That Iraqis were already living in Syria prior to the civil war is well-known. Less understood and appreciated is their role in the establishment and membership of formations that emerged as part of the idea of defending the Sayyida Zainab shrine in the Damascus area.
Recently I interviewed Sayyid Firas al-Mahdawi. Originally from Baghdad, he has been living in Syria since 2004 and is married to a Syrian woman. He is currently a member of Liwa al-Imam al-Hussein.
Below is the interview. Any parenthetical insertions in square brackets are my own.
Q: Were you with Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas in the beginning?
A: I am from the formations of Hezbollah. And Liwa Abu al-Fadl is the first name for the party [Hezbollah: and all references to 'the party' hereafter]. I worked in a combat group inside the party in 2013. The southern sector: areas of al-Sham, Deraa, Quneitra and Suwayda'.
Q: Right, so in the beginning you worked with Hezbollah.
Q: Later you joined Liwa al-Imam al-Hussein?
A: Yes, after that I joined with my Iraqi brothers in the brigade [Liwa al-Imam al-Hussein: and all other references to 'the brigade' hereafter]. I was [previously] with the Lebanese side [i.e. Hezbollah]: and I also worked in the Amn Maqam al-Sayyida Zainab [Sayyida Zainab shrine security].
Q: Is that affiliated with the 4th Division for example?
A: No, the party. [This was] before the brigade. I continued working through 2015 between fighting and the security of the Sayyida shrine, and then I joined Liwa al-Imam [al-Hussein].
Q: Did you fight outside Damascus?
A: I fought in the peripheries of al-Sham [Damascus] and some of the provinces.
Q: And you worked also with Jaysh al-Mu'ammal?
A: The Jaysh al-Mu'ammal formation for a specific time.
Q: Did you fight in Iraq within this formation [Jaysh al-Mu'ammal]?
A: I did not participate in battles in the Jaysh al-Mu'ammal formation. Most of my work is in Syria. I live [here]. I would go for specific visits. Brother the formation was present in Syria, dispatched from Iraq to Syria. And there were people and commanders.
Q: Yes. I knew that some of the brothers living in Syria joined it in Syria. Later they left it.
Q: And they returned to the Iraqi formations based in Syria.
A: It did not last like the rest of the formations present in Syria, like al-Nujaba' or Kata'ib al-Imam Ali.
Q: You returned to Liwa al-Imam al-Hussein, and you still work with the brigade till this day.
Q: How do you assess the situation in Syria today?
A: Praise be to God by the determination of the heroes and the people of creed Syria is very well. And we are prepared to stand against any attack on Syria (God forbid). Our aim has been to protect the land and defend the holy sites, whether Muslim or Christian.
Q: Is not life a little difficult because of the petrol and gas crisis?
A: There is a bond of blood that brings together Syria and Iraq since thousands of years, and we have shared borders, for Syria is the al-madd Allah for Iraq, no?
A: And let us not forget the stances of its state for embracing the Iraqis.
Q: Of course, but I am asking you about daily life in Syria today. Is it not difficult because of the gas and petrol crisis?
A: This problem, its foundation is the victory over states that wanted the downfall of Syria: Israel and its allies. But the will of the people will overcome this thing. Today Syria is the glory of the resistance and resisters, the likes of Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah. We are all here in sacrifice for Syria by the word of truth. We are friends of the noble ones.
Q: Do you consider yourself among the followers of the Sadr family?
A: I deem sacred the religious reference authority [murji'] in its entirety. My highest example is Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr [father of Muqtada al-Sadr], and I am inclined [to him], and [he is] my example and leader. May God have mercy on him. May God sanctify his secret.
Q: God have mercy on him. And also you consider Muqtada al-Sadr among your highest examples?
A: All religious reference authorities have respect, but my example is his father Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr. And I am one who inclines to Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq in Iraq and Sheikh Qais al-Khaz'ali.
Q: Why did you choose to join Liwa al-Imam al-Hussein?
A: [It is] a well-known formation and it has the best of the Iraqi youth, and it is mixed with the youth of Syria, and its formations are affiliated with the Syrian Arab Army, despite my love and regard for Hezbollah.
Q: Yes, and everything for the brigade is from the 4th Division? From arms, salaries etc.
A: Yes. Financing of the 4th Division.
Q: Has the Syrian state offered you Syrian nationality in acknowledgement of your sacrifices?
A: We have not fought for the sake of nationality, nor wealth. Our aim is to protect our people in Syria and its land from any occupier. It suffices that it is a land in which there are holy sites. My nationality as an Iraqi suffices for me. And I am proud of it, and I am proud of my second homeland Syria.