The originally published version of this article contains additional photos.
Emblem of Liwa Sayf al-Mahdi. The top features the Dhu al-Fiqar, the sword of Imam Ali. The group's name means "The Sword of the Mahdi (may God hasten his emergence) Brigade."
Another militia – the Ja'afari Force – had a more interesting evolution over time from origins in the National Defence Forces in Damascus, eventually emerging as an affiliate of the Iraqi Shi'i Kata'ib Sayyid al-Shuhada' but now claiming to be an independent group.
Liwa Sayf al-Mahdi is particularly interesting on account of its affiliation. According to one Abu Hayder al-Harbi, who is an Iraqi fighter currently in the ranks of Hezbollah and previously served in the ranks of the Iraqi Shi'i Sadrist splinter militia Liwa al-Imam al-Hussein, Liwa Sayf al-Mahdi is affiliated with the elite Fourth Armoured Division of the Syrian army, was set up three years ago and comprises Syrian Shi'a that he estimated as a sect to be 1.4% of the total Syrian population.
The affiliation is not the only case of links between the Fourth Armoured Division (also known as just the Fourth Division/al-Farqat al-Rabi'a) and Shi'i militancy in Syria, for Liwa al-Imam al-Hussein also works closely and overlaps with the Fourth Armoured Division, particularly as both forces have been participating in the assault on the rebel-held suburb of Darayya.
Liwa Sayf al-Mahdi fighters behind whom a large poster for the group. Note Bashar al-Assad's portrait on the right and Maher al-Assad's portrait on the left.
From social media output, the links between Liwa Sayf al-Mahdi and the Fourth Armoured Division become clear on account of the particular inclusion of the portrait of Maher al-Assad, the youngest brother of Bashar al-Assad who has served as commander of the 42nd brigade in the Fourth Armoured Division.
Rumours emerged in March 2016 that Maher al-Assad was removed from the Fourth Armoured Division and transferred to the general staff of the Syrian army, but Russia Today, citing a source from the Syrian army, subsequently denied that he had been removed from the Fourth Armoured Division.
Al-Quds Al-Arabi explained that Maher al-Assad was transferred from command of the 42nd brigade to the general command in the Fourth Armoured Division- a move required for organisational purposes on account of his promotion in rank.
Liwa Sayf al-Mahdi fighters managing a checkpoint in the Sayyida Zainab area. The poster with portraits of Bashar al-Assad and his father Hafez al-Assad reads: "An Ummah that has been blessed. You are its leaders. The soldiers of al-Assad."
In terms of operations, Liwa Sayf al-Mahdi has mainly performed two functions.
The most notable has been maintaining security in the Sayyida Zainab area in Damascus through the operation of checkpoints. This function continues to this day and was noted by Abu Haydar al-Harbi. The militia has advertised such activities in social media output.
Besides responsibility for internal security in the Sayyida Zainab area, the militia has claimed to have fought in defence of the country's petroleum assets. This role has mainly entailed fighting in the Homs desert in defence of these resources against the Islamic State in areas such as the Sha'er oil and gas field.
In September 2015, Liwa Sayf al-Mahdi announced that a group of its fighters had been killed in the Jazal field in the Homs desert area, as per the graphic and translation below. Details on who exactly these "martyrs" are remain rather obscure, though at least one of them can be readily identified elsewhere: Hadi Razzaq Abd (al-Sheibani). His name indicates that he was in fact of Iraqi origin, though he had apparently been residing in Syria.
A September 2015 graphic showing recent Liwa Sayf al-Mahdi "martyrs." Translated at left.
In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful:
From the believers are men who have truthfully fulfilled what they pledged to God, for from them is the one who has fulfilled his vow and from them is the one who expects and they did not alter anything' [Qur'an 33:23].
With all pride, contentment and taslim, we present to you the names of the pious hero martyrs from Liwa Sayf al-Mahdi who died defending the homeland in the Jazal oil field in the Homs countryside, and they are:
1. The hero martyr Hadi Razzaq Abd
2. The hero martyr Ala' Sa'id al-Ali
3. The hero martyr Nouri Hamada Suleiman
4. The hero martyr Mahmoud Nasir al-Ali
5. The hero martyr Yaman Ghazi Halal
To their pure souls, may God have mercy on those whom He guides, Al-Fatiha.
Overall, Liwa Sayf al-Mahdi is a minor formation but is an interesting case of formal ties between the Syrian state and official military apparatus and Shi'i militancy. Such a framework ultimately helps give a more Syrian face to the development of Shi'i militias and the "Islamic Resistance" in Syria.
Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a research fellow at Middle East Forum's Jihad Intel project.