Liwa al-BaqirParticipant in the Syrian Civil War
|Ideology||Shia Islamic jihadist resistance|
|Part of||Local Defence Forces|
Syrian Democratic Forces (Afrin Region only, since 2018)
Various Iraqi Shia militias
|Opponent(s)|| Islamic State|
Free Syrian Army and allies
Syrian Democratic Forces (eastern Syria only, since 2018)
|Battles and war(s)||Syrian Civil War
The Baqir Brigade (Liwa al-Baqir, sometimes also Liwa al-Imam al-Baqir or Fawj al-Imam Baqir), named after Shia Imam Muhammad al-Baqir, is a Syrian loyalist militia originating in the Aleppo Governorate that fights in the Syrian Civil War. One of the most prominent and largest pro-government militias from the Aleppo area and part of the "Local Defence Forces" network, the Baqir Brigade mostly consists of tribesmen from the al-Baggara tribe that has traditionally supported the rule of the al-Assad family despite being mostly Sunni Muslim. Though the militia's fighters thus come from a largely Sunni background, many of them appear to have converted to or are at least strongly influenced by Shia Islam. Indeed, the Baqir Brigade has been noted for its strong connections to the Lebanese Hezbollah, Iran, and various Iraqi Shia militias, and is thus generally considered to be a Shia or "Shi'ified" fighting force.
Foundation and early operations
There exist conflicting accounts on when and how the Baqir Brigade was founded. The unit itself and its supporters claim that it was set up in 2012, just after the start of the Battle of Aleppo. Its founders were the brothers Khalid al-Hassan (nom de guerre: "al-Hajj Khalid" or "al-Hajj Baqir") and Abu al-Abbas (nom de guerre: "al-Hajj Hamza") who had fought as volunteers with Hezbollah during the 2006 Lebanon War and started the Baqir Brigade after their father and older brother had been killed by rebels. Their unit initially had only 13 members, but allegedly soon managed to garner hundreds of recruits due to the charisma and military talents of the two brothers. According to this version, the brothers' militia also helped to break the siege of Aleppo's central prison during Operation Canopus Star in 2013/14.
On the other side, the pro-opposition site alSouria.net argued that the Baqir Brigade was founded as part of the Local Defence Forces in 2015. With its fighters trained by Iraqi Shia militants and put under the protection of the Berri family (which is well known for its support of the al-Assad family), alSouria.net claimed that the militia was an attempt to create more native Shia pro-government units. Around this time, the Baqir Brigade reportedly operated under the leadership of the Iraqi Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, which also equipped its members. Regional expert Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi found evidence for the Baqir Brigade's existence as far back as 2014. He argues that some kind of militia led by Khalid and Abu al-Abbas indeed originated in 2012, but that this earlier formation was reorganized or consolidated into the present-day Baqir Brigade only as part of the Local Defence Forces with strong Iranian and Hezbollah support around 2014.
Operations since 2015
While its foundation and early operations are not well documented, the Baqir Brigade's involvement in the fighting in and around Aleppo since 2015 are better known. The militia reportedly took part in a government offensive south of the city in late 2015, and helped lifting the Siege of Nubl and al-Zahraa during the Northern Aleppo offensive of February 2016. Alongside its Hezbollah and Iraqi allies, the Baqir Brigade also fought at Tel Al-Eis in course of the 2016 Southern Aleppo campaign. The militia also took part in the final military operations in the city. In course of the important Aleppo offensive (October–November 2016), the Baqir Brigade secured the New Aleppo Neighborhood against heavy attacks by rebels forces, among them troops of the Army of Conquest, and then fought in the offensive of November and December 2016 that resulted in the complete reconquest of the city by government forces.
The Baqir Brigade, alongside other Iranian-backed militias, spearheaded the Syrian Desert campaign (May–July 2017), and fought against U.S.-supported rebel troops in the region around al-Tanf. In February 2018, the Baqir Brigade and other pro-government forces directly clashed with the United States Armed Forces and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) during the Battle of Khasham in Deir ez-Zor Governorate. Despite this, the Baqir Brigade sent volunteers to aid the SDF in Afrin Region when the latter was invaded by Turkey and the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army during Operation Olive Branch. Declaring their support for Afrin's SDF defenders, the Baqir Brigade announced that it would lead local pro-government forces "against FSA terrorists and Turks". One analyst argued that the militia's intervention in Afrin intended to improve relations between pro-government factions, including Iran, and the Syrian Kurds who form the SDF's core.
On 6 April 2018, the Baqir Brigade declared jihad on U.S. and Turkish forces in Syria, vowing to "liberate every single inch of the precious homeland" from American and Turkish forces and to "defend the unity of the Syrian Arab Republic and the Islamic nation." Accordingly, it would start "resistance operations" against the U.S.-led coalition forces in Deir ez-Zor Governorate. Furthermore, a Twitter account linked to the group posted the photo of a hill near Manbij, where U.S. troops are stationed, along with the threat "You are in our line of fire." In June 2018, the Baqir Brigade and other Syrian militias attended a conference in the eastern Aleppo Governorate, titled "Syrian tribes against foreign intervention and the American presence on Syrian soil".
Ideology and Shia proselytization
The Baqir Brigade portrays itself as Syrian nationalist force, "the first auxiliary [/reserve]" of the Syrian Army, and as part of the wider "Islamic Resistance" against Salafism and Zionism. It consequently often uses the portraits of the Axis of Resistance's leaders Bashar al-Assad, Hassan Nasrallah, and Ali Khamenei, as well as imagery and language resembling that of Hezbollah (including its flag). As part of the "Islamic Resistance", the unit also refers to its fighters as mujahideen and prominently propagates those who have been killed in combat as martyrs.
Strongly connected to Iran, the Baqir Brigade is believed to be part of an Iranian attempt to not just spread its political influence in Syria, but to also spread Shia Islam in the region. In consequence, the militia mostly recruits converts to Shia Islam drawn from Syrian tribes. Most of the group's fighters are tribesmen belonging to the al-Baggara who were the target of successful Iranian-backed proselytization efforts before the civil war, with up to 25% of the tribe converting. One reason for this success is the purported descent of the al-Baggara from Muhammad al-Baqir, the Shia Imam after whom the Baqir Brigade is named. The unit also has Sunni Muslim members.
Fighters of the Baqir Brigade are trained and thus influenced by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Hezbollah, and Iraqi Shia militants. Khalid al-Hassan was also once photographed with Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force. The Baqir Brigade has also voiced support for the Yemeni Houthi movement, another group suspected being linked to Iran. These international connections have led some analysts to claim that the Baqir Brigade is controlled by Iran.
Involvement in governance and civil affairs
The militia also takes part in civil politics. It is connected to Omar Hussein al-Hassan, who has been described as "political leader" of the Baqir Brigade. The militia consequently supported him as independent candidate during the Syrian parliamentary election of 2016. The militia also works with the Syrian State Ministry for the Affairs of National Reconciliation, and consequently tried to mediate between rival factions in Aleppo. In one notable case, it helped to conciliate the influential Abu Ra's and Berri clans. In 2017, the militia also coordinated the reconciliation of Nawaf al-Bashir, a prominent al-Baggara tribal leader and former supporter of the Syrian opposition, with the government.
- The militia claims to have been founded around 2012, while pro-Syrian opposition media argues that it was set up in 2015. The earliest evidence of the group's existence traces to 2014.
- In 2016, the Baqir Brigade claimed to have 3,000 members, while the Syrian opposition argued that it only had about 2,000 fighters. In 2018, The New York Times estimated that the group had around 3,000 fighters.
- Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi (23 May 2016). "The Local Defence Forces: Regime Auxiliary Forces in Aleppo". Retrieved 20 February 2018.
- "Liwa al-Baqir". Jihad Intel. 16 February 2018. Retrieved 18 February 2018.
- Amir Toumaj; Romany Shaker (13 April 2018). "IRGC-controlled Syrian militia declares jihad against US forces in Syria". Long War Journal. Retrieved 16 April 2018.
- David Botti; Christiaan Triebert (14 June 2018). "The Militia That's Threatening American Troops in Syria". The New York Times. Retrieved 14 June 2018.
- "'Esad rejimine bağlı güçler Afrin'e girdi' iddiası". Habertürk. 20 February 2018. Retrieved 14 June 2018.
- "The Death of Two Commanders of the IRGC and Al-Baqir Brigade in Syria". Nedaa Syria. 27 October 2017. Retrieved 12 March 2018.
- "Streitkräfte des Assad-Regimes, Februar 2017" [Armed forces of the Assad regime, February 2017] (PDF). Truppendienst.com (Austrian Armed Forces) (in German). 15 February 2017. Retrieved 3 February 2018.
- "التهميش يدفع مقاتلين في نظام الأسد للاستقلال عن الميليشيات الأجنبية بحلب" [Marginalization drives fighters in the Assad regime to independence from foreign militias in Aleppo]. alSouria.net (in Arabic). 4 January 2016. Retrieved 24 February 2018.
- "Shiite Armed-Militias Geographical Distribution In Aleppo". Qasioun News. 29 October 2016. Archived from the original on 19 October 2017.
- Amir Toumaj (9 December 2016). "Array of pro-Syrian government forces advances in Aleppo". Long War Journal. Retrieved 9 December 2016.
- Phillip Smyth (12 April 2018). "Iran Is Outpacing Assad for Control of Syria's Shia Militias". Washington Institute. Retrieved 15 April 2019.
- Amir Toumaj (14 June 2017). "Qassem Soleimani allegedly spotted in Syria near the Iraqi border". Long War Journal. Retrieved 15 June 2017.
- Christoph Reuter. American Fury: The Truth About the Russian Deaths in Syria: Hundreds of Russian soldiers are alleged to have died in U.S. airstrikes at the beginning of February. Reporting by DER SPIEGEL shows that events were likely very different. Der Spiegel, 2 March 2018.
- "Turkey shells Assad loyalists trying to cross into Syria's Afrin". Middle East Eye. 20 February 2018. Retrieved 15 April 2019.
- Borzou Daragahi (16 April 2018). "Iranian-Backed Militias Set Sights on U.S. Forces". Foreign Policy. Retrieved 25 April 2019.
- "Iranian-backed Baqir Brigade announces the start of its military opeartaions against US forces in Syria". Deir ez Zor 24. 7 April 2018. Retrieved 25 April 2019.
- AFPC (2017), p. 340.
- Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi (15 May 2017). "Analysis: Why the War in Syria May Not Be About Demographic Change". Syrian deeply. Retrieved 20 February 2018.
- Carole A. O'Leary; Nicholas A. Heras (15 September 2011). "Shiite Proselytizing in Northeastern Syria Will Destabilize a Post-Assad Syria". Jamestown Foundation. Retrieved 2 March 2018.
- "Iran has the strongest influence in eastern Syria, the "al-Baqir Brigade" and details of its forming in a special report of NSO". North Syrian Observer. 27 February 2018. Retrieved 2 March 2018.