Who is Liwa’ al-Qadisiyah al-Raqqa?
A very brief look at the group involved in the killing of AANES Health Authority employees in Suluk during 2019's Operation Peace Spring
This is a follow up to my piece from last week analyzing visual evidence relating to the 2019 Suluk case shared by Liwa’ al-Qadisiyah al-Raqqa, a former Ahrar al-Sharqiyah subfaction now affiliated with Faylaq al-Sham.
Like many Syrian National Army (SNA) factions, Tajammu‘ Ahrar al-Sharqiyah operates under the personalized leadership of head commander Abu Hatem Shaqra, with members of his family maintaining key positions. Beneath this it appears that much of the faction is made up of relatively unintegrated subgroups, headed by influential commanders of their own. In the case of Ahrar al-Sharqiyah, this has led to consistent conflict between Abu Hatem and many of his subordinates, occasionally leading to subfactions announcing the suspension of their membership within the group. These disputes are often related to issues of dividing revenue derived from illicit activities though sometimes stem from commanders undertaking independent initiatives, such as in the saga of Abu Khawla and his July 2018 unsanctioned assault on regime forces in the town of Tadef. Abu Khawla and his Katibat al-Hamza (later renamed ‘Tajammu‘ Shuhada al-Sharqiyah’) were subsequently kicked out of Ahrar al-Sharqiyah before being targeted by a Turkish-backed ‘anti-corruption’ operation. After fleeing to Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham(HTS)-controlled Idlib, Abu Khawla was eventually captured and imprisoned in A‘zaz, where he sits to this day.
Information available online regarding Liwa’ al-Qadisiyah al-Raqqa is scarce, which is often the case for smaller component groups of SNA factions. The brigade is headed by a Muhammed al-Shawakh, also known by the kunya ‘Abu Jihad al-Raqqa,’ and appears to have been a member group of Ahrar al-Sharqiyah for just little more than a year.
The earliest related media I was able to find was a video and series of photos shared by Facebook page and Telegram channel “al-Raqqa Ahfad al-Rashid” in December 2018. The video is a training montage shot outside the town of Qandariyah, in the Jarabulus area, and shows eight men participating in sniper exercises. Its title also refers to the group as ‘the gathering of the free men of Tell Abyad.’ It’s unclear whether this phrase, only used in December 2018, was an alternative faction name or simply identifying the origin of its fighters in the northern al-Raqqa countryside. A series of images at the end of the video show the men posing with the flag of SNA faction Faylaq al-Sham, implying the group was affiliated with the faction at the time.
Some of the images shared by the same Telegram channel in December 2018 and January 2019 show fighters training along the Syrian-Turkish border, at a location approximately 5.5km east of Hawar Kilis.
In May and June 2019, “al-Raqqa Ahfad al-Rashid” shared several images of Liwa’ al-Qadisiyah fighters in Hama and Idlib. This deployment occurred within the context of a regime offensive during which HTS allowed for some SNA groups active in Turkish-controlled Aleppo to enter Idlib and support defensive efforts. These images are the first to contain the contemporary logo of Liwa’ al-Qadisiyah, featuring Raqqa city’s famous Baghdad Gate.
On September 20, 2019, Liwa’ al-Qadisiyah al-Raqqa announced that it had joined the ranks of Ahrar al-Sharqiyah. Viewed in post-offensive hindsight, this merger appears rational for both parties involved. Given that Liwa’ al-Qadisiyah appears to be made up of fighters from Tell Abyad/al-Raqqa countryside, its membership could be seen as enhancing Ahrar al-Sharqiyah’s claim to represent the areas targeted by Turkey’s October 2019 invasion. Meanwhile, the smaller brigade was able to join an actor more relevant to the Peace Spring operation than Faylaq al-Sham, whose presence outside of Idlib and Afrin is marginal.
This affiliation, however, would only last sixteen months. In December of 2020 Liwa’ al-Qadisiyah and four other subfactions (Liwa’ Suqour al-Sunnah, Liwa’ al-Khuttab, Liwa’ Ahl al-Athr, and Jama‘at Abu Qadri) announced they were suspending their membership in Ahrar al-Sharqiyah. The primary reason given for this departure was Abu Hatem’s “policy of tyranny,” in which decisions were made unilaterally and influential commanders beneath him were marginalized.
While remaining in the Suluk and Hammam al-Turkman area of northern al-Raqqa, Liwa’ al-Qadisiyah appears to have rejoined Faylaq al-Sham. A Twitter account created in November 2021 bears the name “Abu Jihad al-Raqqa Faylaq al-Sham (Nab‘ al-Salam),” likely owned by the Liwa’ al-Qadisiyah commander. Since leaving the group in December 2020, Liwa’ al-Qadisiyah (along with Liwa’ al-Khuttab) has clashed with Ahrar al-Sharqiyah in the Suluk area on multiple times.
I have yet to be able to find information on Liwa’ al-Qadisiyah from prior to December 2018. Given what we know of its membership as well as the trajectory of other factions with origins in eastern Syria, it seems likely that the group was formed in Idlib or Aleppo by a nucleus of fighters who escaped al-Raqqa after the Islamic State took the province over in early 2014. An inactive Twitter account apparently used by Abu Jihad al-Raqqa from March 2019 to January 2020, features an Ahrar al-Sham/Islamic Front profile picture possibly implying former affiliation. This might not mean much, but Ahrar al-Sharqiyah’s own history is intertwined with Ahrar al-Sham’s, as its commander Abu Hatem fought under the nationwide faction’s banner both in Deir ez-Zour and in Idlib. Another possibility is that the group was formed in the early years of the war bearing same name, as the name ‘al-Qadisiyah,’ a reference to an early Islamic battle against the Sasanid Empire, was quite common during the proliferation of opposition groups in 2012 and 2013.
Overall this brief history of Liwa’ al-Qadisiyah emphasizes the lack of integration within some SNA factions, with groups of fighters remaining oriented around individual commanders rather than unified under one banner.
Thanks to @syria_map I found the document announcing that Liwa’ al-Qadisiyah al-Raqqa (and Liwa’ al-Khuttab) had joined Faylaq al-Sham, published on August 20th, 2021. It further specifies that the two factions operate in the Nab‘ al-Salam region (Turkish-controlled northeastern Syria), and that they are now affiliated with Faylaq al-Sham’s “North Sector,” the portion of the faction active under the SNA umbrella as 1st Legion, 14th Division, 141st Brigade.
Additionally, @syria_map brought a Telegram post from October 10th, 2019 to my attention. This was shared by the aforementioned “al-Raqqa Ahfad al-Rashid,” which they claim underwent a name and logo change recently (November 2021); previously it bore Liwa’ al-Qadisiyah branding. While we are not able to verify this, judging by content it seems likely that the channel began as under the name “al-Raqqa Ahfad al-Rashid,” became a Liwa’ al-Qadisiyah channel, before switching back to the original name and logo.
The message in question begins with a header stating “Ahrar al-Sharqiyah, Liwa’ al-Qadisiyah, sons of al-Raqqa and its countryside.” This is followed by a boast of being the most professional soldiers with years of fighting experience, and that they’re “coming with God’s help.” The last line of the message states that they’re returning to their lands, threatening “the enemy” with “the most violent kind of killing.”
The interesting part of the text is in the middle which lists units or companies (sariyyah, plural: saraya), presumably involved in the October 2019 invasion of northeastern Syria. These include Sariyyat al-Sayyadin (Hunters’ Company), Sariyyat al-Inghimasiyyin (Ighimasiyyin Company), Sariyyat al-Muhariboun al-Qudama (Veterans’ Company), and Saraya al-Iqtiham (Storming Companies). Since this message was first sent it has since been edited slightly, with Sariyyat al-Sayyadin removed from the list.