Assad’s Palestinian Loyalists and Why They Matter
Syria has long sponsored Palestinian resistance movements, funding both leftists and Islamists in their struggle against the Israeli Occupation. Some 527,000 Palestinians now call Syria home, many having been expelled from Gaza and the West Bank in the 1948 Nakba (establishment of Israel and ensuing violence/expulsion), the 1967 War, and since.
When civil war broke out in Syria in 2011, the relationship between Palestinian refugees and their host country’s regime became severely complicated. Palestinians, being perhaps the most politicized group of people in the world, were naturally caught in the middle. Existing refugee camps in Syria such as Yarmouk and Handarat became battlegrounds, and a divided Palestinian opinion provided fertile conditions for proxy wars to rage within and around them.
Indeed, some of the most heart-breaking images from Syria’s civil war have come out of Palestinian camps, the most notable of these being a photograph taken in Yarmouk Camp. The picture, now quite well known, shows thousands of Palestinians crowded into a corridor of crumbling buildings as they wait to receive food and aid. The suffering of displaced and endangered Palestinians in Syria is immeasurable and has been well chronicled; however this is not only a story of civilians.
Palestinians are highly central to the conflict, and their militia groups in Syria bear a special significance. Most of those Palestinians who have gone to Syria to fight or been recruited locally have joined either rebel groups under the Free Syrian Army umbrella, in more rare instances, Daesh. The Palestinian groups opposing the regime are less definable and traceable than those fighting for Bashar Al-Assad, and don’t constitute many cohesive and definite Palestinian units in the battlefield. The significance of pro-regime Sunni militias specifically comprised of Palestinians carries a tremendous amount of weight on an international scale, and an investigation of the peculiar phenomenon will help us identify affective political alignment within the Occupied Territories of the West Bank and Gaza, and the greater Diaspora as well.
Palestinian groups fighting for the regime represent a significant portion of the fighting forces in Syria, and are most notably present in Aleppo. This is often overlooked, and its significance understated, for, as noted, Palestinians carry tremendous importance and influence in Syria today, as well as in conflicts throughout the Arab world.
Rather than allowing loyalist Palestinian groups to be subsumed into the homogenizing category of “regime forces,” we ought to recognize and inspect the impact and significance of their extremely particular role as Sunnis, refugees, and highly politicized subjects in the fight for Syria. Interrogating the role of pro-regime Palestinian fighting groups in the conflict will reveal a great deal about the forces at play in the war, international alignment, state interests, and what is at stake for Palestinians, both at home and in exile.
* * *
On November 27, 2016, Mohammad Mahmoud Rafeh, a Sunni Palestinian and military commander of the large pro-regime Palestinian fighting force known as Liwa Al-Quds (Jerusalem Brigade), was killed in Aleppo. On the opposite side of the battlefield stood other Sunni Muslims, some among them undoubtedly also Palestinian, flying a different flag, fighting for a different Syria, and likely carrying American weapons. Commander Rafeh was killed, quite possibly by one of his own countrymen, with a Russian war medal pinned to his fatigues. It had been awarded by an officer from Moscow only a few months earlier. Let us consider this image, that of Mohammad Rafeh, whose Martyr posters claim his death for not only the Syrian Regime, but the struggle for liberation in Palestine as well.
Today over two-thirds of the Palestinian population in Syria is internally displaced. Need is at an all-time high, and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which has been operating at reduced capacity in Syria for decades, is now more overstretched than ever. Because the cohesion and independence of Syria’s Palestinian refugee communities has been so greatly reduced by displacement and fracture, the remaining population’s dependence on relief and aid has heightened severely. By 2014 the percentage of Palestinians in Syria requiring assistance from UNRWA had risen from pre-conflict levels of around six percent to over ninety percent and today the agency identifies more than 430,000 Palestinian refugees in Syria in need of direct assistance. Such a significant portion of the Palestinian Diaspora is at risk in Syria today that the crisis represents a top concern for many at home in the Occupied Territories.
Stateless populations are inherently at greater risk, and Palestinians fleeing Syria today face particular challenges. Many of those fleeing civil war are experiencing displacement for the second or third time, and the population’s unique position in the international community renders them especially vulnerable. Palestinian refugees generally do not have the same international protections as other displaced populations, and cases of mistreatment and discrimination are plenty. Jordan, Egypt, and Lebanon, for example, have continuously violated international law and the principle of non-refoulment, sending Palestinian asylum seekers back to Syria and arbitrarily denying entry to those escaping the war torn country.
Those living in Gaza and the West Bank are especially aware of the difficulties faced by people fleeing Syria – displacement is not unfamiliar to them. Still, Palestinians do not only engage with the Syrian crisis through a lens of humanitarian concern. This is a political struggle also, and everyone is rooting for a team. The majority of the population in Gaza and the West Bank supported the popular uprising against Assad when it began in 2011. Today, Palestinian attitudes towards the Assad regime are still largely critical, and most support the Free Syrian Army and affiliated groups in their opposition to both the Syrian regime and Daesh (Islamic State group).
Palestinians in exile have long been affected by the always shifting political winds of the Middle East. One of the clearest examples in recent history is that of Black September, Jordan’s brutal crackdown on the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization) in the 1980s which led to the destruction of numerous refugee camps and the expulsion of thousands of Palestinians suspected of being affiliated with the PLO. Palestinian refugees outside the Occupied Territories have almost always suffered due to the instability of the region. Many have been further displaced by regional events such as the First Gulf War and Iraqi occupation, during which nearly a quarter million Palestinians left Kuwait for fear of persecution, as well as the US Invasion of Iraq and subsequent government transition which forced more than half of Iraq’s Palestinians to flee. The ongoing war in Syria has also had a particularly devastating impact on Palestinian refugees as over 100,000 thousand have fled the country and approximately 280,000 have been internally displaced since the beginning of the conflict.
Palestinians’ relationship with the Syrian state is complicated. It’s a regime that has historically provided refuge and support for Palestinians in a number of material ways (Hamas was, for some time, headquartered in Damascus), but is also responsible for various atrocities against the population, such as the Tel az-Zattar massacre in 1976 and that in Shatila in 1985. And today, Assad’s forces bear responsibility for far more destruction and bloodshed than any of the groups currently opposing them, including Daesh and Al Nusra. The vast majority of the over 300,000 killed since the start of the civil war are direct victims of the regime and its auxiliary fighting groups, and among the 90,000 civilians now dead after being caught in the crossfire (and directly targeted) are many Palestinians. Assad’s Alawite regime does not, especially in this time of war, favor the civilian Palestinian population more than any other (as has been proven by the complete and systematic destruction of Handarat, Yarmouk, and other camps). It is partly for this reason that any Palestinian allegiance to the regime today, an allegiance held contrary to the majority opinions of those living in the Occupied Territories, is strange.
Early in 2012, soon after the revolution began, the ruling party in Gaza, Hamas, declared its support for the demands of the Syrian people. The general attitude among civilians in Gaza and the West Bank towards the situation Syria is more or less the same: coherent and unified in opposing both radical fundamentalist groups as well as the secular Alawite regime of Assad. Most Palestinians in the Occupied Territories sympathize with and support the Free Syrian Army and other rebel groups as they supported the civilian uprising when it began in 2011.
Those who choose to read the massively complex war in Syria as little more than sectarian conflict are proven wrong by the presence of Palestinian groups supporting Assad. While sectarian divisions have unquestionably deepened since the latest eruption of hostilities in the region, there are still numerous groups and tendencies which defy the Sunni-Shia binary of allegiances. One of the most notable groups defying this binary is Liwa Al-Quds, a Palestinian militia fighting for Assad in Aleppo. It’s been called the largest loyalist auxiliary force in the city, and has coordinated heavily with the Syrian regime, Russia, Hezbollah, and Qassem Suleimani’s infamous “Quds Force” of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. As secular and leftist as they may claim to be, it is initially surprising that a Sunni militia has been so smoothly integrated into the pro-Assad coalition. However, this is by design, and the Palestinian militants in Aleppo have a special purpose.
The prevalence and projected image of Palestinian loyalist groups fighting in Aleppo is undoubtedly in favor and support of the regime’s espoused narrative. Assad (along with nearly all Arab leaders since 1948) holds the usual public stance on the Israeli Occupation and Palestinian liberation movements – that is, opposition to Israel and the establishment of a Palestinian state. It is often argued, however, that both Bashar al-Assad and his father Hafez al-Assad have done little but undermine actual Palestinian resistance. Like a number of other nations in the region, Syria endorsed Fatah in the 1970s, a move made in opposition to Egypt’s stance at the time. Further disrupting political unity was the regime’s continued support of anti-PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization) groups in the late 70s and 80s of the Lebanese Civil War and beyond. In the eyes of some, Syria has failed the Palestinian resistance on many fronts, the most notable of which being Assad’s failure, as one of the most prominent Arab leaders, to confront and challenge Israel regarding its illegal Occupation of Palestine and violations of sovereignty in Syria’s Golan Heights. Between massacres of civilians and political meddling, Palestinians see few grounds on which to trust Assad and the regime.
As any dictator does in the midst of a revolution against him, Bashar al-Assad has sought desperately to bring legitimacy to his regime. He does this quite effectively in his engagement with Western figures and media – the man is a true master of public relations. However, while speaking to the Western world the dictator does not employ perhaps the most classically effective tool of rhetoric the Arab world has ever seen – that of the Palestinian cause. But within Syria, Assad and his allies are attempting to reinforce the regime’s narrative by relying heavily on Palestinian loyalist fighting groups and amplifying their presence. The goal is undoubtedly to inflate the sense of Palestinian support for the Assad state and to restore the image of Syria as a defender of Arab Nationalism, anti-colonialism, and Palestinian liberation through its valorization and inclusion of Palestinian militants in Aleppo operations.
This effort is most visible on various social media platforms and pro-regime independent blogs, where the majority of real-time reporting on the civil war can be found, as well as in state media produced by Russia, Iran, and Syria. Russian news crews specifically place an emphasis on Palestinian groups like Liwa al-Quds, embedding reporters in its ranks and portraying a righteous, heroic, and invincible force struggling against Islamists, rebels, and even Turks. Another pro-regime militia whose name bears direct reference to Palestinian geography is Liwa al-Jalil (The Galilee Brigade). The group’s stated aims are written into its manifesto in almost exclusively the language of Palestinian and Arab nationalism. Liwa al-Jalil identifies its struggle as “an existential conflict with Zionist thought, global hegemony and oppression of peoples.” In the way Palestinian loyalists are depicted by Russian, Iranian, Syrian, and pro-regime media, the struggle for Assad’s Syria suddenly becomes indistinguishable from the (much more universal) struggle for a free Palestine.
As Assad and Moscow attempt to gain hearts and minds by presenting a narrative of struggle and liberation bound up in that of Palestine, Syria bleeds. The appropriation of the Palestinian cause to legitimize war crimes and oppression is unacceptable and dangerous. And what of the Palestinians fighting for Assad? What happens when the war for Syria finally comes to an end? Those taking up arms with groups like Liwa al-Quds and Liwa al-Jalil will surely find themselves in no better position to liberate Palestine and defeat “global hegemony and oppression” once the dust settles in Syria. The Syria these Palestinians are fighting for is one most of their fellow nationals oppose – one that continues to slaughter innocent civilians and undermine the liberation of Palestine. It should be recognized that the presence of loyalist Palestinian fighters does far more than relieve Assad’s troop depletion – it grants legitimacy to the regime and its campaign.