Ali Sultan, leader of Katibat Ali Sultan.
Previously I have written on Liwa al-Mukhtar al-Thiqfi, a small group deployed at the time I wrote the article to Latakia province, under the leadership of one al-Hajj Mukhtar and asserting direct affiliation with Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Katibat Ali Sultan (The Ali Sultan Battalion) similarly claims affiliation with the IRGC but has an even lower social media profile.
I first came across Katibat Ali Sultan in some posts by one Samih Zahr al-Din, a Druze member of the group who clearly still identifies as Druze and is originally from the predominantly Druze province of Suwayda' in southern Syria. For example, in a post dated 7 March 2017, he wrote:
"Katibat Ali Sultan rapid intervention squadron, to support the Syrian army's 15th division in Deraa and resist the attack that Jabhat al-Nusra and the armed factions have undertaken in Deraa al-Manshiya [neighbourhood]."
For context, al-Manshiya is a neighbourhood in Deraa city. Fighting between the regime and rebels has taken place in al-Manshiya over the course of 2017. The 313 Force, a Syrian 'Islamic Resistance' group, similarly deployed to al-Manshiya in early 2017 to support the regime's forces.
In a post in January 2017, Samih Zahr al-Din described Katibat Ali Sultan as part of "The Islamic Resistance in Syria," giving an indication of the group's affiliations. When I spoke with Samih Zahr al-Din, he described his group as follows: "We are the Islamic Resistance in Syria, affiliated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard [IRGC]." He claimed to me that members of the group come from "all the provinces" of Syria, but that the group also has commanders with it from Iraq. As for the name of the militia, he explained comes from the name of its leader Ali Sultan (aka Ali al-Sultan).
Unlike Liwa al-Mukhtar al-Thiqfi, there is no Facebook page for Katibat Ali Sultan. According to Samih Zahr al-Din, the publicisation of the group's operations by him was a new thing, but not all operations could be publicised.
At the time I spoke with Samih Zahr al-Din (April 2017), I had also wished to speak with Ali Sultan, but Ali Sultan was doing a dawra (Arabic for a 'course'- presumably in military and ideological matters) in Iran. However, last month I was able to speak with Ali Sultan, who is originally from the Aleppo Shi'i village of Zahara' and shed some further light on his group. According to him, the group was set up in 2013 and had its foundational base in the Sayyida Zainab area in Damascus. For comparison, one should note that other 'Islamic Resistance' factions like al-Ghalibun and Quwat al-Wa'ad al-Sadiq also had their foundational bases in the Sayyida Zainab area. At present, Ali Sultan has a base in Hatitat al-Turkoman to the southeast of Damascus city.
Like these other 'Islamic Resistance' groups, Katibat Ali Sultan primarily seems to function as a 'special operations' group, having fought on a variety of fronts. Thus, as Samih Zahr al-Din's March 2017 suggests, the group might serve as a rapid intervention force to provide support at a perceived point of crisis. As Ali Sultan put it to me, "The role of the battalion is according to the desired form." Examples he gave included assault and infiltration operations. Unsurprisingly, the geographical range of operations is considerable. According to Ali Sultan, who also affirmed his group's IRGC affiliation, the first operations for his group were in Quneitra and Ghouta. Other areas of operation have included Deraa, Hama, Aleppo and Ithiriya. More recently, Katibat Ali Sultan has been participating along with other Iranian-backed groups in the desert push towards the borders with Iraq. He portrayed the aim of these operations as destroying the Islamic State and securing the border routes to open up trade: "It is Syria's right that borders should be opened...and mutual trade."
As for the group's membership composition, Ali Sultan asserted a non-sectarian stance, claiming that members are "from all the Syrian components...there is no sectarianism among us." When I asked him whether there was a requirement for a person to convert to Shi'i Islam in order to join the group, he laughed at the idea. The presence of Samih Zahr al-Din in his group at least partially corroborates this idea.
With the talk of enforcing the 'de-escalation' zone in the south of Syria and speculation regarding the reopening of the border crossing of Nassib between Jordan and Syria, a demand by Jordan and Israel to keep Iranian-backed militias away from the border areas has been repeatedly brought up. In the long-run, it seems unlikely that this demand will be met as regards many of the Syrian Hezbollah and Syrian IRGC-affiliated groups. Recruiting Syrians (including many locals from the southern regions), grouped into small contingents and keeping relatively low profiles with regards to operations and deployments, they could blend in with the local environment and be hard to distinguish from the civilian populations and other forces. Hence, Iran can maintain means of harassing its rivals on Syria's borders even if foreign militias are largely withdrawn from Syria.
Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a research fellow at Middle East Forum's Jihad Intel project.