Emblem of Liwa Dir' al-Watan
The brand of "Dir' al-Watan" ("Homeland Shield") – and more broadly the concept of a "shield" force – gained increasing currency among pro-Assad militias last year. In part, this branding reflected a regime strategy of consolidating and defending areas deemed more vital in the wake of the loss of more peripheral areas like Idlib and Palmyra, while also dealing with manpower problems related to conscription avoidance by allowing locals to focus on defending their home turfs rather than fight in distant battles. Examples of this trend include Dir' al-Watan in the predominantly Druze province of Suwayda that competes with the more third-way/reformist Rijal al-Karama for influence, the rise of "Quwat Dir' al-Watan–Liwa Suqur al-Quneitra" in Quneitra province, and the formation of Liwa Dir' al-Sahel affiliated with the Republican Guard in Latakia province. Of these formations, Liwa Dir' al-Sahel seems to have been the least successful, having largely become defunct in operation by September 2015.
The emergence of Liwa Dir' al-Watan (Homeland Shield Brigade) around the time of mid to late autumn of 2015 points to a wider regime effort to consolidate control of the Damascus area. Similar to other pro-Assad militias, Liwa Dir' al-Watan portrays itself as one of a number of "auxiliary forces" for the Syrian army. Some notable advertised engagements since its inception include the fighting in Jobar in December 2015, in which the group claimed to be engaging in artillery fire clearing work in preparation to retake the area, the December 2015 operations in the vicinity of Marj al-Sultan airbase and the Masraba farmlands in East Ghouta, fighting in the Zabadani mountains the following month, and more recently operations in Harasta as well as the sieges of Douma and Darayya (though participation in the siege of Darayya also goes back to at least November 2015). In this context, note the participation of another pro-Assad militia – Liwa Usud al-Hussein – in the Marj al-Sultan airbase operations in December 2015.
"A short time ago the Secretary General for Liwa Dhu al-Fiqar Abu Shahed al-Juburi affirmed to us from the battlefield that the Dir' al-Watan forces and the heroes of the Syrian Arab Army are advancing widely in Darayya, seizing wide areas of buildings and blocks." Liwa Dir' al-Watan, January 2016.
In keeping with its Syrian nationalist image, Liwa Dir' al-Watan social media regularly mention coordination with the Syrian army, but omit any notion of cooperation with foreign militias aiding the regime in Damascus: in particular the Iraqi Shi'a factions that emerged from the original Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas.
In the realm of open source information, it becomes apparent that Liwa Dir' al-Watan works closely with Liwa Dhu al-Fiqar, an Iraqi militia that first emerged in the Damascus area in 2013 and is led by Hayder al-Juburi (Abu Shahed). This is evident because Liwa Dhu al-Fiqar's main media page on Facebook regularly advertises Liwa Dir' al-Watan's claimed operations, while also providing certain posts with some frontline testimony from Abu Shahed himself. For example, see the bulletins above left and below right.
Additionally, in an interview, the spokesman for Liwa Dhu al-Fiqar confirmed to this author cooperation between Liwa Dir' al-Watan and his group, adding that Liwa Dir' al-Watan was formed last year and mostly consists of locals from the al-Sham (Damascus) area. Another Iraqi Shi'i militiaman who regularly works in Damascus – Marwan al-Asadi – asserted to this author that he had heard of cooperation between Liwa Dir' al-Watan and Shi'a militia factions (al-muqawama: 'the resistance') and had heard that Liwa Dir' al-Watan is affiliated with Syrian air intelligence.
"The Dir' al-Watan forces continue their military operations and advance in Darayya while the Secretary General for Liwa Dhu al-Fiqar Abu Shahed al-Juburi confirmed to us a short time ago that the men of God are destroying the takfiri enemy and presenting the most magnificent pictures of heroism and jihad on the battlefield." Liwa Dir' al-Watan, November 2015.
More insight was provided from Hayder al-Juburi himself. He told this author that in fact he is the commander of Liwa Dir' al-Watan, adding that it was founded in October 2015 and has both Syrian and Iraqi staff.
This testimony readily explains why Liwa Dhu al-Fiqar media routinely advertise Liwa Dir' al-Watan operations and cite Abu Shahed on the frontlines with Liwa Dir' al-Watan.
In terms of links, Abu Shahed clarified that the militia has an affiliation (undoubtedly financial) with the al-Bustan Association set up by the wealthy Syrian businessman Rami Makhlouf, who is closely tied to the Assad ruling dynasty.
Therefore, Liwa Dir' al-Watan appears to provide another interesting case of overlaps and links between Iraqi Shi'a militias and pro-Assad Syrian militias. Compare with the case of Suqur al-Sahara' and the advisory role played by members of Liwa Assad Allah al-Ghalib (which also emerged from the original Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas) in the formation.
Further, note the openly asserted affiliation of Liwa al-Sayyida Ruqayya with Kata'ib Sayyid al-Shuhada'.
In terms of 'martyrs' for Liwa Dir' al-Watan, scant information seems to exist on specific cases, though one in particular advertised by the group's social media is worthy of note-Ibrahim Abd al-Ghaffar Taha – as it also gives a broader historical perspective on the brigade's operations. According to Liwa Dir' al-Watan (image capture at right):
He was martyred in the month of Tishreen Awal [October] 2015 at the beginning of our unit's work in Ghouta towards the village of Nola and he obtained martyrdom there...he was a hero and affectionate towards his companions. We have lost him just as the homeland has lost him...We pledge to the martyr, Liwa Dir' al-Watan and the leader of the homeland [President Assad] that we will remain on the path until the liberation of every grain of soil of our precious homeland. Media Office of Liwa Dir' al-Watan.
As the regime has made advances in Aleppo and Latakia provinces, it will be of interest to see what kind of difference Liwa Dir' al-Watan can make, if any, in the Damascus field of warfare over the coming months.
Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a research fellow at Middle East Forum's Jihad Intel project.