Who are Liwa al-Baqir, the pro-regime unit seeking to enter Afrin?
Updated: May 21, 2018
By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi
Liwa al-Baqir and other LDF units are apparently involved in recent developments in Afrin. Video and photos emerged of a convoy of their vehicles driving from Aleppo via Nubl and Zahraa towards Afrin, where reports said Turkish artillery interdicted their movements on February 20. Turkey has been engaged in a month-long operation against the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG). In recent days pro-regime media have said that pro-regime forces would enter Afrin to oppose "Turkish aggression."
This article, published on aymennjawad.org provides useful background on the Iranian-backed LDF. This piece was originally published in May 2016.
Besides the well-known National Defence Forces (NDF) that were set up in 2012 with oversight from Iran to act as a counter-insurgency force and auxiliary militia network for the Syrian army, there exists a similarly named but distinct set of militias specific to the Aleppo area known as the Local Defence Forces (Quwat al-Difa' al-Mahalli - LDF). In brief, the LDF consists of a variety of local militias such as Katibat al-Nayrab al-Maham al-Khasa (The Nayrab Battalion- Special Operations), Liwa al-Baqir (The Baqir Brigade), Fawj al-Safira (The Safira Regiment) and Fawj Nubl wa al-Zahara' (The Nubl and Zahara' Regiment). These names mostly refer to areas and towns in the vicinity of Aleppo city, but Liwa al-Baqir is named after the fifth Shi'i imam Muhammad al-Baqir.
A representative for Katibat al-Nayrab affirmed to me that the LDF totals 50,000 fighters (an obvious exaggeration), set up in 2012 by Iran as an auxiliary force for the Syrian army in the Aleppo area. Unsurprisingly, the LDF is linked with Hezbollah as well, though it is Liwa al-Baqir that advertises this connection more than the other LDF formations: something reinforced by the fact that the Lebanese singer Ali Barakat, most well known for his songs for Hezbollah, put out a song dedicated to Liwa al-Baqir. Liwa al-Baqir also appears to be tied in particular to the al-Bekara clan in Aleppo that has gained notoriety for its support for the regime, especially as it is predominantly Sunni (the evidence may suggest a degree of Shi'ification as well in relation to Liwa al-Baqir).
Describing itself as "the first auxiliary [/reserve]" for the Syrian army, Liwa al-Baqir seems to be the most prominent LDF formation. For example, most recently the militia's social media have advertised heavy involvement in fighting against the Islamic State (IS) focused around the village of Kafr Saghir and fighting against Jabhat al-Nusra and other rebel forces in south Aleppo countryside. Thus, on 20 March 2016, Liwa al-Baqir claimed at least 15 'martyrs' (fallen fighters) in fighting on the Kafr Saghir front to the north-east of Aleppo city, followed by a claim of 5 more 'martyrs' two days later. In April, Liwa al-Baqir media mention coordination with Hezbollah in fighting in the south Aleppo countryside, focusing initially on the village of al-Eis. These south Aleppo operations have been advertised as being in coordination not only with Hezbollah (e.g. see here) but also the Iraqi Shi'i militiaHarakat al-Nujaba'. The accounts of these operations include this short story:
"We, the men of Liwa al-Baqir, were in the company of the men of Hezbollah when they arrested dozens of the pigs of Nusra whom we wanted to kill but then one of the mujahideen reminded us saying: 'Oh youth, remember the words of Imam Ali- peace be upon him- who says: 'And don't kill those who surrender but rather grant them food and grant them protection."
Prior to these engagements, Liwa al-Baqir claimed participation in the operations leading to the breaking of the rebel sieges of the Shi'i villages of Nubl and Zahara' to the north of Aleppo city, as well as operations in south Aleppo countryside as part of the series of Russia-Iran backed offensives that began in October of last year to allow the regime to regain the initiative against the rebels.
Unlike a number of pro-Assad militias whose total numbers of 'martyrs' since inception normally do not amount to more than a few or several dozen, Liwa al-Baqir claimed 246 'martyrs' as of 21 March 2016. This claim to a large number of 'martyrs' is corroborated to a certain extent by the displays of posters of these 'martyrs', samples of which appear in the original article.
The leader of Liwa al-Baqir Khalid al-Hassan (Baqir)...and the distinguished members- members of the Committee of Reconciliation, National Accord and Social Coordination- are operating in the framework of the project of national reconciliation in Aleppo province. We request aid within the systems and laws and in cooperation with Mr. Governor of Aleppo in making their mission succeed. To connect with us in the Liwa al-Baqir centre in Tarkan [a village in the Safira district]."
In this context, it should be noted that Liwa al-Baqir was also involved in a prominent conciliation event at the end of 2015 involving two major families- Abu Ra's and Berri (the latter also notorious for its support for the regime)- including an event involving military and security officials as well as 'ulama' in Aleppo.
Interestingly, in March 2016 Liwa al-Baqir claimed the 'martyrdom' of Khalid's brother. No specific details were offered as to the circumstances surrounding his death, though one page for Liwa al-Baqir seemed to present it as a 'martyrdom' jointly claimed with Hezbollah. According to the Katibat al-Nayrab representative, he was actually assassinated in Lebanon.
To read about the rest of the LDF, go to the original.
Below is a map of the area of clashes where Liwa al-Baqir allegedly entered Afrin on February 20.