Russian influence evident in Palestinian militia in Syria
By Amir Toumaj – The Long War Journal October 14, 2016
A Russian military officer standing next to Palestinian commanders.
Photo 1. Russian officer, middle, with Quds Brigade chief Mohammad al Saeed,
right, and operations commander Mohammad Rafi, posted in October 2016.
Senior commanders in the Sunni Palestinian Quds Brigade, known as the Liwa
al Quds or the Syrian Arab Army Fedayeen, have been photographed receiving
medals from Russian military officers for battlefield action. The latest
interaction further indicates the deep level of Russian involvement and
impact they are having on the Syrian civil war.
The pro-government militia is drawn from the Palestinian diaspora in Aleppo
province, and has openly operated as an auxiliary to pro-regime forces there
since 2013. The unit numbers in the several hundreds.
Late last month, the Quds Brigade and the Syrian Arab Army succeeded in
taking the strategic Handarat Palestinian refugee camp and Kindi Hospital
north of Aleppo proper, following the launch of an offensive in late
September and several rounds of intense back-and-forth with the Islamist-led
Fatah Halab coalition. Pro-regime forces and the Quds Brigade have been
fighting to control the camp since 2014.
Photo 2. Quds Brigade fighters following the capture of Handarat Camp,
posted on October 1.
The capture of Handarat was a significant victory, particularly for the
Palestinian militia, whose members are drawn from the town. Capturing that
area and the adjacent Kindi Hospital consolidates pro-regime control over a
key road north of Aleppo, and has opened a front to push toward the
rebel-held area of the city. The Quds Brigade has reportedly continued to
make gains in the surrounding areas.
Several days after the victory at Handarat, photographs surfaced of a
Russian military officer bestowing medals to the militia chief Mohammad al
Saeed, an engineer by vocation, and operations commander Mohammad Rafi (AKA
“the Godfather”) (photo 1). Prior to launching the operation to fully retake
the camp on Sept. 29, the two Palestinian commanders were photographed with
what appears to be their Russian military advisor (photo 3).
Earlier in August, Rafi had received a medal from a Russian Lieutenant
General (photo 4). The patch on the senior commander’s shoulder is the
emblem of the 18th Guards Motor Rifle Division (photo 5), a unit stationed
near Grozny, Chechnya. Members from this unit have operated in Ukraine and
In June, middle-aged men in Russian uniforms appeared in a photograph of
Quds Brigade fighters (photo 6). And back in March, a Russian operative,
whom pro-regime accounts claimed was an officer and appears to be special
forces or a mercenary, was photographed alongside Russian media visiting the
headquarters of the Quds Brigade and meeting with top commanders (photo 7).
These relations indicate Russia’s support of the Quds Brigade.
Two senior Palestinian commanders with Russian officer, posted on September
29 prior to taking Handarat Camp.
Photo 3. Two senior Palestinian commanders with Russian officer, posted on
September 29 prior to taking Handarat Camp.
A Russian Lieutenant General bestowing medal on Quds Brigade commander
Mohammad Rafi, posted in August 2016.
Photo 4. A Russian Lieutenant General bestowing medal on Quds Brigade
commander Mohammad Rafi, posted in August 2016.
Photo 4. 18th Guards Motor Rifle Division emblem matching commander’s patch
in the previous image.
Photo 5. 18th Guards Motor Rifle Division emblem matching the commander’s
patch in the previous image.
Quds Brigade combatant with Russian officers in the back, posted in June
Photo 6. Quds Brigade combatants with Russian officers in the back, posted
in June 2016.
Senior Quds Brigade combatants with an alleged Russian officer, March 2016.
Photo 7. Senior Quds Brigade combatants with an alleged Russian operative,
Weapons used by the groups show Russia’s influence on the battlefield.
Below is the card of a dead fighter which was posted by Fastaqim Union, part
of Fatah Halab, in late September (Photo 8). “Weapons type: Russian rifle,”
is written on the card. It is unusual to put such information on a military
card, though it indicates that the fighter is qualified to operate Russian
weapons. There are also photographs of Quds Brigade fighters brandishing
Russian weapons, though the models of those weapons date back to the Soviet
era and they were abundant in Syria prior to the civil war. The Palestinian
fighters, however, have wielded RPG-26 (photo 9); there is no evidence in
open source that this was supplied to Syria prior to the war, though it was
developed in the early 1980’s, according to military experts who spoke with
The Long War Journal.
Military identification of a Liwa al Quds fighter.
Photo 8. Military identification of Quds Brigade fighter.
The Quds Brigade fighter in the back is holding an RPG-26.
Photo 9. The Quds Brigade fighter in the back is holding an RPG-26.
Russian state media, furthermore, has been embedded with the Quds Brigade.
The crew of Anna News, for instance, accompanied combatants into Handarat
Camp when they took the area briefly on Sept. 23.
Russia is known to cooperate with forces allied with Bashar al Assad, such
as the Syrian People’s Protection Units (YPG) that also receives U.S.
support. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) passes intelligence
to Russia for airstrikes. There are, however, indications of more intimate
Russian support of the Quds Brigade: the open commendations of the Quds
Brigade militia by senior Russian officers for battlefield achievements, the
presence of Russian military advisers among combatants, and Russian media
coverage of the militia.
The Quds Brigade vows to continue fighting in Syria in support of the Syrian
government, and has aspirations towards Jerusalem. On the anniversary of the
foundation of the militia, which occurred on Oct. 6, a pro-militia account
posted the following on social media: “Today (October 6th) is the
anniversary of the Liwa Quds founding, the honorable and proud Liwaa. We
promise you of liberating Al-Quds and all of Palestine after cleansing our
country dear Syria from the terrorist filth. A country you don’t protect, is
a country you don’t deserve to live in.”
Boris Zilberman contributed to this article.
Amir Toumaj is a Research Analyst at Foundation for Defense of Democracies.