In brief, Liwa Assad Allah al-Ghalib (The Conquering Lion of God Brigade) is an Iraqi-led faction founded and based in Syria. To explore the history of the group further, I decided to conduct an interview with Hassanain Naji al-Mousawi, a member of Liwa Assad Allah al-Ghalib and brother of the group's leader Aqeel Naji al-Mousawi. The interview touches on some important matters:
(i) In my view, observers have not sufficiently appreciated that Iraqis who were already living in Syria were the foundations of the Iraqi-led groups that emerged in the Damascus area to fight in support of the Syrian government.
(ii) As some other groups have adopted similar names, there has been confusion regarding Liwa Assad Allah al-Ghalib's history.
(iii) The problematic way in which terms like 'Iranian proxy' and 'Iranian-backed' are thrown around. Observers should do away with the automatic assumption that a group must be backed by Iran simply because it identifies with Iran ideologically or has an Iranian flag in its office. More objectivity is needed with a willingness to explore fairly how various groups develop and form relationships with other entities over time.
Note: this interview was conducted during this month. A couple of the questions have been reordered for clarity. Note that Sayyid is an honorific title for Aqeel Naji al-Mousawi. Explanatory insertions are in square brackets.
Hassanain Naji al-Mousawi
Q: When was Liwa Assad Allah al-Ghalib established and what is its origin? For example the foundation of the brigade is Iraqis living in Syria? Were you originally in Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas led by Abu Ajeeb?
A: Yes. Liwa Assad Allah al-Ghalib al-Mukallaf bi-Himayat al-Sayyida Zainab (peace be upon her) was established in 2012, led by Sayyid Aqeel al-Mousawi who was one of the founders of Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas, which was the first combat formation in Sayyida Zainab led by Abu Ajeeb and Sayyid Aqeel was the leader of Katibat Ali al-Akbar (peace be upon him). Liwa Assad Allah al-Ghalib participated in most of the regions of al-Sham from Sayyida Zainab and the neighbouring regions moving into al-Mleha, Sabina and other regions in the al-Sham countryside. In addition, it participated in provinces outside the al-Sham area from Aleppo to Latakia countryside, Palmyra, Albukamal and other areas. Further, currently the brigade has no side supporting it inside or outside Syria. The support is self-reliant only and there are no salaries.
Q: To clarify Katibat Ali al-Akbar was within Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas?
Q: Aqeel al-Mousawi was living in Syria before the events? And did he participate in resisting the American occupation in Iraq?
A: Sayyid Aqeel, yes, was present before the events. And yes, he was among the heroes who resisted the occupation.
Q: Was he in Jaysh al-Mahdi?
A: Not exactly. But he was like any Iraqi proud of his country.
Q: Yes. But he had to flee to Syria because he became wanted by the Americans?
A: No. He wasn't known to them. He went to Syria by choice, because the situation in Iraq was bad.
Q: Yes. What was the reason for separating from Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas?
A: By God, this thing I don't know how to answer you on it because I don't know the reason exactly.
Q: Yes. Because most of the Iraqis separated from the brigade and formed their own formations.
A: Yes, true.
Q: While Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas is a Syrian formation only today.
A: Correct. There is no Iraqi in it.
Q: Yes. Currently Liwa Assad Allah al-Ghalib is not affiliated with any side? And you haven't received any support from the Iranian friends?
A: Yes, there is no support from any side, neither the friends [Iran] or any side. Regarding the Iranians, there has been a reformation in most of the Iraqi movements and it is difficult for them to support [just] any side.
Q: Reforming of most of the Iraqi movements? Can you clarify this matter?
A: The resistance, if you can speak of it, have reduced their numbers. And most of them have come upon limits.
Q: You mean that the number of members of the resistance is very large and it's not possible for Iran to support all the formations.
Q: Because of financial problems?
A: Of course. By God I don't know exactly.
Q: In the past there were relations between you and Suqur al-Sahara' right?
A: Yes, true.
Q: So Suqur al-Sahara' gave you money, weapons and these things?
A: Yes, but the matter did not last, only during the liberation of Salma and Rabi'a [in Latakia].
Q: I see. Relations lasting for months only.
Q: Is it true that Suqur al-Sahara' made it conditional on the Iraqi factions that cooperated with it that they could not receive support from the Iraqi [sic: Iranian] side?
A: Yes, support from them [Suqur al-Sahara'] only.
Q: Did Liwa Assad Allah al-Ghalib establish relations with a Syrian side like the military intelligence or air intelligence?
A: No, previously we were with the air intelligence. And we separated.
Q: In what year?
Q: So after the end of your relations with Suqur al-Sahara'.
A: No, before.
Q: So for how many months were the relations with the air intelligence?
A: Around 3 years.
Q: 3 years and not 3 months?
A: No, 3 years.
Q: So the relations with the air intelligence began in what year? 2013?
Q: I see. So from the beginning of the formation of Liwa Assad Allah al-Ghalib you worked with the air intelligence.
Q: Were you working with a specific formation within the air intelligence? Or the air intelligence generally?
A: No, the air intelligence [worked] directly with the brigade.
Q: Yes. Can I ask what was the reason for separating from the air intelligence?
A: Because of rights of martyrs and some negative things.
Q: Meaning delay in handing over salaries for example.
A: This and that, and some negative things.
Q: Right. With regards to the rights of martyrs you mean that they did not give the Iraqis the same rights as the Syrian martyrs?
A: More or less this thing was delayed, and there was no strong interest. The opposite of what we have.
Q: Yes. So you worked with Suqur al-Sahara' on the Latakia front and after this that was it, the brigade has been independent since that time.
Q: So no salaries and these things since 2016. That must be hard for you.
A: Yes, by God. Praise be to God in any case.
Q: Roughly how many martyrs does Liwa Assad Allah al-Ghalib have?
A: From the beginning of the formation until now around 13.
Q: Yes, all of them Iraqis? Or there are Syrians among them too?
A: No, Syrians and Iraqis, and from different sects.
Q: Yes, because I knew that some Syrians joined the brigade right?
A: Correct, a brigade composed of Syrians and Iraqis.
Q: Yes. Currently are you fighting on any fronts in Syria?
A: Yes, forces of Syrians are present in the Hama countryside. As for us, we are on special assignments, special obligations.
Q: So you are waiting for orders for special assignments?
Q: Haven't you gone to the fighting fronts of Albukamal and al-Mayadeen?
A: We went to Albukamal, yes.
Q: But currently you are not there.
A: Not the current time, before. Currently in Hama countryside.
Q: Yes. Liwa Assad Allah al-Ghalib has a wing in Iraq?
Liwa Assad Allah al-Ghalib document from November 2015 ordering for an office of the group to be opened in Babil province and undertake work in the ranks of the Hashd. However, attempts by Damascus-based, Iraqi-led groups to set up effective wings in Iraq have generally been unsuccessful.
Q: But isn't the full name of the brigade 'Quwat Assad Allah al-Ghalib in Iraq and al-Sham'?
A: No, not affiliated with us. That was formed in Iraq by Abdullah al-Shabani.
Q: Yes. I thought he was the secretary general of Liwa Assad Allah al-Ghalib.
Q: He's with Liwa Dhu al-Fiqar right?
Q: There was talk of a plan to merge Liwa Assad Allah al-Ghalib and Liwa Dhu al-Fiqar, but this was not your brigade, but rather Shabani's formation correct?
Q: So there were no relations between you and Shabani at all.
A: No. There is friendship.
Q: Yes, but not more than this.
Q: I saw posts on Facebook saying that Abdullah al-Shabani is the secretary general and Aqeel al-Mousawi is the military commander for Quwat Assad Allah al-Ghalib.
A: No dear. That's only media and nothing more. He is a friend to us. But Sayyid Aqeel is the leader and founder of Liwa Assad Allah al-Ghalib.
Q: So when al-Shabani says that Aqeel al-Mousawi is the military commander of Quwat Assad Allah al-Ghalib, this is not true?
A: Sayyid Aqeel is the general commander. There is no person more senior than he. Take my word on this.
Abdullah al-Shabani was once a deputy to Hayder al-Juburi of Liwa Dhu al-Fiqar. Then, he emerged as secretary general of Quwat Assad Allah al-Ghalib. In 2017, he became the supposed secretary general of Liwa Dhu al-Fiqar in a merger between his group and Hayder al-Juburi's Liwa Dhu al-Fiqar. As of this year, he no longer appears to hold this title, and has reverted to his Quwat Assad Allah al-Ghalib brand.
Q: Recently the mujahid Ahmad al-Hajji al-Sa'adi met with the justice minister and the director of administration of migration in Syria. How will the Syrian state recognise the sacrifices of the Iraqi mujahideen in Syria?
A: By God this thing concerns them. I don't know. But our relations are good.
Q: So there is nothing to indicate a granting of Syrian nationality to the Iraqi mujahideen living in Syria?
A: No. From the outset we don't want it.
Q: You don't want Syrian nationality?
A: Yes. Syrian nationality is totally rejected. Besides this, it entails army and reserve service.
Q: Yes, true. But is it possible the Syrian state will facilitate the matters of Iraqi pilgrims to Sayyida Zainab?
A: It's possible.
Q: What year did you come to Syria?
A: I have been present since before the crisis. I come and go, not firmly established. I used to bring fighters from Iraq and take them to Aleppo. But currently it's been nine months since I last came [back to] Syria.
Q: Yes. So you live in Syria, but come and go to Iraq?
A: Yes but currently I don't intend to go back [to Iraq] because I don't have work in Iraq or obligation.