Since the outbreak of the civil war in 2011, almost 4,000 Palestinians have been killed inside Syria. The vast majority of these, or 87% according to the United Kingdom-based Action Group for Palestinians of Syria (AGPS), were killed by the regime in some fashion. AGPS adds that of this number, the majority were killed in the Yarmouk refugee camp just outside of Damascus - a camp that routinely saw intense clashes between the regime, opposition groups, and jihadist forces since the start of the war.
Despite these numbers, the Palestinian attitude towards the Assad regime is not monolithic in its opposition. Indeed, a great number of Palestinians in Syria have remained loyal to the regime for reasons that date back to the 1948 exodus in Palestine and to the late 1960s when Syria began courting for Palestinian patronage. As such, Palestinian armed groups have been seen on both sides of the civil war inside Syria. Even during the current regime offensive in southern Idlib, Palestinian militias have been deeply involved on the front lines.
But this facet of the conflict has been widely underreported and the details of many of these groups remain largely unknown. This piece is an attempt to close this gap in understanding.
Utilizing Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and English and Arabic-language press reporting, I have been able to locate 53 distinct Palestinian armed groups and sub-groups that have been involved in the Syrian Civil War in some capacity. These units were then grouped into one of the following three categories:
- Clear jihadist imagery: Exclusive use of the Black Standard rather than the Free Syrian Army or Palestinian flag and/or the use of common jihadist anasheed.
- Jihadist rhetoric: Use of commonplace jihadist rhetoric in speeches, graphics, banners, group names, et.al.
- Organizational lineage: Some Palestinian opposition groups utilized the Black Standard or other jihadist imagery but were members of a larger, non-jihadist group. Only if the unit claimed independence from any larger formation was it placed under the ‘jihadist’ categorization. Additionally, units with clear ties to a larger jihadist group were placed in this category.
Many of the Palestinian opposition groups were entirely localized in the Yarmouk Camp of Damascus, but many non-Palestinian opposition groups flocked to the camp and surrounding areas as the battles raged there. To distinguish between a Palestinian opposition group and a local Syrian opposition group, only those factions expressing a direct link with Palestine were added to the opposition category of the database.
This categorization was made based on links to Palestine made in the group name, logo, banner, exclusivity to the Yarmouk Camp, or the use of the Palestinian flag. It is possible that in doing so, some groups were either not added to the database or incorrectly included. Any additional help in this regard is greatly appreciated and the database will be updated accordingly.
Background and Context:
To understand why many Palestinians in Syria are split in their views of the Assad regime, it is important to understand the history of Syria’s relationship with the Palestinians. Following the forced expulsion of Palestinians from the newly founded state of Israel in 1948, many Palestinians found themselves in Syria. More would later flee to the country following the 1967 Six Day War and the events of Black September in Jordan in 1970.
Syrian political maneuvering during the Lebanese Civil War, in which former leader Hafez al Assad cultivated, manipulated, and exploited various factions within the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) for his own benefit, was instrumental in the long-standing relations with various Palestinian armed groups. For instance, Syrian support to various factions rival to PLO leader Yasser Arafat, especially the PLO-splinter Fatah al Intifada, resulted in severe Palestinian fratricide in Lebanon in 1983. Syrian patronage to the so-called ‘Rejectionist Front’ resulted in various other splits and disagreements within Arafat’s PLO - which, coupled with other outside elements, left the organization weak and fractured.
However, this patronage has resulted in longstanding alliances with various Palestinian political factions - many of which are based in Damascus. The regime’s historical support for several Gaza-based Palestinian factions, such as Hamas or the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, has also cultivated a sense of support for the regime among some Palestinians. Additionally, as Adnan Abu Amer notes in Al Jazeera, the fact that the Syrian state has long posited itself as a champion of Arabism and general left-wing causes has allowed further support among Palestinians to be garnered.
This also helps, in part, to explain why the long-standing Palestinian armed groups and their supporters - all members of the aforementioned “Rejectionist Front,” save for the Palestine Liberation Army - continue to support the Assad regime.
At least 18 pro-regime Palestinian factions have been identified, with many still active on the frontlines for the regime. This includes the following groups:
Some of these units are relatively small and were localized to the Yarmouk Camp or the southern Damascus areas, such as Saraya al Tahrir al Awda, Liwa al Jalil (not to be confused with Quwat al Jalil), and Liwa Dhara’a al Assad of the Palestinian People’s Party - which also claimed a branch in the Al Hussainiya area of Damascus. And Quwat al Jalil, the armed wing of the Palestinian Youth Return Movement, has fought alongside Lebanese Hezbollah in the Qalamoun mountains in western Syria to northern Hama.
Quwat al Awda, another small unit, stands out for being formed, trained, and funded by Lebanese Hezbollah. Photos released online have shown fighters belonging to the unit being trained by Hezbollah, while other reports have mentioned the unit has lost fighters in combat in Eastern Ghouta.
Meanwhile, Quwat Dir al Aqsa and its subunit Saraya al Badr, both armed wings of the Free Palestine Movement (FPM), have also been spotted on the frontlines from the Yarmouk Camp to northern Hama. The latter has also announced one of its fighters was even recently killed on the Latakia front.
Early in the war, the Free Palestine Movement had another military wing, the Abdul Qadir al Husayni Battalions. Though, this unit only conducted one known attack - a rocket barrage into the Golan Heights in May 2013. Another unit linked to the FPM is Sariya Assad Allah al Ghalib, which appears to be a sub-unit of Saraya al Badr. According to social media posts on Facebook, this unit is active in Latakia and the current southern Idlib offensive.
Many of the larger pro-regime units, such as Fatah al Intifada, Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - General Command (PFLP-GC), the Palestinian Popular Struggle Front (PPSF), As-Sa’iqa, and the Palestine Liberation Army (PLA) have fought on multiple fronts alongside the regime, such as in southern Syria, Hama, or Aleppo. Inside the Yarmouk Camp, the PFLP-GC and Fatah al Intifada have played outsized roles in the defense of the camp for the Assad regime. Indeed, PFLP-GC has recorded at least 400 combat fatalities within its ranks since the start of the war.
Perhaps the most well-known pro-regime Palestinian militia is Liwa al Quds. The unit, which acts as an auxiliary for regime forces and does contain native Syrian members, has been involved in major battles in Hama, Aleppo, Deir al Zour, Palmyra, and in Syria’s Badiya region. The militia is also a favorite of Russian troops, as it has advertised its men receiving medals, weapons, and training from both uniformed Russian troops and Russian mercenaries.
During the current offensive in southern Idlib, it has also claimed capturing at least one village on behalf of the regime. Liwa al Quds maintains at least three known sub-units: Katibat al Rida’, Sariya Hama, and Katibat Usud Homs.
It should be noted that while the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) maintains bases and logistical networks in Damascus and southern Syria, in addition to funding from the Assad regime, it has so far not advertised any role in the fighting and has tried to distance itself from the conflict in the past. That said, PIJ leaders have spoken in defense of the regime and have criticized Israeli airstrikes against it. So while the PIJ gives rhetorical support to the regime, it cannot be determined at this time if the PIJ is actively engaged in combat in the defense of the Syrian state.
Additionally, the Damascus-based factions of the Palestinian Liberation Front and the Revolutionary Palestinian Communist Party have also given rhetorical or ideological support to the Assad regime. Though it is so far unknown if these parties have actually been involved militarily in the war.
At least 31 Palestinian opposition groups have been identified, though the vast majority, if not all, are no longer active. This is due to these outfits being primarily located within the Yarmouk Camp. Though some units, such as Liwa Odeh al Omariya and Katibat Suqour al Aqsa, were part of larger formations and fought elsewhere in southern Damascus.
The vast majority of Palestinian opposition groups in Syria were formed as part of the various battles within the Yarmouk Camp beginning in 2012. For instance, the first well-known Palestinian opposition group, Liwa al Asifa, was the main resistance group against the PFLP-GC in the first battle of the camp. More opposition groups and alliances began to emerge in 2013, especially during the first siege of the camp which began in July of that year.
These groups, and their subunits, were part of the larger Southern Front of the Syrian opposition, which has been organizationally defunct since the regime recaptured rebel-held parts of Deraa and Quneitra in July 2018. Given that the Yarmouk Camp has also been recaptured by the regime, and the ruins are secured by pro-regime Palestinian outfits, it is unlikely that many, if not all, of these groups are still active.
As many of these groups organized themselves within the Southern Front, the use of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) flag alongside the Palestinian flag was common, as was joining larger FSA formations. In statements, these organizations also noted that the liberation of Syria, not just Palestine, was a motivating factor in taking up arms.
While some Palestinian opposition groups organized themselves independently, several larger coalitions within the broader Yarmouk Camp were created. This includes the Unified Palestine Brigade and the Assembly of the Yarmouk Camp Mujahideen, which combined accounted for 14 separate groups.
Some of these units would later join other groupings, such as Katibat Maghawir Filistin of the Unified Palestine Brigade, which would later join Liwa Usud al Tawhid, and Katibat Zahra al Mada'in of the Yarmouk Camp Mujahideen, which later joined Liwa Odeh al Omariya.
Interestingly, only two major pro-regime Palestinian groups were found to have suffered defections. In September 2012, a group from the Palestinian Liberation Army defected to the FSA. Another round of defections hit the PLA in April 2013. Then in August 2013, an officer from the Palestine Liberation Army defected to officially form the Free Palestine Liberation Army which then subsequently joined the Free Syrian Army branding. This official formation came a month after another small group of PLA members announced their defection from the unit.
In February 2013, the PFLP-GC’s Jihad Jibril Brigades also suffered defections to the opposition. That month, members of the Brigades left to form the “PFLP-Free Command,” in the Yarmouk Camp. It is likely that this unit was localized to the Damascus suburbs, though one Facebook post did mention that a PFLP-Free Command unit was created in the Nayrab Camp near Aleppo.
Other groups were subunits of larger formations. This includes such outfits like the Ababil Filistin Battalion, Katibat al Asir, and Katibat Afhad Muhammad al Fath. Given the influx of fighters into the Yarmouk Camp and wider southern Damascus areas, it is possible that some units were not entirely comprised of Palestinians. This is true for the aforementioned Liwa Odeh al Omariya and Katibat Suqour al Aqsa; however, these groups were added to the database given that the forces either formed, organized and/or based themselves out of the Yarmouk Camp.
For instance, while Odeh al Omariya claimed affiliation with the Ababil Horan Brigades and later the Second Division of the Southern Front, posts made on its Facebook page, and its initial logo, confirm that it is in fact a Palestinian unit.
Some groups, such as Katibat Usud al Jolan, Katibat Ahl al Iman, Katibat Aba al Qassam, Katibat al Shahid Yahya Ayyash, Katibat Ibn Taymiyyah, Liwa Shahid Sheikh Ahmad Yassin (and its many constituent subunits), and Katibat Ahl al Sunna were also primarily based in the Yarmouk Camp or southern Damascus, but were left out of the database as I was unable to confirm that these units were either (a) fully Palestinian or (b) maintained a significant Palestinian component. Any additional assistance in correctly identifying and/or categorizing these units would be greatly appreciated.
Arguably, the largest Palestinian opposition group was Aknaf Bayt al Maqdis, a Hamas-loyal outfit that fought in most clashes within the Yarmouk Camp beginning in 2012. In 2015, it was one of the main defenders of the camp from an Islamic State offensive. Following that battle, however, it waned in significance and by 2017 and 2018 has largely ceased to exist. A similarly named group was also a constituent member of the Assembly of Yarmouk Camp Mujahideen, however, the two groups do not appear to be the same.
Relative to the other two categorizations, very few Palestinian jihadist factions operating in Syria have been identified. While individual Palestinians have been found in various larger jihadist outfits, such as the former Al Nusrah Front (now, Hay’at Tahrir al Sham) and the Islamic State, very few exclusively Palestinian jihadist factions have existed inside Syria.
For example, the Gaza-based groups of Jaysh al Islam, Jahafil Tawhid wal Jihad, and the Mujahideen Shura Council in the Environs of Jerusalem have all had fighters fight and die inside Syria with other jihadist outfits. The Lebanon-based Fatah al Islam, formed by Palestinians in the Nahr al Bared refugee camp, has also had fighters die in Syria fighting the regime.
Of those Palestinian jihadist groups that have solely existed in Syria, however, this includes just four groups: the Palestinian Mujahideen Battalion, Katibat al Dhakareen, Sariya Ghuraba Filistin, and Sariya Abu Nur al Maqdisi. The first two were localized to the Yarmouk Camp (though the Mujahideen Battalion also claimed to be operational in the Khan al Sheeh Palestinian refugee camp in southern Damascus) and its surroundings, while the latter two were constituent members of larger formations.
It bears noting that the Palestinian Mujahideen Battalion did claim some affiliation with the Southern Front unit Liwa al ‘Ezz. Videos showing this branding, such as fighters from the Battalion training in western Ghouta, can be found online. However, other videos demonstrate more clear jihadist imagery.
Sariya Ghuraba Filistin, which was a subunit of the largely Uighur Katibat al Ghuraba al Turkistan, formed in early 2018 by Palestinian jihadists from the Ain el Helwe refugee camp near Sidon, Lebanon. The group was led by dual-hatted members of the al Qaeda-linked Abdullah Azzam Brigades (AAB), which was operational in Syria and Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee camps until November of this year when it dissolved itself.
Sariya Ghuraba Filistin itself was short-lived, as it too was dissolved after its leader, the Palestinian AAB commander, Ibrahim Khaza’il, was killed in combat just a month after the group’s creation. While some of its commanders returned to the Ain el Helwe camp in Lebanon, it is unknown if all of its former members went back.
Additionally, the Islamic State also once maintained a Palestinian contingent in Syria. Under the moniker Shaykh Abu Nur al Maqdisi Battalion, the unit was comprised of mainly Gazan Palestinians. The unit appears to have mainly operated in northern Syria, especially near Manbij, and was known to have operated at least one training camp in early 2014. At least one Palestinian has also served as a high-ranking official in the Islamic State, specifically, a regional governor for the group in Aleppo governorate.
Much like the Palestinian opposition groups, the Palestinian jihadist groups that have existed in Syria are no longer operational. While Palestinian jihadists are undoubtedly still within the various groups in Idlib, no exclusively Palestinian jihadist group is known to currently exist inside Syria.
As such, the only Palestinian armed groups currently fighting inside Syria are almost solely on the side of the regime. And given the long history of Syria’s relationship with the Palestinian armed groups that formed from splits within the Palestine Liberation Organization, it is no surprise that it is those groups that are mainly still active inside Syria.
Note: Parts of this article were derived from a term paper for The Fletcher School at Tufts University.