Contents of this section:
Send in the Hezbollah boys
The battle of al-Qusayr
From a supporting to a leading role
Case study: Hezbollah and the al-‘Otaibeh massacre
Case study: Hezbollah in al-Yarmouk
Update on Hezbollah Lebanon’s involvement in Syria
Case study: Hezbollah denounces destruction of (Shia) holy sites in Syria
Iraqi militias in Damascus… and beyond
‘You are protecting Syria, not only the shrine’
Case study: Al-Nabek massacres
Update on Iraqi militias’ involvement in Syria
Update on Afghan Shia fighters
‘More Shia than Sunni mercenaries now fighting in Syria’
New: Pakistani Shia fighters in Syria
‘Sleeping with the enemy’
Update on the relationship between Daesh and the Syrian and Iranian regimes
Notes & References
2. Foreign militias
Providing advice, training and money to the Syrian regime’s armed forces and militias was not enough. As the revolution was pushed towards militarisation and opposition armed forces started to achieve military advances on the ground, the Iranian regime made a strategic decision to send some of its loyal militias in Lebanon and Iraq to go and fight in Syria alongside, and even on behalf of, the Syrian regime forces. This was because, in the words of Mohsen Sazegara, a founding member of Sepah Pasdaran, “One of Iran’s wings will be broken if Assad falls. They are now using all their contacts from Iraq to Lebanon to keep him in power.”54
According to some observers, another factor behind this decision may have had to do with Iranian commanders’ views of the shabbiha’s practices – although the author of this report believes this issue is rather exaggerated and not as crucial as it is presented in the following quote. The Iranian regime may have well been pursuing apparently conflicting parallel strategies in Syria.
According to the American intelligence think-tank Stratfor, Iranian officials privately describe the shabbiha as “unruly and grossly undisciplined.” One Iranian source reportedly described the shabbiha’s use of violence as “misguided” and explained how Sepah Pasdaran “unsuccessfully attempted to convey to the Syrian militiamen that violence must be employed strategically so as to suppress and not proliferate unrest.” For this reason, the source claims, Sepah Pasdaran “has given up on training the shabbiha and has instead deployed Hezbollah Lebanon members to work with them and, in some cases, even defend shabbiha who have more recently become targets of attacks by the rebel Free Syrian Army.”55
As the previous section has shown, the claim (made in January 2012) that Sepah Pasdaran has “given up” on training the shabbiha and the NDF is unfounded. There is plenty of evidence to the contrary, although Sepah may have well delegated some of this responsibility to Hezbollah, whose members and commanders are trained by Sepah Pasdaran in the first place. Language barriers may have been a factor in this, as Hezbollah commanders, being native Arabic speakers, would find it easier to communicate with Syrian trainees than their Iranian counterparts.
A report by the news agency AFP in April 2014, based on interviews with Hezbollah Lebanon members, revealed details of the training programmes that the group’s fighters undergo before going to fight in Syria: “Initial training for those who pass scrutiny of their religious credentials and background checks, is carried out in Lebanon, where courses last from 40 days to three months. Additional training is provided in Iran for about two months, with a focus on heavy weaponry and preparing members for command positions.” This experience is then also conveyed to Syrian regime forces and militias, whom Hezbollah fighters criticise as being “woefully unprepared.”56
In any case, the “strategic employment of violence to suppress and not proliferate the unrest” does provide a partial explanation for the Iranian regime’s motivation behind sending Hezbollah Lebanon and Iraqi militias to go and fight in Syria. According to Stratfor emails leaked by WikiLeaks in March 2012, members of Sepah Pasdaran and Hezbollah Lebanon were deployed in Syria in the early days of the revolution to “stand behind Syrian troops and kill Syrian soldiers immediately if they refuse to open fire.”57
Rumours and reports of Hezbollah Lebanon and Iraqi militias’ presence inside Syria have been around at least since mid-2011. One of the earliest videos of Hezbollah’s presence in Syria, published in July 2011, shows Hezbollah fighters with machine guns and tanks in Horan in southern Syria.58 In January 2012, The Times reported that the Syrian regime was deploying “large numbers of Hezbollah and Iranian snipers” to shoot anti-regime protesters.59 The report’s source was a Syrian Treasury auditor at the Ministry of Defence who had defected and fled Syria the month before. According to him, the salaries of these snipers, who were imported as ‘military consultants’, were paid through a “slush fund replenished with US dollars flown in from Iran.” It was the same fund used to pay the shabbiha, he claimed.
One of the earliest videos of Hezbollah fighters in Syria – Horan, July 2011.
In February 2012, Syrian regime forces, supported by Hezbollah fighters, regained control of the town of al-Zabadani, north-west of Damascus, after rebels had taken over it the previous month. A few days before, Al-Arabiya TV channel had quoted a Sepah Pasdaran commander saying Hezbollah forces took part in the al-Zabadani battle, on Iranian orders, in order to protect a Sepah Pasdaran military base in the nearby town of Madaya.60 According to media reports, al-Zabadani, which is situated on the way between Damascus and Beirut, has served as Sepah Qods’s “logistical hub” for supplying Hezbollah Lebanon with arms at least since June 2011.61 According to US estimates, Hezbollah was at the time receiving $100 million a year from Tehran in supplies and weaponry, which were transported through Syria.62
In October 2012, a senior Hezbollah Lebanon commander was reported to have been killed in Syria.63 Hezbollah said Ali Hussein Nassif had died while “performing his jihadist duty,” without specifying where.64 Syrian rebels said Nassif and several of his men had been killed in an ambush by the Free Syrian Army. Other reports said they had died in clashes on the border. Nassif was the second senior Hezbollah military commander to have reportedly been killed in Syria. Musa Ali Shahimi died in August 2012 and a public funeral attended by two Hezbollah MPs was held for him in Beirut.65
A few months before, in March 2012, Hezbollah held funerals for two other, less senior members who, according to the Syrian opposition, had been killed in al-Mazzeh, Damascus.66 After Nassif’s death, however, many more public funerals followed. Syrian rebels also published a number of videos of Hezbollah fighters they had captured or killed in Syria.67 It was no longer a secret, especially after the US Treasury added Hezbollah Lebanon to its sanctions list in August 2012 for “supporting the Assad regime,” not only for being a “terrorist group.”68 In a special briefing on the designation, the Treasury’s Under-Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence claimed that Hezbollah, in addition to training Syrian regime forces and providing them with logistical assistance, had also played “a substantial role in efforts to expel Syrian opposition forces from areas within Syria.”69
The following month, in September 2012, the US Treasury targeted with sanctions Hezbollah Lebanon’s leader Hassan Nasrallah himself for his role in supporting the Assad regime. Nasrallah has personally “overseen Hezbollah’s efforts to help the Syrian regime’s violent crackdown on the Syrian civilian population,” the department said in a press release.70 Yet Nasrallah and other Hezbollah Lebanon spokespeople kept denying at this point that the group had any involvement whatsoever in Syria and accused the Syrian opposition and its backers of fabricating ‘lies’ to undermine the ‘resistance’.
Like Nasrallah, Iranian officials also kept publicly denying that Iran had any direct military involvement in Syria and insisted they had nothing to do with what ‘other groups’ were doing there. In a famous statement about two years later, Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told the World Economic Forum in Davos: “We are not sending people. Hezbollah has made its own decision.”71
But others, including Hezbollah and Iranian regime insiders, disagree. Sheikh Subhi al-Tufayli, who led Hezbollah Lebanon between 1989 and 1991 before he fell out with the Iranian regime, told Reuters in an interview in 2013 72 that Hezbollah’s decision to intervene in Syria had been entirely down to Iran:
“I was secretary-general of the party and I know that the decision is Iranian, and the alternative would have been a confrontation with the Iranians… I know that the Lebanese in Hezbollah, and Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah more than anyone, are not convinced about this war.”
The news agency also quotes a Lebanese security official saying: “Even if Hezbollah has its wise men, the decision [to fight in Syria] is not theirs. The decision is for those who created and established [Hezbollah]. They are obliged to follow Iran’s orders.” In another interview in July 2013, al-Tufaili said: “Although Iran does not get involved in all the little details [of Hezbollah Lebanon], political decisions are always 100% Iranian.”73
The ‘tipping point’ behind the Iranian regime’s decision to adjust its Syria strategy (from an indirect, supervisory and supporting role to heavy, direct involvement) appears to have occurred in Summer 2012, after Syrian rebels captured large sections of Aleppo and of the suburbs of Damascus. Fearing that the Assad regime would soon collapse, Tehran dispatched senior Sepah Pasdaran commanders skilled in urban warfare to supervise and direct military operations. According to US and Iranian officials, Sepah Qods established “operation rooms” to control cooperation between Sepah Pasdaran, Syrian regime forces and Hezbollah Lebanon.74 In June 2013, Syrian rebels in Aleppo intercepted and recorded what appears to be a radio transmission between an Iranian commander and another from Hezbollah (judging by their language and accent), in which the first gives the second military instructions.75 Sources in the Free Army in Aleppo reported clashing with Hezbollah fighters for the first time in July 2012.76 The month before, media reports claimed Hezbollah fighters were involved in the Douma and Saqba massacres near Damascus.77
It is worth noting at this point that at least some of these reports originating from the Free Syrian Army or the Syrian opposition about Hezbollah’s activities in Syria in 2011-12 appear to have been exaggerated for political purposes. But this does not mean they were entirely without basis. Many reports that were initially discredited by ‘experts’ turned out to be true later, when more evidence, admissions and confessions regarding Hezbollah’s operations in Syria came to light.
As early as June 2011, the countryside of al-Qusayr, near Homs, along the Syrian-Lebanese border, had witnessed the first clashes between Hezbollah fighters and Syrian rebels. Hezbollah fighters, supported by Syrian regime rocket launchers, allegedly attempted to cross the border and enter the strategic Syrian village of Rableh. They subsequently captured eight border villages inhabited by mixture of Sunni, Shia, Alawi and Christian residents.78 The following year, in May 2012, Hezbollah invaded more villages in the area and established fortified bases for itself there.
In a speech on 11 October 2012, Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah justified these actions by claiming the fighters were Lebanese nationals who had lived in these Syrian villages for many years (there are 23 of these villages and 12 farms, whose population is estimated to be around 30,000). Many of them, he claimed, “decided to stay in their homes, bought weapons… to defend themselves and their properties” against armed groups who attacked them.79 “Some of the youth among them happened to be Hezbollah members,” he added. “We did not tell them what to do… and this has nothing to do with the fighting between the Syrian government and the armed groups.”
This was the first in a series of justifications that Nasrallah and other Hezbollah officials would reiterate in front of their supporters, the other main one being “defending holy Shia shrines” in Damascus (more on this below).80 It was also the first official half-admission of Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria and a signal for a later, full-scale military campaign starting from the Syrian villages that the group had occupied.
What Nasrallah ‘forgot’ to mention in his speech was the open secret that the Qusayr-Hermel region has historically been a main route for Iranian arms shipments to Hezbollah Lebanon via Syria, and is also close to some of Hezbollah’s main arms depots in the Beqaa Valley in Lebanon. Moreover, Hezbollah would not have been able or willing to intervene in Syria without Iranian training, weapons, money and orders.
A major turning point in Hezbollah Lebanon’s involvement in the Syria war was the battle of al-Qusayr in April-June 2013.81 The strategic town, located close to the Lebanese border and on the highway connecting Damascus to Homs and the coastal region, had been held by Syrian rebels and besieged by the army since November 2011, with sporadic fighting since February 2012. On 11 April 2013, a full-scale, well-planned military campaign, led by Hezbollah Lebanon and Sepah Pasdaran, was launched with the aim of capturing all villages around al-Qusayr and ultimately al-Qusayr itself. One journalist reported seeing Iranian military commanders inside the city.82
On the first day of the operation, a large force of Hezbollah fighters, backed by the Syrian army, attacked and captured the hilltop village of Tell al-Nabi Mando. Over the next few weeks, heavy bombardment and fierce fighting between rebels and Hezbollah and Syrian army fighters continued in various villages around al-Qusayr. For example, on 18 May, the rebels ambushed Hezbollah fighters along the banks of the al-Assi river on the Syrian side of the Lebanese border while they attempted to enter Syria. Ten Hezbollah fighters were reportedly killed. The next morning, a new Hezbollah force was seen heading towards al-Qusayr.
In the early hours of 19 May, planes, artillery and mortars bombarded al-Qusayr. Later in the day, hundreds of Hezbollah fighters, accompanied by Syrian regime troops, stormed the city from several directions. The rebels fought back and initially managed to push them back to their starting positions on the outskirts of the city. Hezbollah reinforcements were reportedly sent across the border to back them up. On 5 June, Syrian state TV reported that the Syrian army had gained full control of the city. The rebels stated they had pulled out of the city and retreated north to the village of Dabaa, which was still partially under the rebels’ control. One Hezbollah fighter was quoted saying they took al-Qusayr in a rapid overnight offensive, allowing some of the rebels to flee.83
More than 500 rebels were killed and some 1,000 wounded during the battle. Well over 100 Hezbollah fighters were also killed, according to opposition sources, of whom some 100 were confirmed by Hezbollah. The number of Syrian army soldiers who were killed is unknown.
One reason for the high number of Hezbollah casualties was that the group played a leading role in the battle of al-Qusayr. According to one Hezbollah fighter interviewed in June 2013,
“Hezbollah is leading operations in Qusayr; the Syrian army is only playing a secondary role, deploy[ed] after an area is completely ‘cleaned’ and secured. Hezbollah officers coordinate with the People’s Army [NDF] but fighters never interact. The People’s Army is usually last to [be] deploy[ed] after the Syrian army, as they have a better understanding of the area and its residents.”84
It was during this time that Hezbollah Lebanon’s leader made his first official admission of sending fighters to Syria. In a televised speech broadcast by Hezbollah’s TV station Al-Manar on 25 May 2013, Hassan Nasrallah described Syria as the “back of the resistance,” so “the resistance cannot stand arms folded while its back is [being] broken.” Hezbollah had entered a new phase a few weeks ago, he added, a phase he described as “the phase of fortifying the resistance and protecting its backbone.” As to sending fighters to Syria, Nasrallah claimed Hezbollah does not force anybody to go to fight in any battle. “We don’t need to declare jihad,” he added, “but with two words you will find tens of thousands of fighters who are ready to take [to] all fronts.”85
After falling into their hands, al-Qusayr was run by Hezbollah as “independent territory,” according to media reports. The group’s commanders were in charge of “maintaining discipline” among Syrian regime forces. They also established an operations base in the town’s northern section that is off-limits to most Syrians. According to one Hezbollah commander who patrolled the town with his fighters in a pickup truck, only regime loyalists were allowed back into al-Qusayr, and only after they were “vetted” by him personally.86
The battle of al-Qusayr was viewed by most observers as a major turning point in the Syria war.87 It reflected a noticeable shift in the Iranian regime’s military strategy in Syria: conceding, or perhaps losing interest in, the possibility of regaining control of the eastern and northern parts of the country that were now under the rebels’ control. Instead, the focus from now on would be on defending and consolidating the Syrian and Iranian regimes’ control in Damascus and its surroundings, Homs and its surroundings (which connect the first with the coastal region), and the Qalamon region (which connects the first two and connects both with Lebanon).88
The aim was to secure the capital, whose fall would have been seen as a fall of the regime, and to secure the Damascus–Homs–Coast corridor in order to both provide a geographical and demographic continuity of regime-held areas and secure arms shipments to Hezbollah in Lebanon, while at the same time cutting off those of the rebels coming from or through eastern Lebanon.89 The leading role in these keys battles would be assigned to Hezbollah and other Iranian-backed militias, who were seen as more reliable and better organised than the regular Syrian army. Meanwhile, the regime’s air force would continue its long-range bombardment of rebel-held areas in the north and the east to perpetuate a state of war in those areas and make life there unbearable. The barrel bombs campaign on Aleppo is an obvious example of this.90
This new strategy and the leading role assigned to Hezbollah are best reflected in a number of key, strategic battles in which the group took part.91 One of these was the two-year-long campaign to retake Homs and its countryside, of which the al-Qusayr battle was but a part, and in which Hezbollah played a key role.
In May 2011, as mass protests spread to Homs and the city was dubbed “the capital of the revolution”, regime forces and militias carried out a brutal crackdown against the protesters in an attempt to quell them, and the city was placed under a suffocating siege that would last for three years (until May 2014). An increasing number of army defectors were joined by some of the protesters who picked up light arms to defend themselves. In October and November 2011, the rebels resisted repeated attempts by the regime forces to enter the district of Baba Amr.
In February 2012, Syrian regime forces launched an offensive against Baba Amr, shelling the entire district and blocking all supply routes. In early March, ground troops pushed their way into the neighbourhood, forcing the rebels to withdraw. By early May 2012, following a UN-brokered ceasefire, only sporadic street fighting and shelling was taking place and regime forces and militias were in control of most of the city (75-80 per cent). A brigadier-general who defected was quoted by the media saying that the Syrian regime forces and militias were led by Iranian military ‘advisors’.92
In December 2012, regime forces also captured the district of Deir Baalba, leaving only the Old City, the al-Khalidiyya district and a few other areas of Homs under rebel control. In early March 2013, they launched an assault into several rebel-controlled neighborhoods but the rebels, reinforced by units arriving from al-Qusayr, managed to repel the attacks. On 2 May 2013, however, the Syrian army, along with Hezbollah, Iraqi and Iranian fighters, pushed into Wadi al-Sayegh in the heart of the city and regained control of the strategic neighbourhood, cutting off all links between the Old City and the al-Khalidiya district. On 26 July, regime and Hezbollah forces advanced further into al-Khalidiyya and eventually captured 60 percent of the district, including the historic mosque of Khalid Ibn al-Walid.
It is worth noting that almost none of the early reports documenting the crimes committed in Homs at this stage mentioned Hezbollah’s or the Iranian regime’s role.93 Reports by the Syrian opposition or the Free Army talking about such a role were often dismissed as ‘fabrications’, ‘exaggerations’, ‘propaganda’ or ‘conspiracy theories’. Yet, later reports revealed that at least some Syrian regime forces and militias were fighting under Hezbollah and Iranian commanders. In September 2013, The Wall Street Journal quoted a 19-year-old Syrian militiaman who “fought under a Hezbollah commander in a district called Khalidiya.”94 “If we take back all of Homs,” he added, “the revolution is going to be completely finished.”
In early May 2014, following two months of negotiations, the Iranian regime brokered an unprecedented deal with the Homs rebels that was hailed as a “victory for al-Assad.”95 The terms of the deal included a ceasefire in the Old City of Homs, which had been under siege for over two years, and the safe withdrawal, under UN supervision, of some 2,000 opposition fighters with their light arms from all the besieged areas of Homs to the northern parts of the country. In return, 45 hostages and prisoners of war held by the rebels in Aleppo and Latakia were released. The rebels also agreed to ease their siege on Nubl and Zahraa, two predominantly Shia, pro-regime towns north of Aleppo.96
Earlier reports had claimed that the deal would involve the release of a disputed number of Sepah Pasdaran and Hezbollah Lebanon fighters who had been captured by the Islamic Front, an alliance of several Syrian Islamic rebel groups. Some said this referred to a Sepah Qods commander held by the Baydaa Martyrs Battalion in Homs, but could be expanded to include the release of other Iranian prisoners of war, as well as ten Hezbollah fighters held by the Islamic Front. French news agency AFP then quoted one of the Syrian opposition’s negotiators saying the negotiations had entered “a new phase” that involved the Liwa al-Tawhid brigade, which was negotiating the release of “two Iranian officers” held by the group in Aleppo. Other media reports mentioned a Russian military officer who had been held by the Islamic Front in the suburbs of Latakia. But later media reports gave conflicting accounts of whether all of these foreign hostages were actually released as part of the deal. Moreover, some of the evacuated rebels were later arrested and executed by the regime, according to the opposition.97
Whatever the truth is, it is certain that Iranian officials played a prominent role in brokering the deal on behalf of the Assad regime.98 According to Syrian opposition sources, the negotiations took place at al-Safir hotel in Homs in the presence of representatives from the UN. The opposition side was represented by a few rebel commanders and community leaders from the besieged areas of Homs. The regime side was represented by a high-ranking Syrian officer (the head of the Political Security branch in Homs), the governor of Homs, in addition to the Iranian ambassador to Damascus and a “senior Iranian commander” believed to be from Sepah Qods. The Iranian embassy in Damascus had been handling negotiations to secure the release of Sepah Pasdaran personnel held in Aleppo. According to media reports, a similar deal that was negotiated, without success, in the besieged, rebel-held district of al-Wa’r in Homs the following month included a clause about “opening an office for the Iranian mediator to deal with any breach of the agreement.”99
As the then vice-president of the National Coalition, the main Syrian opposition body, put it, the Homs deal “reflects al-Assad regime’s subordination to Iran and the fact that it has become the main importer of terrorism in the region… It has shown that [the Syrian regime] is little more than a tool in the hands of external forces [Iran and Russia] that are trying to impose their dominance over Syria.”100 One activist from Homs also told WSJ, “Without the Iranian prisoners, we couldn’t have reached this life-saving deal. The regime never cared about its people, even its own soldiers.”101
Another strategic battle in which the Iranian regime and Hezbollah were heavily involved was that of Yabroud in February-March 2014.102 Following a month of fierce resistance by opposition fighters, this strategic town in the Qalamon region fell into the hands of Hezbollah and Syrian regime forces. The main reason for this was that Hezbollah Lebanon had thrown in its full force behind the campaign. Media reports claimed the group had sent at least 2,000 of some its best fighters to fight in Yabroud,103 in addition to fighters from the notorious Iraqi Shia militia known as the Badr Legion, which was set up by Sepah Pasdaran during the Iranian-Iraqi war.104
All sorts of weapons were used to pave the way for the ground troops, from Russian and Iranian missiles (Scud and Burkan) to cannons and barrel bombs.105 As one local activist from the Yabroud Coordination Committee put it, “the amount of missiles fired on Yabroud, and the number of troops amassed, would have been enough to destroy large parts of Israel or take over Washington DC.” Significantly, it was not just the Syrian air force firing rockets and barrels; Hezbollah Lebanon was also firing its own missiles.106
The fall of Yabroud was portrayed by Hezbollah, Syrian and Iranian state-controlled media as a ‘victory’, even though the huge, month-long military campaign had cost Hezbollah and Iran a great deal of money, weapons and souls – not to mention the obvious question of whether flattening a whole historical town and displacing its entire population can ever be regarded as a victory. Like the battle of al-Qusayr, Hezbollah and Sepah Pasdaran seemed to have underestimated how long and how much it would take to ‘conquer’ Yabroud.
Meanwhile, a growing number of people living in Hezbollah strongholds in Lebanon were growing increasingly “tired of the war” as the human and economic costs of Hezbollah’s adventures in Syria continued to climb, not to mention growing fears that their areas were becoming part of the Syria war (as targets for suicide bombs). In fact, such fears were used by Hassan Nasrallah and other Hezbollah leaders in their public speeches to justify the Yabroud campaign and the group’s involvement in Syria more generally. In a speech in February 2014, Hezbollah’s Deputy Secretary-General Naim Qassem claimed that Yabroud was “the main source” of the explosive-rigged cars that had targeted civilian areas in Lebanon, mainly Hezbollah strongholds, in recent weeks.107
Various testimonies by Hezbollah fighters confirm the leading role of Hezbollah Lebanon in Syria, where it reportedly had thousands of fighters on the ground by mid-2014. For example, an AFP report in April 2014 quoted a Hezbollah fighter saying the Syrian army soldiers “have no experience in urban warfare or how to deal with a guerrilla force, so we lead the way in battle and have trained them on how to conduct themselves and use certain weapons.”108
In another article, published in The Lebanon Debate in February 2014, Hezbollah fighters who participated in battles inside Syria were quoted saying:
“There are some soldiers in the Syrian army who are sympathetic to the opposition, and others who would sell information to anyone who pays for it.”
“We got to a point where we, in Hezbollah, could no longer go to sleep altogether. One or two people would stay up to ensure that we won’t be betrayed one night.”
“During the Qusayr battle, it became necessary that one Hezbollah member would accompany every Syrian army tank. And this procedure is still followed to date in all the battles in which Hezbollah fighters participate.”
“This issue [untrustworthy Syrian army officers] is being dealt with by bringing in non-Syrian pilots in order to ensure the precision of air strikes against target sites.”
“The fighters of the National Defense [Forces] do not betray. They fight to the last moment and follow orders. These we trust a lot, and the [Hezbollah] leadership now prefers to fight battles jointly with them rather than with any other Syrian armed formation.”109
The Lebanon Debate interviewees’ account of the Qusayr and Eastern Ghouta battles corroborate previous accounts by other Hezbollah fighters published in the past.110 It is therefore reasonable to believe that what they say in this interview is accurate and reliable.
In addition to its leading role in battles, Hezbollah also expanded its presence in Syria geographically. According to one Hezbollah fighter, “At the beginning of the war, elite forces were initially responsible for protecting Shiite shrines. They have now been deployed in different Syrian areas. Besides Qusayr, we are now fighting in Aleppo and rural areas surrounding it, as well as the suburbs of Damascus, Hama, and Idlib. In the Damascus suburbs and Aleppo, we are leading similar operations than those launched in Qusayr due to the nature of the terrain.”111
As predicted in the first edition of this report (November 2014), Hezbollah Lebanon’s role in the Syria war, as well as that of other Iranian-controlled militias, has grown in significance and scale at the expense of Syrian regime forces.1 A series of military defeats and losses suffered by the latter in the northern and southern parts of the country, most notably in Idlib and Daraa, only boosted this role. Indeed, Hezbollah now leads and directs the fight on many fronts across the country.2
Like the battles of al-Qusayr and Yabroud detailed above, this prominent role of Hezbollah Lebanon is most obvious in key, strategic battles, namely those in the Qalamon region, along the Lebanese border, and in the south, alongside Israel and Jordan. The high-profile coverage given to these battles by Hezbollah and Iranian state-controlled media is a clear indication of the importance ascribed to these battles. Smaller groups of Hezbollah fighters and commanders have also frequently been reported elsewhere in Syria, such as Aleppo 3 and Latakia.4 In the words of Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah, “We are present today in many places [in Syria], and I tell you we will be present wherever this battle requires. We are up to it and we are the men for it.”5
Of course, Nasrallah would not admit that the decision to send Hezbollah fighters to “wherever this battle requires” is not his own. It is Sepah Pasdaran that pulls the strings. In June 2015, during his speech at a commemoration in Tehran for the Iranian and Hezbollah commanders who were killed by an Israeli attack in al-Qunaytira, south Syria (see below), Sepah Pasdaran’s Deputy for Culture, General Mohammad Hossein Nejat, said: “Hezbollah and us work with a single hand. Whatever they do means we have done it.”6
In May 2015, an Iranian military source told Al-Monitor that “Hezbollah’s role in Syria was part of its resistance role on the borders with Palestine, yet this is going to change.”7 As a result of changes in the battlefield and developments in the region, the source added, “the resistance bloc as a whole is going to assume responsibility wherever there is a need for help across Syria — it doesn’t matter if it’s Raqqa, Deir ez-Zor, Aleppo, Idlib. Even the number of fighters on the ground will witness a surge. There are thousands of volunteers waiting to join this holy war.”
Even Hezbollah’s deputy leader, Naeem Qasem, admitted during a Friday prayer ceremony in Tehran in August 2015 that “all of Hezbollah’s victories in the region and the prestige its forces enjoy are indebted to Imam Khamenei’s guidance.”8
The battle for al-Qalamon
Much for Hezbollah’s celebrations of its ‘decisive victories’ in al-Qalamon in 2013 and 2014, Jabhat al-Nusra and other Islamist and Free Army factions made advances again and regained some territory in the area in late 2014 and early 2015, following months of sporadic guerilla warfare along the 65 km stretch of the Qalamon mountains between Syria and Lebanon.
In May 2015, Hezbollah launched a major military campaign in al-Qalamon, which Nasrallah had ‘heralded’ back in February that year.9 A Lebanese website reported at the time, quoting a source “from the field,” that the group had sent 15,000 of its members to fight there.10 The number reportedly included technicians, medics and other logistical support workers.
On 13 May, Hezbollah took control of the Hill of Mousa, a strategic post overseeing the Syrian-Lebanese border. Footage aired by Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV showed the group’s fighters raising their yellow flag on top of the hill.11 Yet, despite claiming victory, many analysts argued that Hezbollah was attempting to “oversell the battle of al-Qalamon in order to make up for the string of losses the regime had suffered in Syria in recent months,” and that it was more of “a media battle needed to raise morales.”12 Even Nasrallah, while claiming Hezbollah had made significant advances in the ongoing clashes, admitted that the battles there were “far from over.”13
About two months later, in early July 2015, Hezbollah Lebanon and the Forth Division of the Syrian army launched a major offensive against the town of al-Zabadani, south-west of al-Qalamon, close to the Lebanese border.14 Fierce fighting with local opposition fighters was accompanied by heavy aerial bombardment of the town that had practically been under siege for over two years,
About three weeks into the campaign, as little advances were achieved and great losses among their fighters and equipment were incurred, Hezbollah and regime forces changed their tactics from seeking a quick, decisive victory to imposing a prolonged, suffocating siege – a tactic that has previously been used against many rebel-held towns and cities throughout Syria.15
A few days before, Daesh had also entered the scene with a video broadcast by the group’s news agency, A’maq, claiming that its fighters were present in al-Zabadani. But observers were quick to point out that Daesh has not had any presence in the area and that this was a media game to help the Syrian regime and Hezbollah claim in front of the international community that they were targeting al-Zabadani to fight the terrorists of Daesh.16 Moreover, according to local activists, the Daesh video appears to be old as it shows buildings that have recently been destroyed in the bombardment.17
Indeed, unlike many other parts of Syria, al-Zabadani is known for the fact that its fighters and Free Syrian Army factions are still all local. No foreign or Islamist armed groups are known to have had armed presence in the town. It was also one of the first towns to be liberated from regime control in the early days of the revolution in 2011, so it has a great symbolic significance for many Syrians. It subsequently became a supply route for the fighters in al-Qalamon. As pointed out above, it is also close to a Sepah Pasdaran base and to Hezbollah depots and training camps. This, coupled with its location between the motorway connecting Damascus and Homs and the motorway connecting Damascus and Beirut, and being only 8 km away from the Lebanese border, makes it strategically important for both sides.
In August 2015, ceasefire negotiations between the two warring sides in al-Zabadani collapsed. The deal would have stopped the Iranian-Hezbollah-regime military operation against the city in return for the opposition forces stopping their attacks on al-Fo’a and Kifrayya, two Shia towns and regime strongholds in rural Idlib in the north.18
Significantly, what was supposed to be the regime’s side in the Turkish-mediated negotiations was represented by an Iranian delegation. The rebels side was represented by a delegation from Ahrar al-Sham, one of the strongest and biggest armed factions in Syria today. According to Ahrar al-Sham’s Political Office, the main reason why the difficult negotiations collapsed was the Iranian delegation’s insistence on “emptying al-Zabadani,” not only of all opposition fighters, but also of its inhabitants, in what was described as a plan for “demographic change” in the area.19 In other words, the rebels accused the Iranian regime of seeking to sneakily implement a process of demographic and property exchange whereby the Syrian Shia of the north are moved to the south, and the Sunnis of al-Zabadani and al-Qalamon are moved to the north.
The rebel umbrella group in al-Qalamon, which includes the armed factions fighting in al-Zabadani, subsequently withdrew the authorisation from Ahrar al-Sham to negotiate on behalf of the rebels, stressing its “absolute rejection” of the Iranian proposals so as not to “repeat the Homs and al-Qusayr scenario.”20 A number of personalities from al-Zabadani also issued a statement stressing that they “will not sell out our sacrifices with a humiliating exit that ends with the forced displacement of our families,” adding that the inhabitants of al-Zabadani had not delegated anyone to negotiate with “the occupation state of Iran” on “being forced out of our homes and repeating what happened with the people of Homs.”21
Another statement by a group of Lebanese Shia and Syrian Alawis highlighted the fact that Iran “no longer feels any embarrassment in pushing to the side its local agents and negotiating directly on behalf of ‘the Shia’ and ‘the Alawis’ and all those it sees as its ‘subjects’ and its ‘minorities’,” adding that the fight today is “between Syrian rebels and Iran.”22 In this sense, the statement added, the Fo’a-Zabadani negotiations were “a clear declaration of what Iran is seeking” and that the Iranian intervention in Syria has “not only made the option of partitioning [Syria] a reality, but also put all minorities in Syria, particularly the Alawis and the Shia, in front of one of two options, each more suicidal than the other: either die in sectarian massacres, or live in sectarian ghettos that make it easy for Iran to control them, either directly or through local agents.” In this light, the statement continues, “the war waged by Hezbollah along the Syrian-Lebanese border in al-Qalamon, of which the siege and assault on al-Zabadani is but a chapter, is aimed at completing the process of partitioning Syria.” A six-month truce between the two sides was finally reached in late September 2015 and many of the contrversial measures mentioned above were implemented under the supervision of the UN.23
A new front in the south
The other big front in Syria for Hezbollah and Sepah Pasdaran has been that of Daraa and al-Qunaytira in the south. In February 2015, Hezbollah, accompanied by Iranian commanders and Afghan and Pakistani fighters, launched a major military campaign aimed at regaining control over a 7km triangle between Daraa, al-Qunaytira and the southern countryside of Damascus, which borders Jordan from the south and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights from the west. The number of Iranian-led fighters amassed was reportedly between 4,000 and 5,000, including an estimated 2,000 from Hezbollah and a few Syrian militiamen.24
Various Syrian and Arab commentators argued at the time that the aim of this Iranian-Hezbollah military operation was to “eliminate the last bastions of the Syrian revolution” by defeating what remains of the Free Syrian Army units there, leaving the door open for Daesh and/or Jabhat al-Nusra to take over, as happened in other parts of Syria in the past.25 Daesh has indeed failed to infiltrate the area and Jabhat al-Nusra has had a limited presence. Most of the latter’s members there are reportedly locals who have good relationships with the other armed factions. The Free Army in Daraa is praised by most Syrians for its principled, nationalist discourse and for focusing on fighting the regime.26
However, the author of this report believes that this was not just another typical offensive led by Sepah Pasdaran and Hezbollah on behalf of the Syrian regime against opposition fighters. Judging by the high-profile, detailed coverage given to the offensive by Hezbollah and Iranian state-controlled media,27 and the fact that Syrian regime forces were hardly involved, it is more likely that the operation had more strategic dimensions, such as establishing an Iranian-Hezbollah foothold in southern Syria, along the borders with Israel and Jordan, which could gradually grow into another front with Israel that would serve as a deterrent against any possible attacks on Iran’s military nuclear facilities, much like the Hezbollah stronghold in southern Lebanon was established in 1980s. At the same time, it will enable Hezbollah and the Iranian regime to regain some legitimacy in Lebanon and the Arab world as an ‘axis of resistance’ against Israel, a legitimacy largely lost as a result of their interference in Syria on the side of the Assad regime.
The operation was dubbed by Iranian and Hezbollah media “The Operation of Revenge for the Martyrs of al-Qunaytira,” in reference to six Hezbollah fighters and a senior Iranian general killed in the Israeli strike near al-Qunaytira on 18 January 2015. The Iranian general, Mohammad Ali Allahdadi, was said to have been one of Major-Gen. Qassem Soleimani’s right hands in Syria.28 The Hezbollah members killed, who were apparently ‘visiting’ the area for undisclosed reasons, included Jihad Mughniyeh, the son of Hezbollah’s former military commander Imad Mughniyeh, who was killed in a car bomb in Damascus in 2008. Jihad, in his 20’s, was apparently “very close” to Nasrallah and Qassem Soleimani (more on this in the section on Soleimani in Chapter III). Soleimani reportedly visited Beirut a couple of weeks before the Qunaytira offensive.29 The high-profile nature of this secret convoy indicates that something unusual was going on.
Back in May 2013, Nasrallah had vowed, in a defiant response to an Israeli air strike on an Iranian arms shipment in Syria, that Hezbollah would not only continue receiving advanced weaponry from Iran and Syria, but would also respond to these Israeli attacks by “opening the Golan front.”30 “We announce that we stand by the popular resistance in the Golan and we offer military and moral support for it to liberate the occupied Golan,” he added. “The resistance will operate freely in the Golan, which frightens Israel and [is why it] began to send messages [to restore] calm.”
In October 2014, Syrian opposition sources revealed to the CNN that Hezbollah had appointed Jihad Mughniyeh as the commander responsible for the ‘Golan file’, indicating plans for a possible escalation on this front.31 The revelation followed Syrian opposition fighters’ taking over a Hezbollah position in Tall al-Hara in Daraa, where they apparently found documents and evidence indicating such plans. In November 2015, Al-Jazeera obtained hundreds of similar Hezbollah documents, revealed in a documentary titled ‘The Documents of Busra al-Sham’, detailing the group’s efforts in Daraa and al-Swaidaa to recruit fighters in the region.32
This was confirmed by Israeli intelligence sources, which claimed Sepah Pasdaran and Hezbollah had been silently working on establishing ‘operational infrastructure’ near the Syrian-Israeli border for months.33 Their plans allegedly included planting rockets and explosives near the border. The unit responsible for this mission, according to these reports, was headed by Jihad Mughniyeh and Samir al-Quntar, a Lebanese member of the Palestine Liberation Front who was released from Israeli prisons in a prisoner exchange deal with Hezbollah in 2008.34 According to media reports, sources close to Hezbollah have confirmed that al-Quntar had also been appointed by Hazbollah Lebanon to oversee the formation of ‘Hezbollah Syria’ (see above).35 On 29 July 2015, another Israeli drone strike targeted a car in the village of Hadar near al-Qunaytira, killing two Hezbollah fighters. Initial reports claimed al-Quntar was one of them, but this was later denied by the family.36 Al-Qantar was killed in an overnight Israeli strike on a residential area in Damascus on 20 December 2015.37
Another aim of the Iranian-Hezbollah military offensive in the south may have been to prevent the establishment of a ‘safety belt’ or a no-fly zone along the Jordanian border and to block the influx of weapons and anti-regime fighters from Jordan. This was indeed mentioned by some Iranian and Hezbollah media reports as one of the motives behind the military campaign.38
In any case, the operation appears to have failed to achieve its aims, at least for now, partly due to the geographical nature of the area attacked and partly because Syrian opposition fighters adopted effective guerrilla warfare tactics rather than attempting to maintain control over territory. It is highly likely, however, that Sepah Pasdaran and Hezbollah Lebanon will repeat their attempt to conquer the south in the future to achieve the strategic objectives mentioned above.
Hezbollah Lebanon’s focus on key battles in Syria’s Qalamon region and the south has meant that the group and its leaders had to also change their rhetoric and the justifications they present to their supporters. From fighting Israel to defending Shia shrines to preventing ‘takfiris’ (Sunni jihadis) from attacking Lebanon, the focus has now shifted to ‘defeating terrorists’ supported by Israel and the West in certain areas in Syria.39 This shift was perhaps most obvious in Nasrallah’s speech in July 2015, in which he claimed that “the road to al-Qods (Jerusalem) passes through al-Qalamon, al-Zabadani, Homs, Aleppo, Daraa, al-Hasakeh and Swaida, because if Syria is lost, Palestine would be lost too.”40
In another interview with Syrian state TV channel al-Ekhbariyya in April 2015, Nasrallah was more forthcoming: “There is no discussion that it [the struggle in Syria and the region] is a political struggle. But many people use religion and religious slogans in it. They exploit religion in these battles.” Nasrallah also admitted in the interview that Hezbollah went to Syria knowing full well that “the battle would be tough, big and long.”41
Away from propaganda and rhetoric, it seems that there is indeed a shift of focus reflecting the Iranian regime’s strategy in Syria, namely that the Iranian regime has conceded, or perhaps lost interest in, the possibility of regaining control over the eastern and northern parts of the country, so the focus is now on defending and consolidating its control in Damascus and its surroundings, Homs and its surroundings (which connect the first with the coastal region), and the Qalamon region (which connects the first two and connects both with Lebanon). To this we may now add the southern front, which may provide another strategic advantage besides securing arms shipments to Hezbollah in Lebanon, namely, a new Hezbollah-type deterrent on Israel’s eastern border. A number of commentators have started referring to these parts of the country as “useful Syria.” Various Western analysts and officials also appear to be thinking along these lines.42
In June 2015, French newspaper Le Monde published an article arguing that losing Daraa, and before it Idlib, Jisr al-Shughour and Palmyra, and not sending reinforcements to retake them, was a sign that the Assad regime no longer has the will or the ability to defend the ‘peripheries’, which many interpreted as a sign that al-Assad has changed his strategy. “Instead of scattering his army throughout the country,” the article added, “he has chosen to confine his forces to what could be called ‘useful Syria’.”43
The article then quotes an intelligence source claiming that the main official within the Syrian regime’s inner circle who is supportive of this Iranian strategy is General Ali Mamlouk, and that Bashar al-Assad does not (yet) appear to be very fond of the idea. The article also quotes Noah Bonsey from the International Crisis Group saying: “Since the victories of the rebels in the region of Idlib, [Bashar al-Assad] has been hesitant to withdraw his forces to the axis of Damascus-Homs-Latakia, the spine of the country, like his Iranian allies have been advising him to do.”
However, in a televised speech on 26 July 2015, President al-Assad admitted for the first time that “It was necessary to specify critical areas for our armed forces to hang on to, so that other areas don’t fall… These areas may be important militarily, politically or economically… The leadership’s priority now is military importance… Concern for our soldiers forces us sometimes to abandon some areas,” adding that there is “a lack of human resources… Everything [else] is available [for the army], but there is a shortage in human capacity.”44 He then made this startling statement: “The homeland does not belong to those who inhabit it or those who carry its passport or nationality. Homeland belongs to those who defend and protect it.”
Although al-Assad was talking about Syrians who are allegedly ‘volunteering’ to join his forces, today ‘useful Syria’ seems to indeed belong to those who ‘defend and protect’ it, namely, the Iranian regime, Hezbollah Lebanon and the other militias fighting under their command in certain parts of Syria.
In Lebanon too
A number of media reports in 2015 talked about intensive Iranian and Hezbollah efforts to set up a network of loyal non-Shia militias in Lebanon known as Saraya al-Muqawama, or Resistance Brigades, similar to the Popular Mobilisation Forces in Iraq, but not many details are provided.45
Highly trusted and knowledgeable sources in Lebanon have confirmed to Naame Shaam that Hezbollah has indeed been setting up numerous militias among non-Shia communities in several parts of Lebanon. The new militiamen are being armed, trained and paid by Hezbollah.
In the details, some 1,000 Druze militiamen have been organised into a militia headed by former Lebanese MP Wiam Wahab and based in Druze areas east and southeast of Beirut in the Chouf region and along the Beirut-Damascus highway.
Similarly, between 3,000 and 5,000 Christian militiamen have been organised by the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), a party headed by General Michel Aoun and allied with Hezbollah. This militia, also still without a name, is mainly present in villages and towns in Mount Lebanon and is talked about among Hezbollah circles as a “reserve pool.” Although armed and trained by Hezbollah, its members do not yet receive a salary and most of its members have regular jobs, according to the sources.
The FPM militiamen are coordinated by a team of retired officers of the Lebanese army, who are still loyal to General Aoun. The secret militia possesses both light and heavy arms, such as rocket-propelled grenades and mortars.
In the Jabal Mohsen district of Tripoli in the north, the small Alawi community there has hundreds of gunmen who are chaperoned by Hezbollah Lebanon. Over the past few years, they have occasionally been involved in street battles against the Sunni gunmen of Bab al-Tabbaneh neighbourhood. The Lebanese army has often had to get embroiled to stop the fighting and impose a shaky truce in the area.
In the northeastern town of Ehden, pro-Hezbollah Christian leader Suleiman Franjiyeh is also fielding several hundred gunmen. Hezbollah has provided them with some light arms, according to local sources.
Palestinian and Lebanese Sunni men in the Beqaa Valley (in the village of Bar Elias, for example) and in the southern town of Saida and in Palestinian refugee camps all over Lebanon, are also being recruited by Hezbollah into the ranks of the so-called Resistance Brigades, as mentioned above.
It appears that all these sub-militias, armed and controlled by Hezbollah Lebanon, are being prepared to secure the group’s ‘home front’ in Lebanon in the event of escalation there. Some of them could also be deployed to Syria in the future if Hezbollah and other Iranian-controlled militias fighting there become ‘overstretched’.
1. For an overview of Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria up until early 2014, see, for example, Marisa Sullivan, Hezbollah in Syria, Institute for the Study of War, April 2014; ‘The role of Hezbollah in Syria’s war’, Al-Jazeera, 2 May 2014.
2. For more on this, see, for example, ‘An Eroding Syrian Army Points to Strain’, The New York Times, 28 April 2015.
3. See here, for example.
5. ‘Hezbollah Vows to Expand Involvement in Syria’s Civil War’, The New York Times, 24 May 2015.
6. ‘Iran and Hezbollah are one hand – Israel is not safe anywhere today’ (in Persian), Fars News, 30 January 2015.
7. Ali Hashem, ‘Iran’s new strategy in Syria’, Al-Monitor, 13 May 2015.
8. ‘Nasrallah’s deputy: All Hezbollah’s victories are indebted to Imam Khamenei’ (in Persian), ABNA 24, 14 August 2015.
9. ‘Sayyed Nasrallah to those who criticize Hezbollah on Syria fight: Join us’, Al-Manar, 16 February 2015. Nasrallah’s full speech is available in Arabic here.
10. ‘Hezbollah throws 15,000 fighters to al-Qalamon.. and the target is Jroud ‘Irsal’ (in Arabic), Janoubia, 22 May 2015, available: . See also this article.
12. See, for example: Manhal Barish, ‘The Syrian Qalamon battle pushes Hezbollah to look for media victory’ (in Arabic), Al-Quds Al-Arabi, 9 May 2015; Ali Al-Amin, ‘Al-Qalamon: A media battle and a victory of images and videos’ (in Arabic), Janoubia, 14 May 2015.
13. See here.
14. See here, for example.
15. ‘Hezbolla and regime change fighting strategy in Zabadani’ (in Arabic), Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, 20 July 2015.
16. ‘Daesh makes a media entry to Zabadani, Hezbollah bleeding in the battle’ (in Arabic), Annahar, 13 July 2015.
18. See here, for example.
19. See here.
20. See here.
21. See here.
22. See here.
23. See here.
24. These are widely known facts that are acknowledged even by Iranian state-controlled media. See, for example, this detailed report by Mashregh News in Persian.
25. See, for example: Thaer Ghandour, ‘Hezbollah wages battle to eliminate Free Army in Daraa countryside’ (in Arabic), al-Arabi al-Jadid, 14 February 2015.
26. See, for example, the founding statement of the First Army, a merger of all Free Army factions in the south, in January 2015.
27. See, for example, this detailed report by Mashregh News in Persian.
28. See, for example, ‘Iran Confirms Israeli Airstrike in Southern Syria Killed One of Its Generals’, The New York Times, 19 January 2015.
29. See here.
30. See here.
31. ‘Ghazlan to CNN: Evidence obtained by Free Army proves Hezbollah appointed Imad Mughniyeh’s son as responsible for the Golan… and strategic changes in the party’s operations’ (in Arabic), CNN Arabic, 12 October 2014.
32. Available in Arabic here.
33. See, for example, ‘Israeli Intelligence: Danger of spillover from Syria war increasing’, Haaretz, 25 December 2014.
34. ‘Jihad Mughniyeh and Samir al-Quntar Hezbollah’s commanders on Golan front’ (in Arabic), Annahar, 24 December 2014.
35. ‘Source: Information on a Lebanese link with the formation of Hezbollah Syria’ (in Arabic), AKI, 5 August 2015.
36. See here.
37. See here.
40. ‘Sayyed Nasrallah: The Road to Al-Quds Passes through Qalamoun, Zabadani, Homs…’, Al-Manar, 10 July 2015
44. The full speech is available in Arabic here. The relevant parts start at 28:40.
45. See, for example, this article in Arabic in Janoubia from July 2015: . See also this article in Annahar from November 2014; this article in al-Mustaqbal from July 2015; and this article in Janoubia from July 2015.
In August 2012, the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Siyasa published a report claiming that Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had instructed two prominent Shia religious authorities (marji’yyat) in Iraq and Iran to issue a fatwa (religious ruling) calling for Shia jihad against ‘takfiri groups’ in Syria.118 Al-Siyasa is known for its politically motivated reports and fabrications, but at least the Iranian fatwa appears to be authentic.
Qom-based Kazem al-Haeri had published on his official Facebook page a fatwa authorising and legitimising travelling to Syria to take part in ‘holy jihad’ in defence of Shia shrines.119 The fatwa came in the form of a response to a request for permission to travel to Syria for the purpose of defending the shrine of Sayyida Zaynab in Damascus without parental permission. Al-Haeri ruled that this action was permissible and that parental permission in such matters was unnecessary. “The battle in Syria,” he later added, “is not only for the defense of the shrine of Sayyida Zaynab but it is a battle of infidels against Islam, and Islam should be defended.”120
Originally from Iraq, al-Haeri had previously published a book with various fatwas concerning matters of warfare, especially unconventional guerilla warfare.121 Some of his fatwas, such as killing prisoners of war and innocent individuals “if necessary”, go against international human rights conventions. Before al-Haeri, another Iranian Shia authority, Ayatollah Seyed Mohammad Sadeq Rouhani, had also legitimised jihad in Syria for the purpose of protecting Shia holy sites.122 Another Iraqi fatwa by the Najaf-based Shia cleric Abu al-Qasim al-Ta’i, who has strong connections with one of the Iraqi militias fighting in Syria, also permitted Iraqi Shia to travel to Syria for ‘jihad’.
These Shia fatwas followed other alleged fatwas by little-known or anonymous Saudi clerics calling for the destruction of Shia shrines,123 as well as an alleged YouTube video in which a group said to belong to the Free Syrian Army called for the destruction of Sayyida Zaynab and other Shia shrines.124 The author of this report has not been able to find this alleged video online, and the origin of the story appears to be a news item broadcast by the notorious Saudi TV channel Wisal merely “calling upon” the Free Syrian Army to “target the temple of Sayyida Zaynab and destroy it.”125 Early statements by Shia leaders seem to support this conclusion.126
The previous month, in June 2012, a suicide bomber had detonated a van packed with explosives in the Sayyida Zaynab district, wounding 14 people and causing some damage to the shrine.127 Syrian state TV was quick to blame the rebels (or ‘the terrorists’, as it usually called them) for the attack, as did the representative of Iran’s supreme leader in Syria Mojtaba al-Hosseini.128 It was not clear, however, who was actually behind the bomb and whether it was intended to target the shrine itself or a police station 15 metres away.
The Free Army had taken over the neighbourhood earlier that year until its fighters were driven out, in late July 2012, by regime forces and militias, supported by Iraqi militias, following fierce fighting and many casualties on both sides.129 The Free Army could have destroyed the shrine then if that had been their intention. The battle was more likely over the strategic location of the district as a gateway into southern Damascus and the Damascus airport further east.
In any case, for many Iraqi Shias, the news and rumours of the Sayyida Zaynab shrine being targeted or threatened by Sunni extremists was a reminder of the 2006 bombing of the al-Askari shrine in the Iraqi city of Samarraa, which was then blamed on al-Qaeda and set off years of retaliatory bloodshed between Sunni and Shia extremists. So it is understandable that the news would create a great deal of concern among the Shia communities. It was indeed used extensively by supporters of Hezbollah Lebanon and various Iraqi militias to call for Shia jihad in Syria. Historical Shia grievances and notions of victimhood were also invoked to advance this call, with slogans such as “revenge for Hossein” and “O Zaynab, you will not be captivated twice”130 becoming widespread.
It is also worth noting that both Mohammad Sadeq Rouhani and Kazem al-Haeri, who belong to a school of thought supporting political Shia Islam, are normally considered second-degree authorities and are less credible and popular than other religious leaders in Qom, Iran. But both are known to be close to Hezbollah and the Iranian regime. Al-Haeri is also said to be the ‘spiritual leader’ of ‘Asa’eb Ahl al-Haq, one of the main Iraqi militias fighting in Syria.131 Their fatwas – even though they were opposed by other prominent Shia authorities 132 – were used to open official registration offices in Iran for enrolling volunteers wishing to go for jihad in Syria.133
In Iraq, a statement by Shia seminaries called upon the Iraqi government to take measures to protect holy Shia shrines in Syria, particularly that of Sayyida Zaynab.134 A conference “in support of Zaynab” was organised in Karbalaa in July 2012, bringing together representatives from various Shia seminaries and groups. One of the outcomes was the establishment of “committees to support the Syrian people… against the enemies’ conspiracies.” A “popular delegation” was also sent to Damascus to “visit” the Sayyida Zaynab shrine.135
Soon various Iraqi Shia militias – all funded, armed and directed by the Iranian regime – were recruiting more fighters to go and fight in Syria under the pretext or belief of protecting holy Shia shrines against Sunni extremists.136 Moreover, their travel across the border was overlooked, and even facilitated, by the Iraqi government of Nouri al-Maliki.137 Like Bashar al-Assad in Syria, al-Maliki was a close ally of the Iranian regime.
Meanwhile, the Syrian regime had set up so-called ‘popular committees’ to defend the Sayyida Zaynab shrine. They were presented by Syrian and Iranian state-controlled media as “local youths, armed with sticks and knives, [who] have formed committees to protect the holy shrine of Sayyida Zainab.”138 But video footage of the ‘popular committees’ in action only shows heavily armed regime troops and shabbiha, just like in other parts of the country.139 And as discussed above, the Iranian regime had played an important role in setting up, training and arming these shabbiha.
Unlike Hezbollah Lebanon, Iraqi Shia militias did very little to hide their involvement in Syria. One of the first Iraqi militias to announce its presence there, with the stated aim of defending the Sayyida Zaynab shrine, was the Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas Brigade, which observers describe as “the primary front group [of] Iranian-backed combatants and organizations based in Iraq.”143 In a video posted on YouTube in January 2013, a masked man speaking with an Iraqi accent read out what he called “Declaration No. 1” of Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas Brigade, whose task, he stressed, was “to protect the shrine of our beloved lady Sayyida Zaynab against the attacks of takfiris, Wahhabis, the so-called Free Army and all the enemies of the Prophet’s family.”144
A few months before, in October 2012, one of the brigade’s founders, an Iraqi defector from Muqtada al-Sadr’s Jaysh al-Mahdi (the Mahdi Army) was quoted by Reuters saying: “We formed the Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas brigade, which includes 500 Iraqi, Syrian and some other nationalities… When the fighting erupted in our areas [Sayyida Zaynab], we carried out some joint military operations side by side with the Syrian army to clean up areas seized by rebels.”145
Most of the brigade’s members at the time were former fighters in the Mahdi Army of various nationalities, mostly Iraqi, who took refuge in Syria after 2007, when the militia group was crushed by Iraqi and American forces. Others crossed over later to join the ‘holy jihad’.146 Some media reports claimed the brigade was formed in coordination with the Syrian government and Khamenei’s office in Damascus.147
Throughout 2013, Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas Brigade posted tens of promotional videos on YouTube and other social media calling for jihad in Syria to protect the Sayyida Zaynab shrine.148 Hezbollah Lebanon’s Al-Manar TV station was the first proper media outlet to broadcast some of these videos. One of the early, well-produced ones shows Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas fighters alongside what appears to be Hezbollah fighters in the Sayyida Zaynab area.149 About a year later, interviews with serving and former members of Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas Brigade suggested that up to 10,000 volunteers had joined its ranks.150
Another prominent Iraqi Shia militia fighting alongside the regime in Syria is ‘Asa’eb Ahl al-Haq, or Leagues of the Righteous, which shares a similar origin and composition to those of the Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas Brigade, though it is a few years older.151 It was reportedly formed in 2006, as a splinter from the Mahdi Army, with the help of Sepah Qods and Hezballah Lebanon, to fight the American troops in Iraq.152
In July 2013, ‘Asa’eb Ahl al-Haq announced the creation of a new sub-unit called Liwa’ Kafeel Zaynab, or the Protector of Zaynab Brigade.153 Like Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas, Kafeel Zaynab posted a number of promotional videos on YouTube, which were often a mixture of footage of its fighters in action against a backdrop of Shia religious songs or slogans.154 Some of the videos show heavily armed fighters accompanied by tanks, Syrian army soldiers or Hezbollah Lebanon fighters, often outside the Sayyida Zaynab area and Damascus altogether.155
Judging by its relatively high number of casualties and funerals compared to other Iraqi militias, ‘Asa’eb Ahl al-Haq appears to have a large number of fighters in Syria and to be taking part in battles outside Damascus.156 However, besides the fighting, the group also appears to have been charged, along with Kata’eb Hezbollah, another Iranian-backed Iraqi militia fighting in Syria,157 with organising the enlistment and transfer of Iraqi fighters to Syria. One of the group’s commanders was quoted in May 2013 boasting: “I personally get dozens of calls each day from people in the provinces and Baghdad who want to go… We send well-trained ideological fighters.”158 Back in 2011, an Iraqi source close to the group claimed that ‘Asa’eb Ahl al-Haq received around $5 million a month in cash and weapons from the Iranian regime.159
Another group that is reportedly playing this role (coordinating the recruitment and transport of Iraqi fighters on behalf of the Iranian regime) is the Badr Organisation, which split from the Islamic Supreme Council in Iraq. One of the oldest Shia militias in Iraq, Badr was set up by the Iranian regime to fight against Saddam Hussein inside Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war in 1980s. According to one media report, citing an Iraqi politician allied with the group, Iranian commanders had nominated a senior leader within Badr to control Iraqi militias fighting in Syria and coordinate between them and the Syrian regime.160
In July 2013, the Badr Organisation admitted sending 1,500 fighters to Syria.161 The name given to its Syria military wing is the al-Shahid al-Sadr Force, named after the late Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr, the former leader of the Da’wa Movement in Iraq. That same month, the force announced its first Syria death and held a funeral for him in Iraq.162
Other Iraqi Shia militias fighting in Syria include Kata’eb Sayyid al-Shuhadaa, the Imam Hossein Brigade, the Zulfiqar Brigade, the Ammar Bin Yasir Brigade and Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujabaa.163 According to media reports based on interviews with members of some of these militias, around 50 fighters were being flown or bused from Baghdad and Najaf to Damascus every week in 2013, often in small groups of 10-15, and often disguised as ‘pilgrims’.164 Numerous public funerals have also been held in Iraq for these militias’ fighters killed in Syria.165
Many of these Iraqi militias were established by the Iranian regime in late 2012 and early 2013 with the sole purpose of sending them to fight in Syria under the pretext of protecting Sayyida Zaynab and other Shia shrines. Some already existed and were used by the Iranian regime in its proxy war with the US in Iraq between 2003 and 2011. Each of these militias has at least a few hundred fighters in Syria, all of whom are armed and trained by Sepah Pasdaran. Evidence of this Iranian role ranges from declarations that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is their supreme religious authority, with his pictures and quotes filling their websites and social media pages, to testimonies by serving or former members about being trained in Iran or serving under Iranian commanders. A BBC interview with ‘Asa’eb Ahl al-Haq’s leader Qais al-Khaz’ali in July 2014 concluded that ‘Asa’eb Ahl al-Haq and its leaders “make no secrets of their links with the Iranians. Their fighters are trained and supplied by Iran.”166
For example, a former Mahdi Army fighter told Associated Press in October 2012 that Iraqi fighters, who “consider the defense of the holy sites to be a religious duty,” were being “supported by Iran,” which he said had been “providing logistical support and small arms to volunteer fighters guarding the shrine.”167 Another fighter explained to The Guardian in June 2013 how the process of going to fight in Syria worked:
The first step is to register with one of the Shia Islamic resistance offices, like [Asa’eb Ahl al-Haq], [the] Mukhtar Army or Iraqi Hezbollah. Then comes a trip to a boot camp in Iran. You have to enrol on a 45-day training course in Iran to [become] specialised in using a specific weapon like rocket launchers, Kalashnikov, sniper rifle or RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades]. After the course, you will be handed over to an Iranian middleman who will take you to Syria to join the brigade.168
Another fighter, who was first trained to use the Kalashnikov on the plains of southern Iraq, said he was then sent to Mashhad in Iran, then to Beirut, and on to Damascus by plane.
Once you get to the capital, there is a training centre near the [Sayyida Zaynab] shrine where all volunteers have to do a quick session of military training. Then they meet with Abu Ajeeb [the Syrian commander of Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas] who asks all the volunteers to be careful and to go home safe.169
Another Iraqi fighter told The New York Times in October 2012 that he had arrived in Damascus two months before on a flight from Tehran. “Dozens of Iraqis are joining us,” he added, “and our brigade is growing day by day.”170 Other interviewees in Iraq, including Shia leaders, told the paper the Iraqi volunteers had been receiving weapons and supplies from the Syrian and Iranian governments, and that Iran had “organized travel for Iraqis willing to fight in Syria on the [Syrian] government’s side.” The Iranian regime, they added, had also pressed Iraqi Shia forces to “organize committees to recruit young fighters.” A senior official from the Sadrist movement and a former member of the Iraqi parliament also told the paper that convoys of buses from Najaf, ostensibly for pilgrims, were “carrying weapons and fighters to Damascus.”171
Indeed, in many of the videos referenced above, Iraqi militants, particularly from Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas and Kata’eb Hezbollah, appear to be well trained and highly organised, with advanced, high-quality arms and uniforms that even the Syrian army does not possess. So much so that one Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas fighter was quoted in The Guardian article mentioned above saying:
There is no need for the Syrian army in Sayyida Zaynab. The brigade’s fighters are protecting everything from the airport to the capital to Sweida, including residential areas, hospitals, government buildings, police stations, schools, mosques and hospitals.172
Most of the Iraqi militias appear to be using RPG-7s, PKM machine guns, SVD-style sniper rifles and Kalashnikov- and M16-style assault rifles. All are supplied by the Iranian regime, as will be detailed later in the report.
In a video posted by Syrian rebels in December 2013, three Iraqi militants captured by the rebels in al-Ghouta, near Damascus, confess to the camera that they had been sent to Syria “for jihad.”173 The second prisoner, who says he was a bus driver transporting fighters from Iraq to Syria, claims that his group, Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas Brigade, comprises “ideological fighters” who are fighting “for the doctrine… to protect the Sayyida Zaynab shrine,” unlike ‘Asa’eb Ahl al-Haq, to which the first prisoner said he belonged, which he describes as “mercenaries who are paid money” (500 dollars a month). The Syrian rebel then asks him why they were fighting in al-Ghouta and al-Qalamon when there is no Sayyida Zaynab shrines there, to which he responds: “for the doctrine.”
Confessions of Iraqi militiamen captured by Syrian rebels in the suburbs of Damascus, December 2013.
Most of the other details mentioned in the confessions – which are backed up by pictures, videos and documents found on the prisoners’ phones and a USB stick found with them, all of which are shown in the video – have already been mentioned above. However, in a follow-up interview, the first prisoner elaborates on the money issue.
The monthly salary of 500 dollars that ‘Asa’eb Ahl al-Haq fighters receive, he says, is sent to them from Iraq by the militia’s leader Sheikh Qais al-Khaz’ali, who is said to be based in Iran and was released by the American troops in Iraq in a prisoner exchange deal in 2010. Another religious authority associated with the militia, Qasim al-Ta’i, and his secretary also support them by sending other essential goods, such as sugar and rice. The prisoner also confirms that ‘Asa’eb Ahl al-Haq had been “charged” with fighting outside the Sayyida Zaynab area alongside regular Syrian troops and were responsible for some of the worst massacres committed by Iraqi fighters.174
Other evidence of Iraqi militias fighting outside the Sayyida Zaynab area – suggesting they are not really there to protect Shia shrines – includes videos posted on YouTube, either by Syrian rebels or by the Iraqi militias themselves, of them fighting in other parts of the country, such as al-Gouta and Aleppo.175 In fact, the first Syria ‘martyr’ of ‘Asa’eb Ahl al-Haq was reportedly killed in Hama in early 2012.176 A large funeral, attended by many of the militia’s leaders, was held for him in Baghdad.
In March 2014, Harakat al-Nujabaa posted pictures on its Facebook page showing its fighters holding a military-style funeral for one of its ‘martyrs’ inside a prominent military facility in Aleppo.177 The place, the Military Engineering Academy, was described by the group as its “headquarters.” Al-Nujabaa split from ‘Asa’eb Ahl al-Haq and reportedly has strong links with Hezbollah Lebanon. In another video posted on YouTube in November 2013, a group of Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas are seen marching down the streets of Aleppo, with one of them shouting “Here we are, Zaynab.”178
There have also been numerous pictures and reports of ‘Iraqi checkpoints’ throughout Damascus. Apart from those in Sayyida Zaynab and the surrounding areas in southern Damascus, Iraqi checkpoints, both stationary and mobile, have been seen in central Damascus (Bahsa and Hamidiyya) and at the Damascus airport, according to local activists. There have also been reports of regime checkpoints manned by Iraqi militiamen.179
These and other similar events and reports have caused at least some of the Iraqi fighters to question what they were really doing in Syria. As one fighter from the Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas Brigade put it in The Guardian article mentioned above, “The moment you join the brigade, you have to join the Syrian government army. You have to fight with President Bashar al-Assad before you fight for [the brigade]. The Syrian army will tell you that you have to know that you are protecting Syria, not only the shrine.”180
Interestingly, many Iraqi militia members are now refusing to fight under Syrian command, like Hezbollah fighters did before them. The rift is said to have started around mid-2013, following criticisms by Iraqi commanders of the ‘undisciplined’ behaviour of some Syrian shabbiha they were working with. The disagreements reportedly turned into a gun battle near the shrine of Sayyida Zaynab between ‘Asa’eb Ahl al-Haq, Kata’eb Hezbollah and some Iraqi Mahdi Army fighters on one side and the Syrian commander of the Abu al-Fadhl al-Abbas Brigade and his local followers on the other. Two Iraqi fighters and three Syrian shabbiha died in the clashes. A reconciliation meeting was reportedly held on the order of Khamenei’s office in Damascus, but divisions festered and the Mahdi Army, ‘Asa’eb Ahl al-Haq and Kata’eb Hezbollah are now reportedly fighting under the command of Hezbollah Lebanon.181
In June 2014, following the fall of Mosul to the Islamic State in Iraq and Sham (Daesh), many Iraqi militiamen returned to Iraq to fight against Sunni extremists there.182 According to media reports, Hezbollah Lebanon subsequently announced a ‘general mobilisation’ and sent more than 1,000 additional fighters to Syria in order to fill the gap.183
In Spring and Summer 2014, especially after the fall of Mosul to Daesh in June, many Iraqi Shia militiamen fighting in Syria returned to Iraq to fight against Sunni extremists there, as mentioned above. But not all of them did. Kata’eb Sayyed al-Shuhadaa and Hezbollah al-Nujabaa reportedly kept many of their fighters in Syria and took on leading roles alongside Hezbollah Lebanon. The latter also announced a ‘general mobilisation’ at the time and sent hundreds more fighters to Syria, many of them young, to fill this gap (see above).
Nevertheless, a special Syrian delegation reportedly travelled to Iraq in late September or early October 2014 and met with a number of Iraqi officials and militia leaders to convey the Syrian regime’s “worries” regarding the “vacuum” created by the Iraqi fighters’ returning home, especially in the Damascus countryside area. An Iraqi military source told al-Arabi al-Jadeed newspaper that the Syrian delegates did not meet with the Iraqi prime minister or his aides but with “influential” security officials and politicians, as well as the leaders of the Badr Organisation and ‘Asa’eb Ahl al-Haqq, Hadi al-’Ameri and Qays al-Khaz’ali respectively.1
In May 2015, Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas Brigade announced that it was withdrawing all its fighters from Aleppo following defeats suffered by its Iraqi branch at the hands of Daesh in al-Ramadi, according to media reports. Again, the gap left by the militia’s fighters leaving were said to have been filled by Hezbollah Lebanon.2 But by now, as Daesh no longer posed an imminent threat to Baghdad and Samarraa, many of the Iraqi militias had returned to Syria, both old and new,3 not to mention hundreds of Afghan and Pakistani Shia fighters (more on this below).
The role played by Iraqi Shia militias in the Syria war has been extensively documented, most notably by Phillip Smyth of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.4 What is worth highlighting here is the increasing geographical distribution and the more prominent role played by these militias in key battles.
For instance, Zulfiqar Brigade, a subdivision of Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas, has reportedly been fighting alongside Syrian regime forces and militias in the Latakia countryside since February 2015, and alongside Hezbollah Lebanon in al-Qalamon and al-Zabadani more recently. The same group also took part in the Jisr al-Shughour battle in April 2015. Al-Assad al-Ghaleb and al-Imam al-Hussain Brigades, two other subdivisions of Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas, have also been active in the coastal region. Kata’eb Sayyed al-Shuhadaa participated in the Daraa offensive in February 2015 alongside Iranian and Hezbollah fighters, and so on and so forth.
This geographic and missionary diversity has meant that these Iraqi Shia militias can no longer justify and recruit for what they are doing in Syria solely on the basis of defending holy Shia shrines. Fighting Daesh in Syria as a motive is increasingly found in their literature off and online, even though, in many cases, they are actually fighting against other Islamist and Free Army factions, and Daesh does not even exist in some of these areas.
Meanwhile in Iraq, under the pretext of fighting Daesh, Iranian-controlled Shia militias have expanded and consolidated their influence throughout the country to such an extent that they have practically replaced the army and security forces in many areas. Dozens of them recently united, under the auspice of Haider al-Abadi’s government, under the name The Popular Mobilisation Forces. The coalition is headed by Jamal Jaafar Mohammed, better known by his nom de guerre Abu Mahdi al-Mohandis. Al-Mohandis is a former commander of the Badr Organisation, one of the most powerful Shia militias in Iraq.
According to an internal Iraqi intelligence report leaked to the media, the number of armed militias in Iraq in mid-2015 was 53, up from 43 in December 2014, with a total membership of 120,000 militiamen.5 The “only common factors” among them, the report adds, are the “extremist religious cover” and the source of their funding: Iran. Each militia is said to receive from Tehran between 100,000 and 500,000 US dollars per month, depending on its size and its achievements, in addition to Russian- and Iranian-made weapons.
In a series of interviews by Reuters published in February 2015, key figures inside the Iraqi Popular Mobilisation Forces detail the ways in which these militias cooperate with Baghdad and Tehran, and the role that Iranian ‘advisers’ play, both inside the groups and on the frontlines.6 The interviewees include two senior figures in the Badr Organisation and the commander of a relatively new militia called Saraya al-Khorasani. Saraya al-Khorasani was founded in 2013 by Sepah Pasdaran’s General Hamid Taghavi, who was killed in northern Iraq in December 2014.
Iraqi officials told Reuters that al-Mohandis is Major-Gen. Qassem Soleimani’s right hand in Iraq, and militiamen praised him as “the commander of all troops,” whose word is “like a sword above all groups.” Soleimani, they added, “participates in the operation command center from the start of the battle to the end, and the last thing [he] does is visit the battle’s wounded in the hospital.”
Iranian-backed and controlled militias in Iraq have become so powerful and dominant in recent months that some commentators are now talking about a de facto Iranian occupation of Iraq.7 And it is all done under the watch and tacit blessing of the US troops in Iraq, their new ‘partners’ in the war against Daesh.
What the US administration seems to overlook is that relying on extremist Shia militias to fight an extremist Sunni group like Daesh will only increase the latter’s popularity and justify its crimes in the eyes of its current and future supporters. More importantly, the Iranian regime has been allowed to build and consolidate an international army of well organised and well armed Shia militias that it can quickly deploy wherever needed, as the movement of the Iraqi militias to and from Syria has shown.
In late May 2015, following a visit to the frontlines in Idlib, Syria, Qassem Soleimani threatened the world that it “will be surprised in the coming days by what we and the Syrian military leadership are preparing.”8 The ‘surprise’ turned out to be sending thousands more Iranian and Iraqi fighters to Syria to defend Damascus and the coastal region. “Around 7,000 Iranian and Iraqi fighters have arrived in Syria over the past few weeks and their first priority is the defence of the capital,” a Syrian security source told AFP news agency a few days later. “The larger contingent is Iraqi,” he added.9
This and similar developments strongly indicate that the flow of Iranian-controlled Shia militiamen into Syria, both Iraqi and otherwise, will only grow in the future, and that their role in defending and securing ‘useful Syria’ will become more and more prominent. In other words, the country is heading towards more ‘militiasation’ of pro-Assad forces under the control of the Iranian regime. Not only is the Iraqi experience being more or less repeated in Syria, but Iraqi Shia militias are being used to achieve this. Phillip Smyth describes this as the “Hezbollahzation” of the security field in Iraq and Syria.10 But it is not just about Syria. The Iranian regime now controls an extensive networks of militias that it can deploy wherever and whenever needed in the region.
1 ‘Assad seeks Baghdad’s help and complains about withdrawal of Iraqi militias from Syria’ (in Arabic), al-Arabi al-Jadeed, 2 October 2014.
2 ‘Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas Brigade abandons al-Assad and withdraws from Aleppo’ (in Arabic), al-Durar al-Shamiyya, 19 May 2015.
3 For more on this, see: Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, ‘The Return of Iraqi Shi‘i Militias to Syria’, Middle East Institute, 16 March 2015; Phillip Smyth, ‘Iraqi Shiite Foreign Fighters on the Rise Again in Syria’, The Washington Institute, 29 May 2015.
4 Phillip Smyth, The Shiite Jihad in Syria and Its Regional Effects, Washington Institute for Near East Policy, February 2015.
5 ‘The militia world in Iraq: 53 organisations with Iranian support’ (in Arabic), al-Arabic al-Jadeed, 24 July 2015.
6 ‘Special Report: How Iran’s military chiefs operate in Iraq’, Reuters, 24 February 2015.
8 ‘Qassem Soleimani: The world will be surprised in Syria’ (in Persian), Mashregh News, 31 May 2015. For English, see: ‘General Soleimani vows ‘surprise’ in Syria’, Tehran Times, 6 June 2015.
9 ‘Iraq, Iran fighters deployed to defend Damascus: security source’, The Daily Star Lebanon, 3 June 2015. See also this report.
10 Phillip Smyth, idem.
Reports that some Shia Afghan fighters were fighting in Syria alongside Hezbollah and the Iraqi militias have been around at least since October 2012, when the Free Syrian Army captured an Afghan refugee from Iran who was allegedly fighting in Syria alongside the regime.189
In April 2013, Afghan media reported that the Afghan Foreign Ministry had launched an investigation into the involvement of Afghan nationals in the Syria war.190 A Foreign Ministry spokesperson said at a press conference that several Afghan nationals had reportedly been sent by Iran to Syria and a number of them had reportedly been killed there. According to the Syrian opposition, most of them were fighting within ‘mixed’ Iraqi militias, such as Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas Brigade and Saraya Tali’at al-Khurasani.191
Sending Afghan fighters to Syria may have been an attempt by Sepah Pasdaran to bolster the Iraqi militias fighting in Syria at the time, or simply because they are ‘cheaper’ for the Iranian regime than other fighters, as most of the recruits appear to be poor or undocumented Afghan refugees in Iran, so Sepah would not have the same financial commitments towards them and their families as it does to Iranian, Hezbollah or Iraq fighters. It is plausible, however, that using Afghan Shia fighters is also part of longer-term plans by the Iranian regime to consolidate its power in Syria by relying more and more on its own loyal militias instead of Syrian troops (more on this later in the report).
In May 2014, The Wall Street Journal published an explosive article claiming Sepah Pasdaran had been recruiting thousands of Afghan refugees to fight in Syria, offering them $500 a month and Iranian residency permits.192 The allegations were based on an Iranian blog on recruitment efforts among Afghan refugees in Iran and were confirmed to the paper by an Afghan religious leader in Qom and by a member of Sepah Pasdaran. The article caused a storm in Afghanistan and Iran, with Iranian officials insisting the allegations were “baseless” and “unfounded.” But the paper maintained that its claims had been confirmed by reliable sources before the Iranian authorities put pressure on them to “recant their statements.”193
A couple of weeks later, in June 2014, France 24 published another investigation in which it quoted two “observers” based in Afghanistan who corroborated WSJ’s allegations, adding that the deployment of young Afghan Shia fighters was “no secret.”194 One of them said two of his family members, who had fled to Iran a few years before, were sent to Syria after being offered 1.5 million Iranian Tomans (equivalent to 430 euros or 585 US dollars) by Sepah Pasdaran. “They both received military training in Iran for a few months before they were sent to Syria,” he added. “One told me he and 80 other Afghan fighters had received training and fought alongside Hezbollah for a while in Syria.” The other source told the channel that some Afghan Shia clerics were encouraging Shia youths during private gatherings to go and fight in Syria to “defend Shia Muslims in Syria and fight what they call the enemies of Ali.” “I know other youths [who] were recruited from cities such as the capital, Kabul, Balkh, Sarpol, Samangan as well as Faryab and Nimrooz in Afghanistan,” he added.
Around mid-2014, a number of media reports claimed that the Afghan Shia fighters sent to Syria had now formed their own separate militia called the Fatemiyoun Brigade (named after Fatima, Prophet Mohammad’s daughter and Imam Ali’s wife).195 The brigade is estimated to have between 2,000 and 5,000 fighters and appears to be coordinating mainly with Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas Brigade.
In addition to Afghans, there have also been reports of Shia fighters from various other nationalities being sent to Syria or prepared to go. For example, in July 2013, Iranian media reported the death of a Shia fighter from the Ivory Coast in Syria.196 In June 2014, India’s largest Shia organisation allegedly began to recruit volunteers to defend Shia holy shrines in Iraq, and possibly in Syria, against the extremists of the so-called Islamic State (Daesh). Media reports claimed that nearly 30,000 Indian Shia Muslims had already signed up to fight and applied for visas to Iraq.197
Since the publication of the first edition of this report in November 2014, the number and role of Afghan Shia fighters sent by Sepah Pasdaran to fight in Syria has become more prominent and more open, thanks to concerted propaganda and recruitment efforts by the Iranian regime and its media outlets. After a period of fighting in the ranks of Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas Brigade, Afghan Shia fighters in Syria formed a special contingent of their own called the Fatemiyoun Brigade, as mentioned above.
The brigade’s task was ostensibly to defend the Sayyeda Zaynab shrine in Damascus, even though its members are known to have fought elsewhere in Syria alongside Hezbollah and Syrian regime forces. Nevertheless, all Afghan Shia fighters in Syria are referred to by Iranian state-controlled media for propaganda purposes as “shrine defenders.” As a Mashregh News report from March 2015 puts it, the Fatemiyoun Brigade is “a special brigade of Afghan volunteers, many of whose members have been killed defending the [Shia] shrines [in Syria].”2
According to conservative Iranian news agency Defa Press, the Fatemiyoun Brigade was originally formed of two main contingents: The Mohammad Army, which mainly included Afghan Mujahedeen who fought against the Taliban in Afghanistan, and the Abu Zarr Brigade, which mainly included Afghans who fought with Iranian forces during the Iran-Iraq war. After the war in Syria started, many of them ‘volunteered’ to ‘defend the shrine’ of Sayyeda Zaynab in Damascus, according to the report.3
A third, increasingly large contingent comes from the Afghan Shia refugees in Iran, which is home to nearly a million Shia Hazaras who had fled war-tron Afghanistan, according to the UNHCR.4 In addition to the English and French media reports cited above, an Afghan daily, Sobh, published an article in January 2014 saying it had obtained evidence and documents proving that the Iranian regime had been recruiting Afghan migrants to go and fight in Syria after undergoing military training in Tehran.5 In December and November 2013 alone, the report adds, 120 Afghan migrants, most of them under 25, were deployed to Syria.
In an interview with a Fatemiyoun commander, republished after his death on Sepah Pasdaran’s website in late October 2015,6 Reza Khavari explains how the Brigade was formed:
First the plan was to deploy 10 Mohajereen [Afghan migrants in Iran] to Syria. The initial group was as big as 25 people, but only 10 were officially confirmed. We were told that these 10 individuals would be sent to see if they can stand the situation and stay. On the eve of year 1390 [2011-2012], this group of 10 was ready to go… but by the time of actual deployment, their number had reached 23. They were supposed to go through trainings and then head to Syria, but there was no time, so they were deployed without such training. Some of them had experiences in warfare before, but they gradually forgot what they knew.
The Defa Press report adds that the Fatemyyoun Brigade was upgraded in May 2014 to a Division due to “augmentation in its operational capacities and number of staff.” There have also been unconfirmed reports that the Brigade has been or will be incorporated into an “Afghan Hezbollah”.
In March 2015, Ofogh, a TV channel close to Sepah Pasdaran, broadcast a 23-minute ‘documentary’ about the Fatemiyoun Bridage produced by Farhangi Riwayeti Fathi Iran, a ‘cultural center’ close to Sepah Pasdaran that used to make propaganda films about the Iran-Iraq war.7 “Moalem”, or Teacher in Persian, follows the story of an Afghan Shia commander in Syria over the past three years and talks mostly about the bravery and religious beliefs of the Afghan fighters in Syria. It focuses in particular on the towns of Harran al-Awameed and al-Mleiha near Damascus, where the Fatemiyoun Brigade had fought and the protagonist has “painful memories.” The ‘teacher’ explains: “We fought for seven months from seven different directions in al-Mleiha. We imposed a siege and we lost about 50 martyrs. Our progress became slower because of the destruction and rabble… But the Fatemiyoun guys had sworn by Zaynab to liberate the area.”
Ironically, the archive footage following the above statement, which is supposed to show the destruction caused by the “takfiris of Jabhat al-Nusra” that the Afghan fighters were supposedly fighting, in fact shows fire and destruction that appears to have been caused by aerial bombardment. A man is heard shouting in Arabic: “May God take revenge on you, Bashar [al-Assad]… There are corpses under the rabble.” The ‘teacher’ then adds: “Al-Mleiha is a strategic town. The [opposition] armed men fought very fiercely for it. There came the [Syrian] army and the Iraqis and Hezbollah. But in the end, when all their attempts failed, came the Fatemiyoun guys.”
The film also shows footage of General Alireza Tavasoli, the founder and former commander of the Fatemiyoun Brigade who was killed in Daraa, Syria, on 28 February 2015, during a failed Iranian-led offensive in the south.8 Tavasoli had fought in Afghanistan and during the Iran-Iraq war and was reportedly close to Major-Gen. Qassem Soleimani.9 A few days later, on 12 March, Iranian state media reported the death of another commander of the Fatemiyoun Brigade, Mahdi Saberi, and published a picture of him alongside Soleimani.10
Martyrs & funerals
Official funerals held in Iran for Afghan Shia fighters killed in Syria have become not only frequent in recent months, but also more public and frequently reported by Iranian media. Naame Shaam has documented over 180 such funerals since September 2013. The names of the dead and the dates and places of their burial are produced in Appendix 2.
The list is based solely on Iranian media reports about these official funerals. The number of Afghan Shia fighters killed in Syria is certainly much higher. For instance, in May 2014, Defa Press reported that 200 Afghans had been killed in Syria until then.11 Sobh Daily claimed that 3-4 bodies of Afghan fighters are being sent back to Iran every week.12 Then there are all the bodies that could not be retrieved from the battlefields and those buried in silence or not reported by the media. According to the German Der Spiegel magazine, exact numbers are hard to come by, but some 700 Afghan Shia fighters are thought to have lost their lives in Aleppo and Daraa alone until May 2015. “No ethnic group is represented on all of the regime’s fronts to the degree that the Afghan Hazara are,” the magazine added.13
In the above-mentioned interview with a Fatemiyoun commander republished on Sepah Pasdaran’s website after his death, Reza Khavari reveals that,
At the time , when the bodies of martyrs Seyed Hossein Hossein and Mahmoud Kalani were to be returned to Iran, one of the generals ordered an investigation to be conducted on the possible reactions in the country. All the officials worried that, if Afghans find out about the story, they might revolt or react harshly. Then the bodies arrived and the funerals were held and everyone saw that no such reaction occurred.
At fist they were not even sure if they should put funeral notices on the walls or mention that these people had been martyred in Syria. Then the families took the initiative and called the martyrs shrine defenders.
Iranian state-controlled media reports often do not mention where and how these fighters have died. They often just say “martyred in Syria defending the shrine.” It is well known, however, that some of them have died miles away from the Sayyeda Zaynab shrine in Damascus, in places as far as Aleppo in the north and Daraa in the south. Indeed, as mentioned above, the former commander of the Fatemyyon Brigade, General Alireza Tavassoli, was killed in Daraa along with six other Afghan fighters.
Interestingly, whereas before most Afghan ‘shrine defenders’ were buried in Mashhad, more and more are now being buried in the holy Shia city of Qom. The first known official and public funeral held for Afghan fighters killed in Syria was held in Mashhad in December 2013. All ten ‘shrine defenders’ celebrated then were buried in the Beheshti Reza cemetery in the city, while those injured were reportedly treated at a Sepah Pasdaran hospital.14 In contrast, many are being nowadays buried in a new, special section of Masouma’s Paradise Cemetery in Qom called “Defenders of Shrines Martyrs.”15
Moreover, big, public ‘commemoration gatherings’ are now being frequently organised by the Iranian government for Afghan ‘shrine defenders’. They are often attended by Iranian officials and/or Sepah Pasdaran commanders, and people are openly invited to take part in these events.16 For instance, on 5 May 2015 one such gathering was held in Mahdiyeh Tehran,17 and another in Pakdasht,18 and another a few days later in Behesht Zahra.19 During the 11th ‘commemoration gathering’ in Tehran on 4 May 2015, the Afghan ‘shrine defenders’ issued a collective statement in which the event was seen as “an opportunity for the unity and cooperation of Iranians, Afghans, Lebanese and Syrians beyond geographical borders.”20
The burials in Qom and the public commemoration gatherings held in Iran for the Afghan Shia fighters killed in Syria indicate that the Iranian regime is using these high-profile events as a propaganda tool to attract and recruit more Afghan fighters. So much so that Iran’s Supreme Leader’s Deputy at Sepah Qods, Ali Shirazi, said in July 2015: “The status of Shrine Defenders is even higher than that of the martyrs of the Sacred Defence [the Iran-Iraq war], so their [heavenly] reward is twofold.”21
Yet, despite this seemingly celebratory attention given to them in Iran in recent months, once in Syria, Afghan fighters are reportedly treated differently and seen as second-class Shia fighters.
In addition to testimonies from Afghan fighters captured by rebels, this is evidenced by the lack of interest by the Syrian and Iranian regimes in prisoner exchange deals involving Afghan fighters. In May 2015, a rebel commander in Aleppo, who was leading negotiations over six Afghan prisoners of war, was quoted by Der Spiegel saying he was told on the phone by one of the most powerful Syrian officers, Colonel Sohail al-Hassan, known among regime supporters as Nimr, or tiger in Arabic, that the Syrian regime was not interested in Afghan prisoners of war. “Do what you want with them. You can kill them, they’re just mercenaries. We can send you thousands of them,” the colonel allegedly said on the phone.22
Iranian IDs for foreign mercenaries
In addition to offering them monthly salaries (see above), another tactic used by Sepah Pasdaran to recruit among the poor Hazara communities in Iran is to promise them Iranian citizenship.
Reports on this issue have been around at least since early 2014. For instance, the Sobh report mentioned above claimed that the Afghan migrants who went to fight in Syria were promised to be rewarded with ‘red residency cards’ as well as ‘blue cards’ that entitle them to travel freely within Iran.23 In April 2015, Iranian opposition newspaper Kayhan London published an interview with an anonymous Afghan Shia fighter in Syria. When asked why he went to war in Syria, he responded: “Well, jihad, and they also said if you go, we will not deport you from Iran… Plus, for three months, you get six million [Toman].”24
Other media reports and testimonies seem to corroborate these allegations. For instance, in June 2015, the BBC quoted a 22-year-old Afghan in Kabul saying: “They [the Iranians] gathered lots of us together [in Kabul] with the promise of jobs and ID cards. But once we got there [to Iran] we were offered something different – to go and fight in Syria. I refused.”25 Another woman is quoted saying: “Many boys are going right now. They are jobless and told they will be given money and a house. Even if they die, they think their families will have a comfortable life.”
In May 2015, Der Spiegel published a feature focusing on a farmer from Afghanistan who was recruited by Sepah Pasdaran at the notorious Evin Prison in Tehran and sent to Syria to fight, only to be captured by Syrian rebels in Aleppo. “All he had wanted was an Iranian residence permit,” the report says. “But at the end of his trip, he found himself fighting as a mercenary in the Syrian civil war on the side of the Bashar Assad regime… He would have to join the war in Syria for two months, the officer told him, saying that he would only be given simple tasks and guard duty. When he returned, the officer promised, he may even receive a residency permit.”26 Another Afghan who was with the first one in the same cell in prison also agreed to trade the rest of his sentence for a two months’ service in Syria. “They were promised a monthly salary of two million toman, the equivalent of $700,” the article adds.
Recruiting in prisons is only one way. Another is immigration raids targeted against undocumented Afghan migrants in Iran with the aim of recruiting them. A second Afghan prisoner of war, who spent years working in construction in Tehran, is quoted in the above-mentioned Spiegel article saying: “Suddenly, there were raids and I was one of 150 illegal immigrants arrested. All of us were Hazara. Then, the [Pasdaran] came and promised us money and residence permits if we would voluntarily go to Syria. But they said ‘we’re sending you there no matter what.’ Everybody signed up.”
In August 2015, AFP news agency interviewed a number of Afghan fighters and relatives of combatants killed in Syria who talked about “vigorous — and sometimes coerced — recruitment drive of Shiite Hazara refugees by Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards Corps propping up Assad’s floundering regime.”27
Of course, the Iranian government has been denying claims that it is paying Afghans to go and fight in Syria or promising them Iranian citizenship. Yet the Iranian parliament has discussed and published several reports on the issue of Iranian residency for Afghan fighters.
According to a report published on the website of the Iranian Parliament’s Research Center in July 2015, the parliament’s National Security Commission has been working on a draft amendment of Article 980 of the Iranian Civil Law which would allow non-Iranians “fighting in line with the ideals of Islamic revolution” to apply for permanent residency permits and Iranian citizenship along with their family members.28
The report includes some suggestions from the Research Center about this matter, one of which is that non-Iranian ‘mojahedeen’ and their families, the families of non-Iranian martyrs, wounded veterans and informants can apply for Iranian citizenship but only if Sepah Pasdaran confirms that their activities have been supervised or ordered by the force.
If approved by parliament, the amendment – which is clearly aimed at Afghan, and to a lesser extent Pakistani, Shia fighters, as well as non-Iranian spies who work for Iran – essentially gives Sepah Pasdaran a green light to form an official army of non-Iranian Shia mercenaries from around the world who will subsequently become Iranian citizens and can be deployed wherever Sepah Pasdaran’s military adventures may take them.
Back in April 2013, the Afghan government promised to investigate the issue of Afghan nationals and refugees being recruited by Sepah Pasdaran, even inside Afghanistan, and sent to fight in Syria, threatening to file a complaint with the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). Yet, despite all the above-mentioned evidence, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs recently said the Afghan government “does not have any official documents about Afghans being forced to go to Syria from Afghanistan or Iran. The documents which are to be found on the Internet are not reliable.”29 However, according to Afghan analyst and writer Mohebullah Sharif, Afghan officials simply do not want to raise this issue because “they do not want to upset Iran.”30
1 References to the Fatemiyoun Brigade or Battalion started to appear regularly in Iranian state-controlled media in late 2014. See, for example, this report in Persian.
2 ‘Fatemiyoun Brigade general martyred + photos’ (in Persian), Mashregh News, 2 March 2015.
3 ‘Fatemiyoun Brigade changed to army’ (in Persian), Defaa Press, 20 May 2014.
4 See here.
5 ‘Iranian Revolutionary Guards is sending Afghan refugees to Syria’ (in Persian), Sobh, 11 January 2014.
6 Available in Persian here.
8 ‘Fatemiyoun Brigade general martyred’, Mashregh News, idem.
9 See here, for example.
10 See here, for example.
11 Defaa Press, idem.
12 Sobh, idem.
13 Christoph Reuter, ‘Syria’s Mercenaries: The Afghans Fighting Assad’s War’, Spiegel Online, 11 May 2015.
14 Sobh, idem.
15 ‘Funeral of two defenders the shrine of Sayyeda Zaynab in Qom + Phots’ (in Persian), ABNA, 20 December 2014.
16 See, for example, this one in early May 2015.
17 See here.
18 See here.
19 See here.
20 ‘Defenders of the Shrine’ stress unity of Iranians, Afghans, Lebanese, Iraqis and Syrians’ (in Persian), Fars News, 5 May 2015.
21 Fars News, 31 July 2015, available here.
22 Christoph Reuter, ‘Syria’s Mercenaries’, Spiegel Online, idem.
23 Sobh, idem.
24 ‘Exclusive, shocking interview with Kayhan London with a foreign Afghan member of Sepah Qods’ (in Persian), Kayhan London, 18 April 2015.
25 Mark Lobel, ‘The jobless Afghans ‘paid by Iran’ to fight for Assad’, BBC, 18 June 2015.
26 Spiegel, idem.
27 ‘Iran enlists Afghan refugees as fighters to bolster Syria’s Assad’, AFP, 26 August 2015.
28 Available here, 14 July 2015.
29 Spiegel, idem.
30 ‘The Fatemiyoun Brigade in Syria: An alignment coloured with blood’ (in Arabic), Al-Jazeera, 4 May 2015. See also this film about an Afghan Shia fighter caught by Syrian rebels.
There are no reliable statistics on the number of foreign Shia fighters in Syria but most estimates place their number in the tens of thousands.198 In January 2014, security experts meeting at the Marrakech Security Forum agreed that there were now far more foreign Shia fighters in Syria than Sunni ones (almost double).199 Their number was estimated to be around 40,000, and the main reason for this increase, they argued, was that the movement of Shia fighters across borders was facilitated by the Syrian and Iranian regimes through official channels, while anti-regime fighters often had to enter Syria clandestinely. Moreover, they pointed out that Sepah Pasdaran now had a “transnational army” of Shia militias that it could deploy in different parts of the world whenever needed.200
Indeed, various commentators and observers 201 have argued that part of the Iranian regime’s strategy in Syria is to prepare for the Syrian regime’s collapse and a post-Assad Syria. This includes the ability to continue to exert influence on the ground through an ever-expanding list of militias, including the shabbiha, who are increasingly dependent on Iranian support. The other aim is to ensure that arms shipments to Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza continue, so as to keep them strong, threatening deterrents against Israel and the West.
This strategy does not necessarily require control over the whole of Syria but only a few strategic areas, as discussed above. It is also likely that, in the event of a regime collapse, the Iranian-backed Shia militias, joined by the remnants of the shabbiha, will continue, and perhaps increase, their sectarian insurgency campaign against any future government that is not an ally of the Iranian regime.
There have been a few reports over the past few months about Pakistani Shia fighters fighting and dying in Syria alongside Iranian and Syrian regime forces. For instance, in June 2015, Al-Jazeera reported that there has been “a wave of Pakistani Shia fighters migrating to Syria,” following the military campaign in Waziristan the year before, which apparently resulted in a significant decrease of armed presence in the area.1
In that same month (June 2015), the Pakistani Muslim Scholars Council issued a statement condemning the recruitment of Pakistani youth and their deployment to Syria “with Iranian support and funding.”2 The Council also demanded that the Pakistani government stops this flow, threatening to “escalate the situation through mass protests all over Pakistan.”
In May 2015, Turkish news agency Anadolu broadcast mobile footage it had obtained showing Pakistani Shia fighters from the Zaynabiyoun Brigade in Aleppo, Syria.3 The footage shows tens of fighters eating, playing volleyball, dancing to Pakistani music and talking in Pashto and Urdu. It also shows the fighters apparently looting a house, undergoing military training and firing artillery shells. When one of them is asked why he had come to Syria, he says: “We came to Syria to fight a holy war. Even if we die a thousand times, we will win against the [Syrian] opposition and Daesh.”
According to Al-Jazeera, the Pakistani fighters shown in the footage speak mostly a dialect of Pashto spoken in the area of Koram, which is inhabited by many poor Pakistani Shia tribes.4 The inhabitants of this area have for years received support from the Iranian regime against the Taliban, which has frequently attacked their area. This support has reportedly included the supply of light arms and the establishment of military training centres. The prevalent poverty and insecurity may have pushed many youths in the area to take up recruitment offers by Sepah Pasdaran or their agents to go and fight in Syria alongside Syrian regime forces and militias.
Like their Afghan counterparts (see above), Pakistani Shia fighters initially fought within the ranks of Iraqi Shia militias, particularly Asa’eb Ahl al-Haqq, which was apparently responsible for their deployment in Syria. An Afghan Shia fighter interviewed by Iranian opposition newspaper Kayhan London in April 2015 was quoted saying, originally, the Afghan and Pakistani forces were in the same battalion with the Syrians and Iraqis, but these forces were later separated.5
It seems that, as the number of Pakistani Shia fighters in Syria grew, a special brigade called Zaynabiyoun was formed for them. The name of the Zaynabioun Brigade has occasionally appeared in Iranian media reports. For example, a Mashregh News report about the Qonaytira offensive in February 2015 said the military operation was conducted by “the Syrian army and their ally groups (Defaa al-Vatani [National Defence Forces], Syrian Hezbollah, the Fatemiyoun and Zaynabiyoun brigades and the Lebanese Islamic Resistance [Hezbollah Lebanon]) under the name of ‘Operation Revenge for the Qonaytitra Martyrs’.”6
On 9 April 2015, Iranian state-controlled media reported the burial in Qom of seven Pakistani Shia fighters killed during battle in Syria.7 Two weeks later, on 23 April, Iranian media reported a similar funeral, held also in Qom, for another five Pakistani Shia fighters killed in Syria.8 In both cases, all were said to have been members of the Zaynabiyoun Brigade.
Naame Shaam has documented a few more deaths of Pakistani Shia fighters in Syria (40 in total). Their names and the dates and places of their burial are produced in Appendix 3. The list is based solely on Iranian media reports about official funerals held in Iran. The actual number of Pakistani fighters killed in Syria may be much higher.
All of the documented cases were buried in Qom, Iran, and many are said to have come from Parachinar in western Pakistan, near the border with Afghanistan. As with the Afghan fighters killed in Syria, the place and cause of death is never mentioned, only “martyred while defending holy [Shia] shrines in Syria.”
Available information so far indicates that the number of Pakistani Shia fighters in Syria is small compared to that of Afghan or Iraqi Shia fighters (a few hundred, at most) and they appear to be deployed mostly as ill-trained, secondary foot soldiers. However, the formation of the Zaynabiyoun Brigade suggests that their number may be increasing. Furthermore, the Shia community in Pakistan is larger than in Afghanistan.
1 ‘Al-Zaynabiyoun: Pakistanis fighting to defend al-Assad’ (in Arabic), Al-Jazeera, 26 June 2015.
2 ‘Pakistan scholar: Iran recruited hundreds of Pakistanis to fight for al-Assad’ (in Arabic), Arabi 21, 23 June 2015, available: .
3 The footage is available on YouTube.
4 ‘Al-Zaynabiyoun’, Al-Jazeera, idem.
5 ‘Exclusive, shocking interview with Kayhan London with a foreign Afghan member of Sepah Qods’ (in Persian), Kayhan London, 18 April 2015.
6 Mashregh News, 13 February 2015, available in Persian here.
7 See, for example, ‘Photos of Pakistani Shrine Defenders’ funeral in Qom’ (in Persian), ABNA 24, 9 April 2015.
8 See, for example, ‘Five Shrine Defenders from Parachinar buried in Qom + Photos’ (in Persian), ABNA 24, 23 April 2015.
Another interesting phenomenon – though much smaller in scale than that of foreign Shia fighters – is European fascist and far-right groups’ supporting the Syrian regime, with some reportedly sending fighters to Syria.
A rare article by British activist Leila Shrooms, published by the Tahrir International Collective Network in December 2013,202 lists a number of fascist and far-right nationalist groups and organisations from across Europe that have been openly supporting the Syrian regime, whether by going to fight in Syria, raising funds or organising pro-regime demonstrations. The list includes the National Front in France, Forza Nuova and CasaPound in Italy, Golden Dawn and Black Lily in Greece, the British National Party in the UK, and the National Rebirth of Poland, Falanga and All Polish Youth in Poland.
In July 2013, a Greek fascist from a group calling itself Black Lily (Mavros Krinos) revealed in an interview 203 that the little-known group had fighters on the ground in Syria, allegedly the size of a military platoon, and had fought alongside Hezbollah and al-Assad’s forces in the battle of al-Qusayr in Spring 2013. He also claimed that “thousands of Russians, Ukrainians and Poles” from fascist groups have “declared themselves ready to fight… alongside our Syrian brothers in arms… and the lion of Syria,” meaning Bashar al-Assad (assad means lion in Arabic). Asked whether they had participated in any other “struggles” before, such as Kosovo, Iraq or Afghanistan, the Black Lily spokesperson answered no.
These European fascists reportedly join the ranks of both the Syrian army and the so-called Popular Committees, which were established, armed and trained by the Iranian regime to prop up the exhausted regular army, as discussed above. In the above-mentioned interview, the Black Lily fascist describes Hezbollah as “heroic.”
Other European fascist groups have travelled to Syria ‘in solidarity’ with the regime and on so-called ‘fact-finding missions’. Many of these groups are members of the European Solidarity Front, which organised a number of these ‘visits’ in 2013.204
While some of these fascist groups have a history of supporting the Syrian regime, others joined the ‘fight’ after the start of the Syrian revolution in 2011. Shrooms attributes this rather bizarre phenomenon to a number of factors:
- Anti-imperialist or anti-globalist nationalist sentiments (they believe the al-Assad regime is fighting against US imperialism);
- Anti-semitism (they believe the al-Assad regime is fighting against Israel, their “age-old foe”);
- Islamophobia (they believe the al-Assad regime is fighting against Islamists); and
- Twisted concerns regarding growing Arab and Muslim migration to Europe, where fascists in a number of countries have been protesting against Syrian refugees and have reportedly attacked them.
“All of these beliefs,” Shrooms adds, “rest on fallacy and an uncritical perpetuation of [the Syrian] regime narratives. They are also positions shared (although without the racist element) by sections of the [European] left.”205
In an article published in February 2014, Naame Shaam added another factor: “These fascist groups seem to share the same mentality and value system with the Syrian regime, Sepah Pasdaran and Hezbollah Lebanon. They all believe in their supremacy, which is often based on racist mythologies, and are ready to eliminate, by any means possible, those they regard as inferior to them.”206
It is worth noting that this phenomenon has been largely overlooked by European mainstream media and politicians, while the issue of Islamist extremists of European origin fighting in Syria has frequently made front-page headlines. This obsession with European jihadists, who are often presented as the “biggest threat” facing the West, are then used as an excuse to not provide serious military support to the moderate factions within the Syrian opposition (more on this below, in the ‘Iran’s Vietnam’ chapter).
There is enough evidence by now to believe the claim, often dismissed as a conspiracy theory, that the Syrian and the Iranian regimes have made use of, and even facilitated, the activities of extremist Islamist groups, such as Daesh and Jabhat al-Nusra, in order to derail the Syrian revolution (towards militarisation and sectarianism) and justify their military actions against protesters and rebels.
The first indicator of such efforts was the suspicious release of Islamist extremists from Syrian jails soon after the start of the revolution, which is often cited by Syrians as proof of a carefully planned plot by the regime to present the revolution as a bunch of ‘Islamist terrorists’ supported by the West and the Gulf countries to destabilise Syria (this has been the Syrian and Iranian regimes’ discourse from the beginning).
The most famous story is perhaps that of Zahran ‘Alloush, Hassan Abboud and Isa al-Sheikh, three leaders of three main Islamist factions fighting in Syria today (the Islam Brigade, which later became the Islam Army and then the Islamic Front; Ahrar al-Sham and Suqour al-Islam respectively). A rare picture of the three ‘friends’ standing together, taken upon their release from the Saidnaya prison in mid-2011, was published online in late 2013.207 All three were released from prison following a presidential ‘amnesty’ on 31 May 2011.208 Around the same time, Abu Mohammad al-Fateh al-Jolani, the leader of the Syrian offshoot of Al-Qaeda, al-Nusra Front, also returned from Iraq. They all went on to form different Islamist groups that became some of the largest and most heavily armed and supported factions fighting against the regime in Syria.
Together with these leaders, hundreds of Islamist extremists who had been held in Syrian prisons (many of them were arrested upon their return from ‘jihad’ in Iraq and Lebanon) were also released, particularly from Saidnaya, only to resume their ‘jihad’ in Syria.209 A Syrian activist who was released from Saidnaya at the same time was quoted by The Telegraph in January 2014 saying: “There was no explanation for the release of the jihadis. I saw some of them being paraded on Syrian state television, accused of being Jabhat al-Nusra and planting car bombs. This was impossible, as they had been in prison with me at the time the regime said the bombs were planted. [The regime] was using them to promote [its] argument that the revolution was made of extremists.”210 Meanwhile, so many other political prisoners (leftist, secular, civil society activists, etc.) were kept in incarceration or killed under torture.
In July 2012, The Sunday Telegraph published an interview with the former Syrian ambassador to Iraq, who was the most prominent regime defector at the time. Nawaf al-Fares said jihadist units that he himself had helped send into Iraq to fight US forces were now “immolating themselves in Syria, at the behest of the regime.” One such action, he claimed, was a double suicide bomb outside the military intelligence complex in al-Qazzaz in Damascus in May 2012, in which 55 people were killed and 370 wounded. “I know for certain that not a single serving intelligence official was harmed during that explosion, as the whole office had been evacuated 15 minutes beforehand,” he said. “All the victims were passers-by instead. All these major explosions have been perpetrated by al-Qaeda through cooperation with the security forces.”211
Al-Fares also claimed that he personally knew of several Syrian government “liaison officers” who still dealt with al-Qaeda. “Al-Qaeda would not carry out activities without the knowledge of the regime,” he said. “The Syrian government would like to use al-Qaeda as a bargaining chip with the West – to say: ‘it is either them or us’.”212
Similar allegations were made by another significant regime defector in July 2013. Afaq Ahmad, the former right-hand man of General Jamil Hasan, the head of Syria’s Air Force Intelligence and one of Bashar al-Assad’s most brutal and trusted henchmen, defected after regime forces arrested and murdered 13-year-old Hamza al-Khatib in 2011, in an infamous crime that became one of the early iconic symbols of the regime’s brutal response to the popular protests. In an interview with a Syrian opposition website, Ahmad said the mukhabarat (intelligence services) had infiltrated jihadist and non-jihadist rebel groups in Syria up to the command level.213
The jihadist groups and brigades were very useful for the regime because they provided a justification for the regime’s insistence on a military solution, and provided it with legitimacy under the pretext of the war on terror… These groups did not cross the red lines that were agreed on by the regime and these groups’ sponsors. This included the regime turning a blind eye to the killing of some Alawis and Druze in order to push them [the minorities] to rally around the regime and hold on to it.
And the game went far beyond Syria’s frontiers. In February 2014, the US Treasury released a new list of sanctions targeting companies and persons it accused of breaching the international sanctions against Iran.214 Like previous editions, the list included companies and people facilitating the arming of the Syrian regime and Iran’s nuclear programme. The new addition this time was the inclusion of one of al-Qaeda’s key operators who had been raising funds and recruiting fighters for the Syrian regime’s ostensible enemy number one, al-Qaeda. And he had been doing so from inside Iran.
The new sanctions targeted “a key Iran-based al-Qa’ida facilitator who supports al-Qa’ida’s vital facilitation network in Iran, that operates there with the knowledge of Iranian authorities,” the Treasury said in a press release.215 Olimzhon Adkhamovich Sadikov, also known as Jafar al-Uzbeki and Jafar Muidinov, is an Uzbek national who is based in Mashhad, Iran, near the border with Afghanistan. His network, according to the Treasury, has been using Iran as a transit point for moving funds and foreign fighters through Turkey to Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria. Al-Uzbeki also facilitated the travel of numerous al-Qaeda extremists in and out of Pakistan and Afghanistan by obtaining Iranian visas and passports for them. All this was apparently done “with the knowledge of the Iranian authorities.”
Back in July 2011, the US Treasury had added Ezedin Abdel Aziz Khalil, also known as Yasin al-Suri, to its Iran sanctions list. In October 2012, it also targeted Adel Radi Saqr al-Wahabi al-Harbi. The first is said to be the head of the al-Qaeda network in Iran, and the second his deputy. The US government designated a $17 million award for any information leading to their location. Yasin al-Suri, a Syrian national, had been temporarily detained in Iran in 2011 but was later released. As a member of the so-called Islamic Jihad Union, Jafar al-Uzbeki was an associate of Yasin al-Suri and helped him raise funds for his Iran-based activities. Among other things, his network facilitated the transfer of funds from Gulf-based donors to various al-Qaeda groups in Syria, including Jabhat al-Nusrah.216
In February 2012, the Treasury also targeted the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) for “its support to terrorist groups, including al-Qa’ida.”217 “MOIS has facilitated the movement of al-Qa’ida operatives in Iran,” the department said, “and provided them with documents, identification cards, and passports. MOIS also provided money and weapons to al-Qa’ida in Iraq (AQI).” Later that year, AQI would become ISIS, also known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and dubbed by Syrians as Da’esh, a mock name derived from the group’s name’s initials in Arabic.218
One would imagine that the US sanctions are decided following extensive research and reliable intelligence, not on the basis of fabricated or speculative media reports. So it is safe, we think, to assume that the information above is reliable and is not just part of a psychological warfare. Supporting both sides of a conflict is an old war tactic. Indeed, the Iranian regime’s support for and facilitation of al-Qaeda’s activities is nothing new – it dates back at least to the US embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.219 Over the past two decades, the Iranian regime has also allowed many al-Qaeda operatives “a degree of freedom” in Iran as part of its proxy war with the US in Afghanistan and Iraq.220 One Iranian official told NBC News in March 2013 that “no nation has captured as many al-Qaida members as Iran.”221 Many in the US intelligence circles believe that Iran held onto them for use as “bargaining chips.”222 During 2013 and 2014, however, many of them were ‘freed’ by the Iranian authorities and left the country.223
In May 2014, in a strongly worded response to al-Qaeda’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri’s attempt at reconciliation with Daesh, the latter group’s spokesman Abu Mohammad al-Adnani made a startling admission: al-Qaeda had been ordering its fighters and branches to refrain from attacking Iran so as to preserve the group’s supply network in the country:
The Islamic State has kept abiding by the advice and instructions of the sheikhs and figures of jihad. This is why the Islamic State has not attacked the Rawafid [or rejectionists, a term used by Sunni extremists to describe Shia Muslims] in Iran since its establishment, and left the Rawafid safe in Iran, and held back the outrage of its soldiers, despite its ability, then, to turn Iran into bloodbaths. [The Islamic State] has controlled its anger all these years and endured accusations of collaboration with its worst enemy, Iran, for refraining from targeting it, leaving the Rawafid there to live in safety, acting upon the orders of al-Qaeda to safeguard its interests and supply lines in Iran… Let history record that Iran is indebted to al-Qaeda.224 (emphasis added)
ISIS spokesman Abu Mohammad al-Adnani reveals in a speech in May 2014 that the group has refrained from attacking Iran “acting upon the orders of al-Qaeda to safeguard its interests and supply lines in Iran.”
Internal Syrian state security documents leaked to the media in early 2014 provided further proof that some Islamist armed groups fighting in Syria, particularly Daesh, had been deeply infiltrated by the Syrian regime and had been coordinating with it to some degree. One such document is an alleged letter signed by Colonel Haydar Haydar, the head of the ‘security committee’ in the town of Nabl, near Aleppo, and addressed to Major-General Ali Mamlouk, the head of the National Security Office.225 It reveals arrangements for training and arming hundreds of Shia volunteers, who are said to be “ready to fight on frontlines or join the ranks of Islamist groups.”
“We already have 150 especially trained volunteers,” the letter says, “in addition to 600 who underwent [normal] military training when doing their military service.” A list of the names of over 200 fighters from the predominantly Shia towns of Nabl and Zahraa is enclosed with the letter. “Volunteers keep coming in to defend their homeland,” the letter adds. “We expect their number to reach 2,500 when weapons are made available…. The volunteers are ready to carry out any task assigned to them within these [Islamist] groups, particularly in light of the good results that this method has achieved in our area recently, which is implemented in coordination with the concerned parties in the northern areas.”
Nabl and Zahraa occupy a strategic location because they allow regime forces and militias to control the Aleppo highway. This, according to the letter, enables them to “go in and out of Iraq, in coordination with our allies on the Iraqi side, to move fighters and equipment.” Lifting the opposition’s siege on the two towns was part of the Iranian-brokered deal in Homs in May 2014, which was discussed in detail above.
The leaked letter also reveals that the Syrian regime’s security apparatus had deeply infiltrated and used Daesh. “We now have many members and strong leaders within the [Islamic] State in Iraq and Sham in the northern region in general,” it says. “They can facilitate our new volunteers’ joining the ranks of the group by recommending them and guaranteeing that no suspicions about them are raised.” This, the letter adds, “will guarantee detailed and constant information about the armed men’s movements, their numbers, equipment and plans.”226
The letter then highlights the difficulty that Iraqi pro-regime fighters are facing when joining Islamist groups because of their names and religious sect (Shia). So a number of Syrian ID cards are requested as a solution, in addition to a request that the salaries of the volunteers are raised and that they are provided with all sorts of weapons and vehicles.
Allegations that Daesh fighters captured or killed by the Free Syrian Army (following its official fallout with Daesh in early 2014) possessed Syrian and Iranian IDs and passports have been made by the Syrian opposition before. In February 2014, the National Coalition released a four-page memo entitled “The Islamic State in Iraq and Sham and the Assad regime: from marriage of convenience to real partnership.”227 The memo details evidence of such ‘partnership’ based on confessions of captured Daesh members, testimonies of FSA members and material found at Daesh bases taken by the FSA. The latter allegedly includes Russian passports, Iranian visas and Iranian SIM cards, but the video showing the material referenced in the footnotes seems to have been taken down since.228
That same month (February 2014), the former leader of the Islamic Front Zahran Aloush made similar allegations during an interview, claiming that a number of local Daesh commanders that the Front had killed or captured turned out to be Syrian army officers or had travelled to Iran, judging by the Iranian passports and visas found on them.229
In January 2014, Al-Arabiya TV channel aired video footage showing Daesh members detained by the FSA, whom the latter accused of “cooperating with the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and of seeking to divide rebels.”230 One of the detainees is quoted saying: “It happened once that a Syrian regime officer and 11 others defected and drove their vehicle through Masila [north of Raqqa]. We received orders to arrest them and hand them over back to the regime.” Another detainee claimed that the group’s leader in the province of al-Raqqa, known as Abu Anas al-Iraqi, and whose unit apparently specialised in kidnappings, car bombs and targeted assassinations of FSA members, was “financed directly by the regime, through Iran and Iraq.”
The clearest evidence to date of links between Daesh and Jabhat al-Nusra on the one hand and the Syrian and Iranian regimes on the other is perhaps the secret oil deals between the two. In January 2014, The Telegraph published a report, based on Western intelligence sources, claiming that both al-Nusra and Daesh had been selling oil and gas from wells under their control to and through the Syrian regime.231 The report suggests that the regime began “collaborating actively” with these groups in spring 2013. “When Jabhat al-Nusra seized control of Syria’s most lucrative oil fields in the eastern province of Deir al-Zour, it began funding its operations in Syria by selling crude oil, with sums raised in the millions of dollars.” One intelligence source commented: “Assad’s vow to strike terrorism with an iron fist is nothing more than bare-faced hypocrisy. At the same time as peddling a triumphant narrative about the fight against terrorism, his regime has made deals to serve its own interests and ensure its survival.”
The Telegraph report corroborated previous media reports about oil dealings between the Syrian regime and al-Qaeda-affiliated groups. For example, a Reuters report in January 2013 quoted locals in al-Mayadin saying Jabhat al-Nusra had been transporting crude oil in large tankers from the nearby al-Ward oil and gas field to Deir al-Zor, which was under regime control at the time.232 Another report, published in The Guardian in May 2013, claimed al-Nusra had “struck deals” with regime forces to allow the transfer of Deir al-Zor’s crude across the front lines to the Mediterranean coast.233
The article quotes a Syrian fighter from Ahrar al-Sham saying the Syrian regime was paying more than 150 million Syrian pounds (about 2.3 million US dollars) a month to Jabhat al-Nusra to “guarantee oil is kept pumping through two major oil pipelines [to] Banias and Latakia.” “Middlemen trusted by both sides.” he added, “are to facilitate the deal and transfer money to the organisation.”
In April that year, the EU had lifted sanctions on oil exports from rebel-held areas in Syria in order to “aid the opposition,” leading to a scramble for control over wells and pipelines. As a result, open-air refineries were set up and crude oil was being stored in ditches and heated in metal tanks by wood fires, shrouding the area with black smoke and exposing the local inhabitants to the dangers of the thick smog and the frequent explosions.234
And it was not only oil. In a long interview published in Al-Hayat newspaper in April 2014, a Free Army commander claimed Daesh was selling grain to the regime while Syrians were dying of starvation.235 “As the fighting between the Free Army and Daesh intensified,” he said, “the latter struck a deal with the regime to sell it the two-year grain stocks they had put their hands on and had hidden away in Deir al-Zor. They sold a kilo of wheat, maize, lentils or barley for 8 Syrian pounds only, when the actual price, depending on the quality, was between 30 and 100 pounds. The regime would then transport them from Deir al-Zor to the areas under its control.” The commander also claimed that he used to receive information about the convoys transporting the grains and had seen some with his own eyes when attacking them on their way to the coastal area.
Other pieces of evidence of collaboration between Daesh and the regime often cited by Syrians include the fact that, until recently, the regime’s troops and air force had largely avoided clashing with and bombing Daesh bases and strongholds, while continuing to bombard and besiege all other armed factions. And vice versa: while targeting and killing rival opposition activists and leaders, Daesh almost stopped all fighting against the regime around mid-2013.
This has been confirmed by various testimonies. A Daesh defector is quoted in The Telegraph article mentioned above saying: “We were confident that the regime would not bomb us. We always slept soundly in our bases.”236 In the above-mentioned Al-Hayat interview, the Syrian rebel commander also says: “About eight months ago, they [Daesh] completely stopped all fighting with the regime. They would just go and put their hand on any liberated area, and ‘liberate’ the liberated. Daesh is today busy attacking the opposition… they either impose what they want, or threaten [others] with explosions and suicide bombs. That’s how they controlled the areas liberated from the regime.”237
To sum up, there is abundant evidence that both the Syrian and the Iranian regimes have infiltrated, collaborated and used al-Qaeda-affiliated groups to serve their own interests, either by aiding them and then using them against their opponents, or trading their extensive knowledge of these groups’ networks and figures with Western powers, and even selling them off, in exchange for being allowed to stay in power, or by claiming to be victims of terrorism so as to discredit all their opponents and legitimise their brutal crackdown on them. Syrian opposition leader Burhan Ghalyoun has dubbed this “three-way strategy” as “the business of terrorism.”238
Moreover, the US administration, which has deployed similar strategies in the past, seems to be happy to play along. In June 2014, Anne Barnard of The New York Times tweeted that a US government adviser had told her that fighting Daesh was “not [a] priority” for the US government because Daesh was “useful in tarring all insurgents & framing choice as Assad/Daesh.”239
The events in Syria and Iraq over the past two years seemed to confirm this claim, at least until August 2014, when the UN Security Council adopted a resolution, under the binding Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter, calling on all member states to “act to suppress the flow of foreign fighters, financing and other support to Islamist extremist groups in Iraq and Syria,” namely Daesh and Jabhat al-Nusra.240 The Syrian and Iranian regimes suddenly started to sell themselves to the West as ‘partners’ in combating terrorism (more on this in the ‘Iran’s Vietnam’ chapter).
Since the publication of the first edition of this report in November 2014, more evidence has emerged of links between the Syrian and Iranian regimes on the one hand and Daesh and al-Qaeda-affiliated groups on the other. In addition to releasing Islamist extremists from prison, facilitating the movement of foreign fighters and secret oil and arms deals, this relationship has been most obvious in the Syrian regime’s consistent strategy of targeting moderate rebels while largely avoiding Daesh and al-Qaeda-affiliated groups.
In December 2014, NBC News published exclusive data, compiled by IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center (JTIC), that shows the Syrian regime and Daesh, despite presenting themselves to the world as ‘sworn enemies’ that would wipe each other off the battlefield, have in fact been “delicately dancing around each other.”1
The data reveals that around 64 percent of verifiable Daesh attacks in Syria in 2014 targeted other non-state groups. Only 13 percent of the group’s attacks during the examined period (the year through 21 November 2014) targeted Syrian regime forces. Similarly, of 982 Syrian regime’s military operations, only six percent directly targeted Daesh. The head of JTIC, Matthew Henman, is quoted saying the figures suggest that Daesh and al-Assad’s forces have embraced the “clever strategy” of mostly “ignoring each other.”
A Syrian commentator describes the Syrian regime’s strategy on Daesh as a one of “don’t fight Daesh; direct it.”2 In other words, the Syrian regime has deliberately allowed Daesh to target, weaken and even eliminate rebel groups fighting al-Assad, to then presents itself to the West as the only available ‘partner’ that can fight Daesh.
This strategy has been successfully implemented time and again in various parts of Syria. For instance, in late March and early April 2015, Daesh was allowed to enter the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus, even though it had been under a suffocating siege by regime forces for over two years. Whatever the actual tactical aim was – whether it was sparking a rift between Daesh and Jabhat al-Nusra and other Islamist groups or allowing Daesh to enter the southern suburbs of Damascus and on to the rebel strongholds in Daraa – it was obvious that the advance of Daesh into Yarmouk was “a regime-blessed tactic.”3
Another example is targeting rebel areas in Aleppo with barrel bombs and other forms of aerial bombardment in order to weaken the rebels and enable Daesh to take over the areas they control. In June 2015, a post on the “US Embassy Syria” Twitter account accused the Syrian regime of backing Daesh against the rebels in Aleppo. “Reports indicate that the regime is making air strikes in support of ISIL’s (Deash’s) advance on Aleppo, aiding extremists against Syrian population,” the tweet read. “With these latest reports, [the Syrian military] is not only avoiding ISIL (Daesh) lines, but actively seeking to bolster their position,” another tweet added.4
Even the US Secretary of State John Kerry has admitted that the Assad regime and Daesh are “dependent on one another.” In a speech delivered in November 2014 at an annual conference on “transformational trends” organised by Foreign Policy, Kerry said, not only do the two lean on each other to stay in power but “they are symbiotic.” Al-Assad “purports to be the last line of defense against ISIL (Daesh),” he added, but “both are stronger as a result.”5
Unfortunately, none of the above reports mention the Iranian regime’s role in all of this, even though everyone knows that Sepah Pasdaran effectively controls the Syrian regime’s military strategy. In fact, Iran’s own dealings with Daesh and al-Qaeda are nothing new.
As mentioned above, the US Treasury has sanctioned key operatives in an al-Qaeda network based in Iran that has been supporting al-Qaeida-affiliated groups in Syria, such as Jabhat al-Nusra, with transferring funds and foreign fighters from Iran via Turkey, “with the knowledge of Iranian authorities.”6 Many of the senior members of this Iran-based al-Qaeda network are now reportedly part of Khorasan,7 a small group affiliated with al-Qaeda that was targeted by the US in Syria at the beginning of its military campaign against Daesh. According to some media reports, however, the group appears to be regrouping with a fresh influx of fighters “awaiting the order to start ‘shooting the birds’.”8
In March 2015, five senior members of al-Qaeda were released by the Iranian authorities as part of a prisoner exchange deal with al-Qaeda’s branch in Yemen, according to media reports.9 The five were released in exchange for an Iranian diplomat who had been held by the group. They include Saif al-Adl, one of al-Qaeda’s most senior leaders who stepped in to serve as the terrorist group’s interim leader immediately after Osama bin Laden’s death. He is listed on the FBI’s ‘most wanted’ terrorist list. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, the former head of the US Defense Intelligence Agency, was quoted by The New York Times saying the release of Saif al-Adl will act like “a shot of energy” in the leadership of al-Qaeda.10 “The collusion between al-Qaeda and Iran is something we have seen before. And this trade, if known by the US, should have been included as part of the Iran deal negotiations,” he added.
Back in 2004, the 9/11 Commission Report concluded that the topic of Iran’s relationship with al-Qaeda “requires further investigation by the US government.”11 This is because one “cannot truly understand Daesh today without examining the agendas of [the] regimes in Iran and Syria,” as Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan wrote in their book, ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror.12
But instead of launching an investigation, Barack Obama’s administration has chosen to partner with the Iranian regime in the battle against Daesh in Iraq and Syria. In a leaked letter to Iran’s supreme leader, Obama reassured Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that the US-led coalition’s air strikes in Syria would not target Bashar al-Assad and his forces.13
Indeed, Washington and Damascus may not be directly coordinating their military plans targeting Daesh, but there appears to be a de facto deal between them in this regard.14 In an interview with the BBC in February 2015, Bashar al-Assad revealed that Washington was sharing information on coalition air strikes with his regime “through third parties.”15
Other regional powers, such as Turkey and the Arab Gulf states, may have also facilitated and cooperated with Daesh and al-Qaeda-affiliated groups, each for their own agenda.16 But the Iranian and Syrian regimes’ role in the rise of Daesh and Jabhat al-Nusra has been arguably way more cynical and way more harmful to the Syrian revolution. In the words of former White House staffer Michael Doran, “Iran and Syria have played a far more pernicious role in the rise of Daesh than have the Gulf monarchies.”17
And now Russia appears to be playing a similar game. The country’s secret service has reportedly been helping Caucasian jihadists join Daesh in Syria, according to an investigation by Novaya Gazeta, one of the few independent newspapers left in Russia. The Daily Beast reported that, based on extensive fieldwork in one village in the North Caucasus, reporter Elena Milashina concluded that Putin’s Federal Security Service (FSB) has been “controlling the flow of jihadists” from the village into Syria, where they join up not only with Daesh but also other radical Islamist factions.18
In other words, Russian officials are adding to the ranks of terrorists which the Russian government has deemed a collective threat to the security and longevity of its dictatorial ally on the Mediterranean, Bashar al-Assad. […] It may sound paradoxical – helping the enemy of your friend – but the logic is actually straightforward: Better the terrorists go abroad and fight in Syria than blow things up in Russia. Penetrating and co-opting terrorism also has a long, well-attested history in the annals of Chekist tradecraft.19
Other evidence of collaboration between Daesh and the Syrian, Iranian and Russian regimes includes allegations of secretive oil deals between the two sides, which became a hot top and the subject of multual accusations between Russia and Turkey following the downing of a Russian warplane by Turkey near the Syrian border in late November 2015.20
On 25 November 2015, the US government officially accused the Assad regime of purchasing oil from Daesh and blacklisted a Syrian-Russian businessman, among others, for allegedly facilitating these transactions. A Syrian-born businessman who has a dual Syrian-Russian citizenship, George Haswani is said to have been using his firm, HESCO Engineering and Construction Co., for facilitating oil trades between the Assad regime and Daesh.21
A few days later, in early December 2015, a senior US Treasury official revealed that Daesh was selling as much as $40 million a month of oil and had made more than $500 million from this trade. Speaking at Chatham House in London, Adam Szubin added that the “far greater amount” of the Daesh oil goes to the Assad regime, while some is consumed internally in Daesh-controlled areas and some goes across the border into Turkey.22
Around the same time, a spokeswoman for the German Foreign Ministry said Germany has evidence of the Assad regime buying oil from Daesh. “The Assad regime has received large amounts of oil from [Daesh],” she said. “We have evidence; we have indications showing that this is the case.”23 Asked about the Russian accusations that Turkey was also doing this, the spokeswoman said the German authorities have no information supporting this particular claim.
1 ‘Syria, ISIS have been ‘ignoring’ each other on battlefield, data suggests’, NBC News, 11 December 2014.
3 ‘Why Yarmouk’s takeover by ISIS is good news for Bashar al-Assad’, CNN, 7 April 2015. See also this article in Arabic.
4 ‘US accuses Syria of backing Islamic State’s Aleppo advance’, Reuters, 2 June 2015.
5 ‘Kerry: Assad and ISIS Have ‘Symbiotic’ Relationship’, Foreign Policy, 17 November 2014.
6 ‘Treasury targets networks linked to Iran’, US Department of the Treasury, 6 February 2014.
7 See here, for example.
8 ‘Syria conflict: Khorasan return with a fresh influx of fighters awaiting the order to start ‘shooting the birds’’, The Independent, 22 April 2015.
9 See here.
10 See here.
11 The full report is available here.
12 Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan, ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, Regan Arts, February 2015.
13 ‘Obama Wrote Secret Letter to Iran’s Khamenei About Fighting Islamic State’, The Wall Street Journal, 6 November 2014.
14 See, for example, ‘Here’s How Obama and Assad Team Up Against ISIS’, The Daily Beast, 10 February 2015.
15 ‘Assad says Syria is informed on anti-IS air campaign’, BBC, 10 February.
16 See here, for example.
17 Michael Doran, ‘Get Tough with Tehran’, Brookings, 14 July 2014.
18 See here.
21 See here.
22 See here.
23 See here.
54 Farnaz Fassihi, ‘Iran said to send troops to bolster Syria’, The Wall Street Journal, 27 August 2012.
55 Stratfor, ‘The Use of Mercenaries in Syria’s Crackdown’, Ocnus.Net, 15 January 2012.
56 ‘Hezbollah shifts tactics, narrative for Syria fight’, AFP, 14 April 2014.
57 ‘Some details on IRGC and HZ presence in Syria – ME1’, The Global Intelligence Files, WikiLeaks, 8 March 2012.
58 Available on YouTube.
59 James Hider and Nate Wright, ‘Assad pays snipers “to murder protesters”’, The Times, 26 January 2012.
60 Najah Mohammad Ali, ‘Hezbollah entered Syria to protect Iranian base’ (in Arabic), Al-Arabiya, 22 January 2012.
62 Geneive Abdo, ‘How Iran keeps Assad in power in Syria’, Foreign Affairs, 25 August 2011.
63 ‘Hezbollah military commander “killed in Syria”’, BBC, 2 October 2012.
64 ‘Hezbollah held funeral for martyr Ali Nassif in Bawadi’ (in Arabic), Official site of the Islamic Resistance – Lebanon, 1 October 2012.
65 ‘Hezbollah held funeral for martyr Musa Shahimi in Rawdat al-Shahidayn’ (in Arabic), Al-Ahd News, 10 August 2012.
66 ‘Hezbollah’s participation in Syria and the names of its fighters who have died so far’ (in Arabic), Lebanon Files, 27 April 2013.
68 US Department of Treasury, ‘Treasury targets Hizballah for supporting the Assad regime’, 10 August 2012.
69 US Department of State, ‘Briefing on the designation of Hezbollah for supporting the Syrian regime’, 10 August 2012.
70 US Department of Treasury, ‘Treasury designates Hizballah leadership’, 13 September 2012.
71 ‘“They make up their own mind”’, Naame Shaam, 27 January 2014.
72 Samia Nakhoul, ‘Special Report: Hezbollah gambles all in Syria’, Reuters, 26 September 2013.
73 ‘Iran plunged Hezbollah into Syrian war, Tufaili’, Ya Libnan, 3 July 2013.
74 Farnaz Fassihi, Jay Solomon and Sam Dagher, ‘Iranians dial up presence in Syria’, The Wall Street Journal, 16 September 2013.
75 ‘Intercepted radiotransmission – Iran troops in Syria 2013’, YouTube, 8 June 2013.
76 ‘Hezbollah’s participation in Syria’, Lebanon Files, idem.
77 Fadi Shamiyyeh, ‘Not only in Qusayr is Hezbollah fighting’ (in Arabic), Middle East Online, 27 April 2013.
78 ‘Hezbollah fighters, Syrian rebels killed in border fighting’, Al-Arabiya, 17 February 2013.
79 ‘Sayyed Nasrallah: Drone Is Ours, It Won’t Be the Last’, Al-Manar, 1 November 2012. The actual speech is available in English on YouTube (the talk about Syria starts at 22:25).
80 For more on Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria and how it justified it at different stages, see, for example, International Crisis Group, Lebanon’s Hizbollah Turns Eastward to Syria, May 2014.
81 The battle has been well documented and extensively analysed. See, for example, these reports: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7. For an Iranian state view, see, for example, this Press TV documentary about the al-Qusayr battle.
82 Farnaz Fassihi, Jay Solomon and Sam Dagher, ‘Iranians dial up presence in Syria’, The Wall Street Journal, 16 September 2013.
83 Erika Solomon, ‘Syrian army captures strategic border town of Qusair’, Reuters, 5 June 2013.
84 Mona Alami, ‘Hezbollah fighter details ops in Qusayr’, Now, 4 June 2013.
85 ‘Sayyed Nasrallah: As I promised you victory in July, I renew my promise today’, Al-Manar, 29 May 2013.
86 Farnaz Fassihi et. al., ‘Iranians dial up Presence in Syria’, WSJ, idem.
87 See, for example, Anne Barnard and Hwaida Saad, ‘Hezbollah Aids Syrian Military in a Key Battle’, The New York Times, 19 May 2013.
88 Isabel Nassief, The Campaign for Homs and Aleppo, Institute for the Study of War, January 2014.
89 Nicholas Blanford, ‘Hezbollah close to cutting off key route for Syrian rebels, refugees’, The Christian Science Monitor, 14 March 2014.
90 For more on the use of barrel bombs in Aleppo, see, for example, Human Rights Watch, ‘Syria: Unlawful Air Attacks Terrorize Aleppo’, 24 March 2014.
91 For a list of Syria battles involving Hezbollah Lebanon, see this Wikipedia entry.
92 ‘Iranian officers led Syrian regime militias in Homs: defected general’, Al-Arabiya, 13 August 2012.
93 See, for example, the Periodic Reports of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic.
94 Farnaz Fassihi et. al., ‘Iranians dial up presence in Syria’, WSJ, idem.
95 See, for example, ‘Syrian rebels withdraw from Homs, marking key victory for Assad’, The Christian Science Monitor, 7 May 2014.
96 For more details about these two towns, see: ‘Leaked documents confirm Syrian regime’s infiltration of Al-Qaeda offshoot’, Naame Shaam, 1 May 2014.
97 ‘Opposition Coalition accuses government of executing 20 Homs fighters who were evacuated in the truce deal’ (in Arabic), Al-Quds Al-Arabi, 8 June 2014.
98 Brooklyn Middleton, ‘Homs truce underscores high degree of Iranian involvement’, Al-Arabiya, 9 May 2014.
99 Ibrahim Himeidi, ‘A permanent office for Iranian mediator in al-Wa’r district, the last rebel stronghold in Homs’ (in Arabic), Al-Hayat, 7 June 2014.
100 ‘Opposition: Homs truce confirms Assad’s subordination to Iran and his exclusive sponsorship of terrorism’ (in Arabic), CNN Arabic, 5 May 2014.
101 Maria Abi-Habib, ‘Syrian Government, Rebels Agree to Cease Fire in Homs’, The Wall Street Journal, 2 May 2014.
102 For a detailed account of the battle and why Hezbollah won it, see: ‘Why Yabroud fell to al-Assad and Hezbollah forces’, Naame Shaam, 18 March 2014.
103 ‘Hezbollah sends 2,000 fighters to Yabroud… and rebels resist’ (in Arabic), Orient News, 19 February 2014.
104 ‘Yabroud battles intensify… and news of Badr Legion fighters sent to support regime forces in the battle’ (in Arabic), Al-Sharq al-Awsat, 3 March 2014.
107 ‘Qassem: Hezbollah will defeat takfiri plot, achievements to appear soon’, Al-Manar, 07 February 2014. For more details on this issue, see: ‘Hezbollah uses Lebanon terrorist attacks to justify invasion of Yabroud, Syria’, Naame Shaam, 17 February 2014. See also this Naame Shaam report.
108 ‘Hezbollah shifts tactics, narrative for Syria fight’, AFP, 14 April 2014.
110 e.g. Mona Alami, idem.; ‘Exclusive interview with a Hezbollah fighter’ (in Arabic), Now, 15 November 2013.
111 Mona Alami, idem.
112 For a detailed report about the massacre and Hezbollah’s involvement, see: ‘Hezbollah accused of another massacre near Damascus, treating dead with “utmost disrespect”’, Naame Shaam, 5 March 2014.
113 Available on YouTube.
114 ‘Scenes of the moment when armed groups are ambushed by Syrian army in Eastern Ghouta’ (in Arabic), Al-Manar, 26 February 2014.
115 Action Group for the Palestinians of Syria, Report on the conditions of Palestinian refugees in Syria, March 2014.
116 Terrence McCoy, ‘Thousands starving on outskirts of Damascus; situation “unprecedented in living memory,” U.N. says’, The Washington Post, 21 April 2014.
118 ‘Khamenei asked Sistani and Haeri to issue ‘jihad against takfiris fatwa’ to save al-Assad’ (in Arabic), Al-Seyasa, 7 August 2012.
119 Ali Mamouri, ‘Shiite seminaries divided on fatwas for Syrian jihad’, Al-Monitor, 29 July 2013.
120 Qassim Abdul-Zahra, ‘Prominent Shiite cleric backs fighting in Syria’, AP, 15 Decemeber 2013.
121 ‘Publications’, The official website of Ayatollah Kazem al-Haeri.
122 Ali Mamouri, ‘Shiite seminaries divided on fatwas for Syrian jihad’, idem.
123 ‘Saudi Wahhabis call for the destruction of Shia shrine in Syria’, Tehran Times, 21 July 2012.
124 See, for example, this report (in Arabic) for how the alleged video was being described: “A video was published on YouTube which contains statements by persons claiming to belong to the Free Syrian Army calling for the destruction of the shrine of Sayyida Zaynab, the daughter of Imam Ali, in the suburbs of Damascus, as well as other shrines and graves belonging to the family of the Prophet.”
125 See this recording.
126 See, for example, this speech by Yasser al-Habib, in which he only talks about the Wisal news item.
127 ‘Car bomb damages major Shiite shrine in Syria’, Associated Press, 14 June 2012.
129 ‘Syrian troops retake Sayyida Zainab neighborhood from rebels’, Press TV, 1 August 2012. See also this video of one of the massacres committed by regime forces in Sayyida Zaynab at the time, and this report about the suffering among civilians after regime forces took over the area.
130 These and other Shia slogans refer to the battle of Karbalaa, more than 1,400 years ago, between the Damascus-based Umayyads and the followers of Imam Ali’s son Hossein, who came to be known as Shia, over the right to caliphate. Hossein was killed in the battle and his sister Zaynab was taken captive to Damascus.
131 Visser Reider, ‘Religious allegiances among pro-Iranian special groups in Iraq’, CTC Sentinel, 26 September 2011.
132 ‘Prominent [Shia] authority in Najaf: Those who go to fight in Syria disobey our orders’ (in Arabic), Al-Sharq al-Awsat, 21 July 2013. See also: ‘War in Syria widens divide between Shia religious authorities in Iraq and Iran’ (in Arabic), Al-Quds Al-Arabi, 21 July 2013.
133 ‘Registration for defenders of holy shrines: volunteers for defending Sayyida Zeynab’ (in Persian), Behesht, 3 June 2013.
134 ‘Religious seminaries demand that government intervenes to protect religious shrines in Syria from violent acts’ (in Arabic), Sawt al-Iraq, 27 July 2012.
135 ‘Conference in support of Sayyida Zaynab, a popular delegation to head from Karbalaa to Damascus’ (in Arabic), Buratha News, 28 July 2012.
136 See, for example, Mona Mahmood and Martin Chulov, ‘Syrian war widens Sunni-Shia schism as foreign jihadis join fight for shrines’, The Guardian, 4 June 2013.
137 See, for example, European Council on Foreign Relations, ‘Syria: the view from Iraq’, 14 June 2013.
138 ‘Syrian troops retake Sayyida Zainab’, Press TV, idem. See also: ‘Syrian popular committees to protect Sayyida Zaynab shrine’ (in Arabic), Al-Mayadeen, 13 March 2013; Jamal al-Gharbi, ‘In Sayyida Zaynab district: Visitors and popular committees and protection units’, Al-Akhbar, 28 March 2013.
139 See, for example, this report.
140 ‘Hezbollah Denounces Terrorist Crimes against Holy Sites in Syria’, Al-Manar, 27 March 2014, available: .
141 Syrian Network for Human Rights, Syria Without Mosques, 5 March 2014.
142 ‘Hezbollah denounces destruction of (Shia) holy sites in Syria, ignores thousands of mosques destroyed by the regime’, Naame Shaam, 5 April 2014.
143 Phillip Smyth, ‘From Karbala to Sayyida Zaynab: Iraqi Fighters in Syria’s Shi`a Militias’, 27 August 2013, CTC Sentinel. See also: Phillip Smyth, ‘From Najaf to Damascus and Onto Baghdad: Iraq’s Liwa Abu Fadl al-Abbas’, Jihadology, 18 June 2014.
144 ‘Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas, a sectarian title in the Syrian tragedy’ (in Arabic), Al-Jazeera, 19 November 2013.
145 Suadad al-Salhy, ‘Iraqi Shi’ite militants fight for Syria’s Assad’, Reuters, 16 October 2012.
146 For more details on the origins and early activities of the group, see: Phillip Smyth, ‘What is the Liwa’a Abu Fadl al-Abbas (LAFA)?: Assessing Syria’s Shia “International Brigade” through their social media presence’, Jihadology, 15 May 2013.
147 Suadad al-Salhy, ‘Iraqi Shi’ites flock to Assad’s side as sectarian split widens’, Reuters, 19 June 2013.
148 See, for example, this video and this and this. For an overview of the group’s militant songs, see: Phillip Smyth, ‘The Songs of Liwa’a Abu Fadl al-Abbas: Militant Iraqi Shia Music & Syria’, Jihadology, 3 July 2013.
149 Nicholas Blanford, ‘Video appears to show Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiites fighting in Syria’, The Christian Science Monitor, 18 January 2013.
150 Mona Mahmood and Martin Chulov, ‘Syrian war widens Sunni-Shia schism as foreign jihadis join fight for shrines’,
The Guardian, 4 June 2013.
151 For a brief history of the group’s origin, see Sam Wyer, The Resurgence of Asa’ib Ahl Al-Haq, Institute for the Study of War, Middle East Security Report 7, December 2012.
153 See the unit’s statements.
156 Martin Chulov, ‘Controlled by Iran, the deadly militia recruiting Iraq’s men to die in Syria’, The Guardian, 12 March 2014.
157 See, for example, Rabiah Jamal, ‘Iraq’s Kataeb Hezbollah announces involvement in Syria’, Now, 7 April 2013.
158 Sam Dagher, ‘Fighters, flowing to Syria, guard Shiites’, The Wall Street Journal, 23 May 2013.
159 Adam Schreck and Qassim Abdul-Zahra, ‘Asaib Ahl Al-Haq, Iraq Shiite militia, will reportedly lay down arms’, Huffington Post, 6 January 2012.
160 Suadad al-Salhy, ‘Iraqi Shi’ite militants fight for Syria’s Assad’, idem.
161 Phillip Smyth, ‘Breaking Badr, The new season: Confirmation of the Badr Organization’s involvement in Syria’, Jihadology, 12 August 2013.
162 Phillip Smyth, ‘The Badr Organization’s Syrian expeditionary force: Quwet al-Shahid Muhammed Baqir al-Sadr’, Jihadology, 18 October 2013.
163 For an overview of Iranian-backed Iraqi militias fighting in Syria, see, for example: K. Gilbert, The Rise of Shi’ite Militias and the Post-Arab Spring Sectarian Threat, International Institute for Counter-Terrorism, October 2013; Syrian Network for Human Rights, The Fighting Shiite Militias in Syria, July 2014 (the original Arabic is available here); Wasim Nasr, ‘Who are the Iraqi Shia fighters in Syria?’ (in Arabic), France 24, 13 December 2013.
164 Suadad al-Salhy, ‘Iraqi Shi’ites flock to Assad’s side as sectarian split widens’, Reuters, idem.
166 Jeremy Bowen, ‘The fearsome Iraqi militia vowing to vanquish Isis’, BBC, 7 July 2014.
167 Qassim Abdul-Zahra and Adam Schreck, ‘Iraqi Shiites brace for violence amid Syria fears’, Associated Press, 25 October 2012.
168 Mona Mahmood and Martin Chulov, ‘Syrian war widens Sunni-Shia schism as foreign jihadis join fight for shrines’, The Guardian, 4 June 2013.
170 Yasir Ghazi and Tim Arango, ‘Iraqi Sects Join Battle in Syria on Both Sides’, The New York Times, 27 October 2012.
172 Mona Mahmood and Martin Chulov, idem.
173 ‘Confessions of Iraqi mercenaries captured by the rebels in the suburbs of Damascus’ (in Arabic), YouTube, 31 December 2013.
176 ‘Confirming what Al-Tahrir had previously disclosed: An ‘Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq member is killed in Syrian Hama’ (in Arabic), Al-Tahrir News, 27 May 2012.
177 ‘Iraqi militia given Aleppo military academy to use as its HQ’, Naame Shaam, 24 March 2014.
178 Available on YouTube.
179 Information and pictures obtained by the authors from various Syrian activists and citizen-journalists in Damascus.
180 Mona Mahmood and Martin Chulov, idem.
181 Suadad al-Salhy, ‘Iraqi Shi’ites flock to Assad’s side as sectarian split widens’, idem.
182 Maria Abi-Habib, ‘Shiite militias decamping from Syria to fight in Iraq’, The Wall Street Journal, 17 June 2014.
183 Ibid. See also: ‘Hezbollah mobilizes to defend Shiite shrines in Syria’, Now, 12 June 2014.
184 See, for example, Joanna Paraszczuk and Scott Lucas, ‘Regime Mass Killing of Civilians in Nabk in Damascus Province?’, EA WorldView, 7 December 2013.
185 Syrian Network for Human Rights, The Major Massacres Committed by Syrian Government Forces Against Civilian Citizens During 2013 (in Arabic), December 2013. See also the detailed reports by SN4HR about each individual massacres in al-Nabek, e.g. this one and this one.
186 Center for Documentation of Violations in Syria, ‘Nabek martyrs list’.
188 Syrian Network for Human Rights, ‘Military campaign on town of al-Thiyabiyya in suburbs of Damascus bears marks of sectarian ethnic cleansing’ (in Arabic), 10 September 2013.
189 ‘Afghan refugee kidnapped by FSA in Syria’, YouTube, 30 October 2012.
190 Meena Haseeb, ‘Afghans involvement in Syria war to be investigated: Mosazai’, Khaama Press, 8 April 2013, available: .
191 e.g. ‘Saraya Tali’at al-Khrasani, a new Shia group fighting alongside al-Assad’ (in Arabic), Orient, 9 January 2014. See also also the group’s official Facebook page.
192 Farnaz Fassihi, ‘Iran pays Afghans to fight for Assad’, The Wall Street Journal, 22 May 2014.
193 Farnaz Fassihi and Ehsanullah Amiri, ‘Afghans condemn Iran over recruiting refugees to fight in Syria’, The Wall Street Journal, 21 May 2014.
194 Ershad Alijani and Andrew Hilliar, ‘Afghan migrants offered $500 by Iran to fight for Syrian regime’, France 24, 04 June 2014.
195 See, for example, ‘An Afghan version of Hezbollah in Syria’ (in Arabic), Erem News, 8 June 2014. See also: ‘Afghan fighters join al-Assad forces for $500 a month’ (in Arabic), Al-Arabiya, 7 June 2014.
196 ‘First African martyr defending Sayyida Zaynab shrine’ (in Persian), Ahlul-Bayt News Agency, 27 July 2013. For details in English, see: Phillip Smyth, ‘Fighters from exotic locales in Syria’s Shia militias’, Jihadology, 30 July 2013.
197 Amir Abdallah, ‘URGENT – 30,000 Indians volunteer to fight in Iraq to defend Shia shrines’, Iraqi News, 27 June 2014.
198 See, for example, Saud Al-Sarhan, ‘From Qusair to Yabrud: Shiite foreign fighters in Syria’, Al-Monitor, 6 March 2014.
199 Riyad Qahwaji, ‘40,000 foreign Shiites fighting in Syria: A transnational army led by the [Iranian] Revolutionary Guards’ (in Arabic), Al-Hayat, 5 February 2014.
201 See, for example, Will Fulton, Joseph Holliday and Sam Wyer, Iranian Strategy in Syria, AEI’s Critical Threats Project and Institute for the Study of War, May 2013; K. Gilbert, The Rise of Shi’ite Militias and the Post-Arab Spring Sectarian Threat, International Institute for Counter-Terrorism, October 2013.
202 Leila Shrooms, ‘Syria: Who are Assad’s fascist supporters?’, Tahrir ICN, 11 December 2013.
203 ‘Syria: The Greek Nationalist Socialists fighting alongside Asaad’s regime are far more dangerous than Golden Dawn’, Glykosymoritis, 28 September 2013. The original interview in Greek can be found here.
204 For more details, see: Germano Monti, ‘A red-brown alliance for Syria’, Qantara, 14 April 2014.
205 Leila Shrooms, idem.
206 ‘European fascists fighting in Syria alongside regime forces, Sepah Pasdaran and Hezbollah’, Naame Shaam, 11 February 2014.
207 Bassel al-Junaidy, ‘The tale of “the friends of Saidnaya”: the strongest three men in Syria’, Republic Group for Studies, 23 October 2013.
209 For more on the ‘Saidnaya experiment’ (making and preparing jihadists inside the infamous prison), see: Firas Sa’d, ‘On the ‘Saidnaya experiment and its repercussions for the Syrian revolution: Organising Islamists as a first rehearsal for a civil conflict’ (in Arabic), Republic Group for Studies, 26 December 2013. See also: Rania Abouzeid, ‘The Jihad next door: The Syrian roots of Iraq’s newest civil war’, Politico, 23 June 2014; Mohammed Habash, ‘Radicals are Assad’s best friends’, The National, 1 January 2014.
210 Ruth Sherlock and Richard Spencer, ‘Syria’s Assad accused of boosting al-Qaeda with secret oil deals’, The Telegraph, 20 January 2014.
211 Ruth Sherlock, ‘Exclusive interview: Why I defected from Bashar al-Assad’s regime, by former diplomat Nawaf Fares’, The Sunday Telegraph, 14 Jul 2012.
213 Riyad Khaled, ‘Interview with Afaq Ahmad: On the Alawites, the infiltration of Islamist groups and the assassination of Bashar al-Assad’ (in Arabic), All4Syria, 27 July 2013. For English, see: Michael Weiss, ‘Assad’s no enemy of al-Qaeda’, Now, 31 July 2013.
214 US Department of the Tresury, ‘Treasury targets networks linked to Iran’, 6 February 2014.
217 US Department of the Tresury, ‘Treasury designates Iranian Ministry of Intellligence and Security for human rights abuses and support for terrorism’, 16 February 2012.
218 See: ‘After ‘Daesh’, Syrians invent new mocking name for Hezbollah Lebanon: Halesh’, Naame Shaam, 25 February 2014.
219 ‘Judge finds Sudan and Iran liable for 1998 embassy bombings’, Legal Times, 1 December 2011.
220 Michael B Kelley, ‘Why is Iran letting a top al-Qaeda operative pump fighters and cash into Syria?’, Business Insider, 1 February 2014. See also: Dania Saadi, ‘Iran official admits to aiding Zarqawi in Iraq, Al-Awsat says’, Bloomberg, 11 August 2004.
221 Robert Windrem, ‘Exclusive: Iran was holding bin Laden son-in-law Abu Ghaith, US officials say’, NBC News, 7 March 2013.
222 See, for example, Jason Burke, ‘What is the relationship between Iran and al-Qaida?’, The Guardian, 23 April 2013; Peter Bergen, ‘Strange bedfellows — Iran and al Qaeda’, CNN, 11 March 2013.
223 See, for example, Adam Goldman, ‘Senior al-Qaeda figure leaves Iran amid a series of departures by terrorist suspects’, The Washington Post, 14 February 2014.
224 ‘Abu Mohammad al-Adnani, ISIS’s spokesman: Iran is indebted to al-Qaeda’, Janoubia, 14 May 2014. For English, see: Bill Roggio, ‘“Iran owes al Qaeda invaluably,” ISIS spokesman says’, Long War Journal, 12 May 2014.
225 ‘A leaked document addressed to Ali Mamlouk reveals links with ISIS fighters’ (in Arabic), Al-Sharq al-Awsat, 4 April 2014. For an English translation and commentary, see here. The documents were originally published by a little-known website called Damascus Leaks.
227 Syrian Opposition Coalition – Geneva Media Unit, ‘Memo: ISIS and the Assad regime: From marriage of convenience to partnership’, 10 February 2014. The original Arabic is available here.
228 This is the original link.
229 ‘Alloush: [ISIS] leader Hajji Bakir carries an Iranian passport’ (in Arabic), Suriya al-Ghad, 26 February 2014.
230 ‘Al-Qaeda detainees reveal ties with Assad’, Al-Arabiya, 20 January 2014.
231 Ruth Sherlock and Richard Spencer, ‘Syria’s Assad accused of boosting al-Qaeda with secret oil deals’, The Telegraph, 20 January 2014.
232 ‘Eastern Syrian town lives under al Qaeda rules’, Reuters, 30 January 2013.
233 Julian Borger and Mona Mahmood, ‘EU decision to lift Syrian oil sanctions boosts jihadist groups’, The Guardian, 19 May 2013.
235 Faysal Abdul-Karim, ‘Abu Uday: Daesh is selling grain to the regime while people starve’ (in Arabic), Al-Hayat, 28 April 2014.
236 Ruth Sherlock and Richard Spencer, idem.
237 Faysal Abdul-Karim, idem.
238 Burhan Ghalyoun, ‘The business of terrorism… Iran, Al-Maliki, and Al-Assad’ (in Arabic), Al-Araby al-Jadeed, 19 June 2014. And English translation is available here.
239 Anne Barnard, Tweet on 12 June 2014, 4:12 PM.
240 UN Security Council, ‘Security Council adopts Resolution 2170 (2014) condemning gross, widespread abuse of human rights by extremist groups in Iraq, Syria’, 15 August 2014.