Emblem of Liwa Sayf al-Mahdi. The top of the emblem features the Dhu al-Fiqar, the sword of Imam Ali. The group's name means "The Sword of the Mahdi (may God hasten his emergence) Brigade."
The Syrian civil war features multiple Syrian Shi'i formations primarily affiliated with Hezbollah, such as Quwat al-Ridha and Liwa al-Imam al-Mahdi. Another militia- theJa'afari Force– had a more interesting evolution over time from origins in the National Defence Forces in Damascus, eventually emerging as an affiliate of the Iraqi Shi'i Kata'ib Sayyid al-Shuhada' but now claiming to be an independent group. Liwa Sayf al-Mahdi is particularly interesting on account of its affiliation. According to one Abu Hayder al-Harbi, who is an Iraqi fighter currently in the ranks of Hezbollah and previously served in the ranks of the Iraqi Shi'i Sadrist splinter militiaLiwa al-Imam al-Hussein, Liwa Sayf al-Mahdi is affiliated with the elite Fourth Armoured Division of the Syrian army, was set up three years ago and comprises Syrian Shi'a that he estimated as a sect to be 1.4% of the total Syrian population. Indeed, the affiliation is not the only case of links between the Fourth Armoured Division (also known as just the Fourth Division/al-Farqat al-Rabi'a) and Shi'i militancy in Syria, for Liwa al-Imam al-Hussein also works closely and overlaps with the Fourth Armoured Division, particularly as both forces have been participating in the assault on the rebel-held suburb of Darayya.
From social media output, the links between Liwa Sayf al-Mahdi and the Fourth Armoured Division become clear on account of the particular inclusion of the portrait of Maher al-Assad, the youngest brother of Bashar al-Assad who has served as commander of the 42nd brigade in the Fourth Armoured Division. Rumours emerged in March 2016 that Maher al-Assad was removed from the Fourth Armoured Division and transferred to the general staff of the Syrian army, but Russia Today, citing a source from the Syrian army, subsequently denied that he had been removed from the Fourth Armoured Division. Al-Quds Al-Arabi explained that Maher al-Assad was transferred from command of the 42nd brigade to the general command in the Fourth Armoured Division- a move required for organisational purposes on account of his promotion in rank.
Liwa Sayf al-Mahdi fighters, behind whom is a large placard/poster for the group. Note the militia's emblem in the centre, with Bashar al-Assad's portrait on the right and Maher al-Assad's portrait on the left.
In terms of operations, Liwa Sayf al-Mahdi has mainly performed two functions. The most notable has been maintaining security in the Sayyida Zainab area in Damascus through the operation of checkpoints. This function continues to this day and was noted by Abu Haydar al-Harbi. The militia has advertised such activities in social media output.
Photos posted on a page for Liwa Sayf al-Mahdi in February 2015 showing Liwa Sayf al-Mahdi members managing a checkpoint in the Sayyida Zainab area. Note the unique Liwa Sayf al-Mahdi insignia in the form of the armpatches the personnel are wearing. The poster in the latter photo with portraits of Bashar al-Assad and his father Hafez al-Assad reads: "An Ummah that has been blessed. You are its leaders. The soldiers of al-Assad."
Besides responsibility for internal security in the Sayyida Zainab area, the militia has claimed to have fought in defence of the country's petroleum assets. This role has mainly entailed fighting in the Homs desert in defence of these resources against the Islamic State in areas such as the Sha'er oil and gas field.
"One of the heroes of Liwa Sayf al-Mahdi in al-Sha'er field"- photo posted in February 2015. Note his Liwa Sayf al-Mahdi insignia.
Another photo from February 2015 featuring Liwa Sayf al-Mahdi fighters purportedly resting after fighting in the Sha'er field area.
In September 2015, Liwa Sayf al-Mahdi announced that a group of its fighters had been killed in the Jazal field in the Homs desert area, as per the graphic released below.
"In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful:
'From the believers are men who have truthfully fulfilled what they pledged to God, for from them is the one who has fulfilled his vow and from them is the one who expects and they did not alter anything' [Qur'an 33:23].
With all pride, contentment and taslim, we present to you the names of the pious hero martyrs from Liwa Sayf al-Mahdi who died defending the homeland in the Jazal oil field in the Homs countryside, and they are:
1. The hero martyr Hadi Razzaq Abd
2. The hero martyr Ala' Sa'id al-Ali
3. The hero martyr Nouri Hamada Suleiman
4. The hero martyr Mahmoud Nasir al-Ali
5. The hero martyr Yaman Ghazi Halal
To their pure souls, may God have mercy on those whom He guides, Al-Fatiha."
Details on who exactly these 'martyrs' are remain rather obscure though at least one of them can be readily identified elsewhere: Hadi Razzaq Abd (al-Sheibani). His name indicates that he was in fact of Iraqi origin, though he had apparently been residing in Syria.
Hadi Razzaq Abd posing in front of a poster for Iraqi Shi'i militia Liwa Assad Allah al-Ghalib.
'Martyrdom' portrait of Hadi Razzaq Abd, mentioning his Liwa Sayf al-Mahdi affiliation.
Hadi Razzaq Abd's tomb: according to it, he was born on 27 January 1998 and was killed on 17 September 2015. The person who posted these two photos and the previous image- going by the name of Karar al-Sheibani- also appears to be related to Yassin al-Habij, who was killed in September 2012 and portrayed at the time as a defender of the Sayyida Zainab shrine in Damascus and as being part of the 'popular committees' set up to defend the shrine. The concept of 'popular committees' to defend the Sayyida Zainab shrine was an important early manifestation of Shi'i militancy in Syria.
Mourning in Iraq for Hadi Razzaq Abd by locals of the Banu Sheiban tribe (from which the name al-Sheibani comes). Photo also posted by Karar al-Sheibani.
More recently, in terms of operations, a private account posted photos claiming that Liwa Sayf al-Mahdi had participated in the recapture of Palmyra in the spring of 2016. Some photos put out as part of this claim are featured below:
Overall, Liwa Sayf al-Mahdi is a minor formation but is an interesting case of formal ties between the Syrian state and official military apparatus and Shi'i militancy. Such a framework ultimately helps give a more Syrian face to the development of Shi'i militias and the 'Islamic Resistance' in Syria.