of the emerging great powers, China and Russia,” going as far as to question their ideology: “Consequently their [FLTI’s] politics are ultra-leftist [i.e. left communism] in the tradition of [Amadeo] Bordiga and are thus opposed to Trotskyism.” None the less, FLTI acknowledged that Assad was losing the conflict in Syria until the Russian intervention, and did make a passing reference to the regional competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Future of the movement
When asked if he could only envision León Sedov Brigade continuing as a political movement, Abu Muad responded that “it is hard to say the military phase is over,” telling me that he knew former members who still sleep with an AK-47 under their pillow. Carlos Munzer stated that the Sunni bourgeois seeks to disarm the insurrection and send the people to concentration camps [referring to the refugee camps that exist for internally displaced people across Syria] under the jackboots of Jordan and Turkey, while Abu Muad insisted when questioned about the threat of HTS compared to the Assad regime that “as long as the masses can use any faction to fight against the regime, it’s a positive.” Yet this seems to clash with rhetoric they had earlier espoused, claiming that “all military factions are there to control the people.” Beyond the military struggle, the newspaper The Truth of The Oppressed continues to be published to coordinate activists on Syria (Abu al-Baraa was the director of the newspaper until his death).
The experiences of former combatants who fought in Syria are still playing out. Abu Muad returned to his home country and has resumed civilian life. Meanwhile, the aforementioned Libyan-Irish military Commander Mahdi al-Harati ended up on a list of designated terrorists complied by Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt, as the years long counter-revolution against the Arab Spring continues to eradicate the memory of a grassroots movement calling for democracy. While Abu Muad never knew al-Harati, the legacy of Syrian foreign fighters from all sides remains to be seen. As well as the injuries sustained in Libya, he mentioned he has shrapnel wounds to the leg caused by an RPG. In addition to this, one can only imagine the potential post traumatic psychological effects of the events he went through in Syria, having seen comrades killed and witnessing the seemingly never ending deterioration of events in Syria from afar (at the outset of talking, he seemed on the verge of tears when informing me that “I have bad news … unfortunately many members of León Sedov Brigade have died”). Regardless, when asked if he’d ever return, he mentioned it’s possible but he can’t talk about it.
In the end, Abu Muad states that the group “didn’t used to give interviews” and that people “act like they are invisible.” Despite everything, Leandro insists that the example of “León Sedov Brigade showed that a small group of socialists could reach the [battle] front” — he himself paid a price as a journalist when he was imprisoned for ten days in Tunisia in 2014. As the interview ends with Abu Muad giving the raised fist salute, it is hard to imagine this is the last that will be heard of from them.
December 06, 2017: Elements of this article have been edited in order to protect the individuals involved.