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.

Comments (79)

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51. ALI ALWAHSH said:

Where did the Kurds migrate from?

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August 23rd, 2016, 9:47 pm


52. eugene said:

Wikipedia has a chronology of the kurds, to #51.

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August 23rd, 2016, 11:14 pm


54. Ghufran said:

Turkish tanks are inside Syria now

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August 24th, 2016, 8:45 am


55. Majedkhaldoun said:

Major operation by Turkey in Syria , this will get rid of Pyd west of Furat river, and get rid of ISIS , as I said before get rid of ISIS is half way to get rid of Assad ,
Neither Assad regime nor PYD nor ISIS are happy , they are angry, this action by Turkey will leave Assad with two choices , either accept negotiations or accept division of Syria

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August 24th, 2016, 12:58 pm


56. Tara said:

Where is passerby ?

Now with the liberation of جرابلس ، is Assad winning and Erdogan losing ?

Come on . Please tell us that Assad is winning .

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August 24th, 2016, 5:53 pm


57. Tara said:

I am not against حقوق الأكراد

بس بيستاهلوا اللي صار فيهم

وهي باعتهم اميركا وروسيا

وخسروا الشعب السوري

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August 24th, 2016, 5:56 pm


58. ALI ALWAHSH said:

It’s not a liberation or occupation act of جرابلس city. The Turks coordinated with Damascus via 3rd and 4th party, and we’re happy for them to lead the war against the Kurd separatists. This move is in accordance with appendix (23C) of Adana Agreement 1998, beside Damascus has received guarantees that the Turks will withdraw after crushing the Kurds.

Actually high ranking Turkish officials dined kebba wo Mashawi in Damascus two weeks ago.

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August 24th, 2016, 6:48 pm


59. Tara said:

أدانت وزارة الخارجية في حكومة النظام اليوم الأربعاء، دخول الدبابات التركية إلى الأراضي السورية ضمن معركة “درع الفرات” لتحرير مدينة جرابلس من أيدي تنظيم الدولة.

وقالت خارجية النظام على لسان مصدر مسؤول فيها نقلته وسائل الإعلام الموالية، إن “الجمهورية العربية السورية تؤكد أن محاربة الإرهاب على الاراضي السورية من أي طرف كان يجب أن تتم من خلال التنسيق مع الحكومة السورية والجيش العربي السوري الذي يخوض هذه المعارك منذ اكثر من خمس سنوات”.

Turkish artillery in Syria creating de facto safe zone and the regime is condemning but ASSAD IS STILL WINNING 🙂

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August 24th, 2016, 8:18 pm


60. ALAN said:

الأكراد يوزنون قوة لا يستهان بها لدى أربعة دول في الأقليم ، و هم أمة عددها أكثر من تعداد سكان العراق ، و من البديهي أن تقوى سورية بهم و تضعف بدونهم. لم يبيع الأكراد أحدا لا روسيا و لا أمريكا و لا سورية. حقوقهم كانت و لا تزال محفوظة في الدستور السوري و بالممارسة. و لم يحصل معهم الا ماحصل مع كل السوريين بدون تمييز. بل على العكس لقد ساعدهم الأكراد الأتراك عبر الحدود. أما عن جرابلس فالدبابات التركية تحت رحمة السوريين و مع دباباتهم في الأرض السورية كحال الدبابات الاسرائيلية عندما دخلت جنوب لبنان 2006 و قبرت هناك.

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August 25th, 2016, 12:39 pm


61. ALAN said:

That is not honor for a sovereign state, to welcome high ranking enemy officials who practiced stabbing a knife in the back for a five years period, when the smell of blood still blocks the noses, and it is not joyful, to participate those treacherous foreigners in internal affairs of our sovereign country This logic is regrettable, and sends welcoming message to repeat chapters of tragedy, which crowned with a kippah and barbecue …

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August 25th, 2016, 4:45 pm


62. ALAN said:

Russia firmly believes that the Syrian crisis can be settled exclusively on the solid foundation of international law through an inclusive intra-Syrian dialogue involving all ethnic and religious groups, including the Kurds, and based on the June 30, 2012 Geneva Communique, as well as UN Security Council resolutions, including Resolution 2254, initiated by the International Syria Support Group.

Mr Putin:
It is time to pose deadly Russian nuclear capabilities in Syria
Head to head!

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August 25th, 2016, 5:21 pm


63. Ghufran said:

It is out in the day light now, Ali Mamlouk and Haqan Vidan met 5 times and the early harvest is in Jarablis, what will follow is not certain but it is likely to include a marriage of convenience between temporary enemies. Only the little fish pay the price in the ocean of dirty politics. Erdogan outsmarted most and made a U turn when he realized that he is swimming against the current. Only arabs are able to stay the course even if that meant self destruction. In Dawin terms they are the weak link because they hold grudges and live in a bubble made of swollen egos and empty rhetoric. Pity the nation.
ياامة ضحكت من جهلها الامم

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August 26th, 2016, 3:10 am


64. Hopeful said:

#63 Ghufran

The fall of Daryya today represents the end of the last small fish of the genuine grass-root local moderate untainted resistance to the Assad’s regime. Now it is just a game of thrones between regional and super powers, and between global ideologies, in which the Assad regime and all other Syrian groups are just pawns. For me, there is no one left in Syria to cast my vote of confidence and support for. Syria will forever have a place in my heart, but no longer in my mind. The hope has ended. From now on, my screen name will be “no hope”.

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August 26th, 2016, 6:31 am


65. Uzair8 said:

Emile Hokayem @emile_hokayem
If you don’t know what Daraya is and how much it suffered but have an opinion on the “jihadi rebellion in Syria agst secular Assad”, zip it

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August 26th, 2016, 6:57 am


66. Uzair8 said:

Remembering the Daraya Massacre:

Thomas van Linge @arabthomness
#Darayya: a little girl tried to bribe a soldier with money just to be spared. He excerpted the money, only to shoot her as she walked away

See more in this thread:

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August 26th, 2016, 7:03 am


67. Uzair8 said:

Remembering the Daraya Massacre:

Thomas van Linge @arabthomness
#Darayya: a little girl tried to bribe a soldier with money just to be spared. He excerpted the money, only to shoot her as she walked away

See more in this thread:

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August 26th, 2016, 7:06 am


68. Observer said:

Just read the article

Funny the regime and its supporters are not talking about Daraya as I reviewed Manar Alam Cham Press Al Watan and Al Akbar newspaper and outlets.

We are just at the beginning of this war.

It is again despicable to “laugh” at the misery of others: it bespeaks of even worse hatred and prejudice than the worst prejudice that Nazis had for others.

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August 26th, 2016, 8:11 am


69. Ghufran said:

I am not as pessimistic as some here, I think the war is coming to an end and I do not believe Syrians will allow dictatorships, whether Assadist or Islsmist, to last. The biggest threat to Syria is foreign intervention and the lack of a national consensus that you need reconciliation not vengeance to rebuild Syria. Only freedom and democracy even in its dysfunctional form can bring the country forward. Islamists ignore the fact that equality in the eyes of the law is a must if you want a free country, that is why you see a lot of contradictions in their posts about the subject.
Islamism is a form of dictatorship, the new Syrian constitution should not specify the religion of the state or the president, and minorities including alawites should not be shy about distancing themselves from Muslims if they really believe they are not Muslims. Keep religion to God and keep at home and ignore the hypocrites here who want a militant sunni dictatorship in the name of majority rule, they are worse than Assadists in my opinion.

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August 26th, 2016, 2:40 pm


70. No Hope said:

#69 Ghufran

The war may indeed be coming to an end, but the Syrians will have to live under Assad’s rule and face long-term Russian occupation. This means give it another generation and we will see a rerun of the war in the future. Unless the Assad regime is gone, and the Islamists are defeated, there will be no freedom and democracy.

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August 26th, 2016, 3:02 pm


71. Mina said:

So now according to Tara, the Kurds are to blame for the problems in Syria. Last week it was the Syrian Christians. Last year it was the Shiites. Always sincere and peace-loving, as one can see.

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August 26th, 2016, 3:12 pm


72. Passerby said:

Hi Tara (#56),

Yes, Assad is winning…

The Syrian uprising’s most famous stronghold is about to fall to Assad’s government

Thousands of Syrian civilians were preparing to leave the long-besieged Damascus suburb of Darayya on Friday after rebel forces there were forced to surrender under the pressure of starvation.

Once the symbolic heart of Syria’s 2011 uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s rule, the suburb had become synonymous with the government’s unsparing war on the armed opposition and civilians living under its control.

The agreement, announced Thursday, may come to be seen as a turning point in the battle for southern Syria, marking the beginning of the end for an armed rebellion that has clung on in the Damascus suburbs for five years…

…“The regime needs to clear the area to free up manpower for the coming fights elsewhere.”

Analysts warned Friday that the fall of Darayya could have a domino effect, piling pressure on the last remaining pockets of rebel resistance around the capital…

Sad. Their suffering isn’t over.

Assad wins. The question now is if it’s all of Syria or if parts Assad isn’t interested in break off. And of course, how many more will die and suffer.

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August 26th, 2016, 4:28 pm


73. Passerby said:

Ok we have an outline of the Russia/US deal, with Turkey, Iran etc. along for the ride. The current state of affairs, who is holding the cards, who is winning…

1. ISIS has to be exterminated.

2. Nusra has to be exterminated, regardless of the name change (with same old about everyone working together to sort them out from their best buddies that believe exactly like they do, but have a different name.)

2. Assad can stay for now, whether he can stay permanently will be dealt with later.

3. How they divvy things up, or whether Assad gets it all, will be dealt with later.

4. Other than the continuing extermination of ISIS and it’s rebellious creation, Nusra, (90% of the “rebel” guns), a cease fire.

Does it get any better for Assad?

After eliminating ISIS/Nusra, and those that continue to support them, who’s left to oppose Assad?

*** So, here’s the important thing. Up to now, Assad has wanted to eliminate any moderates first. Make sure there’s no sane alternative. But now, he needs a moderate opposition, to take over the parts he doesn’t want in his greater Alawite homeland. We may now see a blossoming of moderates, thanks to the grace of Assad.

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August 27th, 2016, 12:17 am


74. Uzair8 said:

weddady @weddady 9h
This notion that the war in Syria is unwinnable is a fantasy worth deconstructing in due course.

He’s gonna write more on it soon. Storify or more…

[See thread in link]

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August 27th, 2016, 6:01 am


75. ALAN said:

The entry of Turkish tanks to the ground Jarablos and artillery shelling in the city of Raju and on the banks of the Tigris River have to turn the fire burn Turkey’s expansionist ambitions
The Syrian Kurds are more than capable to defeat the NATO dog at the northern strip of the Syrian National Geographic.

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August 27th, 2016, 9:59 am


76. Passerby said:

Can anyone name a religious/ethnic majority, that is in power, in any Mid-East country, that doesn’t oppress the minority? That doesn’t stack the deck against them?

If not, why would we expect any different in Syria, if the Alawites, Christians etc. just handed over power?

There are minority religion/ethnic groups running countries, but only with even worse oppression, Assad, Saddam, etc. Not a good alternative, but the only one up to now.

That’s the fundamental problem, the bigotry and intolerance. A majority oppresses the minority and the minority tries to seize power so it can oppress the majority, and defend itself.

Give the ISIS Eastern part of Syria to Iraq. And for the first time, there is no majority in either country. The Kurds and other minorities tip the balance between Shiite and Sunni. The cycle is broken.

Will that sewer of death and bigotry find peace and enlightenment? Not likely, but what other option is there? The US/Russia/Turkey/Iran plan is to destroy Nusra/ISIS, and leave Assad alone. I wouldn’t bet the ranch that Assad wants that Eastern Sunni part of Syria. Been quite happy for ISIS to grab it. Better to just leave it there for the Kurds and Turks and ISIS and Nusra and whoever to fight over. Without that and all those refugees, he might win a semi-honest election.

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August 27th, 2016, 11:16 am


77. Uzair8 said:

Regimists unusually admitting the reality of the Regimes dire situation in South Aleppo with the daily routs:

Ivan Sidorenko @IvanSidorenko1 43m
#Syria #Aleppo the Artillery College Front is going horribly wrong for #SAA hopefully #SAA Can turn it around.

agitpapa @agitpapa 24m
Very high attrition battle going on there, SAA losses way 2 high.

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August 27th, 2016, 5:21 pm


78. Mina said:

So fun! Give daesh a country and let millions of extremists flood there to learn and make bombs, trade women and prepare attacks everywhere. Then when the chunk of land get too small for the psychopaths watch them expand. And what about their victims? You watch them on YouTube?

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August 28th, 2016, 6:09 am


79. ALAN said:

أما عن جرابلس فالدبابات التركية تحت رحمة السوريين و مع دباباتهم في الأرض السورية كحال الدبابات الاسرائيلية عندما دخلت جنوب لبنان 2006 و قبرت هناك.
Kurdish ATGM hit on a Turkish army tank in northern Syria
these turks thought it would be a cake walk and it was for a while, but no more. they are in the shit now.

Yet. In desperately trying to shoehorn their pet ideological theories and geopolitical fantasies into a reality that doesn’t have anything to do with them – some are still trying 😉

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August 28th, 2016, 11:49 am


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