Previously on this blog I have sought to explore the Iranian-backed Local Defence Forces (LDF) networks beyond Aleppo province (where it is most prominent), such as the Damascus LDF affiliate Saraya al-Wa'ad. There are also LDF affiliates with visible profiles in Hama province, such as Quwat al-Ghadab based in the Christian town of Suqaylabiyah. When I first wrote about Quwat al-Ghadab, I had not quite appreciated the LDF connection, though the description of it as part of 'Quwat al-Asdiqa" ('Forces of the Friends') became clearer to me over time in alluding to the Iranian role (more specifically, Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps- IRGC) in backing this group and other LDF units.
Saraya al-Ra'ad is another LDF affiliate currently based in Hama but in fact is affiliated with the LDF Idlib sector. Although this point may seem confusing at first sight considering that Idlib is almost entirely in the hands of insurgents, an Idlib sector for the LDF was specified in legislation earlier this year regarding the LDF and military services. That is, that the government presence in a particular province may be/may have been limited does not mean no LDF sector was specified for it. A similar point has applied to Deir az-Zor province, where no LDF branch had been operating on the ground when I last inquired but an LDF sector was specified for it in the legislation.
Currently, the LDF Idlib sector is led by an Iranian known by the name of al-Hajj Asghar. This should come as no surprise, considering that the head of the LDF Aleppo sector is Sayyid Jawad, a known figure in the IRGC. In fact, every sector of the LDF is led by an Iranian, though the exact names of these individuals are largely unknown at the present time.
As is the case with Saraya al-Wa'ad, the group's name can be seen as a double entendre. For Saraya al-Ra'ad can be rendered as 'Brigades of Thunder', but the Ra'ad part can also refer to the group's leader, who goes by the name of Ra'ad Abu Ja'afar, originally from Hama but among the inhabitants of Latakia.
Before the formation of Saraya al-Ra'ad, Ra'ad Abu Ja'afar was serving in the Syrian army, leading a contingent that was stationed in the northwest Idlib town of Jisr al-Shughur prior to its fall to the rebels in April 2015. This contingent had also fought in Aleppo, Zabadani, the al-Sha'er field in the Homs desert, and the Hama, Latakia and Idlib countrysides. During the battle of Jisr al-Shughur, Ra'ad Abu Ja'afar was wounded and lost his own car.
As is often the case with formations in the Syrian civil war on all sides, personal connections play a role in determining the composition of Saraya al-Ra'ad. Many if not most of those in Saraya al-Ra'ad had previously served with Ra'ad Abu Ja'afar in the contingent that was stationed in Jisr al-Shughur.
The groups that would come to form Saraya al-Ra'ad were first brought together on 12 December 2016 in the Slenfeh area of the Latakia countryside, after Ra'ad Abu Ja'afar had recovered from his injuries. Originally these groups under his military command came under Fawj Qamr Bani Hashim (aka Liwa al-Mukhtar al-Thiqfi) as part of the Idlib LDF. Ra'ad Abu Ja'afar and his groups then split off from Fawj Qamr Bani Hashim to operate under the name of Saraya al-Ra'ad while still being a part of the Idlib LDF. Besides Ra'ad Abu Ja'afar, another figure of note in the group is Mazen Tahan who directs administrative affairs.
As always when it comes to LDF groups, I inquired about the distinction between the LDF and the more familiar National Defence Forces (NDF). In this case, one answer was given as follows: "The difference is that the NDF are fighters on civilian contracts: that is, voluntary. As for LDF fighters, they are military personnel in the Syrian Arab Army undertaking military service and the national obligation." Thus, while the LDF has an affiliation with the IRGC, the NDF does not have this affiliation: "It [the NDF] has not been with the Revolutionary Guard [IRGC]. The Revolutionary Guard gave support only."
Saraya al-Ra'ad fighters with their leader Ra'ad Abu Ja'afar.
A similar explanation offered here described the NDF as a "civilian" and "auxiliary" formation but not on the registers of the Syrian armed forces. It was explained that while the Iranians offered some financial support and training in Iran for some NDF units, the NDF is not affiliated with the IRGC. The LDF however has an affiliation with the IRGC while also being on the registers of the Syrian armed forces.
As far as the areas of operations go, Saraya al-Ra'ad has fought in a number of places, including the Hama countryside, Palmyra, the desert border areas with Jordan and Iraq, and the key Deir az-Zor towns of Albukamal and al-Mayadeen. The next target is supposed to be Idlib. For members of Saraya al-Ra'ad, monthly salaries start at 50,000 Syrian pounds but may rise up to 100,000 Syrian pounds depending on type of assignment.
Ra'ad Abu Ja'afar (right) with IRGC Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani (left).
In sum, the case of Saraya al-Ra'ad is important in illustrating how many of these 'Syrian Hezbollah/IRGC' groups have developed over time and originated. Instead of thinking of these groups as atomised entities, it is important to consider how they are being fitted or intended to be fitted into wider networks, above all the LDF. In the case of Idlib, what we see at least in part (as illustrated in the case of Saraya al-Ra'ad) is an Iranian reorganization of pro-government forces that had been based in the province and collapsed in the rebel offensive in spring 2015.
For the longer term, the rise of the LDF shows the futility of calls to remove 'Iranian-backed militias' from Syria. Even if the Iranian-backed foreign formations like Lebanon's Hezbollah leave entirely, the LDF will remain in place, with many of its units aligned with Iran ideologically. The only real way to counter this development would be to remove the government in Damascus, which no one is seriously countenancing at this point.
NB: Exact identities of sources have been omitted by request.