By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi for Syria Comment
Female fighters in the Syrian civil war are foremost associated with the Kurds, in particular the YPJ division of the Democratic Union Party (PYD)’s armed militias. Indeed, a female role in fighting fits in naturally with the secular and leftist ideology of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), of which the PYD is the Syrian affiliate. However, the phenomenon of female fighters and militia members is not confined to this side alone: they can also most notably be found on the regime side. In fact, such a case came to light recently with the killing of one Ghasun Ahmad, who died fighting on the Aleppo front in late August. Also known by the nickname Amirat al-Assad (al-Assad Princess), she was originally from Tartous governorate and was most notably affiliated with the National Ideological Resistance, a Syrian Hezbollah militia that originates from the Tartous and Masyaf areas and has fought in most parts of western Syria. This affiliation became particularly apparent in footage broadcast by Sama TV of her funeral, featuring the appearance of National Ideological Resistance insignia and outfits at the proceedings. Other posts on social media claimed she was in the ranks of the military intelligence militia Quwat Dir’ al-Amn al-Askari. It is possible she was affiliated with both groups at the same time. After all, the Syrian Resistance has claimed overlap with the ranks of Quwat Dir’ al-Amn al-Askari on the Aleppo front.
However, there also exist female militia groups. A notable case can be found in the Labawat al-Jabal (‘Lionesses of the Mountain’) group of the predominantly Druze province of Suwayda’. The ‘mountain’ reference in the militia’s name refers to the other common names for the Suwayda’ area: Jabal al-Arab (Mountain of the Arabs) and Jabal al-Druze (Mountain of the Druze). An account of the militia and its origins was posted on the page Suwayda’ 24 in June this year, putting it in the camp of regime loyalist Suwayda’ factions (as opposed to the more third-way and reformist Rijal al-Karama movement that has a number of militias under its wing).
“The faction Labawat al-Jabal was formed in the seventh month last year [July 2015] by recommendation from the Brigadier Wafiq Nasir, leader of the military intelligence of south Syria. It is a faction exclusive for women who desire to enlist, and they have been subjected to three training sessions at the hands of officers from the military intelligence branch as their numbers have exceeded 30 young women. But strong opposition to this faction has appeared from a wide section of the people of Suwayda’. Among those who opposed this faction was the previous leader of the ‘Rijal al-Karama’ movement Sheikh Waheed al-Bal’ous [assassinated in September 2015] who attacked them and said it was shameful for women to bear arms so long as there are men defending the province. On the other hand, a portion of the people of Suwayda’ welcomed this faction and said that it is obligatory on every woman to train for use of arms in the face of the gradually growing danger that the province is witnessing. It should be noted that a number of the women in this faction tried to attack the recent demonstrations that this province witnessed to demand improvement of living circumstances, through provoking the demonstrators and vilifying them, but the demonstrators did not react towards them [referring to the small anti-regime ‘Hatamtuna’ protests in Suwayda’ earlier this year, the campaign name meaning “You have smashed us”].
This is so, and the faction announced opening the door of recruitment again for every woman who desires that, together with announcing a new training session of a period of 15 days beginning from 1 July 2016. This session includes training in arms, physical competence, first aid and morale support, at the hands of specialist officers from the military intelligence branch. It should also be noted that this faction has not yet been dispatched to the hot zones or made to participate in fighting operations until today.”
As it so happens, Labawat al-Jabal has a Facebook page in which it announced the opportunity of registration for these training sessions during the summer. Like many other militias, Labawat al-Jabal offered connection for inquiry and further information via phone number, with the place for registration located at the base of Madhafat al-Watan [“The Homeland Guest House”: also just called Madhafat Watan] in Suwayda’ city, which as an institution engages in a variety of activities in the province including financial assistance for students and honouring those who have fought and/or died for the Syrian army. These activities include maintaining relations with key regime figures in Suwayda’ such as the provincial governor.
The Labawat al-Jabal sessions during the summer- referred to as ‘the fourth session’ (al-dawra al-rabi’a) and acknowledged to have been supported by Madhafat al-Watan– were subsequently promoted on the group’s page with photos of training, as per right.
Considering Labawat al-Jabal’s links to Madhafat al-Watan, it is unsurprising that the group is pro-regime in orientation– something reflected in its page’s posts. However, Labawat al-Jabal denies the claims of being affiliated with military intelligence, writing in August 2015 in response to a story about a supposed meeting with Wafiq Nasir:
“The Labawat al-Jabal group is not affiliated with anyone. And we are an independent group socially and as an auxiliary for the Syrian Arab Army. Secondly, this photo [the one circulated regarding the story] is the photo of the graduation of Kata’ib al-Ba’ath for girls.”
A representative for Madhafat al-Watan affirmed to me that Labawat al-Jabal is affiliated with Madhafat al-Watan. Another representative- one Muzna al-Atrash, the media activist and media official for Madhafat al-Watan- clarified further:
“Labawat al-Jabal is not a faction but rather an initiative within the initiatives of Madhafat al-Watan, both of them being a nationalist, popular civil movement not affiliated with any side.”
Conversely, Sheikh Marwan Kiwan of the Rijal al-Karama faction Bayraq Al Kiwan, who derides Labawat al-Jabal as “enemies, female shabiha of the sectarian criminal Wafiq Nasir…apostates,” claims that Madhafat al-Watan is actually under Wafiq Nasir. Though the institution has participated in at least one meeting that has included Wafiq Nasir, no solid evidence corroborates Marwan Kiwan’s claim that Madhafat al-Watan is under his leadership. Further explanation of Labawat al-Jabal and the relation with Madhafat al-Watan was offered by the Muzna al-Atrash:
“Maha al-Atrash, who is a graduate of the Higher Institute of Dramatic Arts and a musical composer, established it [the Labawat al-Jabal initiative] on account of her belief in the role of women in protecting the land and homeland, and so that it should be an auxiliary for men in defending the homeland, so she prepared a group of instructors, including a close combat instructor, an instructor for street fighting, an instructor for self-defence, an arms instructor to teach how to deal with arms and teach use of rifle magazines, and a first aid instructor, as well as training the woman to confront disasters and teaching women to prepare food for fighters.
By this training, the woman should be capable at least of protecting herself and her children, and most importantly protecting them from mistakes that may end her life and the life of her family. Four sessions have come out for women in the province of Suwayda’: the number of women in each session reaching 50. So the result in total, 200 ladies. This operation is completely voluntary and free. Maha is the daughter of the director and writer Memdouh al-Atrash, the founder of Madhafat Watan.”
Labawat al-Jabal is by no means a major militia force in Suwayda’ province, which, according to one source in Bayraq Al Kiwan who spoke with me in May this year, is now host to more than 35 factions. Nonetheless, it offers an interesting case study of female militia mobilization and its political connections within regime-held Syria. Whatever resentment there might be towards Labawat al-Jabal among those who lack the regime loyalist inclinations, full-blown war between the Suwayda’ factions remains a remote prospect, as no one side would emerge decisively victorious. In addition, incidents such as the Qadisiya al-Janub rebel offensive in Quneitra province last month that pushed towards the area of the Druze village of Hadr only served to draw attention away from internal quarrels as forces mobilized to defend Hadr out of Druze solidarity, whatever assurances might have been made that the intention was not to capture Hadr itself. According to a media director for Rijal al-Karama who spoke with me, this mobilization to defend Hadr included fighters from Rijal al-Karama though not going under this name on account of problems with the regime’s intelligence apparatuses. In any event, hopes of the ‘revolution’ coming to Suwayda’ remain a long way off.
This article was published at Syria Comment