Liwa al-Baqir (The Baqir Brigade) in Syria

August 6, 2018
Liwa al-Baqir (The Baqir Brigade) in Syria
Mona Alami
Mona Alami Non-Resident Fellow in Security and Politics in the Middle East

Liwa al-Baqir (The Baqir Brigade, named for the fifth Shi’a Imam) is a militia group that is as part of the Syrian “Local Defence Forces”  and strongly linked to Iran, Hezbollah and Harakat Al-Nujaba. The origins of the group appear to date to around 2012 in the eastern and Southern Aleppo countryside. The movement was formed by Khaled Merhi after the death of his father and brother at the hands of the Free Syrian army. The organization is mainly comprised of members from the Baggara tribe, a powerful group that stretches between Syria and Iraq. After the death of Khalid Merhi in 2016, the militant group was led by several members including its rapid response commander namely Hamzah Hussein Abu Abbas and its coordination commander Shiro Ali Baer. The group members are also relatives to the head of the Baggara tribe Nawaf Bashir who currently leads Ousoud Ashair Al-l-Baggara fy Souria. The group has grown significantly from 2015/2016, including backing a Parliamentary candidate, Omar Hassan, in the Syrian elections of 2016.

Estimates put the size of Liwa al-Baqir at about 3,000 fighters.  The ideology of the group is Syrian Nationalism in support of President Assad, and its members have religious ties with Shiite Islam. Many of Baggara tribesman are of Sunni origin, but have converted both during and prior to the Syrian war, primarily through Iranian proselytization efforts and the ostensible link between the Baggara tribe and Imam Baqir. This proselytization effort has been underlined by several websites including pro-opposition Zaman Wasl, which added that members of the movement and the clan were also receiving religious teachings in Tehran.

Liwa al-Baqir has been most visible in Aleppo and is operating in the Syrian coastal region, according to Syrian expert, Nawar Shaaban who spoke to the author.  They have expanded since 2017, to the Syrian Desert and images on their Facebook account show some of the Liwa al-Baqir members operating in the Iraq/Syria border, by the town of Bu Kamal, which was previously under control of the so-called Islamic State. This area is also a demarcation line between Syrian and pro-Iran forces and U.S backed forces as well as US-led coalition advisors who are to the north of the Euphrates demarcation line.  Despite an alleged ban on pro-Iranian forces in South Syria, the Iranian and Hezbollah linked Liwa al-Baqir is currently engaged in military operations there as well, according to an off-the record interview conducted with one of its members.

According to its Facebook page, Liwa al-Baqir is also deployed in the Lajat area. Members deployed there appear to have recently received training by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corp, according to information released on its social media page. The organization source who spoke to the author emphaized:

“We are an auxiliary forces to the Syrian army, and are deployed all over Syria, with a focus on north and west of Aleppo, Idlib, Hassaka, Deir zour and more recently Deraa”.

In terms of military cooperation, Liwa al-Baqir coordinates with Hezbollah in the south Aleppo countryside, more specifically in the area of al-Eis. These operations were also advertised as being in coordination not only with Hezbollah but also with the Iraqi Shi’i militia Harakat al-Nujaba which has also close links with the organization. Cooperation with Hezbollah is of no surprise as its former leader Hajj Khalid participated in the July 2006 war with Hezbollah waged against Israel, according to Shaaban.  Shaaban underlines as well that Liwa al-Baqir has obtained part of its arsenal from Harakat Hezbollah Al Nujabaa, an Iraqi paramilitary group, in addition to their salaries of 25,000 Syrian pounds per month.

Liwa al-Baqir’s links with Iran are clear from meetings between its leaders and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force Commander Qassim Suleimani, the inclusion of pictures of Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah and Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khameni in the groups banners, seen on its website.

According to the source within Liwa al-Baqir, the organization, pledges allegiance to Hassan Nasrallah and Iran’s wilayat al-fakih.

 “The next war on the US and Israel will be decided by the great leaders from the Resistance axis namely his grace Ayatollah ali Khamenei, Dr Bashar Asad and Hassan Nasrallah and Sayed Abdel Malik Houthi , whatever they advise us to do we will do the time they decide …”

In April this year, Liwa al-Baqir declared jihad upon what it designates the occupying foreign forces in Syria.  It called for “the onset of the military and jihadist activists against the American occupation and its allies in Syria” and vowed to “liberate every single inch of the precious homeland” from foreign troops, urging Syrians to stay away from the sites and bases of “the coward American occupier. The statement came after an attack that same month on American interests in the Brigade 93 base in Ain Issa with two rocket attacks.

Liwa al-Baqir is positioned to assert a significant influence over the future of Syria.  According to experts such as Aymen Jawad Tamimi, Liwa al-Baqir is believed to be part of the Local Defense Forces network (Quwat al-Difa’ al-Mahalli- LDF) of the Syrian Army. The LDF consists of a variety of local militias such as Katibat al-Nayrab al-Maham al-Khasa (The Nayrab Battalion-Special Operations), Fawj al-Safira (The Safira Regiment) and Fawj Nubl wa al-Zahara’ (The Nubl and Zahara’ Regiment), explains Tamimi.  Estimates put the LDF at about 50,000 fighters, a figure that is likely exaggerated. Liwa al-Baqir alone is estimated as previously stated  to be comprised of around 3000 fighters. The organization training camps were mostly set the villages of Tel Shaghib, Issan, Ain Issan and Tarkan in south Aleppo countryside. Both Tamimi and Shaaban believe that Liwa al-Baqir’s losses have been relatively large.  Tamimi’s estimates around March 2016 put the number at 246 combat related deaths, however Zaman al-Wasl has placed this figure more recently at 450 deaths with an extra 700 casualties in more recent battles.

Besides its military activity, Liwa al-Baqir is also involved in commercial activities in the areas it controls. According to Shaaban, it is operating parts of the transportation sector inside the city of Aleppo, through a large fleet of microbus cars with most of the drivers are descended from clans who were fighting in the brigade. The revenues of transportation services are given over to Liwa al-Baqir in cooperation with the Traffic and Military Security Department. It is also imposing fees and taxes on retail shops, and generally becoming more involved in the provision of public services and local governance activities.

Liwa al-Baqir is beefing up its financial arms to have more resources and autonomy.  As it develops in this respect it will become a more enduring institution on the Syrian scene.   The movement falls within the “axis of resistance” the pro-Iranian constellation of actors stretching from Iran to Lebanon, and down into Yemen.  If it continues to grow and gain resources it will reinforce Iran’s and Hezbollah’s influence in the region.

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