Russian influence evident in Palestinian militia in Syria

A Russian military officer standing next to Palestinian commanders.

Photo 1. Russian officer, middle, with Quds Brigade chief Mohammad al Saeed, right, and operations commander Mohammad Rafi, posted in October 2016.

Senior commanders in the Sunni Palestinian Quds Brigade, known as the Liwa al Quds or the Syrian Arab Army Fedayeen, have been photographed receiving medals from Russian military officers for battlefield action. The latest interaction further indicates the deep level of Russian involvement and impact they are having on the Syrian civil war.

The pro-government militia is drawn from the Palestinian diaspora in Aleppo province, and has openly operated as an auxiliary to pro-regime forces there since 2013. The unit numbers in the several hundreds.

Late last month, the Quds Brigade and the Syrian Arab Army succeeded in taking the strategic Handarat Palestinian refugee camp and Kindi Hospital north of Aleppo proper, following the launch of an offensive in late September and several rounds of intense back-and-forth with the Islamist-led Fatah Halab coalition. Pro-regime forces and the Quds Brigade have been fighting to control the camp since 2014.

Photo 2. Quds Brigade fighters following the capture of Handarat Camp, posted on October 1.

Photo 2. Quds Brigade fighters following the capture of Handarat Camp, posted on October 1.

The capture of Handarat was a significant victory, particularly for the Palestinian militia, whose members are drawn from the town. Capturing that area and the adjacent Kindi Hospital consolidates pro-regime control over a key road north of Aleppo, and has opened a front to push toward the rebel-held area of the city. The Quds Brigade has reportedly continued to make gains in the surrounding areas.

Several days after the victory at Handarat, photographs surfaced of a Russian military officer bestowing medals to the militia chief Mohammad al Saeed, an engineer by vocation, and operations commander Mohammad Rafi (AKA “the Godfather”) (photo 1). Prior to launching the operation to fully retake the camp on Sept. 29, the two Palestinian commanders were photographed with what appears to be their Russian military advisor (photo 3).

Earlier in August, Rafi had received a medal from a Russian Lieutenant General (photo 4). The patch on the senior commander’s shoulder is the emblem of the 18th Guards Motor Rifle Division (photo 5), a unit stationed near Grozny, Chechnya. Members from this unit have operated in Ukraine and Syria.

In June, middle-aged men in Russian uniforms appeared in a photograph of Quds Brigade fighters (photo 6). And back in March, a Russian operative, whom pro-regime accounts claimed was an officer and appears to be special forces or a mercenary, was photographed alongside Russian media visiting the headquarters of the Quds Brigade and meeting with top commanders (photo 7). These relations indicate Russia’s support of the Quds Brigade.

 

Two senior Palestinian commanders with Russian officer, posted on September 29 prior to taking Handarat Camp.

Photo 3. Two senior Palestinian commanders with Russian officer, posted on September 29 prior to taking Handarat Camp.

 

A Russian Lieutenant General bestowing medal on Quds Brigade commander Mohammad Rafi, posted in August 2016.

Photo 4. A Russian Lieutenant General bestowing medal on Quds Brigade commander Mohammad Rafi, posted in August 2016.

 

Photo 4. 18th Guards Motor Rifle Division emblem matching commander’s patch in the previous image.

Photo 5. 18th Guards Motor Rifle Division emblem matching the commander’s patch in the previous image.

 

Quds Brigade combatant with Russian officers in the back, posted in June 2016.

Photo 6. Quds Brigade combatants with Russian officers in the back, posted in June 2016.

 

Senior Quds Brigade combatants with an alleged Russian officer, March 2016.

Photo 7. Senior Quds Brigade combatants with an alleged Russian operative, March 2016.

Weapons used by the groups show Russia’s influence on the battlefield.  Below is the card of a dead fighter which was posted by Fastaqim Union, part of Fatah Halab, in late September (Photo 8). “Weapons type: Russian rifle,” is written on the card. It is unusual to put such information on a military card, though it indicates that the fighter is qualified to operate Russian weapons. There are also photographs of Quds Brigade fighters brandishing Russian weapons, though the models of those weapons date back to the Soviet era and they were abundant in Syria prior to the civil war. The Palestinian fighters, however, have wielded RPG-26 (photo 9); there is no evidence in open source that this was supplied to Syria prior to the war, though it was developed in the early 1980’s, according to military experts who spoke with The Long War Journal.

Military identification of a Liwa al Quds fighter.

Photo 8. Military identification of Quds Brigade fighter.

 

The Quds Brigade fighter in the back is holding an RPG-26.

Photo 9. The Quds Brigade fighter in the back is holding an RPG-26.

Russian state media, furthermore, has been embedded with the Quds Brigade. The crew of Anna News, for instance, accompanied combatants into Handarat Camp when they took the area briefly on Sept. 23.

Russia is known to cooperate with forces allied with Bashar al Assad, such as the Syrian People’s Protection Units (YPG) that also receives U.S. support. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) passes intelligence to Russia for airstrikes. There are, however, indications of more intimate Russian support of the Quds Brigade: the open commendations of the Quds Brigade militia by senior Russian officers for battlefield achievements, the presence of Russian military advisers among combatants, and Russian media coverage of the militia.

The Quds Brigade vows to continue fighting in Syria in support of the Syrian government, and has aspirations towards Jerusalem. On the anniversary of the foundation of the militia, which occurred on Oct. 6, a pro-militia account posted the following on social media: “Today (October 6th) is the anniversary of the Liwa Quds founding, the honorable and proud Liwaa. We promise you of liberating Al-Quds and all of Palestine after cleansing our country dear Syria from the terrorist filth. A country you don’t protect, is a country you don’t deserve to live in.”

Boris Zilberman contributed to this article.

Amir Toumaj is a independent analyst and contributor to FDD's Long War Journal.

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12 Comments

  • Richard Loewe says:

    Amazing stuff. Thanks for this report. Check out the different Russian uniforms in photo 4. The general was flown in for a photo opportunity while the other guys are SF, I guess. Putin is playing things very smart: the photo was leaked as part of the propaganda war.BHO is making it too easy. We will pay a heavy price for his incredible stupidity.

    • Lance Cordill says:

      “We will pay a heavy price for his incredible stupidity”. Dittos.

      • Nusshaus says:

        Agree, US dithering created the leadership vacuum filled by ISIS in the contested areas and by Russian influence with the Syrian government. By showing weakness, the US will get war.

  • den says:

    It is becoming more and more apparent of the intentions of these groups. They are already looking beyond this war to the war they want with Israel and everyone else they don’t like. Same as the Shiite militias fighting in Iraq, backed wholly by Iran. They will all be looking for the payday. Iran wants a” pan-arab” state ,Shiite of course, running from Afghan and possibly Pakistan, west to the Mediterranean coast, and as far south through Jerusalem as they can get. They have mentioned these plans more than Obama mentions when we’ll be gone. Now with their new Russian friend Putin, who spits at the UN and US, who can stop them without or with a straight on confrontation between west and east? What a mess this has become. Who…..will make a stand on this? Or are we going to be spectators handing out weapons to anyone up to fighting. Without careful considering, things may very well get much more out of hand than they are already.

  • John Brown says:

    Liwa al Quds is a very professional and well trained force; I’ve seen quite a bit of video of Mohammed Rafi in action, and it’s clear he has a very good rapport with his men and knows what he is doing. If nothing else, this war has served to clear out a lot of the Peter Principle nepotistic garbage the Syrian army had accumulated. The officers in units like this are outstanding.

    It’s always striking to compare how clean, well equipped and tactically solid the better regime troops are, compared to the slovenly and frankly frightening looking troops on the rebel side.

    We should really be questioning our civilian leadership (from Obama on down) as to why we haven’t simply switched our support to the regime, in exchange for some kind of federalist committment. There is no scenario in which the “rebels” win and the US gains anything but endless trouble.

  • John Renter says:

    What confusion ! How can you keep all the sides straight more confusing than the Lebanese civil
    War .
    I was IM ing with a woman in Damascus 4 years ago and she said the Security Police and the Palastinians were having a running series of gun fights among the car parks on the ground floor of her apartment complex.

  • Hans says:

    Can the Usa stop ✋ to start global wars on foreign continents, as this is nothing but imperialist terrorism?

  • Guy says:

    Putin is not smart but weak. Russia influence is very limited and it will be remembered as an accomplish to killing hundreds of thousands of civilians and destruction of cities.
    Pay attention to the Palestinians which kill other Sunny Muslims and allied with the Iranians and Assad. No wonder all the world hate them.

    • irebukeu says:

      If you are referring to the Palestinian Militia from the handarat refugee camp in Aleppo then those “other Sunny Muslims” you mention, must refer to al qaeda. I for myself, am glad that they are fighting al qaeda as the palestinians, well, I do not consider them to be an American ally while al qaeda is most certainly an avowed enemy of America. It is best to see them, meaning al qaeda, destroyed.

      • Guy says:

        I mean other Muslims as civil population in Syria. Turkey and Saudia are backing El Nurse, and other Sunny groups (free Syrian army and such) and the Palestinians, which are Sunnis are fighting with Shee (Hezbollah, Iran, Assad..). They will have their payday by the Sunny states for that.

  • Blackstone says:

    I can’t quite understand what the USA’s big interest is in helping the Salafists topple the Syrian government, and risking war with Russia to do so, although I have some strong suspicions. As a civilization, we should be closer to Russia (and even Iran) than the Arab Salafists. Why are we on their side?

    • Nusshaus says:

      Blackstone, I share your confusion. Both Sunni Salafists and Jihadists, like IS and AQ, threaten democracy and statehood. Salafists share the same goals as Jihadists, only their tactics are different. Salafists will work within the political system, while Jihadists favor violence to reestablish Sharia and the Islamic caliphate. My personal opinion is that our government naively allied itself with the Muslim Brotherhood, who believe Islam should direct both personal lives and politics through Sharia. The rationale is probably, “well, at least they aren’t Jihadists.” Unfortunately, there is a fine and somewhat blurred line separating the Muslim B-hood and Salafists who share the same end goal as Jihadists. The whole conundrum could have been avoided if the U.S. hadn’t dithered after the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings. We could have had no fly zones, humanitarian zones, and avoided a lot of bloodshed and refugees had we acted before the Russians entered the chaos.

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