Liwa Abu Fadl Abbas (The Al Abbas Brigade) in Syria

November 21, 2018
Liwa Abu Fadl Abbas (The Al Abbas Brigade) in Syria
Mona Alami
Mona Alami Non-Resident Fellow in Security and Politics in the Middle East

Liwa Abu Fadl Abbas (or the Al Abbas Brigade) is a pro-government Syrian militant group in Syria with strong Iraqi links. Despite news last year of the group’s dissolution, confirmed by Iraqi leader Aws Khafaji, its fighters were deployed this summer in the offensive on South Syria, more specifically in Dael, west of Daraa. The group has also more recently been incorporated into the Syrian Republic Guards, as part of the larger moves by the Syrian regime to reign in paramilitary forces and consolidate power.

Liwa Abou Fadl Abbas falls under the umbrella of the pro-Iranian, Syrian resistance.  According to an interview with Sheikh Aws Khafaji, the leader of the group, conducted by the author in Baghdad, the movement was formed in Syria, after escalating attacks on the pilgrimage site of Sayeda Zaynab, a sacred site for the Shiite community.  “We went to defend Sayida Zeyna in November 2011 and founded the Syrian branch of Abou Fadl Abbas in 2012,” says Khafaji, in an interview with the author. The group’s primary identity has been in relation to protecting Shiite shrines in both Syria and Iraq.  Liwa Abou Fadl Abbas was named after the warrior son of Imam Ali (Abou Fadl Abbas), a revered religious figure in Shiism.  Serving with his brother Imam Husayn forces during the Battle of Karbala, Abu Fadl al-Abbas epitomized the willingness for sacrifice. For Shiites, the Battle of Karbala represents a key part of their identity.

There are Liwa Abou Fadl Abbas branches in both Syria and Iraq with varying levels of cooperation, nonetheless demonstrating a trans-national reach. Both branches have close links with Iran and Hezbollah.  The Syrian group’s formal connection with its Iraqi branch appears to be through its founders and current leader, Sheikh Aws Khafaji. Ideologically the organization boasts its affiliation to the Iraqi pro-Iranian resistance. Members of the group appearing in Youtube videos take clear pride in being affiliated to the Haydariya force, (referring to Iraqi nationals in Syria) with fighters chanting their loyalty to Sayyida Zaynab, under the rallying cry of “Labyaka ya Zaynab”  Further propaganda videos and songs reinforce this ideological basis of the group.

In the interview with Sheikh Khafaji it was explained “Liwa Abou Fadl Abbas was the first form of resistance founded by the Iraqis in Syria, and was the result of the circumstance surrounding the Sayyida Zeinab shrine. The group was formed after terrorists had killed Iraqis who were in Syria.” He went on to say

“The Iraqi nucleus was joined by Syrians fighters in the vicinity of Sayeda Zeinab. The fighters wanted to protect themselves and to defend the shrine of Sayida Zeinab. At first they defended themselves with light weapons they had at hand and later they fought the so called Islamic State (ISIS) because they knew that the threat of ISIS was going to expand to Iraq as later events showed.”

Founded by Iraqi members, including Ahmed Kayara and Fadel Sobhi Abu Hajar, the organization currently boasts Iraqi and Syrian fighters according to sheikh Khafaji. According to an article by the website Zaman Wasl, the group also includes Iranian fighters. Ahmad Kayara was of a member of the Mahdi Army during the U.S. occupation of Iraq and was arrested by the Americans in 2007 before moving to Syria upon his release. Abou Hajar is also reported to have been a member of the Mehdi army as well as Sheikh Khafaji who previously worked in the office of Sayed Muqtada al-Sadr.  The group has been reported to utilize fighters originating from Iraqi Iranian-backed organizations, namely Iraq’s Kataib Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl Haq. Sheikh Khafaji explains that Iraqi fighters such as Sheikh Aziz Bahadli and Haidar Jubouri also known as Abu Shahd, Ahmad Haji and Aqil  Moussawi, also contributed to establishing the branch in Syria.  According to Syria expert Aymen Jawad Tamimi, Hayder Juburi later went on to lead Liwa Dhu al-Fiqar, while Aqil Musawi established Liwa Assad Allah Ghalib. Prominent Syrian members include Hussein Ajeeb Jazza, a Shiite from the village of Nuble in north Aleppo, who was killed in 2013 and his brother Maher who currently leads the organization.

In a previous interview with Lebanese daily Annahar, Khafaji added that the Iraqi branch provided logistical support in the form of fighters and weapons from Iraq. “We have been connected to them from the start, and we have provided them with fighters from here. At the time, there was no administrative structure. You can say that the forces are a natural extension of the brigade Abu Fadl in Iraq”.  Sheikh Khafaji added that the organization received principally private sources of funding from wealthy Shiites.

An article published by the Syrian opposition media Zaman Wasl, in 2014, linked Abou Fadl Abbas to Quwat al-Difaa Shaabi, aka the Popular Defense Forces, a network put in place by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, according to Tamimi. The expert argues that the group has recently been attached to the Syrian republican guards 105th Brigade.

The organization’s links to Hezbollah have been underlined by Hezbollah expert Nicolas Blanford. According to Blanford, Abu Fadl Abbas was known to be a small Iran-backed faction that launched sniper and roadside bomb attacks against US and coalition troops in Iraq between 2005 and 2008 before subsequently became part of Kataeb Hezbollah, one of a many Iran-supported factions known as The Iraqi Special Groups. US officials have accused Iran and Hezbollah of training the Iraqi Special Groups, and Kataeb Hezbollah was designated by the US as a foreign terrorist organization in 2009.Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah referred to the Abu Fadl Abbas Brigades in a speech in 2007 as one of several groups that “confirm the existence of vast strong and effective resistance on the Shiite level” in Iraq. Blanford commented in his article about a 2013 video by the organization, which carries in the corner of the screen a logo of a furled green banner and the name “the Abu Fadl Abbas Brigades.” While no mention of Hezbollah is made in the film and it is not possible to confirm that the militants shown are from the Lebanese organization, small clues indicate the fighters may have received training from Hezbollah. Blanford explains:

“For example, most of the fighters featured hold the AK-47 by the magazine when firing rather than the wooden grip beneath the barrel, a Hezbollah method that is supposed to allow them to swing the weapon more quickly. Another hint is that the fighters fire their AK-47s in semi-automatic mode rather than fully automatic, a technique taught to Hezbollah combatants to improve accuracy and save ammunition… .”

In a previous interview by Reuters of Abu Mujahid, an Iraqi member formerly affiliated with the Mehdi army and fighting with Abou Fadl Abbas, it was explained that “Iran is working there ( in Syria) by using Hezbollah, there are officers and militants from Hezbollah-Lebanon training the citizens and developing their fighting skills and abilities”. Another report by Al-Arabiya points to the training of the militants by Iran in Syria as well in the Hermel area in Lebanon, known to be a Hezbollah bastion.

There is evidence that Liwa Abu al-Fadl Abbas has long been involved mostly on Damascus frontlines and in Ghouta where the group has fought alongside Lebanese Hezbollah such as Hujayra al-Balad, in rural Damascus where the two organization lost over 50 militants while fighting against the Free Syrian army in 2013.  Social media sites have shown the involvement of Liwa Abu Fadl Abbas in other war theatres namely Aleppo, Raqqa and Deir Zour provinces. More recently its leader has been spotted in southern Syria with members of the Syrian Republican Guards.  On its Facebook account, the “Zulfiqar Brigade” militia reported this summer that they, along with the Syrian regime’s army, were deployed in Tafs and Dael and showed several pictures of Abu Fadl Abbas Brigade’s commander Maher Ajeeb Jazza, as well as members of the Republican Guard. Another Facebook page also posted the picture of Abou Ajeeb, stating he was fighting last year in Joubar and Ain Terma along with Syrian Republican Guards.

In the interview with the author, Sheikh Khafaji stated that his organization had been dissolved in Syria with Ghouta and Damascus under Syrian army control. However, Sheikh Khafaji’s statements are contradicted by social media pictures of members of Abou Fadl Abbas deployed after the alleged organization’s dissolution, while statements by the organization’s leaders say otherwise. In April Sheikh Khafaji stated, following the U.S.-led missile strike on Syria, that the U.S. and Israel were “the cause of all the problems of the region” and that “if they attack Syria, I have a religious and national duty not to just stand idly by.” Defending the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Units’s (PMU) presence in Syria, Sheikh Khafaji said that if Iraqi PM Al-Abadi forbade the organization from fighting in Syria, “this would be a mistake of historic proportions” and that “the resistance does not need permission from anyone.”

While the movement appears to have been integrated, in some form, with the Syrian Republican Guard, it is under the label of “The Republican Guard- Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas Brigade.”  This makes it clear that the group retains a distinct identity and suggests that it is not necessarily under the command and control of the Syrian Army.  The cooptation of pro-regime militias at the unit level will complicate the regime’s effort to dissolve local brands with regional sympathies. After all Iran has worked for years now in building its resistance axis which encompassed previously Hezbollah and Hamas, and a partnership of states—Iran, Iraq, and Syria—that are ideologically united by enmity towards Israel, the US and more recently Takfiri terror.  More recently the network has expanded to encompass these militias, including the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) in Iraq, the Houthis in Yemen, and the Syrian Local Defense Forces, as well as foreign groups in Syria such as the Afghan Fatemiyoun and Pakistani Zaynabiyoun brigades.  It remains to be seen if the group maintains its Iranian connection and its ideological affiliation to the larger Levant “resistance” network that Tehran has defended and what would be the long-term implications for Syria.

This Insight is the part of a series of studies on the prominent pro-regime militias in Syria.