By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi for Sryia Comment
The involvement of Hezbollah in the Syrian civil war and its deployments of fighters from Lebanon are basic facts of the conflict. Less explored is the development of Hezbollah as a native Syrian force and brand. At this site, we previously profiled one such group- the National Ideological Resistance– and interviewed its commander. Founded in Tartous governorate and primarily operating there as well as Hama and Aleppo provinces, the National Ideological Resistance cooperates with Hezbollah. However, it is not the only Syrian Hezbollah group around. This piece looks at Quwat al-Ridha, another such force.
Quwat al-Ridha’s name translates as “Al-Ridha Forces”- al-Ridha being a reference to the eighth Shi’a Imam. Indeed, Quwat al-Ridha sources sometimes refer to their group more fully as “Imam Ali al-Ridha Forces.” The pro-regime site al-Hadath News offers an overview of this group in an article from May 2014:
“Quwat al-Ridha is considered the core nucleus for ‘Hezbollah in Syria’- the organization that has appeared recently operating military in clear form, under the leadership and supervision of Hezbollah in Lebanon: this wing has placed before its eyes fighting ‘Israel’ in the Golan, and similarly the takfiris within.
Quwat al-Ridha is composed, as we have said before, mostly of native Syrian young fighters, Shi’a and Sunni, the majority of them from countryside areas (Homs, Aleppo, Deraa and Damascus countryside). There is no official survey for the number of these forces, but they have come to be considered essential, for they have participated in a number of the greatest battles, decisive on the Syrian battlefield.
According to available information from al-Hadath News, units of these forces have participated in the Qalamoun battles, especially the battles on the principle fronts (Yabroud, Rankous), and it was among the number of forces that were at the head of the advance and assault operations. A fighter from Hezbollah who participated in the fight describes the performance of Quwat al-Ridha as “distinguished and learned from the fighting methods of Hezbollah,” adding that they “enjoy important military strength as well as solid ideology and organized operation, making them among those distinguished on the battleground in which they operate.”
During the Rankous assault, Quwat al-Ridha units participated with effectiveness, according to al-Hadath News information derived from field sources, for the al-Ridha fighters advanced towards Qalamoun from the side of West Ghouta in vehicles and centred to the east from Rankous, and at the arrival of zero hour- the hour of the decisive assault upon it- they advanced in parallel with the advance of the other units, while they distinguished their day with clear desert military uniforms and the ‘Green Marines’ shield that showed their identity. They were the first to reach and penetrate east Rankous after the fall of the hills.
In neighbourhoods of Old Homs they had a footprint as well. There they participated in the final battles in these neighbourhoods. A number of martyrs fell for them (around 12). In the announcement of their deaths in Syria they were mourned as National Defence Forces, but they were buried in their villages draped with the banner ‘Hezbollah in Syria’ and the Syrian flag, pointing to their true affiliation.
Aleppo and East and West Ghouta
In Aleppo as well as East and West Ghouta they had and still have a presence. Sources do not conceal their participation in the Ramousa and Khanaser battles as well as the eastern countryside front from the city. Further they have participated in groups in the operations to advance towards the central prison, while other units have concentrated in the villages. The sources also do not conceal the role of these units in the West Ghouta and South Damascus battle, and currently their participation in the Darayya battles, while West Ghouta has become a military base for Quwat al-Ridha in the field, and the Aleppo front the practical military field framework.
Quwat al-Ridha have entered into Southern Syria too: the Quneitra and Golan areas. In the Deraa countryside al-Ridha fighters are found participating in the Busra al-Harir and Busra al-Sham and the connected expansion will occur towards Quneitra and the furthest south of Syria under the wing of the Syrian army to support it in resisting the assault of opposition forces.”
It is of interest to compare these remarks with the testimony of a media activist for Quwat al-Ridha who spoke to this author. According to this source, the recruits for Quwat al-Ridha primarily come from the Homs area, with a more limited number from other areas such as Aleppo and Kafariya and Fou’a (the latter two are the Shi’a villages in Idlib currently under assault from Jaysh al-Fatah). This seems to be corroborated somewhat by the known ‘martyrdoms’ for Quwat al-Ridha. At the same time, it should also be noted that the media activist sought to downplay connections with Lebanese Hezbollah, portraying Quwat al-Ridha as an independent “Syrian resistance” force. Such formal distancing ought to be taken with a pinch of salt. Indeed, the leader of Quwat al-Ridha during the important stage of development for the militia in the battles of Homs city was Lebanese Hezbollah commander Hamza Ibrahim Hayder (Abu Mustafa), who was from Kafrdan in the Beqaa Valley and died fighting in al-Khalidiya in Homs on 29 June 2013. The actual connections with Hezbollah also explain why Quwat al-Ridha’s primary recruitment base seems to be Homs province, particularly in and around Homs city. For on account of the area’s proximity to the border with Lebanon and its importance to Assad regime interests, it is a natural and logical place for Hezbollah to project influence into the remaining Syrian rump state as a native Syrian force.
Below are some notable ‘martyrs’ of Quwat al-Ridha. The most notable developments since the al-Hadath News report partly translated above are the multiple ‘martyrdoms’ declared in Idlib province and Palmyra. This might undermine the initial impression of the fighting in Idlib province and Palmyra, which have seen rapid losses for the regime, that the regime forces were largely conventional and not backed up by irregular forces (as opposed to e.g. Aleppo). The Syrian Hezbollah presence in the Idlib fighting in particular is also corroborated by Jabhat al-Nusra media output for the Idlib offensives, which found Syrian Hezbollah insignia left behind among the routed forces. In these ‘martyrdoms’, note the distinct Hezbollah in Syria flag, as well as the use of the familiar Hezbollah/Shi’a militia slogans and motifs of defending Sayyida Zainab whose shrine is located in Damascus (e.g. “Zainab won’t be taken captive twice”- i.e. preventing the shrine from falling into rebel/jihadi hands and being destroyed). Note also Quwat al-Ridha announced a fallen fighter on 14 July 2015: Mustafa Hamada Hamada, who was originally from Homs province and died fighting in the al-Ghab Plain in north Hama countryside.
The development of Quwat al-Ridha and Syrian Hezbollah as an important irregular actor should pose a challenge to those who might see war-weariness in Lebanese Hezbollah and no benefit to its intervention in Syria. Rather, it is apparent that this phenomenon fits in with what Matt Levitt deems the transformation of Hezbollah into a major “regional player,” projecting power beyond Lebanon and potentially influencing the political landscapes of its zones of intervention in important ways. The media activist for Quwat al-Ridha may downplay the question of political ambitions for Syrian Hezbollah, saying there is no political wing “but the state” and affirming a goal of “popular defence formation only,” but that only conceals the reality of political fragmentation in what remains of regime-held Syria as different actors carve out their own spheres of influence on the basis of contributions to the war effort and defence of vital areas. A similar trend is happening in Iraq with the growth of the different Hashd Sha’abi factions and their competing affiliations.
This is a slightly edited version, the original article may be found here.