The Rapid Intervention Regiment (Arabic: Fawj al-Tadaxul al-Sari’) was one of the Iraqi Shi’i militias operating in Syria that emerged in the 2013 period. Originally, the Rapid Intervention Regiment operated under the moniker of Afwaj al-Kafil (“The Guarantor Regiments”), a collection of formations that were intended to protect the Sayyida Zainab shrine in Damascus. Besides the Rapid Intervention Regiment, the two other groups within the Afwaj al-Kafil conglomeration were Fawj Ansar al-Haq (“Supporters of Truth Regiment”) and Fawj Batl Khaybar (“Hero of Khaybar Regiment”).
From the beginning, the Rapid Intervention Regiment, which had also used the name Fawj Tawari’ al-Sayyida Zainab (“Sayyida Zainab Emergency Regiment”), was led by Ahmad al-Hajji al-Sa’adi. He was in the original Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas, whose origins lie within the National Defence Forces (NDF) in the Sayyida Zainab area. The NDF, it will be recalled, was set up in late 2012 in order to organize better- through Iranian and Hezbollah training and help- the numerous pro-regime popular committees that had sprung up from the outset of the civil war.
|The original Afwaj al-Kafil|
For a time through the latter half of 2013, the boundaries between the NDF in the Sayyida Zainab area, Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas and Afwaj al-Kafil were still somewhat nebulous. An interesting case to consider is the ‘martyrdom’ of Ridha Muhammad Zahwa, a Syrian Shi’i fighter presented on an Ahmad al-Hajji al-Sa’adi fanpage in October 2013 as a Rapid Intervention Regiment ‘martyr’. He has been subsequently claimed as a ‘martyr’ by the Ja’afari Force, a Syrian Shi’i ‘Islamic Resistance’ formation whose origins also lie in the NDF.
By 2014, the Rapid Intervention Regiment had emerged more clearly as a group with a distinct identity, eventually moving on from the Afwaj al-Kafil moniker. The deteriorating security situation in Iraq through 2014 meant that some of the leadership returned to participate in the fighting in Iraq. This included Ahmad Hajji al-Sa’adi, who was pronounced to be the leader of a new Iraq militia outfit called Liwa al-Mu’ammal (“Brigade of the Hoped for [/Expected One]”- referring to the Imam al-Mahdi) by late spring 2014. In his place for a time as commander of the Rapid Intervention Regiment in Syria was Ahmad Abu Haqi, though he too returned to Iraq later in 2014 to participate in the fighting against the Islamic State. It is worth stressing though that the Rapid Intervention Regiment never entirely left Syria, even though a post in June 2014 suggested deployment of the group in its entirety to Iraq as part of a campaign to defend the shrines in the Samarra area.
Both Ahmad Haji al-Sa’adi and Ahmad Abu Haqi appear to have embedded in the ranks of Muqtada al-Sadr’s Saraya al-Salam (“Peace Brigades”), participating in combat in the Samarra area, the militia’s key area of operations. This should not be surprising as, according to Ahmad Abu Haqi, both men had a history of involvement in Sadr’s Jaysh al-Mahdi during the days of the U.S. occupation of Iraq. A key figure involved in the Iraq operations of some Rapid Intervention Regiment personnel was Sa’ad Sawar, another former figure in Jaysh al-Mahdi. Sawar, who had been involved in fighting in Syria, now leads his own force called Jaysh al-Mu’ammal, which proclaims itself to be the 99th brigade of the Hashd Sha’abi.
Ahmad Hajji al-Sa’adi and Ahmad Abu Haqi would both return to Syria as the sense of immediate crisis in Iraq subsided. The Rapid Intervention Regiment subsequently changed its name to the Rapid Intervention Forces, while also announcing a new sub-group called the Martyrdom Battalion in early 2015 following a bomb attack in the Sayyida Zainab area. In March 2015, the Martyrdom Battalion participated in what would be the Rapid Intervention Forces’ only real engagement outside the Damascus area: namely, the fighting in Busra al-Sham, a town in east Deraa that had a small Shi’i population and fell to the rebels. Though the Martyrdom Battalion could not prevent the fall of the town, it takes pride in having supposedly secured the escape of fleeing civilians and their families to the Sayyida Zainab area. All other campaigns conducted by the Rapid Intervention Regiment involved minimising rebel threats to the Sayyida Zainab area and the regime hold on Damascus more broadly, such as an extended campaign in 2014 in the al-Mleha area of East Ghouta, and preventing an incursion from Beit Sahem to the periphery of the Sayyida Zainab area in spring 2014. Other shrines in the group’s purview would have included the Sayyida Ruqayya shrine, and the Sakina/Sukayna shrine in the south Damascus suburb Darayya, an area in which operations could be framed as ‘liberating’ the shrine from rebel control.
By late 2016, however, the Rapid Intervention Forces had ceased to exist, and the various personalities involved in the group have gone their own ways. Ahmad al-Hajji al-Sa’adi, for instance, is now with Kata’ib al-Imam Ali, an Iranian-backed group led by a former figure in Jaysh al-Mahdi (Shabal al-Zaidi). Ahmad Abu Haqi, who lives in Damascus, says that he himself is not affiliated with any faction, but has not abandoned militant activity.
Today’s interviewee is Ja’afar Fattah, an Iraqi born in Syria who led the Martyrdom Battalion (note also that Ahmad Abu Haqi and Ahmad al-Hajji al-Sa’adi were also both living in Syria before the civil war began). Ja’afar Fattah is presently with Lebanese Hezbollah and leads his own small faction in the Damascus area. Note that the interview has been edited and redacted for clarity.
Aymenn: Firstly, can you explain the history of the Rapid Intervention Regiment? It was originally within Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas under Abu Ajeeb, right? Why was there a separation?
Ja’afar: Firstly, the regiment was affiliated with the NDF as soon as it was formed. Not in Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas. That is, we were affiliated with Afwaj al-Kafil.
Aymenn: Yes, right. The NDF. But when was the Rapid Intervention Regiment formed?
Ja’afar: You mean which year?
Ja’afar: Around 4 years ago.
Aymenn: i.e. 2013.
Aymenn: So originally you were within the NDF, like Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas under Abu Ajeeb.
Ja’afar: Yes, we were within the NDF under al-Hajji Emad Hawasli. 
Aymenn: Was there a specific reason for separating from the NDF?
Ja’afar: The separation was assigned but what was desired from us has not been well studied. The leader was Ahmad al-Hajji [al-Sa’adi]. We all preferred to separate from the NDF. After this we took the form of Liwa al-Imam al-Hussein [sic].  We made efforts and praise be to God, God granted us success. All of us as personnel, and the leader Ahmad al-Hajji, we were [originally] just 9 people. After the separation, mujahideen from other formations came flocking to us, including Hezbollah and the air intelligence. And we began to increase in number. And thus we became approximately three contingents, and three leaders: Ahmad Abu Haqi, Ahmad al-Hajji and I.
Aymenn: You mean after separating from the NDF, you formed Liwa al-Imam al-Hussein and then you and Ahmad al-Hajji and Ahmad Abu Haqi formed the Rapid Intervention Regiment?
Ja’afar: No, not Liwa al-Imam al-Hussein. It was already formed and on the ground. When we separated from the NDF, we remained as the Rapid Intervention Regiment.
Aymenn: Okay. In which battles did you participate as the Rapid Intervention Regiment?
Ja’afar: We participated in Hujaira, near the Sayyida Zainab shrine. And we participated in Mashtal. And we participated in a region called Shab’a.
Aymenn: This is in 2013 right?
Ja’afar: From 2013 till 2015. We also participated in the Matahen, in Mleha, and Darayya. And after the explosion that happened near the Sayyida Zainab shrine and targeted the brothers at the Mustaqbal checkpoint,  we changed our name and became the Rapid Intervention Forces, not regiment. And we formed the Martyrdom Battalion.
Aymenn: When was the explosion?
Ja’afar: Roughly speaking I don’t remember.
Aymenn: Beginning of 2015 I think.
Ja’afar: Around 2.5 years ago, or more. Yes, around 6 months before I was wounded.
Aymenn: You never participated in battles outside the Damascus area? I thought you were in Busra al-Sham as well.
Ja’afar: Of course we participated. The Martyrdom Battalion participated. But only in Busra al-Sham.
Aymenn: Meaning you never fought in Aleppo for instance.
Aymenn: What was the idea behind forming the Martyrdom Battalion?
Ja’afar: Protecting the Sayyida Zainab area and Sayyida Ruqayya. After the explosion I was nominated by Ahmad al-Hajji to be leader of the Martyrdom Battalion, and all the mujahideen and fighters nominated me. We were asked to provide auxiliary support in Busra al-Sham. The fighters and I undertook the obligation and praise be to God. God granted us success and we undertook honourable work. And God and Sayyida Zainab granted me success and I attained the honour of being wounded in Busra al-Sham.
Aymenn: I see. The quality of ‘martyrdom’ means sacrifice for Sayyida Zainab (peace be upon her)?
Ja’afar: Yes, if God wills.
Aymenn: All members of the Rapid Intervention Regiment were Iraqis?
Ja’afar: No, there were two Syrians.
Aymenn: I mean how many members were in the regiment? I sense that the formation was always small.
Ja’afar: At first, as I told you, 9 people. Subsequently, when we formed the Martyrdom Battalion, our number reached 270 people.
Aymenn: After the Da’esh [Islamic State] advance in Iraq in 2014, did you return to Iraq to participate in the fight against Da’esh?
Ja’afar: No no. Roughly most of the mujahideen were established in Syria.
Aymenn: I remember a post that said that the regiment would return to Iraq in its entirety.
Ja’afar: Only some people returned [to Iraq]. Abu Elias returned, Mortadha [al-Dulaimi] returned,  Ahmad al-Fariji returned.
Aymenn: Yes, Ahmad Abu Haqi returned as I believe, and later he returned to Syria.
Ja’afar: He returned but did not remain there long.
Aymenn: What was your life in jihadist work before the crisis in Syria? Were you for example in Jaysh al-Mahdi during the days of the U.S. occupation?
Ja’afar: No. We were not affiliated with any person. Our life was the life of any normal person. As soon as the crisis began and the danger arose to Sayyida Zainab, we put our trust in God and became soldiers of the Imam.
Aymenn: When did you first come to Sayyida Zainab to participate in defending it? Summer 2012?
Ja’afar: I did not go out from the area to come to it. I am among those born in Sayyida Zainab, established in it from 50 years. And we are servants in the shrine of Sayyida Zainab, from my grandfather to my father.
Aymenn: i.e. You are an Iraqi born in Syria.
Ja’afar: Yes, Iraqi born in Syria.
Aymenn: Do you have Syrian nationality?
Aymenn: I have not asked about the final fate of the regiment.
Ja’afar: The final fate: after I was wounded, Ahmad al-Hajji received an assignment from Hezbollah at points near Sayyida Zainab in Yalda. Praise be to God, I got a little better and I returned to work. I was the deputy of Ahmad al-Hajji in these matters. The important point is that Kata’ib al-Imam Ali came, and Ahmad began to work with them. So the Rapid Intervention was dissolved and each one went on his own way. 
Aymenn: When was the regiment dissolved? i.e. Which month of which year?
Ja’afar: 2016. I don’t remember which month.
Aymenn: Why did Ahmad choose to join Kata’ib al-Imam Ali?
Ja’afar: Because salaries are high, better authority from the forces and greater support. 
Aymenn: Yes. From where did the salaries come for the Rapid Intervention Regiment?
Ja’afar: From the same hardship in which we work.
Aymenn: The Syrian army gave you salaries?
Ja’afar: Yes. And support came to us from Iraq and we did not see anything.
Aymenn: I see. Meaning that there was financing from Iraq but you did not know the source exactly.
Ja’afar: Yes. Correct.
Aymenn: The Iranian friends did not help you financially?
Ja’afar: No, by God. Never.
Aymenn: A little strange. I thought the Iranians help all the factions that are working to defend Sayyida Zainab.
Ja’afar: No brother the Iranians only help those affiliated with them.
Aymenn: What you have told me about lack of Iranian support for you is an important thing, because there are people who think that Iran created the Rapid Intervention Regiment. 
Ja’afar: No, impossible. I am sure of this thing that I am telling you.
Aymenn: Yes, of course. Ideologically, most of the people in the Rapid Intervention Regiment were affiliated with the Sadrist movement?
Ja’afar: Yes, approximately, with the Sadrist movement.
Aymenn: Yes exactly. i.e. Not affiliated with Khamene’i ideologically.
Ja’afar: Actually, half and half.
Aymenn: Where is Ahmad Abu Haqi now? How many martyrs does the Rapid Intervention Regiment have?
Ja’afar: Ahmad Abu Haqi is affiliated with Saraya al-Jihad now.  We do not have a single martyr in the regiment. Just two wounded: I and Majd Kayara.
Aymenn: I see. And you are leading an independent faction?
Ja’afar: In the days of the regiment, I led the Martyrdom Battalion. And now I am affiliated with Lebanese Hezbollah. Commander of a group.
Aymenn: So today there is nothing called the Martyrdom Battalion on the ground in Syria?
Ja’afar: No, not at all. After I was wounded, and after Ahmad al-Hajji became affiliated with Kata’ib al-Imam Ali, each one went his own way.
Aymenn: Your group in Hezbollah is only present in Damascus?
Ja’afar: Yes. [Hopefully] in all of Syria, but once my health situation improves, God willing.
Aymenn: In the days of the Rapid Intervention Regiment, did Hezbollah help you in training or these matters?
Ja’afar: As soon as the war began, I worked with the party [Hezbollah] and acquired successful skills on the ground.
Aymenn: Meaning you were working with them from the beginning.
Ja’afar: Yes. I am the first Iraqi who was affiliated with Hezbollah in Syria.
Aymenn: Do you mean that you were always affiliated with Hezbollah even during the days of the Rapid Intervention Regiment?
Ja’afar: No. We were affiliated with the party. And when the regiment was formed, I abandoned my work and joined the Intervention [regiment].
Aymenn: Yes, I have understood. Hezbollah did not help you in forming the regiment?
Ja’afar: No, not at all.
Aymenn: I see. To clarify, were you affiliated with Hezbollah in the days of the NDF?
Ja’afar: No, not at all. I remained in the regiment till the last minute, before being wounded. We began in the NDF, in the capacity of the [Rapid] Intervention Regiment. And we remained with this name, even with the change in affiliations.
Aymenn: But you began jihadist work before the formation of the regiment and you were in that time affiliated with Hezbollah.
Ja’afar: Yes, well before the formation of the Intervention [regiment]. Approximately beginning of 20010 [sic].
Aymenn: You mean beginning of 2012?
Ja’afar: Yes and before as well.
Aymenn: During the days of the Rapid Intervention Regiment, what was the monthly salary approximately?
Ja’afar: Hahahahaha. 20,000 Syrian pounds.
Aymenn: This salary is not good. Less than an ordinary soldier in the Syrian army.
Ja’afar: Like, $35.
Aymenn: Of course the formations affiliated with Iran, the salary is much greater.
Ja’afar: Yes, such were our salaries before.
Aymenn: With regards to the formation of the Rapid Intervention Regiment, where did the name come from? I mean, why the name Rapid Intervention Regiment?
Ja’afar: Brother, the using of this name: it is for any person who needs help. Just that.
Aymenn: Yes, I mean, it is not the case that some of the members were in the Rapid Response Brigade [aka Emergency Response Brigade] affiliated with the Interior Ministry in Iraq.
Ja’afar: No, no. 
- He has served as the leader of the NDF in the Sayyida Zainab area.
- He meant to say the Rapid Intervention Regiment here. His meaning is that while the Rapid Intervention Regiment had already been formed within the ranks of the NDF, it only took on a recognisable separate identity after the separation from the NDF.
- A known checkpoint in the Sayyida Zainab area. For a more recent security development involving the checkpoint, see here.
- Subsequent output from Mortadha’s Facebook profile shows an affiliation with the Badr Organization.
- e.g. Marwan al-Asadi, once featured as a member of the Rapid Intervention Regiment, is currently with the Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas Forces of Aws al-Khafaji, a one-time associate of Muqtada al-Sadr. Thamer al-Bahadli, another Rapid Intervention Regiment figure, is now with Liwa al-Imam al-Hussein, an Iraqi Shi’i militia in Syria embedded within the 4th Armoured Division.
On a chronological note, Ahmad al-Hajji al-Sa’adi became involved with Kata’ib al-Imam Ali well before the Rapid Intervention Regiment ceased to exist. e.g. See these posts for more detail.
- In March 2017, Ahmad Hajji al-Sa’adi was appointed director of public relations for Kata’ib al-Imam Ali in Syria as well as general overseer of the group’s Syria war media. As became clear from the conversation, Ja’afar Fattah differentiated the Rapid Intervention Regiment as a supposedly independent outfit from Kata’ib al-Imam Ali, which he characterized as Iranian affiliated.
- The key point here is that Muqtada al-Sadr has not given any explicit endorsement to fighting in Syria, yet certain fighters and groups in Syria have displayed his image on armpatches and posters, with social media posts proclaiming apparent loyalty to him. A belief that Shi’i shrines in Syria are under threat need not necessarily suppose ideological loyalty to Iran, but the broader Iranian role behind Shi’i militant mobilization to fight in Syria is evident.
The Sadrist movement, and by extension Muqtada al-Sadr’s Saraya al-Salam militia, reflect a broad trend. Iranian support and encouragement to fight in Syria has likely been given to many of those from the trend who had been hoping for an explicit call from Muqtada to fight in Syria and feel he is not adhering to his father’s true legacy. Sa’ad Sawar, described in one post as the Rapid Intervention Regiment’s ‘spiritual father‘, represents a case-in-point of this phenomenon. In other words, it is possible for the Iranians to give backing to those who may not subscribe entirely to their ideological system of governance. Even Qais al-Khaz’ali, leader of the well-known Sadrist splinter group Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, does not appear to subscribe to Iran’s conception of wilayat al-faqih, even as it is obvious his group takes support from Iran and deploys to Syria with Iranian direction.
The Rapid Intervention Regiment, as is evident, had people from both the Sadrist trend and a pro-Iranian ideological background. Elsewhere in its media, the group tried to emphasize the idea of being supposedly independent. It may also be the case that the group did not receive even a meaningful fraction of the Iranian support given to larger, more powerful Iraqi militia outfits fighting in Syria like Kata’ib Hezbollah and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq. After all, the group barely deployed outside the Damascus area, and also lacked wider affiliations that we see for the other newer Iraqi groups like Liwa al-Imam al-Hussein and Liwa Dhu al-Fiqar. In a similar vein, it is unlikely Iran gives meaningful consideration or attention to every outfit in Iraq that proclaims ideological support for Iran’s vision of theocracy. Lack of support may have been a factor in the Rapid Intervention Regiment’s eventual dissolution.
- A pro-Iranian faction involved in fighting in Syria, including the recent operations along the borders between Iraq and Syria. That said, Ahmad Abu Haqi denies being affiliated with them.
- The concept of an Intervention Regiment has arisen elsewhere in the Syrian civil war: cf. here.
Update (29 June 2017): Hussein al-‘Abyawi, who posted the August 2016 notification (see note ) about the reactivation of the operation of the Martyrdom Battalion, has subsequently claimed to me that the Rapid Intervention Forces have not been dissolved, but rather ‘frozen’ and ready for re-activation in the event of any emergency threat to the Sayyida Zainab shrine, the last ‘freeze’ having occurred in around September 2016. While there is no doubt that suspending activity and re-activating in the event of a perceived crisis characterized most of the 2016 months of the Rapid Intervention Forces’ existence, it does not seem to be the case now, and I prefer the testimony of Ja’afar Fattah and others about the group’s actual dissolution.