Liwa Sayf al-Mahdi: A Syrian Army Shi’i Militia

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

LiwaSayfMahdiemblem
Emblem of Liwa Sayf al-Mahdi. The top of the emblem features the Dhu al-Fiqar, the sword of Imam Ali. The group’s name means “The Sword of the Mahdi (may God hasten his emergence) Brigade.”

The Syrian civil war features multiple Syrian Shi’i formations primarily affiliated with Hezbollah, such as Quwat al-Ridha and Liwa al-Imam al-Mahdi. Another militia- the Ja’afari Force– had a more interesting evolution over time from origins in the National Defence Forces in Damascus, eventually emerging as an affiliate of the Iraqi Shi’i Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada’ but now claiming to be an independent group. Liwa Sayf al-Mahdi is particularly interesting on account of its affiliation. According to one Abu Hayder al-Harbi, who is an Iraqi fighter currently in the ranks of Hezbollah and previously served in the ranks of the Iraqi Shi’i Sadrist splinter militia Liwa al-Imam al-Hussein, Liwa Sayf al-Mahdi is affiliated with the elite Fourth Armoured Division of the Syrian army, was set up three years ago and comprises Syrian Shi’a that he estimated as a sect to be 1.4% of the total Syrian population. Indeed, the affiliation is not the only case of links between the Fourth Armoured Division (also known as just the Fourth Division/al-Farqat al-Rabi’a) and Shi’i militancy in Syria, for Liwa al-Imam al-Hussein also works closely and overlaps with the Fourth Armoured Division, particularly as both forces have been participating in the assault on the rebel-held suburb of Darayya.

From social media output, the links between Liwa Sayf al-Mahdi and the Fourth Armoured Division become clear on account of the particular inclusion of the portrait of Maher al-Assad, the youngest brother of Bashar al-Assad who has served as commander of the 42nd brigade in the Fourth Armoured Division. Rumours emerged in March 2016 that Maher al-Assad was removed from the Fourth Armoured Division and transferred to the general staff of the Syrian army, but Russia Today, citing a source from the Syrian army, subsequently denied that he had been removed from the Fourth Armoured Division. Al-Quds Al-Arabi explained that Maher al-Assad was transferred from command of the 42nd brigade to the general command in the Fourth Armoured Division- a move required for organisational purposes on account of his promotion in rank.

LiwaSayfMahdiposter
Liwa Sayf al-Mahdi fighters, behind whom is a large placard/poster for the group. Note the militia’s emblem in the centre, with Bashar al-Assad’s portrait on the right and Maher al-Assad’s portrait on the left.

In terms of operations, Liwa Sayf al-Mahdi has mainly performed two functions. The most notable has been maintaining security in the Sayyida Zainab area in Damascus through the operation of checkpoints. This function continues to this day and was noted by Abu Haydar al-Harbi. The militia has advertised such activities in social media output.

LiwaSayfMahdisecuritySayyidaZainab

LiwaSayfMahdisecuritySayyidaZainab(2)
Photos posted on a page for Liwa Sayf al-Mahdi in February 2015 showing Liwa Sayf al-Mahdi members managing a checkpoint in the Sayyida Zainab area. Note the unique Liwa Sayf al-Mahdi insignia in the form of the armpatches the personnel are wearing. The poster in the latter photo with portraits of Bashar al-Assad and his father Hafez al-Assad reads: “An Ummah that has been blessed. You are its leaders. The soldiers of al-Assad.”

Besides responsibility for internal security in the Sayyida Zainab area, the militia has claimed to have fought in defence of the country’s petroleum assets. This role has mainly entailed fighting in the Homs desert in defence of these resources against the Islamic State in areas such as the Sha’er oil and gas field.

LiwaSayfMahdiShaerfieldFeb2015
“One of the heroes of Liwa Sayf al-Mahdi in al-Sha’er field”- photo posted in February 2015. Note his Liwa Sayf al-Mahdi insignia.

LiwaSayfMahdiShaerfieldFeb2015(2)
Another photo from February 2015 featuring Liwa Sayf al-Mahdi fighters purportedly resting after fighting in the Sha’er field area.

In September 2015, Liwa Sayf al-Mahdi announced that a group of its fighters had been killed in the Jazal field in the Homs desert area, as per the graphic released below.

LiwaSayfMahdiJazalmartyrs

“In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful:

‘From the believers are men who have truthfully fulfilled what they pledged to God, for from them is the one who has fulfilled his vow and from them is the one who expects and they did not alter anything’ [Qur’an 33:23].

With all pride, contentment and taslim, we present to you the names of the pious hero martyrs from Liwa Sayf al-Mahdi who died defending the homeland in the Jazal oil field in the Homs countryside, and they are:

1. The hero martyr Hadi Razzaq Abd
2. The hero martyr Ala’ Sa’id al-Ali
3. The hero martyr Nouri Hamada Suleiman
4. The hero martyr Mahmoud Nasir al-Ali
5. The hero martyr Yaman Ghazi Halal

To their pure souls, may God have mercy on those whom He guides, Al-Fatiha.”

Details on who exactly these ‘martyrs’ are remain rather obscure though at least one of them can be readily identified elsewhere: Hadi Razzaq Abd (al-Sheibani). His name indicates that he was in fact of Iraqi origin, though he had apparently been residing in Syria.

HadiAbdRazzaqphoto(1)
Hadi Razzaq Abd posing in front of a poster for Iraqi Shi’i militia Liwa Assad Allah al-Ghalib.

HadiSheibanicoffin
‘Martyrdom’ portrait of Hadi Razzaq Abd, mentioning his Liwa Sayf al-Mahdi affiliation.

HadiSheibanitomb
Hadi Razzaq Abd’s tomb: according to it, he was born on 27 January 1998 and was killed on 17 September 2015. The person who posted these two photos and the previous image- going by the name of Karar al-Sheibani- also appears to be related to Yassin al-Habij, who was killed in September 2012 and portrayed at the time as a defender of the Sayyida Zainab shrine in Damascus and as being part of the ‘popular committees’ set up to defend the shrine. The concept of ‘popular committees’ to defend the Sayyida Zainab shrine was an important early manifestation of Shi’i militancy in Syria.

BaniSheibanmourning
Mourning in Iraq for Hadi Razzaq Abd by locals of the Banu Sheiban tribe (from which the name al-Sheibani comes). Photo also posted by Karar al-Sheibani.

More recently, in terms of operations, a private account posted photos claiming that Liwa Sayf al-Mahdi had participated in the recapture of Palmyra in the spring of 2016. Some photos put out as part of this claim are featured below:

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Overall, Liwa Sayf al-Mahdi is a minor formation but is an interesting case of formal ties between the Syrian state and official military apparatus and Shi’i militancy. Such a framework ultimately helps give a more Syrian face to the development of Shi’i militias and the ‘Islamic Resistance’ in Syria.

Comments (60)


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51. Majedkhaldoun said:

The American Turkish relations are bound to deteriorate as long as Obama is still president , reflecting failed foreign policy by reluctant indecisive president like Obama, while improving economic conditions in US has nothing to do with Obama and has everything to do with the independent federal reserve , we still hear people support Obama.
As for the next election , we have two candidates who are bad choices, I do not think that choosing one evil who is less evil than the other is correct choice, it is important now to have different choice

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August 13th, 2016, 2:51 pm

 

52. Ghufran said:

The same people and countries who tolerated and covered for isis are introducing Nusra as an alternative to win the war against Assad and his allies. The truth is that rebels and their backers are terrorists or terrorists cheer leaders. You can not make chicken soup out of chicken poop.
The FSA only exists on Facebook and blogs. The answer to Assad is not Nusra but a grand settlement that leads to elections and includes a compromise where all parties get something to sell as a victory, however in the arab and islamic world conflicts last longer than what they should and only end when one side loses. The last terrorists propaganda that is being promoted by rebels media is a statement by a Nusra chief which claims that Alqaeda was not bad for Greater Syria (Bilad Al-sham).
يا امة ضحكت من جهلها الامم

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August 13th, 2016, 10:07 pm

 

53. Passerby said:

Well, Tara, I suppose it’s a matter of probability. If nothing else, like Schrodinger’s Cat, it’s neither one or the other until we look. But I think it’s a safe bet that when we review this later, in the war in Syria, Assad won. Not that any sane or moral person won in Syria. Aleppo is still gone. Will he control the entire country? Seems unlikely. He gets his Alawite state, with those big cities thrown in.

Erdogan? He’s a dictator now, so he will continue in power for some time. And since that’s his priority, not Turkey, it’s not a complete disaster. He’s crawling on his belly like a reptile to Russia and Iran, Assad is next. He’s going to have to live next door to Assad. After all, there’s no international rule that he gets to send in terrorists to Syria and Assad can’t do the same thing to Turkey. It’s NATO standing behind him. And the way he’s going, he may not have that much longer.

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August 13th, 2016, 10:16 pm

 

54. Passerby said:

Reuters video of the citizens of Manbij celebrating being rescued from ISIS…they don’t seem to be particularly concerned about them being Kurds.

http://www.reuters.com/video/2016/08/13/elation-in-syrias-manbij-after-islamic-s?videoId=369563902&newsChannel=topNews

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August 13th, 2016, 10:36 pm

 

55. Hopeful said:

Whatever happened to Haytham Manaa? He stopped showing up in the media since April. Something must be cooking.

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August 14th, 2016, 12:07 am

 

56. ALAN said:

54. PASSERBY
Are you praising the taste and flavor of the American-Israeli cooking?
The map Oded Yanon will not be implemented in Syria. Never.

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August 14th, 2016, 7:20 am

 
 

58. Observer said:

Israel must be terrified

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August 14th, 2016, 8:51 am

 

59. ALAN said:

Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah addressed speech to Daash only to be heard from those gray ppl who are running Daash , and only for this reason!

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August 14th, 2016, 9:57 am

 

60. Ghufran said:

Why it is taking 5 years for some people to understand that losing Syria to the GCC and the Muslim brotherhood is not an option for Russia?
قال فيصل القاسم، إن أهمية سوريا بالنسبة لروسيا تتجاوز ما يمكن أن يصفه البعض بنظام، أو معارضة أو حتى الشعب فالموضوع أكبر من ذلك بكثير ،“الاستثمار الروسي في سوريا استثمار استراتيجي هائل : “سوريا بالنسبة للروس هي ممر الغاز الروسي . ولا ننسى ان حقول الغاز العظيمة في المياه السورية أصبحت تحت سيطرة روسيا لمدة نصف قرن بعد توقيعها اتفاق لاستخراج الغاز من الأراضي والمياه السورية”.
وتابع : “اللعبة الدولية في سوريا أكبر بكثير من نظام ومعارضة وحتى شعب. نحن السوريين كلنا مجرد تفاصيل بسيطة في مشهد دولي أكبر منا جميعاً”.
I think it is a strategic mistake for rebels to join Nusra. The opposition clearly prefers Clinton over Trump but betting on a Clinton win is a gamble, even if she wins she will be restrained by a reluctant congress and a skeptical public opinion. Rebels and the anti regime camp should focus on a regime change without Nusra because as soon as Nusra wins all other factions will be out.
Syrians may want Assad regime out but they did not vote for Nusra and the muslim brotherhood.

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August 14th, 2016, 4:32 pm

 

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