Liwa al-Imam Zain al-Abidain: Building a ‘Resistance’ in Eastern Syria

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

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Banner of Liwa al-Imam Zain al-Abidain. On top: “The Syrian Resistance” (al-muqawama al-suriya). On bottom: Liwa al-Imam Zain al-Abidain (“The Imam Zain al-Abidain Brigade”).

In analysis of militiafication on the Assad regime side, one of the most understudied fronts is that of Deir az-Zor province in eastern Syria, as the regime maintains an outpost in parts of Deir az-Zor city, the military airport and some of the surrounding areas, with no supply routes by land in existence. Despite the regime’s rather precarious situation, the Islamic State (IS) has not yet completely wiped out the regime presence in the way that it took the regime’s isolated bases in Raqqa province by storm in the summer of 2014.

Though reporting commonly just refers to the Syrian army in Deir az-Zor province, there exist a number of supporting militias. The latest of these militias to have been set up on this front is Liwa al-Imam Zain al-Abidain, named for the fourth Shi’i imam. For context, it should be noted that there are a number of militias on the regime side that have adopted the moniker of Zain al-Abidain. For example, there is another Liwa al-Imam Zain al-Abidain that has most notably fought on the Ithiriya front as advertised in late 2015. According to someone who was in the Republican Guard and then joined this Liwa al-Imam Zain al-Abidain, the group was formed around 2-3 years ago. A notable leading figure in this Liwa al-Imam Zain al-Abidain is one Zaher Hasan al-Asad, who is particularly interesting because he is also a member of Mihrac Ural’s group known as The Syrian Resistance (al-muqawama al-suriya), which should not be confused with the Liwa al-Imam Zain al-Abidain of Deir al-Zor that is the main subject of this piece and also bears the moniker of “The Syrian Resistance.” Hasan Zaher al-Asad’s affiliation with Ural’s group was confirmed by a source in the latter last month, who also mentioned that a squadron from Hasan Zaher al-Asad’s Liwa al-Imam Zain al-Abidain was in Aleppo.

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The Liwa al-Imam Zain al-Abidain of Zaher Hasan al-Asad. The top of the emblem reads: “The Resistance Support Forces.”

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Zaher Hasan al-Asad. Note his insignia from Mihrac Ural’s Muqawama Suriya.

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Zaher Hasan al-Asad with his Liwa al-Imam Zain al-Abidain members, posing in front of a banner that reads: “God’s peace be upon you oh Hussein.” The reference is to Imam Hussein, a key figure in Shi’i Islam. For similar sloganeering, see here.

Indeed, the leader of Liwa al-Imam Zain al-Abidain in Deir az-Zor- a petroleum engineer  by occupation who is originally from Deir az-Zor and goes by the name of Abo Abod- told me that the name of Liwa al-Imam Zain al-Abidain exists among formations in various parts of Syria, including Ithiriya (likely referring to the presence of Zaher Hasan al-Asad’s group), Palmyra and Quneitra. He mentioned this fact in response to a query as to why this name was chosen for the group. He added that there were connections “with all the formations.”

More specifically on his own group in Deir az-Zor, he mentioned that it has been operating for four months (i.e. first set up in May-June 2016). Officially describing his group as independent, he affirmed that it was one of the supporting militias for the regime in Deir az-Zor. By his account, other militias that have participated in fighting on the Deir az-Zor front, according to Abo Abod, have included:

-The National Defence Forces.
– The Lions of the Eternal Leader: a militia whose name refers to Hafez al-Assad: affiliated with the Military Intelligence (al-Amn al-Askari: cf. here) and led by al-Hajj Azra’il, originally from the Shi’i village of Nubl in north Aleppo.
– The Lions of the Euphrates: affiliated with the Amn al-Dawla (“State Security”) intelligence agency.
– The Lions of the East: a tribal militia mainly drawing on Sha’itat tribesmen, who work closely with the Republican Guard and Issam Zahr al-Din, a Druze general in the Republican Guard who plays a leading role on the Deir az-Zor front, having recently returned to the front after a visit to the Quneitra frontlines that currently involve a rebel offensive that has pushed towards the area of the Druze village of Hadr, prompting a large Druze mobilization to defend the area. Together, under Zahr al-Din, members of the Republican Guard and members of the Lions of the East constitute the Majmu’at Nafidh Assad Allah (“Nafidh Assad Allah Group,” referring to a nickname for Zahr al-Din).
– The Ba’ath Brigades.
– al-Hashd al-Sha’abi: “Popular Mobilization”- undoubtedly taking its name from Iraq’s militia phenomenon that goes under this moniker- but not related, rather affiliated with the Syrian regime’s military commander for Deir az-Zor city.
– Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

This list of auxiliary forces more or less correlates with that compiled by the anti-IS and anti-regime group Deir az-Zor is Being Slaughtered Silently (DZBSS). Most notably, DZBSS correctly points out in addition the role of the Palestinian militia Quwat al-Jalil (“The Galilee Forces”), which actually claims the bulk of its ‘martyrs’ from fighting in Deir az-Zor. Despite some occasional claims that have surfaced on social media, little reliable evidence points to the presence of Iraqi Shi’i factions on the Deir az-Zor front, something denied by Abo Abod. It should also be noted that Abo Abod clarified that the Lions of the Euphrates militia has been dissolved by the Amn al-Dawla, with fighters distributed to other formations. According to him, al-Hashd al-Sha’abi has also been dissolved.

As might be expected, Liwa al-Imam Zain al-Abidain in Deir az-Zor primarily draws on local people from Deir az-Zor as recruits, though Abo Abod was keen to emphasize as wide a manpower base as possible in terms of origins, claiming fighters from Albukamal (in eastern Deir az-Zor on the border with Iraq), Raqqa, Hasakah, Qamishli Damascus and Deraa. He put the monthly salary per fighter at $200, which he said was partly used to support civilians in Deir az-Zor. Concomitant with the wide range of origins, Abo Abod was also keen to put forth a cross-sectarian image for his group. “Do you know that I have Christian youth in the brigade?” he asked rhetorically in a bid to impress me. He added that “some of them are from al-Deir [Deir az-Zor] and some have come down with me from al-Sham [Damascus].”

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Photo of Abo Abod

The photo of Abo Abod above, with the “Labbayk ya Hussein” (“At your service, oh Hussein”) insignia, may raise the question as to whether he is Shi’i himself. To this question, he gave a rather interesting response: “I belong to all sects. I wage war on all who wage war on the Shi’a. I serve [/revere] the Al Bayt [Prophet Muhammad’s family] and my lineage is Husseini.” He then elaborated: “Do you know that Deir az-Zor is Shi’i in character? The black abaya, the al-Abbas bread, Allah wa Ali, all of them are from the customs of the people of al-Deir.”

These kinds of remarks touch on an issue I raised in my previous article profiling Liwa Sayf al-Haq Assad Allah al-Ghalib, a militia affiliated with the Republican Guard and based in Sayyida Zainab in Damascus. That is, whether or not there is formal conversion to Shi’i Islam, many pro-regime militias have displayed increasing affinities with Shi’i Islam and associated slogans and symbols, undoubtedly influenced by the extensive intervention of Iran and client Shi’i militias in Syria. Indeed, as Abo Abod told me, “The youth I have- Sunni before Shi’i- have adopted Labbayk ya Hussein, out of love and desire. We in the brigade deal with each other as one family and one house. Muhammad is our Prophet, Ali is our lord, Hussein is our leader….All demanded it [the slogans/symbols]. They said: ‘Hussein, Ali, Zainab and Fatima- peace be upon them- are our lords.'”

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Photo of a person bearing the Liwa al-Imam Zain al-Abidain flag.

So far, Abo Abod only claims 5 ‘martyrs’ for his formation, a recent example being one Nasim Muhammad al-Hamid, killed in fighting to retake Tel Baruq near the 137th brigade base. In the recent U.S. airstrikes in Deir az-Zor that erroneously targeted regime positions, there were no reported or confirmed deaths for the ranks of Liwa al-Imam Zain al-Abidain.

Analytically, it could be as my friend Tobias Schneider suggests to me that Liwa al-Imam Zain al-Abidain is a project analogous to Hezbollah’s Saraya al-Muqawama (“The Resistance Brigades”) project in Lebanon that is designed to outreach to non-Shi’i constituencies. Though Abo Abod said his group is independent, such a claim should probably be taken as formal distancing. In any case, the study of this militia in Deir az-Zor offers useful insight into regime dependency on auxiliary fighting forces even out on this front, and how apparent cross-sectarianism can still contribute to antagonistic sectarian dichotomies.

Comments (22)


1. Ghufran said:

Where are the defenders of the Saudi ruling mafia ?
More than one-third of all Saudi-led air raids on Yemen have hit civilian sites, such as school buildings, hospitals, markets, mosques and economic infrastructure, according to the Guardian. Almost all of Saudi weapons are supplied by the West.

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September 18th, 2016, 9:23 pm

 

2. Eugene said:

Question: With all the copy re: the groups against the regime of Assad, this and others who support Assad, why? Are they true patriots, love of country, what? It does get confusing on the one hand, but considering the stakes at risk, it’s understandable from those who live in Syria, that they will fight to keep outsiders out. This whole war has been a C-F from the start, with no end in sight, especially for the peoples who are still living under the various factions, IMO.

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September 19th, 2016, 6:03 am

 

3. Observer said:

From the regime side.

http://www.champress.net/index.php?q=ar/Article/view/73916

Only for this reason the regime should resign en masse

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September 19th, 2016, 9:07 am

 

4. Ghufran said:

The U.S., UK, Australia and Denmark bombed syrian army in Deir Ezzour allowing isis to advance near a strategic mountain, then Kerry asked putin and assad to respect the cease fire !!

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September 19th, 2016, 6:29 pm

 

5. Eugene said:

# 4 GHUFRAN: UK. Australia don’t fly F-16’s or A-10’s, Denmark has F-16″s/no A-10’s. This is a share the blame item, that belongs on the shoulders of the U.S., which fly out of a base in Erbil in northern Iraq.

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September 19th, 2016, 7:08 pm

 

6. SANDRO LOEWE said:

Syria Comment has become Shity Milita Comment. It is specialized in talking about gang of sectarian criminals.

What about the syrian population, militar developments, turkish, american and russian interventions, refugee camps, economic crisis, humanitarian aid bombed by Assad and so on?

NOTHING

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September 20th, 2016, 5:05 pm

 

7. Akbar Palace said:

Ahmad dislikes US “oppression” NewZ

Seems as though many jihadists hate the US. Which is OK by me. My question is, why do they leave their country of origin to come here?

Maybe someone has an answer…

https://www.yahoo.com/news/wealth-clues-led-quick-arrest-suspected-bomber-055413195.html

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September 21st, 2016, 11:51 am

 

8. Ghufran said:

The Hawks in the USA admin with close ties to the Pentagon managed to kill the agreement with Russia which they did not like from day one. That is why you start seeing ” strong” statements from Qatari and Turkish FM, and that is why UN PKM took a break from his anxiety statements and attacked the Syrian regime. Back to square one, watch Russian buildup in the Mediterranean.

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September 21st, 2016, 1:17 pm

 

9. Passerby said:

Hi Akbar,

The question is why the US lets them in. Seems a minimum requirement is that they love us.

And a question for everyone…

Is there a Muslim controlled country where the local Christians/Hindus/Buddhists/Jews/Samaritans/Mandaeans/Etc. are constantly blowing up, hacking to death, driving over with trucks, etc. the local Muslims?

No? Can’t think of one?

So, what would happen to the Christains/Hindus/Buddhists/Jews/Samaritans/Mandaeans/Etc if they did?

Does the US get any credit for that or are we patsies?

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September 21st, 2016, 10:10 pm

 

10. Passerby said:

On her way to work one morning
Down the path along side the lake
A tender hearted woman saw a poor half frozen snake
His pretty colored skin had been all frosted with the dew
“Oh well,” she cried, “I’ll take you in and I’ll take care of you”
“Take me in oh tender woman
Take me in, for heaven’s sake
Take me in oh tender woman, ” sighed the snake

She wrapped him up all cozy in a curvature of silk
And then laid him by the fireside with some honey and some milk
Now she hurried home from work that night as soon as she arrived
She found that pretty snake she’d taking in had been revived
“Take me in, oh tender woman
Take me in, for heaven’s sake
Take me in oh tender woman, ” sighed the snake

Now she clutched him to her bosom, “You’re so beautiful,” she cried
“But if I hadn’t brought you in by now you might have died”
Now she stroked his pretty skin and then she kissed and held him tight
But instead of saying thanks, that snake gave her a vicious bite
“Take me in, oh tender woman
Take me in, for heaven’s sake
Take me in oh tender woman, ” sighed the snake

“I saved you,” cried that woman
“And you’ve bit me even, why?
You know your bite is poisonous and now I’m going to die”
“Oh shut up, silly woman,” said the reptile with a grin
“You knew damn well I was a snake before you took me in
“Take me in, oh tender woman
Take me in, for heaven’s sake
Take me in oh tender woman, ” sighed the snake

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September 21st, 2016, 10:16 pm

 
 

12. Akbar Palace said:

Hi Akbar,

The question is why the US lets them in. Seems a minimum requirement is that they love us.

Passerby,

Answer: Intentional stupidity from our liberal government and President Obama, who are only interesting in importing destitute people with the knowledge that they will vote Democrat once they become citizens.

Does the US get any credit for that or are we patsies?

The US never gets credit from those that hate us, yet live in countries that have no history of democracy and freedom. Jealousy? Yes we are “patsies”, which explains why Trump is still rather popular and why Hillary Clinton needs to worry.

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September 22nd, 2016, 7:45 am

 

13. Ghufran said:

Erdogan can not be trusted, Putin knows that but he is under pressure to find alternative markets after EU and US sanctions. Basically the security of Syria is compromised by all players who are pursuing their own interests not that of Syria. This is why it was dumb and self defeating to ignite and prolong an internal war when the main victims will be the Syrians from all sides. We said that in 2011, there will be no Syrian winners in this dirty war.

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September 22nd, 2016, 11:06 pm

 

14. SANDRO LOEWE said:

A small nuclear bomb in the US is something that would let US Administration react. Because of this ISIS – Terrorist Russian Branch will never do it. So you ignorant small minded american people can go to sleep comfortably while syrian innocent people die hoping that one day the US will come to help them. The game is over since July 2015 when Obama handed over Syria to Iran and Russia. That´s all folks, Russia and US have completely fuxxxed off Syria by military action and by complete inaction.

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September 23rd, 2016, 3:23 pm

 

15. Ghufran said:

The opposition was tricked into believing that the regime can be toppled by force. The list of culprits who destroyed Syria does include the regime but if you stop right there you are ignoring the other side of the coin which include NATO, the GCC and Turkey. We warned about this in 2011 but vengeance and now pride have clouded the judgement of most Syrians and the whole country paid the price.
يا امة ضحكت من جهلها الامم

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September 23rd, 2016, 7:05 pm

 

16. SANDRO LOEWE said:

GHUFRAN many syrians on the regime side did not dare to oppose the regime and this is the output, a country turned to ashes. Syrians are responsible. Many of them for siding the dictatorship when they could have made it fall in weeks.

The miserable way many syrians dealt with the revolution eased Assad´s victory.

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September 25th, 2016, 2:51 pm

 

17. Ghufran said:

Regime change was a necessity since 2000 and certainly after 2011 but minorities and many sunnis were not given an acceptable alternative, do not take my word for it, just read the opposition and rebel leaders statements as early as the summer of 2011 and certainly after 2012.
The drums of war are loud again and the opposition are hoping to buy time until November thinking that a Clinton win can help them out, the regime will try to win in aleppo in the next few weeks to make it harder for rebels to dictate their conditions, is a dangerous gamble by both sides and if history repeats itself things may not go in the direction pro war thawrajiyyeh or Assadists want. Erdogan is playing the same game, I do not think an islamist can compromise, he is just waiting for the right time to expand his Othmani empire, he started with 1000 sqk of Syria and will only stop if met with force.
With a new wave of violence comes a parallel movement for partition. The belief that partition does not have enough support is likely to be challenged by people and foreign powers who see partition as the only solution. With a prolonged war partition becomes a bigger threat. Putin was fooled more than once, he is now less likely to negotiate.

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September 25th, 2016, 5:27 pm

 

18. ALAN said:

The Syrian intelligence possesses an audio recording of conversation between Daesh terrorists and US military prior to the Washington-led coalition’s airstrikes on the government troops near Deir ez-Zor on September 17, the speaker of the People’s Council of Syria said Monday.
Read more: https://sputniknews.com/middleeast/20160926/1045706456/us-airstrike-daesh-army.html

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September 26th, 2016, 8:42 am

 

19. ALAN said:

Mr. Putin
What is the plan (b) you have?
Regime change in: Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, Ukraine, Colombia, it’s fine to divide the United States itself, GO AHEAD, America has become in an urgent need for change …Let it begin with this voting

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September 26th, 2016, 1:56 pm

 

20. ALAN said:

after № 18 above
Samantha Power!
You are a mouthpiece of the State of scums.

Al-Nusra Fighter to German Journalist: ‘Americans Are on Our Side’
Fighter from al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate berates the US for not doing even more to help them
By Jürgen Todenhöfer
http://russia-insider.com/en/syrian-al-qaeda-tells-german-journalist-us-stands-our-side/ri16681

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September 27th, 2016, 8:52 am

 

21. SANDRO LOEWE said:

ALAN,

Your information is garbage, totally fake. This is Assad, Russian and Iranian propaganda, all lies, fakes and deception. Go to hell Mr. Goebbels.

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September 27th, 2016, 4:58 pm

 

22. ALAN said:

Samantha Power!
You and your government runs a cheap and boring theater! You will get only more and more defeat and shame.
http://www.birgun.net/haber-detay/an-isil-member-in-istanbul-129376.html

When America and its allies going to prolong the war in Syria, it means that there is an urgent need to ignite a war in the American geopolitical squares, may be in the heart of Israel.

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September 28th, 2016, 7:56 am

 

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