May 4, 2015 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1157

Iran Tightens Its Grip On Syria Using Syrian And Foreign Forces

May 4, 2015 | By N. Mozes*
Iran, Syria | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1157


As the fighting in Syria enters the fifth year, it is evident to all that what is happening is not a local civil rebellion against a tyrannical regime, but a war in which both the Syrian regime and the Syrian opposition are being actively supported by numerous regional and international forces. The most prominent foreign element involved in this war is Iran, which is throwing its entire weight into ensuring the survival of the regime. In addition to providing economic aid, arms, and advice, its support for Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad includes combat forces - from Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), from Hizbullah in Lebanon, and from the Iraqi, Afghan and Pakistani Shi'ite militias that are loyal to Iran.

Initially, these organizations focused on defending Shi'ite holy sites in Syria, but over time the fighting expanded to the most difficult anti-opposition fronts, in Al-Qusayr, Al-Qalamoun and the Daraa-Quneitra-Damascus triangle. According to the Syrian opposition, thousands of fighters trained by the IRGC arrived in Syria via the Iranian air bridge comprising on average four daily flights from Iran to the Syrian port of Latakia, via Iraq.[1]

Recently, Iran has begun to organize and oversee Syrian forces fighting alongside the regime, such as the Syrian Hizbullah, Liwa Al-Quds, the National Religious Resistance-Jaish Al-Imam Al-Mahdi, the National Resistance in Houran (HAMO), and Liwa Al-Ridda Al-Shi'i.

This Iranian involvement has both short- and long-term ramifications. In the short term, it impacts the fighting between the regime and the opposition. For example, three years ago, when the regime was on the verge of defeat on a number of fronts, Iran sent forces from Lebanese Hizbullah and other Shi'ite militias to its aid, thus completely upsetting the balance of forces on the ground, though this has not yet led to a decisive regime victory. National Coalition for Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces chairman Khaled Khoja argues that these forces are the only thing ensuring the Syrian regime's survival, and that today the regime is completely reliant on them since its army has been dramatically depleted, and is only about 70,000 strong.[2] Even if this figure is inaccurate, it can surely be said that without these forces, the regime's military situation would be far graver.

In the long term, these Shi'ite reinforcements have further strengthened the sectarian aspect of the conflict in Syria, with the consent of the Syrian regime, if not its outright encouragement. They have played a role in spurring the Sunni fighters thronging to join the jihad organizations fighting the Shi'ites, and have also contributed to the Syria crisis' expansion beyond the country's borders.

These Shi'ite militias have also impacted Syria's independence vis-à-vis Iran. Both Syrian opposition members and the Arab anti-Iran camp are already arguing that Iran is occupying Syria and doing whatever it likes there. Khaled Khoja has said that Assad is no longer Syria's leader but is now only its "executive director."[3]

Nahed Hattar, a columnist for the Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar, which is close to the Syrian regime, wrote that this regime had mortgaged government lands and real estate to pay for military and economic assistance from Iran. This, he said, begs the question to what extent Syria will remain sovereign if the regime cannot pay back its debt to Iran.[4]

Syria's transformation into an Iranian base also upsets the balance of forces in the entire region, and threatens Syria's neighbors to the south and north. The January 2015 killing of Hizbullah fighters and of IRGC Qods Force fighters, among them Gen. Mohammed Ali Allahdadi, revealed the extent of Iranian and Hizbullah activity on the Syrian Golan bordering Israel and Jordan.[5] Likewise, some of the Iran-operated Syrian so-called "popular resistance groups," such as the Syrian Hizbullah, stress that their aim is to operate against Israel, not only against the Syrian opposition.

Iran also appears to be using Syria as an intelligence base for espionage and as an arena for training the foreign forces that are loyal to it. This became clearly evident after opposition forces overran the Syrian Tal Al-Harrah intelligence base in the Quneitra area and found there numerous Hizbullah intelligence documents showing the organization's activity in and plans for the Golan.[6] There have been some reports, of uncertain reliability, that the Syrian regime is allowing Iran to establish an intelligence base on the Turkish border,[7] and also that Iran is training Houthi fighters on Syrian soil for the war in Yemen.[8]

Syria's social and demographic fabric has also been impacted. According to many reports, entire areas in Damascus and other cities have become Shi'ite, after foreign Shi'ite fighters brought their families to Syria and installed them in homes abandoned by their owners following the outbreak of the fighting. Last year's unprecedentedly widespread 'Ashoura ceremonies in Damascus, held even in areas of the city not previously known as Shi'ite, clearly showed the creeping Shi'ization in Syria.[9]

Assad continues to insist that Iran is not involved in the fighting in Syria, but admits that Hizbullah is involved. In an April 20, 2015 interview with the France 2 television channel he said: "No country has the right to intervene without invitation. So, we invited Hizbullah. We didn't invite the Iranians, they're not here, they didn't send any troops." He admitted that "we have commanders [and] officers coming and going between the two countries based on the cooperation that existed between us for a long time," but stressed, "this is different from fighting."[10] Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Al-Miqdad stated that reports of the scale of Iranian involvement were exaggerated, but noted: "Doesn't Syria have the right to receive aid from its regional allies who are part of the resistance axis...? Why are all the murderers in the world allowed to come to Syria, but Syria's allies are not allowed to defend themselves? Iran is entitled to defend itself, and we in Syria are proud of our alliance with the resistance...[11] Additionally, Syria's state television channel broadcast a statement by a Syrian army commander on the ground, who said: "The military action begun by the Syrian Army continues under the leadership of the Syrian president, and with the collaboration of the resistance axis of Hizbullah and Iran."[12]

This paper will focus on the activity of the militias that are fighting alongside the Syrian regime, under Iranian oversight and guidance.

Shi'ite Forces From Outside Syria

The non-Syrian forces fighting alongside the Syrian regime are, as noted, nearly all Shi'ite and have direct or indirect ties to Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). In addition to IRGC and Lebanese Hizbullah, they also include Iraqi and Afghan and Pakistani Shi'ite militias that are loyal to Iran. 

Iraqi Forces

Initially, Shi'ite Iraqi forces operated as part of the umbrella organization Liwa' Abu Al-Fadhl Al-Abbas, which also included some Syrian Shi'ites.[13]

Liwa' Abu Al-Fadhl Al-Abbas secretary-general Awas Khafaji at Damascus airport (Image:, May 3, 2015)

After disputes broke out among various elements in the organization, some Iraqi groups transitioned to operating independently and openly. The most prominent ones are:

"The Islamic Resistance - Liwa Dhu Al-Fiqar, The Protector Of The Holy Sites In Iraq and Al-Sham"

Established in June 2013 by Fadhl Sabahi, who died in combat, and Abu Shahed Al-Jabouri. Despite its name, there is evidence that it does not confine its activity to protecting Shi'ite holy sites, but is operating in Adra, northwest of Damascus, and in Al-Nabek in the Qalamoun area near the Lebanese border; oppositionist organizations say that the group massacred residents in Al-Nabek.[14] According to an oppositionist website, the organization responded to the calls of the regime and Hizbullah to assist them in fighting opposition forces in Al-Zabdani in Rif Dimashq.[15]

"The Islamic Resistance - Liwa Dhu Al-Fiqar, The Protector of the Holy Sites" (Source:

'Asaeb Ahl Al-Haqq

A group that broke away from the Sadrist movement; it is led by Qais Al-Khaz'ali. It receives funding, weapons, and training from Iran. Captured 'Asaeb Ahl Al-Haqq fighters have attested that the organization also operates in Eastern Ghouta in Rif Dimashq.[16]

Left: 'Asaeb Ahl Al-Haqq emblem (Source:, April 11, 2013); right: Qais Al-Khaz'ali with Qassem Soleimani (Source:, August 22, 2014)

The Islamic Resistance - Hizbullah Al-Nujaba Movement

Established by Akram Al-Ka'bi, who left 'Asaeb Ahl Al-Haqq. At the start of the unrest in Syria, Al-Ka'bi was tasked with establishing a fighting organization in Syria that would be subordinate to 'Asaeb Ahl Al-Haqq. Several months later, he withdrew from the organization, founded Hizbullah Al-Nujaba, and moved to Syria to oversee its activity. In an interview with the Iraqi daily Al-'Alam Al-Jadid, Al-Ka'bi said that his organization received logistical and military aid from Iran and stressed its close ties with Qassem Soleimani and with Hizbullah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah. He added that the group fights in Aleppo and its environs and that it has already lost 38 men in Syria.[17] According to oppositionist Syrian websites, members of this group are trained by the IRGC and Lebanese Hizbullah, and are spread out throughout Syria in Al-Raqqa, Aleppo province, and Damascus.[18]

Left: Akram Al-Ka'bi with one of his soldiers; right: with Qassem Soleimani  (Source:, April 20, 2015)

Hizbullah Al-Nujaba emblem (Source:, October 9, 2014)

Afghan Forces

Hizbullah Afghanistan

Afghans are fighting in Syria alongside both the regime and the opposition. Initially, Shi'ite Afghans fought for the regime as part of Liwa Abu Al-Fadhl Al-'Abbas, but later Hizbullah Afghanistan, comprising two brigades - Liwa Fatimiyoun and Liwa Khudam Al-'Aqila - emerged. Hizbullah Afghanistan is playing an increasingly large part in the Syrian fighting, likely because Iraqi groups had to return home in order to stop the Islamic State (ISIS) from advancing there.

Hizbullah Afghanistan emblem (Source:, December 5, 2014)

Liwa Fatimiyoun - Afghan Martyrs Defending [Shi'ite] Holy Sites

This is the main Afghan force operating in Syria. It emerged in late 2012 after Syrian regime, Lebanese Hizbullah, and IRGC forces took heavy losses. Most fighters in the group are Afghan refugees who live in Iran, mostly illegally, who join the IRGC in exchange for legal resident status in Iran, relatively substantial wages of $500 a month, and compensation to their families if they are killed. Most Shi'ite Afghans fighting in Syria as part of this group belong to the Hazara tribe, most of which is Farsi-speaking Shi'ite.[19] According to reports, the members of the organization are fighting alongside the regimen forces in Hama[20] and Daraa in southern Syria.[21]

Liwa Fatimiyoun emblem (Source:, February 12, 2015)

Liwa Fatimiyoun's commander Ali Reza Tavasoli, his deputy Reza Bakhshi, and 13 other members of the group were killed fighting rebels in Hauran. Tavasoli was reportedly close to IRGC Qods Force commander Qassem Soleimani, and was a three-year veteran of Syrian combat.[22]

Tavasoli with Qassem Soleimani (Source:, March 4, 2015)

The importance Iran places on these forces is underlined by the fact that high-ranking Iranian regime officials and clerics attend the funerals of members of the groups who were killed in combat.

Funeral of Tavasoli (Source:, March 4, 2015)

Qassem Soleimani at Tavasoli's funeral (Source:

Iranian Experts Assembly member Ayatollah Ka'bi at funeral of two Liwa Fatimiyoun fighters in Qom (Source:, March 29, 2015)

Iran denies that it is recruiting Afghans to fight in Syria; in May 2014 the Afghan government demanded that Iran cease its recruitment of Afghans, but its demand went unheeded.[23]

Liwa Khudam Al-'Aqila

Unlike Liwa Al-Fatimiyoun, this group comprises Afghans with Syrian citizenship who were brought in to settle in Syria under an Iranian initiative, prior to the outbreak of the hostilities.[24]

Liwa' Khudam Al-'Aqila emblem (Source:, December 5, 2014)

Pakistani Forces - Liwa Zainabiyoun

In recent months there have been reports that a group of Shi'ite Pakistanis called Liwa Zainabiyoun is fighting alongside the Syrian regime, mainly in the Daraa area in southern Syria. According to an oppositionist Syrian website, the fighters are recruited from among Pakistani refugees in Iran.[25] This website refers to Liwa Zainabiyoun as "the Pakistani Hizbullah",[26] though it is unclear whether it is connected with Hizbullah-Pakistan, which was founded last year with the support of the Lebanese Hizbullah and is headed by Hadi Naqvi.[27] The Saudi Al-Arabiya TV channel reported that its commanders are Iranian IRGC officers.[28] The organization's dead are given official funerals in Iran attended by Iranian clerics and regime officials.[29]  

Funeral of several Liwa Zainabiyoun fighters in Qom, Iran (Source:, April 24, 2015)

Syrian Forces

In addition to foreign Shi'ite forces fighting alongside the Syrian regime under Iranian oversight, there are increasing reports recently that Iran is forming local Syrian forces, some of them with a clear Shi'ite identity, to fight with the Syrian regime against the rebels and against Israel. According to some of the reports, those who join these forces are exempt from conscription to the Syrian Army.

There are several possible reasons for the formation of these forces: a) a desire on the part of Iran to reduce the outlay for sending foreign forces to Syria; b) loyal local militias will protect Iranian interests if the Syrian regime falls; c) too many Iranian, Iraqi, and Afghan casualties in Syria could trigger criticism in Iraq and Iran.

Some of the main Syrian forces established by Iran are:

Syrian Hizbullah

Likely established in mid-2013 under the supervision of the IRGC's Qods Force and Lebanese Hizbullah. Some of its members are trained in Iran, and others in South Lebanon. The organization's flag is very similar to that of Lebanese Hizbullah.

According to various reports, the purpose of this organization is to operate against Israel. The Syrian oppositionist website Orient News reported that the organization emerged after Assad said that he wanted Syria to become a resistance state, like Hizbullah, for the benefit of Syria and future generations.[30], a Lebanese news website close to Lebanon's March 8 stream, reported that Syrian Hizbullah is tasked with "liberating Syrian land from the Israeli occupation, protecting the [Shi'ite] holy sites, and preaching resistance among the youth."[31] The Kuwaiti daily Al-Rai, citing pro-Syrian Hizbullah sources, reported that the organization is meant only to fight Israel, and that it will not take part in the internal fighting in Syria.[32] However, other reports indicate that the organization is fighting regime opponents in Syria.

Syrian Hizbullah flag (Source:, October 29, 2013)

There are conflicting reports about who Syrian Hizbullah's members are. IRGC official Hossein Hamadani said in May 2014 that Iran had established popular militias in 14 Syrian provinces comprising 70,000 Shi'ites, Sunnis, and Alawis; he referred to these forces as "the second Hizbullah."[33] reported that the organization's members are exclusively Syrians of Shi'ite, Sunni, Alawi, and Christian backgrounds.[34] However, other reports by Syrian opposition and anti-Iranian media outlets state that all members are Shi'ites, like Lebanese Hizbullah.[35] The oppositionist website reported that in order to establish Syrian Hizbullah, the IRGC had opened a recruiting office in the Dahiya, the Hizbullah stronghold in Beirut, for Syrians in Lebanon and young people of other nationalities.[36]

Syrian Hizbullah flag in Al-Sayed Zainab, a Shi'ite area in Damascus (Source:, October 29, 2013)

Liwa Al-Quds

Established in early 2012 by Muhammad Sa'id, a Palestinian engineer from the Al-Nayrab refugee camp south of Aleppo. According to the London-based daily Al-'Arabi Al-Jadid, the group has some 2,000 fighters, who are residents of the Al-Nayrab and Handarat camps, and who previously belonged to the Fath Al-Intifada and the Popular Resistance Front-General Command organizations, loyal to the Syrian regime. The organization is very active in the heavy fighting zones in the Aleppo area.[37] The group's Facebook page, which has over 25,000 "likes," describes its fighters as "those who sacrifice themselves for the Arab Syrian Army."[38]

Liwa Al-Quds Facebook page (

According to various reports, Sa'id is directly tied to IRGC Qods Force commander Qassem Soleimani, and the organization is part of Syrian Hizbullah and receives funds and weapons from Iran.[39] An image on the group's Facebook page provides evidence of this; it reads: "Syrian Arab Army, Hizbullah - Liwa Al-Quds."

"Syrian Arab Army, Hizbullah - Liwa' Al-Quds" (Source:                        

The National Religious Resistance -Jaish Al-Imam Al-Mahdi

Much like other groups, there are conflicting reports regarding Jaish Al-Imam Al-Mahdi. According to one report, it constitutes an Iranian attempt to unify Iraqi, Lebanese, and Afghan militias fighting alongside Assad's forces, with the aim of establishing an army that would parallel the Syrian Army and protect Iranian interests in Syria even if the regime falls.[40] However, another report states that the group was founded in early 2013 by Alawi and Shi'ite Syrians, and that it is headed by Hashem Muhammad 'Ali from Al-Namriya in Tartus province.[41]

Hashem Muhammad 'Ali (Source:, December 1, 2014)

The Jaish Al-Imam Al-Mahdi Facebook page indicates that the group comprises Syrians, because of its reports on the deaths of members from Shi'ite villages in Syria. For instance, the page reported the death of Bassel Al-Hussein Nasser from the village of Al-Zahra, calling him "a hero of the national religious resistance in Syria."[42]

Report on the death of Bassel Al-Hussein Nasser from Al-Zahra

Jaish Al-Imam Al-Mahdi emblems (Source:, December 1, 2014)

The group's ties to Hizbullah are indicated by a photo of Hashem Muhammad 'Ali with Sheikh Maher Hammoud, the preacher of the Al-Quds mosque in Sidon and the spiritual father of Lebanese Hizbullah's Saraya Al-Muqawama (Resistance Brigades).[43]

Hashem Muhammad 'Ali (right) with Sheikh Maher Hammoud (Source:, December 1, 2014)

The National Resistance In Hauran (HAMO)

Following the oppositionist takeover of large swaths of southern Syria along the Israeli border, the National Resistance in Hauran (HAMO) was established. The group's announcement of its founding, issued in November 2014, states that it was formed by the youth of Hauran in southern Syria "to liberate occupied Syrian land from the agents of Israel and their Zionist masters."

HAMO emblem (Source: the group's Facebook page)

A Syrian oppositionist website reported that the group consisted of death squads established by Hizbullah in the rebel-controlled areas of Daraa and Quneitra, whose mission was to assassinate rebel commanders by booby-trapping their cars or executing them.[44] A video released by the group shows the execution of "the collaborating traitor Muhammad Khalil, who was involved in killing Syrian soldiers and collaborating with the Zionist enemy."[45]

Al-Maghawir Forces

Forces comprising tribal forces from northeast Syria loyal to Assad. According to various reports, in November 2014, President Assad summoned a number of supportive Arab tribal leaders from northeast Syria to discuss the establishment of a tribal militia. This followed protests by tribal leaders that the regime was enabling Kurdish forces to take over Qamishli and Al-Hasakah.[46] Likely as a result of this meeting, tribal forces were established there.

However, the idea to establish such a force appears to predate this. On October 29, 2014, a pro-regime Facebook page posted a call for volunteers: "We call on you to fulfil your duty to defend your family, honor, and land, and to join Al-Maghawir forces to work together to purify Al-Hasakah of terrorist attacks... The salary is very good and the time served by the volunteer will be deducted from his conscription period. He will also receive compensation similar to that of a soldier in the regular army. The homeland needs you... You can volunteer at national defense centers and with military units in town."[47]

Call for volunteers on a pro-regime Facebook page (

According to an Al-Jazeera TV report, the forces belong to the national security office, which is directed by Ali Mamlouk and funded by the Syrian Defense Ministry. They are trained at army bases under the oversight of officers from the IRGC and Hizbullah; their training includes drilling with tanks and artillery, and instruction in shooting and engineering. Thus far, three classes, totaling 650 graduates, have been completed. Troops wear black uniforms, and their vehicles are emblazoned with the slogan "Allah for worship, Bashar for leadership, and us for martyrdom."[48]

The relationship between the IRGC and these forces is indicated in a report, by Kurdish sources, that a high-ranking IRGC officer had met with leaders of Arab tribes from Qamishli and with a senior Syrian Army officer deployed there, and had promised them that Iran would not allow the Kurds to harm them and that they would receive as much funding and ammunition as they needed. The report stated that the regime subsequently withdrew from a number of areas in Qamishli and Al-Hasakah and transferred them to Al-Maghawir forces.[49]

Photo from commencement ceremony of third graduating class (Source:, February 20, 2015)

Liwa Al-Ridha Al-Shi'i

In late February 2015, oppositionists from the northern Homs area reported that regime loyalist village leaders in the area had decided to unite their armed militias, under the auspices of Liwa Al-Ridha Al-Shi'i. The village dignitaries had called for a general mobilization, saying that all Shi'ites over the age of 16 should join the group.[50]

An oppositionist website reported that the organization includes 3,000 members, including women, of which 400 were trained fighters. A fifth of the members are Shi'ites from Iran and Afghanistan. The organization's mission is to set up roadblocks around pro-regime villages and to attack rebels. Its senior commanders are Iranian Shi'ites, and the group has full authority from the regime to act without authorization from military leadership.

It was also reported that the organization receives aid from Iraq and from the Iranian battalion stationed near Mount Zagharin in Al-Salamiyah in the eastern area of Hama.[51]

*N. Mozes is a research fellow at MEMRI.



[1] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat  (London),  February 13, 2015.

[2],  March 15, 2015.

[3],  March 15, 2015.

[4] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), April 29, 2015.

[7] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), March 9, 2015.

[8], March 7, 2015. See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No. 1155, "Iran's Support For The Houthi Rebellion In Yemen: 'Without Iran There Would Be No War In Syria And Ansar Allah Would Have Never Emerged'", April 21, 2015.

URL: - April 21, 2015

[9] See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No. 1131, "Shi'ization Of Syria: In Damascus, Unprecedentedly Extensive Observance Of The 'Ashura," November 13, 2014.

[10], April 21, 2015.

[11] Al-Watan (Syria) February 24, 2015.

[12] Al-Liwa (Lebanon), February 12, 2015.

[13], August 19, 2014.

[14], August 19, 2014.

[15], April 15, 2015.

[16], August 19, 2014.

[17], April 20, 2015.

[18], August 19, 2014;, March 26, 2015.

[19], February 12, 2015.

[20], March 22, 2015.

[21], February 11, 2012.

[22], March 2, 2015.

[23], October 31, 2014.

[24], December 5, 2014.

[25], January 23, 2015.

[26], March 4, 2015.

[27], May 11, 2014.

[28], April 19, 2015.

[29], April 24, 2015.

[30], May 8, 2014.

[31], October 29, 2013.

[32] Al-Rai (Kuwait), May 13, 2014.

[34], October 29, 2013.

[35], May 8, 2014; Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), March 8, 2015.

[36], January 28, 2015.

[37] Al-Arabi Al-Jadid (London), April 14, 2015.


[39], February 20, 2015.

[40], November 4, 2014.

[41], December 1, 2014.

[42], February 19, 2015.

[43] Groups of non-Shi'ite Lebanese fighters established by Hizbullah.

[44], January 31, 2015.

[45], November 26, 2014.

[46],  March 3, 2015.

[47], October 29, 2014.

[48], February 20, 2015.

[49], March 2, 2015.

[50], March 2, 2015.

[51], February 27, 2015.

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