In my profile of Quwat Muqatili al-Asha’ir (Forces of the Fighters of the Tribes), a militia affiliated with the military intelligence and promoted by Russia, I noted that the group and similar tribal militias would likely come to greater prominence with the regime offensives to push eastwards and claim areas of Raqqa, Homs and Deir az-Zor provinces from the shrinking Islamic State. Sure enough, Quwat Muqatili al-Asha’ir, under Turki Albu Hamad, who is originally from Raqqa province, has played a notable role in the regime’s current offensive in the south Raqqa countryside. Further to the south in the Homs desert, the appearance of Suqur al-Furat (Falcons of the Euphrates) is another case of the rise of tribal militias as the regime and its allies seek to retake areas where the concept of the tribe plays an important part in society.
As a prefatory note though, the Suqur al-Furat under discussion in this article must not be confused with other formations bearing similar name. One group, called al-Muqawama al-Suriya: Suqur al-Jazira wa al-Furat (The Syrian Resistance: Falcons of the Jazira and Euphrates) is officially affiliated with the Syrian Resistance of Ali Kayali (aka Mihrac Ural)that is primarily based in Latakia. However, as Ramy Mahmoud Mahmoud of the Syrian Resistance pointed out to me, Suqur al-Jazira wa al-Furat- which has been trying to recruit Deir az-Zor natives for the campaign to retake Deir az-Zor province including through attempts to win over those in the ranks of the YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces- acts as virtually independent on account of the ‘distance and difficulty of connection.’ The group has claimed to have conducted security operations inside Islamic State territory in Deir az-Zor province. In addition, a group bearing the name ‘Fawj Suqur al-Jazira wa al-Furat‘ is affiliated with the Syrian Hezbollah group called the National Ideological Resistanceprimarily based in Tartous, though little information exists about its activities.
|Suqur al-Furat fighters|
Suqur al-Furat’s basis lies in Sha’itat tribesmen from Deir az-Zor province. The Sha’itat tribe came to prominence in 2014 when the Islamic State massacred hundreds of members of the tribe who rose up in revolt against its rule. The fate of the tribe has been split: a few were already part of the Islamic State and participated in crushing the revolt, others underwent ‘repentance’ to return to their homes, others fled to rebel-held areas, but others still have sided with the regime, which maintains outposts in Deir az-Zor province’s capital and military airport that are still besieged by the Islamic State. At the head of Suqur al-Furat are Aamer al-Aboud al-Bahr and Ghazi Ibrahim al-Dair.
|Aamer al-Aboud al-Bahr|
|Ghazi Ibrahim al-Dair|
From the photo of Aamer al-Aboud al-Bahr, it appears that he was involved in Suqur al-Sahara’, judging by the insignia on his clothes.* Ghazi Ibrahim al-Dair appears to be the son of Ibrahim al-Dair, a member of the Syrian parliament who was elected in 2016 as an officially independent MP for the Deir az-Zor region. Ibrahim al-Dair is originally from the Abu Hamam area of Deir az-Zor province where the Sha’itat tribe has dwelt. The pro-Assad page al-Sha’itat al-Aan also described Ibrahim al-Dair to me as one of the leaders of Suqur al-Furat, and he has been characterized as the ‘general leader’ for all pro-Assad Sha’itat fighters.
It should be noted that not all or even most fighters within Suqur al-Furat are necessarily new recruits. According to al-Sha’itat al-Aan, Suqur al-Furat’s personnel have been engaged in combat for a while and have either been under the name of Usud al-Sharqiya or Quwat [Muqatili] al-Asha’ir. For context, Usud al-Sharqiya (Lions of the East) is a militia in Deir az-Zor province drawing on Sha’itat tribesmen and closely attached to the renowned Republican Guard general Issam Zahr al-Din.
Posts by one ‘Abu Ibrahim al-Sha’iti’ help shed further light on Suqur al-Furat’s background, both in the more recent past and further back in time during the civil war. Exploring the latter will be of some interest. According to him, after the Sha’itat revolt against the Islamic State was crushed, some Sha’itat fled to Damascus and Homs, while others went to Hasakah, Aleppo, Idlib and Turkey. A Sha’itat notable who came to Damascus (i.e. Ibrahim al-Dair) wrote to Bashar al-Assad, requesting that he establish a military camp for Sha’itat tribesmen in Palmyra, while granting taswiyat al-wad’ (‘sorting out of affairs’: i.e. temporary amnesty) for all those wanted for military service, those who had defected etc. Military officers were then assigned to oversee the training. Following the establishment of the camp, some of the Sha’itat recruits initially participated in operations on the periphery of al-Sukhna against the Islamic State (prior to the major Islamic State offensive in spring-summer 2015 against the regime through the Homs desert). As the Islamic State pressure on Deir az-Zor intensified, a contingent of Sha’itat tribesmen were dispatched to Deir az-Zor- likely contributing to the formation of Usud al-Sharqiya. When Palmyra first fell, Sha’itat fighters were transferred to Damascus, and Ibrahim al-Dair obtained agreement from military officers and officials for the fighters to participate in repelling the Islamic State offensive on Hasakah city (June 2015), the contingent in this case being led by Aamer al-Aboud al-Bahr. They were then brought back to Damascus, and preparations were made to retake Palmyra, and so the Sha’itat fighters were brought to a camp on the peripheries. They then participated in recapturing Palmyra and al-Qaryatayn, only to have to go back to their camp on the Palmyra peripheries when the town fell to the Islamic State again in December 2016.
More recently, by Abu Ibrahim al-Sha’iti’s account, on 4 and 8 July, contingents of Sha’itat tribesmen and some other natives of Deir al-Zor arrived in Palmyra. He noted that these contingents arrived under the name of Suqur al-Furat and had previously participated in the recapture of Palmyra for the second time from the Islamic State at the beginning of March 2017, only to have their operations in the Palmyra area suspended by order of the Syrian army command, as the Syrian army and its allies focused on operations in the Tanf area (i.e. advancing along the border areas with Iraq and Jordan). Now though, operations have been restarted under the initiative of ‘Coming, oh Deir az-Zor’: with alleged plans to take an eventual route going from the T2 pumping station either towards Albukamal or towards the town of al-Ashara just southeast of al-Mayadeen. These operations would of course entail participation of pro-regime Sha’itat tribesmen, such as those in Suqur al-Furat, in part to return to their homes but also to seek revenge for the Islamic State massacres and treatment of the Sha’itat tribe.
As for Suqur al-Furat’s organizational links, Abu Ibrahim al-Sha’iti’s posts point to relations with the military intelligence, as he mentions ‘arming from the Badiya branch in Palmyra’ in relation to the arrival of the first contingent. Other posts by him equate Suqur al-Furat organizationally with the Badiya branch, which is also known as the Palmyra branch or branch 221 of the military intelligence.
Since July, the main engagement for Suqur al-Furat has been participating in operations to the north of Palmyra town, including the campaign to recapture the town of al-Sukhna from the Islamic State. From there, one could proceed to link up with the regime’s holdings in south Raqqa countryside and/or proceed along the route into Deir az-Zor province.
The existence of Suqur al-Furat further illustrates the importance to the regime of retaking Deir az-Zor province. While much attention is drawn to the participation of Iranian-backed groups in the offensives pushing towards the province and the concept of the Iranian ‘land-route’ should be taken seriously, it does not follow that they will constitute the vast majority of the forces participating in the operations. The regime also has its own interests in reclaiming the territory, as do groups like Suqur al-Furat, driven by desires to return home but also to exact revenge for the fate that befell the Sha’itat. In the conflicts in Iraq and Syria, much concern has been raised about sectarian abuses committed by forces from one sect/ethnicity against populations of another sect/ethnicity. Yet the concept of revenge- both in the general sense and tribal one in particular- also needs to be taken into account here. Just as a number of extrajudicial killings and acts of brutality in Iraq have actually been intra-Sunni and driven by desires for revenge, so we will likely see this phenomenon in Deir az-Zor province if tribal fighters of Suqur al-Furat and other formations aligned with the regime help retake the province from the Islamic State.
*(Appendix note on Suqur al-Sahara’): Suqur al-Sahara’ (The Desert Falcons) has had Sha’itat recruits in its ranks. Suqur al-Sahara’ is a private militia set up by businessman Muhammad Jaber, who fell into a controversy recently with photos and video footage showing him and his men posing with severed heads. There have been claims that Suqur al-Sahara’ has now been dissolved and merged with Fawj Maghawir al-Bahr (Sea Commandos Regiment- aka The Syrian Marines) with Muhammad Jaber supposedly fleeing the country to Russia, but these claims are somewhat misleading. To be sure, all social media pages affiliated with the media centre of Suqur al-Sahara’ were shut down on 23 July (with the supposed exception of one for the affairs of the wounded, families of ‘martyrs’ and members’ admin affairs, though that too now seems to have vanished) apparently for ‘technical reasons’, suggesting something is amiss in relation to the photos and footage of severed heads.
Yet Suqur al-Sahara’ has always been closely intertwined with Fawj Maghawir al-Bahr since the latter is in fact led by Muhammad Jaber’s brother Aymenn Jaber and both groups had their initial foundations and training in the same person: Staff Brigadier Mohsen Sa’id Hussein, who also once headed the Badiya branch of military intelligence. So a merger would not actually constitute a major change. For its part, a page affiliated with Fawj Maghawir al-Bahr denied to me the claims of the dissolution of Suqur al-Sahara‘ and stated that Muhammad Jaber’s journeys to Russia are a normal thing.