The Local Defence Forces network, set up and supported by Iran, has tens of thousands of people under its wing in Syria, going by the numbers given in internal documents. The statistics indicate that the network is most prominent in Aleppo province, where there has also been the most social media publicity for the Local Defence Forces. As the regime has expanded its control through the Aleppo countryside, most notably seizing large swaths of the rural eastern areas from the Islamic State (IS) that has culminated in IS' expulsion from its last notable Aleppo town holding of Maskanah earlier this month, so too has the Local Defence Forces network expanded. Indicative of this expansion of the Local Defence Forces is the creation of a new unit called Fawj Ra'ad al-Mahdi (The Thunder of the Mahdi Regiment), also known as Fawj Asha'ir Manbij (Tribes of Manbij Regiment).
Following on from my report on the new Syria-Lebanon border militia outfit called Katibat Dir' al-Watan, here is a nasheed from the group. The melody and performance are by Ghassan Ja'afar, whom I characterized in the original piece as a second deputy. Ghassan however, who was born in 1988, has one child and is a cousin of al-Hajj Muhammad Ja'afar, formally distances himself from Dir' al-Watan, describing himself to me as "independent" and affirming the following: "I am not affiliated with Dir' al-Watan." In any case, he is on the right of one of the photos below that is from Tartous province (note al-Hajj Muhammad Ja'afar is just to the left of the centre), which Ghassan explained as follows: "I was only accompanying al-Hajj because he is close to me."
ضافة الى العمليات التي تقودها قوات سوريا الديمقراطية بدعم التحالف الامريكي من اجل السيطرة على الرقة (عاصمة الدولة الاسلامية في سوريا غير الرسمية), لازم مراقبة منطقة حربية اخرى في هذه اللحظات: وتلك المنطقة هي الحدود بين العراق و بين سوريا في البادية السورية. فحيث تواصل الدولة الاسلامية تتراجع في سوريا, اتضح انه يوجد تنافس في السيطرة على الاراضي التي تركتها الدولة الاسلامية, خاصة بعد انتقال القتال الى الشرق نحو الحدود مع العراق. تهم الحكومة السورية وحلفاءها المناطق الشرقية لعدد اسباب: مثلا من الجانب الاقتصادي, يوجد موارد نفطية وغازية مهمة, اضافة الى موارد زراعية وفرصة فتح او اعادة فتح طرق تجارية مهمة مثل الطريق بين دمشق وبين بغداد. لذلك لم تعمل الحكومة السورية على ابقاء مقراتها المحاصرة حاليا لاسباب رمزية فقط, ومن زمان كانت فكرة التنسيق مع اي قوات عراقية موجودة من اجل استعادة المناطق الحدودية الشرقية, حيث سالني قائد لواء الامام زين العابدين (وهو مجموعة حزب الله السوري في المنطقة) في خريف السنة الماضية عن موضوع السيطرة على الاراضي من قبل الجهات المختلفة في المناطق الحدودية الشرقية فاراد التنسيق مع القوات العراقية
وتخشى الحكومة الامريكية خاصة ان يحاول الحرس الثوري الايراني استغلال الحملة الدائرة نحو الشرق لكي ترتبط المناطق المسيطر عليها من قبل المجمعوات المسلحة الحليفة في العراق وسوريا ويستعاد طريق بري للحرس الثوري الايراني يمتد من ايران الى لبنان وقد كان موجودا قبل الحرب, ولكن في هذا السيناريو سيكون للايرانيين اكثر من النفوذ بسبب قيام مجموعاتهم المسلحة الحليفة واهميتها في الحفاظ على الامن في هذه المناطق. ومن جانبهم درب الامريكان بالتعاون مع الاردن قوات صغيرة متكونة من مترمدين سوريين لكي يقاتلوا الدولة الاسلامية في البادية السورية وتمكن هؤلاء المترمدون, الذين على الاقل بعضهم بقايا الترمد في دير الزور الذي قضت عليه الدولة الاسلامية في صيف ٢٠١٤ وتدربوا من جديد واسلتموا اسلحة على شرط قتال الدولة الاسلامية فقط, من السيطرة على بعض مناطق الدولة الاسلامية خاصة معبر التنف بين العراق وبين سوريا ولكنهم احتمالا لن يقدروا ان يقاتلوا الدولة الاسلامية داخل مقراتها في محافظة دير الزور
Besides the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces operations with U.S. coalition support to capture the Islamic State's de facto Syrian capital of Raqqa, the other major hot-spot to watch at the moment in Syria is the Syrian desert border area between Iraq and Syria. As the Islamic State continues to lose ground in Syria, it is apparent that there is a scramble to take the territory, particularly as the fighting shifts eastwards towards the border with Iraq. For the Syrian regime and its allies, the eastern regions are valuable for multiple reasons. Economically speaking, for example, there are valuable oil and gas resources, as well as agricultural assets and the prospect of opening or reopening important trade routes like the highway between Baghdad and Damascus. It is far more than mere symbolism, therefore, that the Syrian regime has worked to maintain its currently besieged outposts in Deir az-Zor province. The idea of coordinating with any available Iraqi forces to regain control of the eastern border areas has also long been on the table well, as when the commander for Liwa al-Imam Zain al-Abidin, a Syrian Hezbollah group fighting in the area, inquired with me in the autumn of last year about the territorial control situation in the eastern border areas, hoping he could arrange coordination with Iraqi forces.
Of more concern to the U.S. government is the fear that Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is trying to use the current campaign pushing eastwards to connect territorial holdings of militia client groups in Iraq and Syria, thus re-developing a land route for the IRGC stretching from Iran to Lebanon that existed before the war, only one in which the Iranians now have much more of a free hand in light of the rise of its militia clients and their prominence in maintaining security in these zones. For its own part, the U.S., working with Jordan, has trained small Syrian rebel forces to push against the Islamic State in the Syrian desert. These rebels, at least some of whom are remnants of the Deir az-Zor insurgency that was destroyed by the Islamic State by the summer of 2014 and were given new training and equipment on the basis of only fighting the Islamic State, have been able to capture some territory from the Islamic State- most notably the al-Tanf crossing between Iraq and Syria- but are unlikely to develop the capability to take the fight to the Islamic State's strongholds inside Deir az-Zor province.
The term 'baqiya' ('remaining') is one of the most familiar words associated with the Islamic State, dating back to the first statehood predecessor of the Islamic State: namely, the Islamic State of Iraq under Abu Omar al-Baghdadi. The idea of 'baqiya' is that the Islamic State will not vanish, whatever the setbacks. This is the underlying message of this new nasheed- Dawlati Baqiya (My Dawla/State is Remaining) from the Ajnad Media wing. Like 'Heed the Call', it is clearly addressing the current losses faced by the Islamic State amid the coalition campaign against it.
Below is my translation of the nasheed, with explanatory notes where necessary.
Four years ago, Lebanon's north-eastern borderlands with Syria came to the forefront of media attention as the entry point for Hezbollah fighters to participate in the battle to capture the key Homs countryside town of al-Qusayr from Syrian rebels. Though there had already been reports of Hezbollah 'martyrs' through fighting in Syria, al-Qusayr was the first major engagement in the Syrian civil war in which Hezbollah's role became widely publicised, not unjustified considering that the group lost dozens of fighters in the battle.
Hezbollah has partly justified its intervention in Syria on the grounds of protecting Lebanon's borders as well as Lebanese citizens. In the case of the border areas of the northern Beqaa and the Homs countryside, there is a basis of reality to these ideas. While some Syrian regime border guard checkpoints exist, there is still no border fence here, and there are in fact thousands of people of Lebanese nationality who have been living on the Syrian side of the border since well before the Syrian civil war. These Lebanese people resident in Homs countryside border villages like Zeita are mostly Shi'a and related to their compatriots on the Lebanese side of the border.
Ansar al-Shari'a ("Supporters of Shari'a") was once Libya's most familiar jihadi organization in the post-Gaddafi environment, widely suspected of involvement in the attack on the U.S. government presence in Benghazi in 2012. It was closely linked to the Ansar al-Shari'a of Tunisia, many of whose members took refuge in Libya following a crackdown by the Tunisian government, which declared Ansar al-Shari'a of Tunisia a terrorist organization in August 2013.
Since 2014, Ansar al-Shari'a in Libya went into significant decline. A thorough overview of the group's rise and beginning of its loss of influence in the period c.2011-2015 can be found in a lengthy paper for the Hudson Institute by my friend Aaron Zelin. In brief, the two main reasons for the group's decline were the military campaign launched against it by Libyan general Khalifa Heftar, which shifted much focus away from da'wa [Islamic proselytization] activity and social outreach across Libya, and the rise of the Islamic State in Libya, which absorbed many of Ansar al-Shari'a's networks. However, it must be stressed that contrary to common perception, the organization as a whole never pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, but rather remained ideologically aligned with al-Qa'ida.
Readers will recall my long study of the case of the 'reconciliation' in the north Deraa town of al-Sanamayn. In brief, the reconciliation- agreed at the end of 2016- officially brings back the entire town under regime control, but has broadly allowed the armed factions inside the town to continue to exist and resolve criminal matters and disputes among themselves without regime interference. This autonomy model is considered by the regime as a model for the broader south of Syria, and similar deals have already been struck in other north Deraa localities like Ghabaghib and more recently Mahajja.
In al-Sanamayn, the reconciliation led to the release from prison of one Abu Zaher al-Labad (Barhum al-Labad), whose name indicates that he is from one of the main clans of al-Sanamayn. He leads a controversial faction within the town called Katibat Maghawir al-Haq, which came to wider attention at the end of March 2017 and is said to be close to the regime's military intelligence. Following the publication of my study on al-Sanamayn, Barhum al-Labad reached out to me, wishing to give his side of the story on certain matters. Thus I have decided to publish this interview I did with him as a companion follow-up, as I did not have the chance to speak to him for the original article. Indeed, I see no reason not to give him the opportunity to speak out for the sake of fairness and interest to the readers.
(NB: Interview has been slightly edited for clarity and was conducted remotely over a period of multiple days this month. Explanatory notes within the interview in square brackets).
As should be familiar by now, the Islamic State has a health department as part of its bureaucracy (Diwan al-Siha). From the documentary evidence, multiple instances emerge of the Islamic State trying to regulate pharmaceutical practices in the territories under its control. These regulations include insistence on competence, such as proof of study of pharmacology in the form of some kind of certificate, as well as price controls. The Islamic State also encouraged the study of pharmacology among students, keeping the pharmacology college at Mosul University open.
"Heed the call" (Arabic: labbu al-nida') is the latest production from the Islamic State's Ajnad Media, which puts out Arabic nasheeds and recitations of parts of the Qur'an. The nasheed is interesting because it touches in a general sense on the fact that the Islamic State increasingly feels under pressure with the military campaigns against it, thus the emphasis on the need for jihad and fighting until death: 'Only death has remained in the time of the epic battles and conflict.' Also alluding to this theme is the question posed of where are 'the men of manliness' and 'the lions of the struggle.' Finally note the reference to the supposed arrogance of the non-Muslims as they wage their war on the Islamic State (equated in the nasheed with 'Tawheed'- monotheism).
Below is the nasheed translated in full.