Armed Palestinian forces, militias and organizations handled by the Syrian regime in the Syrian civil war

Overview

In fighting the Syrian civil war, the Syrian army makes extensive use of armed Palestinian forces, militias and organizations, some of them in existence for dozens of years, some of them new, established during the war. The Palestinian forces have been used to defend the Palestinian refugee camps and as auxiliary forces for the Syrian army, which has suffered from a severe manpower shortage. The objective of this study is to map the various Palestinian forces, indicate their contributions to the Syrian army during the civil war and to examine the possibilities of operating them against Israel in the future.

  • When the civil war broke out there were about 650,000 Palestinian refugees living in Syria in 14 refugee camps[1]. During the years of fighting the number fell to 438,000 (UNRWA website, September 20, 2017). Many Palestinians have sided with the Syrian regime. Some of them out of pragmatic motives (assuming that in the end the Syrian regime would defeat the rebels); some because Syria is part of the “axis of resistance;” and some who were affiliated with leftist or national secular organizations that traditionally supported the Syrian regime. However, there were also Palestinians who joined the rebel organizations, although apparently not in any organized or established way as did those who fought alongside the Syrian regime.
  • Given Palestinian support for the Syrian regime, many refugee camps served the Syrian army as reservoirs for recruiting and handling armed forces and militias. In ITIC assessment, during the civil war at least 10,000 Palestinian fighters have been operated by the Syrian regime, with various levels of military capabilities. That was done for two main purposes: one, to prevent the Palestinian refugee camps from falling into the hands of the rebel organizations and to enforce law and order in the camps; and two, to integrate the Palestinian forces into the ranks of the Syrian army in the various combat zones around Damascus, Aleppo and the eastern part of the country. By January 2018, at least 627 Palestinian fighters who fought for the Syrian army had been killed (Action Group for Palestinians of Syria,[2] March 1, 2018).
  • The armed Palestinian forces and militias that have been operated by the Syrian army in the civil war can be divided into two categories:
    • New units established during the first years of the civil war:
      • The al-Quds Brigade, which is the Palestinian force with the highest level of military capabilities. It was established in October 2013, has about 3,500 fighters. Most of them are Palestinian refugees living in the al-Neirab refugee camp to the east of the city of Aleppo. The Brigade has three battalions armed with weapons provided by the Syrian army. Initially they were operated to defend the refugee camps in northern Syria. Later they were used for offensive missions. The al-Quds Brigade fought in battles in the Euphrates Valley in Deir al-Zor, al-Mayadeen and Albukamal in eastern Syria. From eastern Syria the Brigade was transferred to the region of Aleppo and is expected to participate in the campaign for the takeover of the Idlib region. The al-Quds Brigade suffered heavy losses, with hundreds killed and many hundreds wounded. During the Syrian civil war the Brigade acquired considerable military experience, and is considered the Palestinian unit most loyal to the Syrian regime.

The al-Quds Brigade insignia on a Brigade uniform. The name appears on the background of the Syrian flag (al-Kawthar, September 9, 2017).
The al-Quds Brigade insignia on a Brigade uniform. 
The name appears on the background of the Syrian flag (al-Kawthar, September 9, 2017).

  • The Galilee Forces (Kuwat al-Jalil) are a militia-like military force established in 2012. Their several thousand fighters come from the Palestinian refugee camps, mainly the Khan Dannun camp, south of Damascus. The Galilee Forces operate battalions and companies, and are equipped with mostly light arms and a number of armored vehicles provided by the Syrian army. During the war they were operated in the Qalamoun Mountains along the Syrian-Lebanese border, where Hezbollah played a central role. Like the al-Quds Brigade, the Galilee Forces fought in the Deir al-Zor area in eastern Syria. When the Islamic State fell, the Galilee Forces were transferred to the region of the Abu al-Duhur military airbase south of Aleppo, as part of the campaign to take over the region around Idlib. The Galilee Forces have a Palestinian youth movement called the Palestinian Youth Movement for Return, which operates in the refugee camps in Syria.

Logo of the Galilee Forces. V for victory over a black map of Palestine and rifles. The upper Arabic inscription reads "The Palestinian Youth Movement for Return" (al-Bilad channel, November 26, 2018).
Logo of the Galilee Forces. V for victory over a black map of Palestine and rifles. The upper Arabic inscription reads “The Palestinian Youth Movement for Return” (al-Bilad channel, November 26, 2018).

  • Established Palestinian forces and organizations operating in Syria for dozens of years and operated by the Syrian army:
    • Those organizations include the Palestinian Liberation Army (PLA), established by the Arab Summit Meeting in 1964; the organization called Fatah al-Intifada, which split from Fatah during the First Lebanon War (1983) and became a Syrian-based organization operated by the Syrian army; and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command (PFLP-GC), Ahmed Jibril’s organization, which split from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) in 1968 and has since been based in Syria, operating with Syrian regime sponsorship. There are also local Palestinian militias in the refugee camps operating in the service of the Syrian regime, whose operatives were recruited during the Syrian civil war.[3]
    • The aforementioned Palestinian forces total about 5,000 operatives. During the civil war they have operated both in the refugee camps (especially in the al-Yarmouk camp south of Damascus) and in fighting the rebels east of Damascus (in Eastern Ghouta). The forces suffered heavy losses, their military capabilities are low compared to the new units established during the war, and several times problems surfaced regarding their loyalty to the regime.

In ITIC assessment the Syrian regime will try to retain the new Palestinian units, especially the al-Quds Brigade. That is because they are loyal to the Syrian regime, their military capabilities are relatively high and they have ties (forged during the fighting) with the Iranian Qods Force and Hezbollah. In ITIC assessment, the Syrian regime may impose missions on the al-Quds Brigade (and other Palestinian units) related to the conflict with Israel, such as carrying out terrorist attacks from Syria or operating Palestinian fighting forces from the Syrian front in a confrontation between Israel and Hezbollah.

Appendices
  • The following appendices deal with the Palestinian forces, organizations and militias operated by the Syrian regime during the Syrian civil war:
    • Appendix 1 – The al-Quds Brigade (Liwa’a al-Quds)
    • Appendix 2 – The Galilee Forces (Kuwat al-Jalil)
    • Appendix 3 – The Palestinian Liberation Army (PLA)
    • Appendix 4 – Fatah al-Intifada
    • Appendix 5 – The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command (PFLP-GC)

[1] Some of the camps are recognized by UNRWA and some are "unofficial" but receive support from the agency (al-Jazeera, October 3, 2004).
[2] A Palestinian organization operating in Britain that documents Palestinians killed and wounded in the Syrian civil war.

[3] For example, the local Palestinian militia called "Defender of al-Aqsa," which operates in the Jaramana refugee camp and apparently in other refugee camps as well. Its fighters fought alongside the Syrian forces in Ghouta, in eastern Syria.