Militias trained by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) have suffered losses in the countryside of Aleppo and Idlib over the past two weeks. The Iranian-backed militiamen have been fighting jihadists and Turkish-backed organizations, among others.
Online sources confirm that Afghan and Pakistani Shia militia groups, which are funded and trained by the IRGC, are taking part in the battles. They are fighting on behalf of the Syrian regime, which is attempting to retake strategic areas lost during the Syrian war to insurgent groups.
Liwa Fatemiyoun (Fatimid Banner)
Liwa Fatemiyoun, one of the many groups supporting the Syrian Arab Army (SAA), has suffered losses in the fierce fighting.
Liwa Fatemiyoun is a militia created by the IRGC in 2014 to fight against Assad’s enemies under the pretext of defending the shrine of Sayyida Zainab in Damascus.
The IRGC-sponsored militia primarily recruits from the Hazara population of Afghanistan and Iran. The Hazara are Afghanistan’s largest ethnic minority. Many have fled to Iran to avoid religious persecution in their own war-ravaged country.
In Jan. 2019, the U.S. Department of Treasury sanctioned Liwa Fatemiyoun for “assisting, sponsoring, or providing financial, material, or technological support for, or financial or other services to or in support of, the IRGC-QF.”
Evidence of Fatemiyoun activity
On Feb. 6, Hay’at Tahrir al Sham (HTS), one of the jihadist groups fighting against the Syrian government and its forces, published evidence of Iranian involvement in the fighting.
Among the items purportedly found by HTS were Iranian currency, pictures, and a fighter’s identification card displaying his name, identification number, and the emblem of Liwa Fatemiyoun.
Liwa Zenabiyoun (Followers of the Zeinab Brigade)
Although not officially announced by the group, social media channels run by Syrian activists have circulated pictures of Liwa Zenabiyoun fighters killed in the clashes in Idlib over the past few weeks.
Liwa Zenabiyoun is comprised of Pakistani Shias. Like their counterparts in Liwa Fatemiyoun, the fighters were recruited by the IRGC to support Assad’s government in the Syrian war under the pretext of defending the shrine of Sayyida Zainab in Damascus.
Liwa Zenabiyoun was also included in the Jan. 2019 U.S. Treasury’s list of sanctions for its ties to the IRGC’s Qods Force in Syria.
Losses of Syrian Arab Army (SAA)
Iranian-backed militias are not the only groups suffering casualties in the recent fighting in northwest Syria.
On Feb. 11, Ebaa News, the media arm of Hay’at Tahrir al Sham, published a video showing a Syrian Mi-17, a military helicopter primarily used to drop barrel bombs, on fire and subsequently breaking apart mid-air after it was struck by what is thought to be a missile.
A day after the Syrian Mi-17 helicopter was downed, an unconfirmed video of its targeting by fighters with a MANPADS (Man Portable Air Defense System) was published on social media by Syrian activists.
The video gave credence to HTS’s claim that the helicopter was shot down by members of its operations room.
According to Syrian activists, among the crew members killed in the shoot down is Bashar Samra, who was photographed with former IRGC Qods Force’s chief, Qasem Soleimani (see above picture.)
According to a database compiled by Gregory Waters, a Syrian regime and ISIS researcher, 55 militia fighters belonging to various Iranian-backed groups — including Liwa Imam al Baqir, Syrian Hezbollah, Fatemiyoun and Zenabiyoun brigades — were killed in the battles during the first two weeks of February.
Iranian support for Assad’s government
There is growing evidence of Iran’s involvement in the Syrian government’s offensive in northwest Syria. Most, if not all proxy and Iranian-allied militant groups are currently involved in the fighting in Syria.
The Assad regime has relied heavily on foreign militias such as Liwa Fatemiyoun and Liwa Zenabiyoun.
With the resources provided by Iranian-backed militias, as well as Russian air cover, pro-Syrian forces eventually overwhelmed Islamists, jihadists and other rebels who operated in and around Damascus.
Iran’s willingness to use its proxy forces, including Hezbollah from Lebanon, which has also suffered losses in recent weeks, shows its determination to retake Syrian positions lost during the war and take the fight to the last insurgent stronghold in northwest Syria.
It is unknown if the Syrian government and its allies will succeed, but since the offensive began, pro-Assad forces have been successful at slowly chipping away at insurgent-held territory.
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