Quwat Dir’ Al-Amn Al-Askari: A Latakia Military Intelligence Militia

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

Emblem of Quwat Dir’ al-Amn al-Askari as it appears on insignia.

The previous article discussed Fawj Maghawir al-Badiya, a militia affiliated with the Military Intelligence Branch (Shu’abat al-Mukharabat al-Askariya). This piece looks at another militia affiliated with regime intelligence: Quwat Dir’ al-Amn al-Askari (“The Military Security Shield Forces”). As the group’s name suggests, it is affiliated with al-Amn al-Askari (“The Military Security”), but it should be noted that there is no real difference between the Military Intelligence Branch and the Military SecurityIn the present day, the two names just refer to military intelligence affiliated with the Ministry of Defence, but at the provincial level the brand and nae of al-Amn al-Askari seem to be more recognisable. In the case of Quwat Dir’ al-Amn al-Askari, it appears that we can identify a more geographically specific affiliation: that is, branch 223 of the Military Security based in Latakia province. This branch has been identified before in the militiafication phenomenon for its involvement in the provision of arms and arm-bearing ID cards to members of the Popular Committees in Latakia province.

Quwat Dir’ al-Amn al-Askari first emerges as a military force around January 2016. This approximately correlates with the testimony of a source from Mihrac Ural’s al-Muqawama al-Suriya (“The Syrian Resistance”), which works closely with Quwat Dir’ al-Amn al-Askari in the ongoing fighting in Aleppo. The source, in a conversation in late July 2016, mentioned at the time that the group had been set up “several months ago.” The group’s pages on Facebook feature multiple phone numbers that one can connect with: the purpose of putting up these numbers is clearly recruitment. Indeed, this purpose was made apparent in one post put up by a page for the militia in mid-March 2016:

“Announcement: the door of recruitment within Quwat Dir’ al-Amn al-Askari is open for all sons of our beloved land. Your land is calling you: heed the call. To connect with us: 0933055137.”

Considering its specific affiliation, Quwat Dir’ al-Amn al-Askari’s first major engagement was unsurprisingly in north Latakia province in the January-February period as part of a Russian-backed offensive bolstered by multiple militias, including Suqur al-Sahara’, Liwa Usud al-Hussein and the Iraqi Shi’i Liwa Assad Allah al-Ghalib. Though this offensive gained significant ground against the rebels, it ultimately failed to expel them entirely from the province. Even so, the head of branch 223 of the Military Security based in Latakia province received an award from the Russian and Syrian commands on account of his supposed role in the operations and presence on the battlefield while rejecting media appearances.

Quwat Dir’ al-Amn al-Askari fighter in Kanasba, Latakia, posing outside what appears to be a Harakat Sham al-Islam base. Photo from February 2016.

It was also around this time that the militia advertised the bolstering of its ranks with new recruits:

“A new group from Quwat Dir’ al-Amn al-Askari. Success oh Lord.”

The next major campaign involved deployments from Latakia to the deserts east of Homs in order to participate the recapture of Palmyra from the Islamic State in March 2016. These operations featured recognisable appearances from a commander in Quwat Dir’ al-Amn al-Askari: a man going by the name of al-Khal Abu Ismail (al-Khal translating as “The Uncle”). There was also some display of brutality in featuring at least one photo with a severed head.


In the centre: al-Khal Abu Ismail.

The figure of al-Khal Abu Ismail is of particular interest. A biography of him notes that he is originally from Assad’s ancestral village of al-Qardaha in Latakia province, and that he was a companion of Ali Khazzam, who was a renowned commander in the Republican Guard killed in October 2012 (thus he is known by the title Amir al-Shuhada’: Prince of Martyrs). The biography also notes that he has fought in battles in Aleppo, Latakia countryside, Idlib, Hama, Damascus and Deraa. The biography adds that he has “fighting contingents in Aleppo, Latakia, Deraa, Damascus and Homs.”

al-Khal Abu Ismail. Note his armpatch: “The Republican Guard: The Martyr Ali Khazzam Battalion.”

Quwat Dir’ al-Amn al-Askari contingents continued to remain deployed in the Palmyra area through the rest of the spring and into the summer. In June 2016, some fighters participated in a regime offensive against the Islamic State launched from Athiriya Raqqa province that aimed to push towards the Tabqa area, backed by other militias like Suqur al-Sahara’, Fawj Maghawir al-Bahr and the Syrian Social Nationalist Party’s Nusur al-Zawba’a. This offensive ultimately failed, as the Islamic State launched a counter-attack and routed the regime forces and its allies from the province.

July 2016 saw reports of fighting on the part of Quwat Dir’ al-Amn al-Askari contingents in Latakia and the Aleppo city area. The former, which is ongoing, began with a rebel offensive that seized the locality of Kanasba by the start of July 2016.  The Aleppo fighting, which also continues to this day, is part of the regime’s initiative to try to encircle the rebel-held eastern part of the city and impose a siege, currently undermined by a Jaysh al-Fath-led counter-offensive that opened up a new corridor to eastern Aleppo via Ramouseh in the southwest of the city. The first phase of the operations involved fighting on the northern fronts of the city, including al-Melah, Bani Zaid and the Castello road. As mentioned previously, these operations have entailed close cooperation with the Syrian Resistance. As part of this phase, the Syrian Resistance affirmed at the end of July 2016 that it had sent up reinforcement contingents from Hama to reinforce the Castello road front, where cooperation was occurring alongside the Quwat Dir’ al-Amn al-Askari. A Quwat Dir’ al-Amn al-Askari Aleppo contingent leader presented in these accounts is one Mudar Makhlouf, who has long been known for his Military Security affiliation and appears to be most distinguished for leading Military Security militia contingents in Deir az-Zor, for which reason a fan page dedicated to him refers to him as Azra’il al-Dawa’ish (“The Angel of Death for the Da’ish people”) in reference to fighting between regime forces and the Islamic State.

A photo featuring Mudar Makhlouf (left) and Issam Zahr al-Din (right), a Druze commander in the Republican Guard deployed to Deir az-Zor.

As the Jaysh al-Fath counter-offensive made gains against the regime to the southwest of Aleppo city in early August, one of the Quwat Dir’ al-Amn al-Askari pages claimed that the group had sent 400 fighters to assist the Syrian army on the military colleges front in that area, though that initiative did not prevent the breaking of the siege. The militia has continued to claim involvement on the southwest Aleppo front particularly in the area of those military colleges, but the corridor opened by the rebels has not yet been fully closed. These operations, as in the earlier phase on the northern front, are being coordinated with the Syrian Resistance. Another force coordinating with Quwat Dir’ al-Amn al-Askari on this front is one known by the Arabic acronym Qadishwhich stands for Quwat al-Amn wa al-Da’am al-Sha’abi (“Popular Security and Support Forces”) . These forces serve as auxiliary militias affiliated with the Republican Guard.

For its efforts on the Aleppo front, the head of the 223 branch of Military Security has notably paid special tribute to Quwat Dir’ al-Amn al-Askari, further pointing to links between the two.

Finally, in terms of operations, it should be noted that a contingent of Quwat Dir’ al-Amn al-Askari under the field commander Hassan Mahfoudh (otherwise obscure) is reported to be deployed most recently to Hama province as part of countering the Marwan Hadid offensive in north Hama countryside led mainly by Jund al-Aqsa, Abna’ al-Sham and Jaysh al-Nasr.

A Quwat Dir’ al-Amn al-Askari fighter posing outside what appears to be a base for a rebel group in Latakia: Katibat Ahfad Omar. Photo from a personal account.

It can be seen from the overview of Quwat Dir’ al-Amn al-Askari that the military intelligence’s involvement in organizing militia efforts is not exactly a new phenomenon. This is foremost apparent in Mudar Makhlouf’s prior efforts in Deir az-Zor, as well as the military security Latakia branch’s prior interactions with the Popular Committees. That said, it appears the formation of Quwat Dir’ al-Amn al-Askari as a distinct formation and brand represents an attempt by the military intelligence branch in Latakia to build its influence, while fitting into the wider trend of compensating for manpower shortages on the regime side exacerbated by draft evasion.

Fawj Maghawir al-Badiya: A Military Intelligence Branch Militia

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

Emblem of Fawj Maghawir al-Badiya, with the militia’s name itself inscribed on the bottom. On top: “Military Intelligence Branch” (indicating the affiliation of the group). In the centre is the emblem of the Syrian Arab Republic, as well as the Syrian and Ba’ath Party flags.

The regime’s dependency on foreign and native militias to deal with manpower shortage issues and the decline of the regular army is well known. An immediate problem that arises with this phenomenon is a potential breakdown in order and control as militias take power on the ground into their own hands. A mechanism to try to minimize this problem is to have militias operate under some framework of the Syrian state. For example, some militias like the Homs-based Kata’ib al-Jabalawi (Jabalawi Battalions) and Leopards of Homs are affiliated with the al-Bustan Association of regime businessman Rami Makhlouf, who is also Bashar al-Assad’s cousin.

Another option is to turn to the state’s multiple intelligence agencies that can support and oversee militias. A prominent case-in-point is the Tiger Forces led by Suheil al-Hassan. Widely perceived to be an elite Syrian army unit, the Tiger Forces is actually a militia affiliated with the Air Intelligence (al-Mukhabarat al-Jawiya), which is unsurprising given Suheil al-Hassan’s own career that began in air defence and then moved to Air Intelligence. Indeed, as Aron Lund notes, Suheil al-Hassan “does not seem to control a huge force, instead relying on local troops and a smaller entourage of personal loyalists from varied backgrounds.”

Unlike the Tiger Forces, Fawj Maghawir al-Badiya (“The Desert Commandos Regiment”) that is the subject of this profile is not affiliated with the Air Intelligence, but rather the Military Intelligence Branch (Shu’abat al-Mukhabarat al-Askariya). The group should also not be confused with the similar-sounding Fawj Maghawir al-Bahr (“Navy Seals/Navy Commandos Regiment”), which is closely linked to Suqur al-Sahara’ (“The Desert Falcons”)- something illustrated by joint participation in a number of recent operations. Indeed, the leader of Fawj Maghawir al-Bahr is one Aymenn Jaber, who is the brother of Suqur al-Sahara’ leader Muhammad Jaber. It should also be noted that both groups were set up and provided training by the same person: Staff Brigadier Mohsen Sa’id Hussein, who was originally from the village of al-Sisiniya in Tartous governorate and killed in November 2014 in fighting around al-Sha’er field in Homs governorate. He notably played a military commander role in operations to push back the jihadist-led Latakia offensive in spring 2014, and in leading Suqur al-Sahara’ operations in the Homs desert he gained the nickname “Lion of the Desert.” He is also credited with the idea of setting up the Coastal Shield militia as well as being the reputed fonder of the Lions of the East (aka Tribal Army) militia composed of pro-regime Sha’itat tribesmen and other local recruits in Deir az-Zor province.

Fawj Maghawir al-Badiya appears to have at least one affiliate brand (namely, a brigade named for Sayyida Zainab). The militia is a more recent formation than Suqur al-Sahara’ and Fawj Maghawir al-Bahr. According to a representative for the group interviewed in late July 2016, Fawj Maghawir al-Badiya was set up 9 months ago: that is, dating back from July 2016, which would put the beginnings of the militia in the autumn of 2015. The same representative affirmed that the group’s most notable engagements so far include fighting in the Homs desert (e.g. Palmyra and Sha’er field) and the Aleppo battles. The former entails battles against the Islamic State, the latter battles against the rebels. Evidence for these engagements can be found in the open source realm. For example, earlier this month, a local ‘martyr’ from Aleppo  was claimed to have been in the group’s ranks and killed fighting in the Mashru’ 1070 area to the southwest of the city as regime forces and allies tried to prevent the rebels from breaking the siege of eastern Aleppo. In a similar vein, see here for a sample post on fighting in the Sha’er area involving Fawj Maghawir al-Badiya.

Iyad Muhammad Aqil, from al-Marana in Tartous governorate. Reported in late April 2016 to have been killed fighting for Fawj Maghawir al-Badiya in Palmyra area.

Like other pro-Assad Syrian militias and Iraqi Shi’a militias, Fawj Maghawir al-Badiya has advertised recruitment through social media- in particular Facebook- by putting up posts offering connection for recruitment principally via phone numbers, though direct messaging of the Facebook pages can also be available as an avenue for inquiry. In fact, recruitment advertisement for Fawj Maghawir al-Badiya was reiterated as recently as 27 August 2016, offering a monthly salary of $200. Besides the monetary incentive, the militia also promises taswiyat al-wada’ (“sorting out of affairs”). This reflects a wider trend of pro-Assad militias’ attempts to compensate for manpower shortages caused by draft avoidance, particularly in offering an amnesty of some kind for draft-dodgers who sign up. As part of a recruitment expansion campaign, a page for the militia reported in early July 2016 that Fawj Maghawir al-Badiya’s leader had ordered for the opening of offices in all the governorates for the purpose of recruitment.

A Fawj Maghawir al-Badiya office, reportedly located in the village of al-Aqrabiya in Homs governorate near the border with Lebanon, where a significant Shi’i population exists.

Closer view of one of the posters on the door, featuring the group’s emblem and its alternative moniker (Kata’ib al-Sheikh Suleiman al-Shwakh), about which more below.

Fawj Maghawir al-Badiya poster: “We have pledged allegiance to you [in reference to Bashar al-Assad]. Long live the Syrian Arab Army.”

Another Fawj Maghawir al-Badiya poster, with Hafez al-Assad on the left and Bashar al-Assad on the right. On left: “Peace on your soul.” On right: “We are the descendants of your father.”

In addition to recruitment offices, Fawj Maghawir al-Badiya has also claimed to open offices dealing with the affairs of “martyrs and wounded” (killed and wounded): that is, to provide care for the wounded and the relatives of those killed in fighting. This is a common administrative feature adopted by many armed factions including rebels and the Islamic State.

“Office to track the wounded and martyrs”- an office run by Fawj Maghawir al-Badiya, reportedly in al-Adawiya in Homs city.

Of particular interest is the leader of Fawj Maghawir al-Badiya, a man called Suleiman al-Shwakh (aka Abu Ali), from whose name derives another moniker for the militia: Kata’ib al-Sheikh Suleiman al-Shwakh (“Sheikh Suleiman al-Shwakh Battalions”), which appears in photos above from the group’s office in al-Aqrabiya. Suleiman al-Shwakh is originally from Raqqa (as he himself confirmed to me in conversations this month), and he says that he still has some relatives living under the rule of the Islamic State there, but thinks most of the people in Raqqa are with Bashar al-Assad. This latter assertion is questionable, but it is certainly true that regime loyalists have existed in Raqqa during the course of the Syrian civil war, and appear to have made their presence known even after the city came under Islamic State rule by 2014. Suleiman al-Shwakh adds that he undertook army service, and traces Fawj Maghawir al-Badiya’s founding slightly further back to a year ago.

For Suleiman al-Shwakh’s role in the operations to retake Palmyra and some of the countryside villages from the Islamic State, the Russians bestowed an award on him. According to Fawj Maghawir al-Badiya, the award was bestowed per direction from the military command in Moscow and presented by a Russian general overseeing Syrian forces operating in Palmyra.

Suleiman al-Shwakh (right) being presented with his award.

So far, Fawj Maghawir al-Badiya remains a relatively minor formation in terms of casualty numbers: Suleiman al-Shwakh claimed to me that the group has 25 ‘martyrs.’ However, the militia is an interesting case study of militias operating under the framework of the state’s intelligence agencies. While this mechanism appears to give a greater degree of control for the regime over militias and thus give the impression of more law and order on the regime side as opposed to the rebels, it is certainly possible for the various intelligence agencies to use their militia affiliates to compete with each other for influence and power in the regime rump state.

“Turkey’s Syria Intervention,” by Joshua Landis

Turkey’s Syria Intervention 
By Joshua Landis
August 28, 2016

Screen Shot 2016-08-28 at 10.44.03 AM

I answer questions asked me by a Turkish journalist.

  1. Has Turkey established a No Fly Zone over the Azaz-Jarablus pocket?

Turkey has established a No Kurd Zone over the Jarablus pocket, not a NFZ. The US has control of air. When it leaves, Russia will resume control over the airspace, not Turkey. This is undoubtedly why Russia and the Syrian government signed onto the intervention and why US planes flew cover for Turkish and Arab troops and not Turkish planes.

2. Do you think the US will stay and provide air cover in that area (between Azaz-Jarablus) for a long time? Don’t you think this (Turkey attacking Kurds) will bring Turkey, Russia and Assad closer to each other?

I doubt the US Air Force will play an active role in providing air cover in the area. My hunch is that Turkey and Russia have an understanding about non-interference in a specific region. But it does beg the question of what happens at the edges of that agreed upon area. All forces are likely to get draw into a quagmire of conflicting national agendas.

I doubt Turkey’s attack on the Kurds will bring Turkey, Russia and Assad closer to each other. Yes, Assad and Russia are pleased to see the Kurdish-American juggernaut stopped. Neither Syrian Arabs nor Turks want to see a contiguous Kurdish state stretching the length of Syria’s border with Turkey. All the same, Assad and Turkey remain bitter enemies. Turkey is promoting and arming rebel groups that plan to destroy Assad and conquer all of Syria. Assad hopes to drive Turkish backed groups from the country. The two will come into conflict sooner than later. Their common enmity for the Kurds is a bad foundation for understanding.

Turkey will become drawn into the Syrian quagmire. Kurdish groups and some Arab militias will begin to attack the Turkish presence in Syria. This will suck Turkey into the fighting. The Syrian gov & Russia will promote these attacks. They have an interest in bleeding Turkey. They hope it will make Ankara more amenable to compromise. Turkey has already been weakened by the burden of refugees, renewed war with the Kurds, exacerbated internal secular-religious (Sunni-Shiite) discord, the failed coup attempt, the collapse of its Zero Enemies policy, and a sinking economy. Sending Turkish forces into Syria is only likely to continue this downward spiral. Turkish direct participation in the Syria conflict is unlikely to lead to a solution. Rather it is likely to prolong Syria’s agony. If we have learned anything from the Syrian conflict it is that the more external actors are willing to provide money, arms and firepower to Syrian proxies, the longer the war will gone on and the less likely one side is to win.

3. If US insisted on Turkey’s operation, does this mean US didn’t expect Turkey to attack YPG? Now that Turkish forces are hitting them, do you expect US to withdraw its air support? 

The US made it clear to the YPG that it had to pull its forces back east of the Euphrates. This means that if they remain in the Menbij area or continue to try to build a continuous state between Afrin and Kobani, Turkey and its Arab militia allies will attack them. The main question today is whether the US will come to the YPG’s defense should Turkey or its proxies pursue it’s fighters east of the Euphrates.

4. Do assume Turkey will stay there for long?

I believe that Turkey will have to play a long-term role in northern Syria if it is to ensure the survival of its proxy militias and permanently keep out the YPG and Assad forces. They will not give up their ambitions to control the area. The Arab militias are a weak reed upon which to build a Turkish policy in Syria.

5. My last question is: Don’t you think that Turkey, Russia and Assad have reached an agreement? Ankara may have promised Putin that it will slowly withdraw its support for the Arab militias around Aleppo and will keep silent about Asad; whereas Putin may have approved Turkey’s operation and promised to withdraw its jets from that area and its support for the Kurds. What do you think?

Yes, indeed, the three governments seem to have struck an accord.  The Russians did not object to Turkey’s intervention to stop the YPG, suggesting an understanding. Of course, the Syrian government did object, but it had to.

This suggests that an agreement between the parties was arrived at. Russia and the Syrian government would insist that Turkey’s intervention be limited in scope. We still don’t know to what extent, or if Turkey has agreed to cut off arms supplies to the rebels. But we can assume that the softening of Turkey’s position that Assad must step down is part of this understanding. It is quite clear that the United States no longer expects the rebels to win in Syria. The Turkish government also seems to have resigned itself to the survival of the Assad government in the medium term if not indefinitely.

Turkey’s acceptance of Assad’s survival are the terms being demanded by Damascus for cooperation in thwarting YPG expansion. How far Erdogan will go in articulating such an acceptance or cutting off assistance to the rebels remains unclear.

Turkey’s direct entry into Syria does raise the likelihood that Syria will be partitioned between areas controlled by the government, Arab rebels and Kurds.

Syrian Hezbollah Militias of Nubl and Zahara’

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

The Syrian Shi’i towns of Nubl and Zahara’ to the north of Aleppo city, like other Shi’i areas in Syria, have been associated with support for the regime from the outset. In addition, given that the religious affiliation (Twelver Shi’i Islam) happens to coincide with that of Iran and its Lebanese client Hezbollah that are leading backers of the regime, Nubl and Zahara’ have become one of many areas for the building of the concept of a native Syrian Hezbollah and ‘Islamic Resistance’ (al-muqawama al-islamiya).

At least two Syrian Hezbollah militias I have documented elsewhere have recruited people from Nubl and Zahara’. One of these militias is the National Ideological Resistance (Jaysh al-Imam al-Mahdi, whose name translates as ‘The Imam Mahdi Army’). The militia’s home base is in the Tartous-Masyaf area, but it has also fought in the Aleppo area, recently claiming a ‘martyr’ in the latest round of engagements as the regime seeks to impose a siege on the rebel-held eastern parts of Aleppo city. Back in February 2015, the group claimed a ‘martyr’ originally from Zahara’ as part of fighting in the Ratyan area just to the east of Nubl and Zahara’. The other Syrian Hezbollah militia of relevance here is Quwat al-Ridha (The al-Ridha Forces, named for the eighth Shi’i imam). Like the National Ideological Resistance, its recruiting base primarily lies elsewhere: in this case, in the Homs area. However, it has also recruited some people from other areas including Nubl and Zahara’, as we will also see below.

Besides the aforementioned Syrian Hezbollah groups that have recruited people from Nubl and Zahara’, there exist at least two formations that have a similar image but are specifically intended to recruit from these two towns. The older formation is called Junud al-Mahdi (‘Soldiers of the Mahdi’), while the more recent formation is called Fawj al-Imam al-Hujja (‘Imam Hujja Regiment’, also a reference to the Mahdi). In terms of affiliation, there is no difference between these two groups. According to a person from Nubl presently residing in Damascus and another person from Nubl who was in Quwat al-Ridha but now works in Hezbollah’s information portfolio and is currently in Iran, both Junud al-Mahdi and Fawj al-Imam al-Hujja are affiliated with Hezbollah. These groups will be documented below.

For further context, it should be emphasized that recruitment for militias is not the only evidence of Hezbollah activity in the area: there also exists a branch of the group’s youth wing- the Imam Mahdi Scouts- that has apparently been operating since at least 2012. With organisation into area sectors as well as multiple contingents and sub-divisions, the Imam Mahdi Scouts engage in outreach to the local youth with activities like swimming trips, hiking and religious lessons including the promotion of Iran’s ideology of wilayat al-faqih. In March 2015, a leader in the Imam Mahdi Scouts from Nubl- Abdo Mahdi Saman– was killed in fighting. Interestingly, one source listing ‘martyrdoms’ among regime personnel in the Aleppo area at the time presented him as “from the men of the local defence,” adding that he was killed on the front of the periphery of Aleppo international airport. The ‘local defence’ here refers to the Local Defence Forces (LDF), regime auxiliary forces specific to Aleppo with roots in a variety of pro-Assad networks in the province. The LDF was set up in 2012 by Iran, and one of the formations in the LDF comes from Nubl and Zahara’. Thus, here in the case of Saman is a notable case of apparent overlap in affiliations pointing further to the links between the LDF and Hezbollah that I have previously examined in looking at the LDF in-depth.

Emblem of the Imam Mahdi Scouts for the Nubl and Zahara’ area. Note the Syrian flag in the emblem.

Junud al-Mahdi

A logo for Junud al-Mahdi. Besides the familiar extended arm and rifle associated with Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, a distinctly Syrian flavour is added through painting over the globe (which signifies the concept of the global Islamic Revolution envisioned by Iran) with the Syrian flag. The figures to the left of the arm and rifle are Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, Bashar al-Assad and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. On top: “The soldiers of the Mahdi are those who overcome” (a play on the concept of Hezbollah as “the party of God”- cf. ‘The party of God are those who overcome’- Qur’an 5:56). On bottom: “The Islamic Resistance in Syria.”

The exact date of the formation of Junud al-Mahdi remains unclear and open-source information on the group remains scarce, though one source currently in Nubl, who did not know the exact date of formation, said “possibly [the group dates] from the beginning of the Syrian crisis in Aleppo,” which would place its origins in 2012 if correct, perhaps around the same time Hezbollah set up the Imam Mahdi Scouts branch for Nubl and Zahara’. Clear references to Junud al-Mahdi can be found at least as far back as 2014. For example, a post from July 2014 mentions operations at the time against rebels to the northeast of Aleppo city (in particular the area of the industrial quarter of Sheikh Najjar and its vicinity) involving Junud al-Mahdi. In particular, there is mention of a “squadron of 100 persons from the elite of the youth of Nubl and Zahara’ under the name of Junud al-Mahdi, being aided by a group from Hezbollah.” Ultimately, these operations culminated in the rebels’ loss of the Sheikh Najjar area in early July 2014.

Later in 2014, a reference turns up for Junud al-Mahdi in relation to operations in a variety of locations in north Aleppo and Aleppo city, such as in Handarat, al-Jubeila and the cement factory area. Other formations mentioned at the time include a Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas contingent, and a Fawj Shuhada’ Nubl wa al-Zahara’ (Nubl and Zahara’ Martyrs Regiment), which appears to be the same as the local LDF formation for Nubl and Zahara’. Turning to the current year, it is possible to find at least one reference to Junud al-Mahdi, as per below.

“From the land of battle live: the finest youth of Junud al-Mahdi: Ratyan.” For context, the person responsible for this post, Abbas Assaf, comes from the local Assaf family of Nubl. Similarly, my source from Nubl who was in Quwat al-Ridha is also from the Assaf family. As with many militias in the Syrian civil war, fighters from Nubl and Zahara’ often come from the same families and households, as illustrated by recurring family names.

Graphic for the Assaf family of Nubl, incorporating the extended arm and rifle, playing on the idea of Hezbollah as the family’s “military wing” (al-junah al-askari).

Information on ‘martyrs’ of Junud al-Mahdi likewise remains obscure. A page named for Junud al-Mahdi and active in 2015 named a number of people apparently as ‘martyrs’ for the group. Some of these individuals can be matched with some members of a series of six ‘martyrs’ who were killed in the Ratyan area in February 2015 but were only buried in June 2015 following an exchange of bodies between the regime and rebels. Their ‘martyrdom’ placards notably featured the flag of Hezbollah.

Nahad Ahmad Dib

Hussein Mahdi

On left: Taher Mustafa Khatib

Fawj al-Imam al-Hujja

Emblem of Fawj al-Imam al-Hujja. On bottom: “Nubl and Zahara’.” As with the Junud al-Mahdi emblem, note the extended arm and rifle.

Fawj al-Imam al-Hujja is the newer Nubl and Zahara’ formation affiliated with Hezbollah. According to my source from Nubl who was in Quwat al-Ridha, Fawj al-Imam al-Hujja was formed approximately 8 months ago, which would put its formation in January 2016. It may reasonably be asked what was the purpose in setting up this group at the beginning of this year considering the already existing Hezbollah affiliate for Nubl and Zahara’ in Junud al-Mahdi. It is possible that Fawj al-Imam al-Hujja was set up to coincide with the intense push led by Shi’i militias at the time to break the rebel sieges of Nubl and Zahara’, a goal that was achieved at the beginning of February 2016. More generally, there is a familiar modus operandi here in the creation of multiple linked groups that can help to create the impression of a bigger overall front.

A distinct flag and distinct insignia can be identified for Fawj al-Imam al-Hujja, as seen below.



Ali Abd al-Ghanni al-Taqi, a fighter from Nubl recently announced to have been killed fighting in south Aleppo countryside. With the breaking of the siege of eastern Aleppo by rebel forces in opening a corridor through Ramousah in the southwest of Aleppo city, additional forces from Fawj al-Imam al-Hujja and Fawj Shuhada’ Nubl wa al-Zahara’ have reportedly mobilized to participate in the fighting.

Similar to Junud al-Mahdi, an official page to track Fawj al-Imam al-Hujja is lacking, and so information on its activities must be compiled from patches of different source material. In April 2016, at least 11 people from Nubl and Zahara’ were reported to have been killed fighting in the area of al-Eis in the south Aleppo countryside. From another source, at least 4 of the individuals listed can apparently be identified as members of Fawj al-Imam al-Hujja. The following month, it was reported that convoys from Fawj al-Imam al-Hujja, Fawj Shuhada’ Nubl wa al-Zahara’ and Fawj al-Tadakhkhul al-Khas were departing from Nubl and Zahara’ to support the Syrian army in Aleppo city. In June 2016, following the onset of Ramadan, another set of ‘martyrs’ from Nubl and Zahara’ were declared (not all killed on the same day), at least one of whom was identified in another posting as a member of Fawj al-Imam al-Hujja (specifically one Mansour al-Abras), identified as “a new martyr in the series of martyrs of Fawj al-Imam al-Hujja.” Finally, of note regarding the ‘martyrs’ of Fawj al-Imam al-Hujja, a commander called Ali Muhammad Mustafa Khalil (known by the nickname al-Zilzal) was announced on 9 July 2016 to have been killed. A more detailed biography subsequently emerged, which stated that he was from Nubl, was 34 years old and had two children. He had reputedly participated in the Aleppo fighting from the outset and eventually received a leadership position in Fawj al-Imam al-Hujja.


In terms of the building of the ‘Islamic Resistance’ in Syria, the Syrian Shi’i communities represent the most fertile ground for Hezbollah and Iran to give a native Syrian face to the concept, taking advantage of the shared religious affiliation and playing on the sectarian atmosphere, reinforced by sieges that the rebels have imposed on their villages. Though multiple local formations exist for the Nubl and Zahara’ area, the boundaries between them are unsurprisingly not so clear-cut, and it can be difficult to tell individuals apart by affiliation. In the end though, Syrian Shi’a are still a very small minority in the country. A big question in assessing the potential to build a Syrian ‘Islamic Resistance’/Hezbollah movement is how far there can also be successful outreach to other sects and components of society within regime-held Syria. In the predominantly Druze Suwayda’ province, for example, there have been concerns- especially among more third-way circles- regarding Iranian/Hezbollah outreach and a suspected Shi’ification campaign. These issues of wider networking will be examined further in future posts.

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

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

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.

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.


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.

“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.

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.


“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.

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

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

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.

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:




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.

“Who is to blame for Syria’s nightmare?” By Ehsani2

Who is to blame for Syria’s nightmare?
By Ehsani2
For Syria Comment, July 31

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Once the popular demonstrations of the Arab spring brought down the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt, many Syrians assumed that they could bring down President Assad just as quickly. Early in 2011, most expected him to last no more than a few months. Five and a half years later, Assad remains president.  In the 20th century, more than 30 leaders have ruled for over 30 years. Only 3 of them stepped down voluntarily. Ninety per cent clung to power until the bitter end. Instead of viewing the events in Egypt and Tunisia as a statistical anomaly, Syrians viewed them as the new norm. But as Syrians came to understand that Assad would not leave power voluntarily, they took up arms, hoping that force would succeed where peaceful demonstrations could not. Here too, most opposition members over-estimated their strength and underestimated the resources of the regime. In particular, they failed to understand the damage that the Iraq war had done to America’s appetite for a new adventure in the Middle East.

The White House

President Obama was elected twice by running on an anti-war platform. He promised to bring US troops home from both Afghanistan and Iraq. Military involvement in Syria went against his instincts. Allies like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey had other ideas. Almost immediately after the start of the events in Daraa, they pushed the White House to take a strong stand. Washington resisted for nearly 5 months.  This resistance ended on August 18 of 2011, when President Obama made a statement calling for the President of Syria to “step aside”.  The statement did not say “step down”.  The careful and deliberate debate over every word in the White House amounted to little however once the statement was made. Washington wanted Saddam gone and he was. Ditto for Gaddafi. The consensus in the Middle East has always been that the U.S. controls the region. Because the president of the United States announced that it was time for Assad to go, many believed it meant Assad’s end. Advisors inside the White House, however, were aware of the President’s deep reluctance to act. More importantly, Obama’s reluctance was driven by his belief that the United States has little strategic interest in Syria and his awareness that both Iran and Russia do. They view Syria as an important strategic asset worth fighting for. They would outbid any U.S. escalation. Obama saw Syria as a perilous adventure that the United States would not win. It took years for Assad’s enemies to understand Obama. Perhaps they can be excused to some extent by the president’s confusing statements about Assad and U.S. goals, but on the whole, anyone aware of how minimally important Syria has been to Washington compared to Moscow should not have been confused for long.

President Assad and the Syrian State

There is no denying that six years of fighting have taken a huge toll on the Syrian state. Yes, it has lost a massive amount of real estate. It has also suffered devastating losses in manpower. Syria lies in ruins. While the word “win” is vastly inappropriate here, the Syrian state can claim to have won if it defined wining by the simple fact of its survival. There is no question that this survival was accomplished because the state decided to use every asset at its disposal, often shocking the world with its brutality. Western and Syrian government perceptions this struggle have always been diametrically opposed. Western observers saw a state dropping barrel bombs on its own civilian centers; the Syrian government saw itself as the protector of the country. It was fighting jihadists, terrorists, and and traitors who were conspiring with foreign governments to topple it. Damascus’ survival has been secured by allies that never wavered. This commitment culminated with the stunning decision of Russia to become a direct military combatant in the conflict.  Shockingly, early calls for Assad to step aside did not stop after the Russian entry. The new logic seemed to be that Moscow would pressure Assad to leave as part of its diplomatic rapprochement with the U.S. During a recent interview, Assad was asked if Putin had discussed the issue of transition with him. He flatly denied that such a discussion ever took place. Moscow and Damascus have largely identical views on the conflict and how to resolve it. Asking Assad to step down is not part of this calculus. Russian diplomats may claim that they are not wedded to Assad in the course of public and private conversations, but they do not bring this topic up with him.

The Syrian opposition

The Syrian opposition has long argued that it followed non-violent principals early in the uprising. The eventual recourse to arms was made in order to protect civilian lives and honor (aarad) from state brutality. Government loyalists counter that the uprising was armed almost from the beginning. What is indisputable is that between June 4th and 6th, nearly 120 Syrian soldiers and security troops were killed and had their bodies mutilated and thrown in a river around the town of Jisr-al-Shugour. Opposition activists claimed at the time that the dead soldiers were shot by their own superiors as they tried to defect. This was incorrect. According to informed western sources, electronic interception of opposition communication from that day clearly revealed that opposition fighters took responsibility for the murder of the soldiers. The same western source recalls how his capital expected a massive and blistering response from Assad against the city. Instead, they were surprised to see a far more modest attack as military vehicles and tanks took positions on the outskirts of the city in an effort to find the perpetrators of this crime against the soldiers.

In response to the apparent increased militarization of the opposition early in the conflict, I wrote an article for Syria Comment in February of 2012, titled “The Syrian opposition must find a different way”.  Here is the conclusion:

What is needed is a smart and innovative strategy that helps spare lives but convinces Syria’s leaders that the old ways of doing business are over. Popular efforts must be spent in writing a new constitution, a bill of rights to calm minority fears, and an economic plan to reassure the business community and workers alike. The standard of living of most Syrians is appalling, so is the education level and health care system. The opposition must channel their energies towards such topics rather than the senseless call to arm the rebels in what is clearly a suicide mission.

Sadly, under the pretext of protecting lives and honor, the opposition instead opened its arms to anyone willing to join the fight. Salafists, jihadists, and Al Qaeda and its affiliates were invited into the country in order to fight the regime and balance the unequal power equation.  Alarmed by these trends, I spoke with a leading member the Syrian National Coalition. My concerns were invariably dismissed. I was assured that these fighters and extremist groups were transitory. Once the regime fall, I was told, they would leave Syria or move on.

To be fair, referring to the “opposition” as if it were one movement is misleading. The opposition is best viewed as a spectrum. ISIL and Nusra aresituated on its right while activists, such as Haytham Manaa and groups like his, are situated on its left.  The groups on the left had a nuanced solution to the crisis which was largely built on the notion that Assad could stay but on condition that his powers be limited. They wanted him to give up control over the many Syrian intelligence agencies. While the left emphasized non-violent principles, they overestimated their power to influence thinking in Damascus. For the right on the opposition spectrum, Assad’s immediate departure was the overriding demand. Sadly, the U.S. and other western governments threw their weight behind these groups which have by now come to occupy the middle of the rainbow.

Screen Shot 2016-07-31 at 5.45.05 PMThe Syrian coalition and military commanders, such as Colonel Abdul Jabaar al-Aqidi, were the principal allies of the west. Pictures of the Colonel standing with foreign jihadists who belonged to the Islamic State during the capture of Kuweiris air base and subsequently standing with Ambassador Robert Ford became iconic of Washington’s confused strategy in Syria. Many accused Washington of indirectly supporting the same jihadists that it sought to destroy. This doomed policy was a result of conflicting goals. The West and its regional allies wanted stability and regime-change at the same time. They wanted to support a Sunni ascendancy in Syria without undermining secularism. On the ground, however, the extreme right side of the opposition spectrum kept moving left and swallowing all others in its path. To date, the main elements of the opposition blame President Obama for the Syrian crisis. They propose a variety of policy alternatives, such as bombing Damascus, destroying the Syrian air force, establishing no-fly-zones, and increasing money, arms, and training for the opposition. These critics are now placing their bets on Hillary Clinton, who promises to be more hawkish than Obama. They hope that she will tilt U.S. foreign policy more decisively in the direction of regime-change. Her campaign advisors suggest that Hillary may indeed move in this direction. But any escalation by Washington is only likely to produce an even stronger escalation by Moscow. Hillary’s campaign promises are likely to be moderated once she is president.

The Syrian opposition members who bet that Assad would be quickly deposed in 2011 are now largely spectators. Their country lies in ruins. Their goal of bringing down the state (Isqat al-nizam) looks as far as ever from being achieved. And Salafists control the fighting on the ground. Like all conflicts that turn armed and violent, the most militant and extreme end up elbowing the more moderate aside. Burhan Ghalioun and Haytham Manaa have been replaced by Caliph Baghdadi and Mohammed al-Jolani. Rebels have been replaced by mujahedin. Without a single exception, every armed group today is committed to ruling by sharia law. This is why Assad and his supporters will refuse to give up and continue fighting. Syrians, unfortunately, have a long fight in front of them. Miscalculation has led to Syria’s ruin.



“What the Rebel Loss of Aleppo Will Mean for Syria,” by Landis, Heras, Lund & Abdulhamid

What the Rebel Loss of Aleppo will mean for Syria?
Four Analysts respond – Joshua Landis, Nicholas Heras, Aron Lund and Ammar Abdulhamid

Aleppo Reenforces Regime Claims to Be Able to Retake Most of Syria

By Joshua Landis – Director, Center for Middle East Studies, Univsity of Oklahoma

The encirclement of Eastern Aleppo by the Syrian military and its allies is a major blow to the opposition. It reenforces regime aspirations that it can manage, if not entirely destroy the insurgency over the course of the next five years. It signifies four important developments that have been brewing for some time.

First, this major regime advance was made possible by Russia’s direct entry into the war. Russia transformed the balance of power in Syria by taking the side of the Assad regime last October. What is more, it resulted in a retreat of the United States and its allies. President Obama stated on the day Russia entered the war, that the United States would not fight a proxy war with Russia for Syria. That simple statement signaled the collapse of Western, Saudi and Turkish escalation in Syria on behalf of the Sunni militias. The logic of escalation was simple. It was to weaken Assad and force him to cut a deal with the Sunni militias. It was hoped that a political solution could lead to a Sunni rebel ascendancy in Syria. Regime advances put paid to opposition hopes that their allies would help drive Assad from Syria.

Second, Turkey is in chaos. All indications are that Erdogan, once he consolidates his power in Ankara and completes his purges of the Turkish security forces, judiciary and universities, will de-escalate in Syria. Turkey must stop its economic downward spiral. To do so, it must stop its wars. To rebuild tourism and foreign investment and consolidate support among Turkey’s middle classes, Erdogan must fight extremism. Prime Minister insists that Turkey will repair relations with Russia.  Erdogan can no longer afford to provide covert support to most of Aleppo’s rebel forces, including al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra and other Salafi-Jihadist groups such as Ahrar al-Sham. This is why Nusra leader, Joulani, recently announced that he was officially cutting ties with al-Qaida central. He doesn’t want to get bombed.

Third, the US and Western countries have prioritized their fight against ISIS and extremism over their efforts to arm rebel militias.  In both US presidential conventions, not one word about removing Assad from power was heard. The West’s enthusiasm for arming “moderate” militias has cooled because so much of those arms ended up in the hands of Nusra and the Salafists. Obama’s recent efforts to formulate a common strategy with Russia to fight ISIS and Nusra has sent a clear signal to the entire region that stability, not regime-change, are paramount for both. This is good news for Assad and bad for the rebels.

Forth, the reconquest of Aleppo fits into the larger regime strategy by consolidating its grip on what has been called “Useful Syria.” More than half of Syria’s population lives in its four great cities: Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo. The regime is intent on retaking these four cities for they are the heart of the nation, certainly the urban nation. It should be remembered that Syria is a country of deep divisions, not only between religious communities but also between the classes and between urban and rural society. The upper and middle classes live in the cities. By restricting the rebellion to the poorer countryside and tribal regions, Damascus will have scored a moral and strategic victory. It will be able to turn rich against poor and city against village.

Syria’s rebels have grown progressively weaker over the last year. Russia’s entry into Syria was key to this shift. But other trends also contributed. Jihadist bombings in the West, Turkey and Saudi Arabia eroded support for arming rebels. The refugee problem in Europe, also undermined the desire to escalate in Syria. Iraq’s destruction of its Sunni rebellion weakened Syria’s rebels. The rise of ISIS and Nusra to paramountcy in Syria, undercut those arguing for arming rebels. For all of these reasons, the future looks dark for the rebel cause. Assad’s encirclement of Aleppo is an important chapter in Syria’s ongoing struggle.

Nicholas A. Heras
Bacevich Fellow at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), who helped author the center’s new report on combatting ISIS and dealing with Syria.
Losing Aleppo would not be a deathblow to the broader Syrian armed opposition movement,  as too much of the country has fallen out of Assad’s control to the various different revolutionary forces. And Bashar al-Assad is highly unlikely to import enough IRGC-mobilized militias to hold all of the ground that might be retaken from the rebels throughout the country. Perhaps even within the larger Aleppo governorate itself. However the loss of Aleppo would dispel any illusions that the armed opposition can seize and hold large areas of the most important cities in western Syria. Or that the long-sought unity of Aleppo’s rebel factions to resist Assad, over the long term and without significantly greater foreign military intervention than it has received, was anything more than a daydream.
The loss of rebel-held areas of Aleppo would be a big boost to the al-Assad government’s Narrative of Resistance, and for its assertions that it is marching inexorably toward an ultimate triumph in the war against a foreign conspiracy directed at Syria. It would also reinforce the idea within the upper echelon of the loyalist ranks that Assad’s forces (and their foreign friends) can “win” the war, even if it will be over the course of a long, twilight struggle. Further, a long siege of of opposition-controlled Aleppo would also draw out the horrible suffering of civilians in the rebel-held areas of the city. This suffering, which would play out before the eyes of the international community on an hourly basis, could very well be the death knell of opposition-supporting countries’ credibility with the armed opposition. And it just might be the final push that unites the disparate rebel factions in northern Syria under the banner of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.

Assad Hopes to Make Aleppo a Turning Point in the War
by Aron Lund
Nonresident Associate Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Unless somehow rolled back by the rebels, Assad’s reconquest of eastern Aleppo could turn into a very drawn-out siege, which would no doubt have horrifying effects for the civilian population. But the effects are not just humanitarian or even military, there’s also a political side to this. If Assad shows that he is winning Aleppo, and he’s now also advancing on the rebels in Damascus, it could trigger a more dramatic shift by finally convincing opposition groups that they have lost the war. Many thousands of them would probably fight on regardless, for ideological reasons or simply because they see no hope for survival under Assad. But some might decide to abandon the fight and flee Syria or try to negotiate a separate peace with the government.

One problem with that is that Assad has historically shown himself to be too politically inflexible to capitalize on his military victories. This has been a constant source of frustration for his allies, but it just seems to be the way the regime works. Now, there are some signs of a more intelligent political management this time around. Assad has just decreed an amnesty for rebels who hand in their guns within three months. It’s probably in the hope of triggering defections, and also to show Syrians and foreigners alike that he can in fact reintegrate former enemies and would therefore be able to reunify Syria. But given the lawless way in which his security forces have always acted, I suspect many will think twice before taking him on his word.

Perhaps most importantly, if Assad cements his hold on Aleppo through a siege or even by retaking it in part or in full, that could be the moment when certain foreign backers of the rebellion decide to call it a day. No one is going to rush to embrace Assad after all of this and nations that have developed strong proxy forces in Syria will be reluctant to abandon their investments. But it does change the political horizon for the rebels’ backers. In my view, it is not realistic to expect countries like Turkey or Saudi Arabia – never mind the United States – to first let the rebels lose Aleppo and then rally the force needed for them to take it back. They’re not going to start from scratch again. When it’s gone, it’s gone, and the only thing that can change that is if the government itself has an internal meltdown. So without Aleppo, it is a different war and probably one in which some of his enemies will think differently about Assad’s role. Not all, but some of them, and that might be enough to alter the terms of the conflict.

(The text above was first written in response to a question from Associated Press, which quotes parts of it in this story on the encirclement of Aleppo.)

The Loss of Aleppo – A Pyrrhic Victory
By Ammar Abdulhamid – He was a fellow at Brookings and the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. He was the first Syrian to testify to congress against what he viewed as crimes by the Syrian president.

The loss of Aleppo will constitute a major blow to rebels in Syria, but it will neither end the rebellion nor the civil war. In fact, feeling betrayed and let down by their allies, many rebels, in Aleppo and elsewhere, will be radicalized, far more than they are today. This means that the ranks of the Islamic State, Al-Nusra Front and other terrorist groups, even as they face their own existential challenges, will swell, and other fronts will heat up.
Damascus in particular can expect serious escalations, as attacks against the civilian population, and on vital infrastructure, such the all too vulnerable water supply sources and routes, are bound to increase. Aleppo itself will not be completely pacified, and some reversals should be expected. In some instance, the besiegers could find themselves besieged, at least by terror. Few will stay not to mention return. Most of the city will be a deserted wasteland, and its ethnic makeup will be drastically altered.
On the political level, opposition groups will have another thing to cry foul about. But their cries, as usual will continue to fall on deaf ears.
Irrespective of popular impressions and populist agitation, Syrian refugees in neighboring countries as well as Europe have actually been well-behaved, and have so far refrained from taking part in any criminal or terrorist activities. The fall of Aleppo could change that as desperation sets in. And the tragic Syrian saga of letting worst case scenarios become self-fulfilling prophecies will continue, aided by continued reliance on short-sighted policies that fail to even tackle the symptoms not to mention fight the disease.
In short, the loss of Aleppo will constitute a pyrrhic victory than a decisive blow, and could heat things up rather than calm them down. The Syrian conflict will not end in accordance with any existing vision or plan, even one backed by Russia and the United States. After all, regional forces have been the main drivers of the conflict, and they are not ready to end it yet.

“Educating Syrian Refugees in Turkey,” by Salih Yasun

Screen Shot 2016-07-23 at 11.43.22 AMThe Educational Opportunities and Challenges of Syrian Refugee Students in Turkey: Temporary Education Centers and Beyond
By Salih Yasun*
For Syria Comment, July 25, 2016

Almost 3,000,000 Syrians have fled to Turkey since the Syrian uprising began. Approximately 880,000 of those are school-age. 45% of those, or more than 400,000, attend school.[1]

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Syrian refugee students in Turkey who are in preschool or first grade attend only Turkish schools. They do so through a government mandate. After first grade, they face two main options for for education from grade two to twelve. Syrian students can choose to attend either Turkish public schools or temporary education centers. Temporary education centers (TEC) are primary and secondary education centers that provide educational opportunities for school-age Syrian children in Turkey (MEB, 2014). These schools use Arabic as the medium of instruction; they follow a curriculum designed by the Ministry of Education of the Syrian Interim Government and modified by the Turkish Ministry of Education.[2] Currently, approximately 78% of Syrian refugee students attend TEC, and 22% attend other schooling institutions, consisting of mainly Turkish public institutions.[3] In order for students to register at TEC, they need to obtain an international protection ID from a nearby police station. Students can physically attend classes at TEC even if they do not have IDs provided by the Directory of Police if they provide basic information to TEC officials through personal statements. However, students still need to obtain IDs to be able to receive diplomas and grade reports. To be placed in the appropriate classroom at TEC, students need to prove their academic trajectory in Syria or take a placement exam. These exams are not uniform as each TEC has its own exam with different questions. The score of the exam determines the placement of the student into a grade level. Students wishing to transfer to Turkish schools are automatically placed in the nearest Turkish school in proximity of their residence. However, cases of transition remain significantly low. Students who complete their education at TEC can attend in Turkish universities if they succeed through Baccalaureate and YÖS examinations.

The support for TEC comes from different agents such as NGOs, local municipalities, the Ministry of Education, and private donations. The services provided by such agents have included scholarships, meals, transportation, activities for students, wages for teachers, and spaces for education. However, the support is still not sufficient for many TEC to cover the expenses of education. TEC are commonly located in office blocks, NGO buildings, and Turkish public school buildings.

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The basic challenges of TEC can be categorized under three groups. The first group consists of the challenges related to the accessibility to education, which are also relevant for the accessibility to education at public schools. The second group consists of the challenges with the quality of education at TEC, and the third group consists of the challenges of transferring to public schools or universities from TEC. The challenges faced in accessing to education can be summarized as follows:

An important segment of students has to work to cover the living expenses of their families. Some TEC organized conditional aid programs to provide aid for families of students while returning students to TEC. However, the conditional aid programs remain very limited in scope nationwide. Students and parents may not know about educational opportunities in Turkey. The Ministry of Education has coordinated with UNICEF to provide information regarding educational opportunities to students and their parents. School fees can prevent the access to education for many students. Although education is free for refugee children, most TEC are dependent on donations from students with wealthier parents. As a result, in some cases these TEC may choose to admit students whose parents could provide donations over those who could not. This could prevent the orphans or children of poor families from accessing the educational opportunities. Many TEC have not provided uniforms to students. This may prevent students without appropriate clothing from accessing the educational opportunities. This problem is especially acute for girls. Some parents have discriminatory views about girls’ educational attainment, which hinder girls from accessing the educational opportunities.

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The challenges associated with the quality of education can be examined under the topics such as the provision of counseling services, Turkish language education, the quality of teachers, and the provision of educational materials.

Refugee children’s exposure to violence might lead them to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).[4] TEC need counselors that can assist students experiencing PTSD. A majority of TEC do not have counselors or the existing counselors are insufficient in meeting the needs of students. Male students tend to be more comfortable consulting with male counselors whereas female students were more comfortable consulting with female counselors. At some TEC all of the counselors are male and at some other all of the counselors are female.

Currently, students at TECs receive four to five hours of Turkish education per week. At some TEC the Turkish education is provided by volunteers free of charge, at others the expenses of Turkish teachers are covered by the TEC or NGOs. The Turkish education is considered insufficient because of the low quantity of language hours the lack of quality of teachers in teaching Turkish to non-native speakers. In addition, the reliance on volunteers may also hinder the language acquisition process due to the absentees of teachers. The opportunities for students at TEC to speak Turkish outside of the classroom is also very limited. The Ministry of Education is providing training for teachers in teaching Turkish to non-native speakers. The Syrian teachers at TEC utilize teacher-centered methodologies with great emphasis on memorization, which hinder the adjustment process of students to the Turkish educational system.

Currently, the Ministry of Education of the Syrian Interim Government provides the textbooks for courses other than Turkish free of charge to the students of TEC. Some TEC provide Turkish language textbooks free of charge, whereas some others charge fees. Some TEC do not provide Turkish language textbooks. Many of the TEC lack the basic science equipment.

Students face some problems in transferring from TEC to public schools. Although the curriculums are close, there are some discrepancies. For instance, a subject might be taught at the 5th grade at TEC but at the 4th grade at public schools, which could add extra challenges to the adjustment phases of Syrian students transferring to Turkish schools. Another problem is the lack of information about the accreditation exams. In the last education year students were given almost no information prior to the exam which prevented students from studying for the exam effectively. At some public schools Turkish teachers and counselors do not pay proper attention to the education of Syrian students despite the fact that Syrian students, many of whom lack the proper Turkish language skills, require more attention than their Turkish peers to succeed in the classroom. In addition, deeply established discriminatory views exist among the Turkish community towards Syrians, which prevent Syrian students’ integration among their Turkish peers.

The problems at TEC can be solved through coordination between NGOs, TEC, ministries and municipalities. Students can be provided with daily meals at TEC to lessen the financial burden of families and incentivize families to send their children to TEC. Special TEC can be opened to target students who have missed years of schooling in order to help them to catch up their peers. The conditional aid programs can be expanded. Transportation means and uniforms can be provided. The ministry of education can open vocational training programs that can enable refugee students to provide meaningful income for their families while earning valuable skills that they can transfer to their home countries.

The wages of teachers can be increased above the minimum wage and provided for 12 months in order to ensure that the highly skilled teachers continue practicing their profession. The number of trained counselors can be increased, with the goal of having at least one female and one male counselor to ensure that both male and female students can access counseling services. Once this is accomplished, the student/counselor ratio can be lowered. Turkish instruction hours can be increased. Turkish language books and basic science equipment can be provided. Sister school projects can be established between TEC and public schools which can enable Turkish and Syrian students to interact with their peers. The teachers at TEC can receive orientation on student-centered teaching methodology.

Free YÖS courses can be opened and the contextual differences between Syrian and Turkish curriculums can be removed to ensure smooth transitions to public schools and universities. Students can be informed in a timely manner regarding the accreditation exams. Orientation services can be provided to teachers and principals at public schools regarding the refugee education. The visibility of Syrian community and refugee students in the public can be increased by providing public service broadcasts focusing on Syrians in Turkey.

* Salih Yasun is a PhD student at the political science department of Indiana University and a graduate of Sabancı University’s master’s program in political science. e-mail syasun@umail.iu.edu

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[1] Interviews with government officials.

[2] The current curriculum mimics the curriculum utilized in Syria prior to the Civil War. The material in favor of Assad dynasty, Baas party and some controversial elements about Syria-Turkey relations have been excluded from the current curriculum.

[3]Estimations based on Emin, M. N. (2016). “Türkiye’deki Suriyeli Çocukların Eğitimi, Temel Eğitim Politikaları.” SETA.

[4] Brown, D. (1996). “Counseling the victims of violence who develop posttraumatic stress disorder.”

Liwa al-Imam al-Mahdi: A Syrian Hezbollah Formation

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

An emblem of Liwa al-Imam al-Mahdi (The Imam Mahdi Brigade): “Liwa al-Imam Mahdi: The Imam Ali Battalion. The Islamic Resistance in Syria.” Note the classic extended arm and arm associated foremost with Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. The quotation above the rifle reads: “Indeed the party of God are the ones who overcome” (Qur’an 5:56), a play on ‘Hezbollah’ (The party of God).

The Syrian civil war has seen the rise of a number of formations that promote the idea of building a native Syrian Muqawama Islamiya (‘Islamic Resistance’) and Hezbollah. Examples include Quwat al-Ridha (recruiting mainly from Shi’a in the Homs area), the National Ideological Resistance (based in Tartous/Masyaf area), the Ja’afari Force (recruiting mainly from Damascene Shi’a) and al-Ghalibun. Liwa al-Imam al-Mahdi, referring to the twelfth Shi’i Imam, is another group along these lines. For comparison, the National Ideological Resistance also has the label Jaysh al-Imam al-Mahdi (The Imam Mahdi Army).

Liwa al-Imam al-Mahdi appears to have at least two sub-components: the Imam Ali Battalion and the Special Operations al-Hadi Battalion. The information available on Liwa al-Imam al-Mahdi through social media is patchy at best, but I was able to speak to the commander of the Imam Ali Battalion, who goes by the name of al-Hajj Waleed and is from Ba’albek in the Beqaa Valley in Lebanon. According to al-Hajj Waleed (who is a member of Hezbollah), Liwa al-Imam al-Mahdi was set up two years ago by Hezbollah and has recruits from all of Syria. Of course, this latter assertion is a fairly standard rhetorical line. Private Facebook accounts run by those associated with Liwa al-Imam al-Mahdi largely point to origins in western Syria.

The commander added that the group has participated in a number of battles, including Deraa, Quneitra, Ghouta, Aleppo and the Ithiriya-Raqqa route. Some of these operations (e.g. fighting in south Aleppo countryside and positions on the Ithiriya hills) have been mentioned on social media. More images of relevance can be found below.

Abu Hadi, the leader of the al-Hadi Battalion. His real name appears to be Rani Jaber and he is Syrian (specifically from Deraa). Note his Liwa al-Imam al-Mahdi armpatch. The al-Hadi Battalion claims at least two squadrons: the first led by ‘al-Saffah’ and the second led by ‘Abu Ali Karar.’

Fighters posing with the flag of Liwa al-Imam al-Mahdi (The Imam Ali Battalion). Identical with the emblem at the top of the article.

Liwa al-Imam al-Mahdi fighters in Aleppo. Note their armpatches.

Liwa al-Imam al-Mahdi (The Imam Ali Battalion) fighters as part of preparations for “the battle of the north” (according to a source that posted this photo and others in early June 2016). This likely refers to participation in the Aleppo fighting.

Liwa al-Imam al-Mahdi (al-Hadi Battalion) fighters. Note the portrait immediately behind them featuring the Syrian flag design. Portrait on top: “Come and behold me, for I am the sister of Hussein. At your service, oh Zaynab” (latter phrase in Arabic- Labbayk ya Zaynab– referring to Sayyida Zaynab, a central figure in Shi’i jihadi discourse on account of the concept of defending her shrine in the Damascus area).

Al-Hajj Waleed

Photo from al-Hajj Waleed featuring the flag of Liwa al-Imam al-Mahdi (The Imam Ali Battalion). The portrait on the wall reads: “Oh Zaynab al-Kubra” (‘al-Kubra’ a common epithet given to Sayyida Zaynab).

The leader of the al-Hadi Battalion with a sword on the design of Imam Ali’s Dhu al-Fiqar. The text inserted into the photo reads: “Liwa al-Mahdi: remaining on the pledge, al-Hadi Battalion.”

A Liwa al-Imam al-Mahdi member: note the armpatch featuring Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamene’i. This affinity should not be surprising considering the group’s connection to Hezbollah, which is itself ideologically loyal to Khamene’i.

In the red chair: Muhammad Jaber (Abu Zayd), brother of Rani Jaber. Note the Hezbollah insignia on the person standing next to him.

In total, Liwa al-Imam al-Mahdi’s contribution to the fighting in Syria seems similar in scale to that of the Ja’afari Force and the National Ideological Resistance. Al-Hajj Waleed gave his toll of killed (‘martyrs’) and wounded at 25 and 55 respectively. Thus, the military capabilities of these groups should not be exaggerated, but it is apparent how Hezbollah is trying to project influence into Syria through the creation of multiple formations and brands in order to recruit Syrians.

The Boy Beheaded by Zinki Fighters, Abdullah Tayseer, Who Was He? – By Ehsani2

The Boy Beheaded by Zinki Fighters, Abdullah Tayseer, Who Was He?
By Ehsani2
For Syria Comment, July 22, 2016

The video of the beheading of the young Syrian boy by the Zanki group in Aleppo caused widespread public shock. Since the appearance of the video, the boy’s identity has been the subject of much speculation.  This account of his identity is based on hours of conversations with Aleppo residents who knew the deceased, personally.

The boy’s name is Abdullah Tayseer, as has been widely reported. A copy of his ID has been circulating online.

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While the ID states that he is born in 1997, which would make him 19 years old, he is actually 14. The reason for the discrepancy is because the only way he could obtain this type of ID was for him to be above the age 18. He lied to get it. The person or group that issued him the ID most likely knew his true age. Sadly, as this war has gone on, young men have joined fight. The coalition representing the Syrian opposition released a communique deploring the use of child soldiers by the Syrian government. The communique failed, of course, to look into how widespread this practice has been among the armed groups.

The Zanki group that beheaded Abdullah Tayseer claimed that he was working for the Quds brigade, which is true. His ID, however, shows his affiliation to be with Air Force Intelligence. The reason for this discrepancy is that the ID he had on him was out of date. He joined the Quds Brigade a month ago, but was yet to be issued a new ID by this group.

Abdullah was Palestinian and not Syrian. He had accompanied a group of fighters to Handarat. As the fighting intensified, he could not escape and was caught by the Zanki fighters as a number of the videos have shown. Most fighters who were captured have been held under arrest until they could be used in prisoner exchanges. This may explain why Abdullah seems to have been medically treated first. The group that is seen taking selfies with him before he was killed decided to punish him after taunting him repeatedly on video. The Zanki fighter who performed the beheading was reportedly angry at having seen his own brother killed recently in Handarat. Personally beheading this 14 year old was his way of extracting revenge.

The United States, which has previously provided military support to the Nour al-Din al-Zinki Movement, said it was “seeking more information” and that it could not confirm the “appalling report” at a press briefing on Tuesday.

“If we can prove that this was indeed what happened and this group was involved… it would give us pause about any assistance or, frankly, any further involvement with this group,” state department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters.