The forces loyal to the al-Assad government continue to conduct major combat operations in and around the Syrian capital city of Damascus. In particular, they have imposed a siege on the Damascus suburb of Eastern Ghouta, which is the last major opposition stronghold near the city (al-Arabiyya [Dubai], December 3). According to the United Nations, 400,000 people living in Eastern Ghouta are facing a “complete catastrophe” if the forces loyal to the al-Assad government do not cease their operations and allow humanitarian assistance to enter (al-Jazeera [Doha], December 4). One of the most prominent commanders of the loyalist forces operating in and around Damascus is Major General Muhammad Tariq al-Khudra, the leader of Jaysh al-Tahrir al-Filasteen (Palestine Liberation Army), an organization mobilized from the Syrian-Palestinian community living in the region (Facebook, September 18; All4Syria [Damascus], July 20).
Al-Khudra, 76, is now a fixture of the Syrian security system, though his long and storied personal history in many ways encapsulates the 20th century history of the Palestinian people. Born in the city of Gaza, al-Kundra’s family moved around in the first years of his life, and prior to the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, he lived in the cities of Haifa and Safed (Palestine Liberation Army). His family is originally from Safed—an area that has been incorporated into Israel—and they were forced to abandon Safed for southern Lebanon during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War (Palestine Liberation Army). Eventually immigrating to Syria, they lived in the central-western city of Homs before moving to Damascus, where al-Khudra attended high school. There he joined the Syrian Arab Army and was trained as an officer in a military engineering unit (Palestine Liberation Army). After the formation of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), al-Khudra joined the PLO in 1966 and became an officer in the PLO’s nascent Palestine Liberation Army. The Palestine Liberation Army was an umbrella force created by the PLO in 1964 from several different constituent Palestinian armed groups —all tied to different Arab state armies— which were being mobilized to support the PLO (Palestine Liberation Army; YouTube, September 22, 2015; Ida2at).
As an officer in the Palestine Liberation Army, al-Khudra would become an important member of the military apparatus of the PLO. Due to his upbringing in Syria, he became a key interlocutor for the Syrian Arab Army inside the Palestine Liberation Army, particularly as the leader of the elite Hattin Forces, which were directly supported by the Syrian military (YouTube, September 22, 2015). He commanded Palestine Liberation Army units in most of the major military engagements between the Israelis and Arabs during the period between the 1967 and 1973 wars (Palestine Liberation Army; YouTube, September 22, 2015). His units conducted guerilla operations from southern Lebanon into Israel between 1968 and 1970. Al-Khudra also commanded a part of the Syrian-backed Palestinian forces that supported the Palestine Liberation Army in its battle with the Jordanian military in September 1970 (Palestine Liberation Army; YouTube, September 22, 2015).
His last major combat activities as a frontline commander for Syrian-backed Palestine Liberation Army forces occurred during the Lebanese Civil War from 1976 to 1982. Due to the strong Syrian military influence over the Palestine Liberation Army components fighting in the war, and his close ties to the Syrian military, al-Khudra was named the general commander of the Palestine Liberation Army organization in June 1980 (Palestine Liberation Army). His role as a front-line commander of Syrian-backed Palestinian forces in Lebanon was particularly tested during the year 1982, in military operations against the Israeli invasion of Lebanon that resulted in the Israeli siege of PLO-controlled areas of Beirut, eventually forcing the withdrawal of the PLO from Lebanon (YouTube, October 20, 2015).
Fighting for al-Assad
After the withdrawal of his component of the Palestine Liberation Army to Syria, following the PLO military withdrawal from Lebanon in 1982, al-Khudra remained the general commander of the Palestine Liberation Army and remained close to the Syrian military and intelligence apparatus and was promoted to the rank of major general in 1999 (Palestine Liberation Army). His brother, Hazem, also was the general commander of the Syrian air force from 2005 to 2008, and later became the director general of civil aviation in Syria, further cementing his family’s role as loyalists with long-standing ties to the Syrian government (al-Alam [Tehran], August 3). Al-Khudra’s links to the Syrian government and military, cultivated over half a century, are why the al-Assad government turned to him and the Palestine Liberation Army to organize Palestinian fighters to fight on behalf of Bashar al-Assad as the Syrian uprising became a civil war (YouTube, September 17; Souriyati [Damascus], September 25, 2016). He is also accused of orchestrating a campaign of repression against the Palestinian community in and around Damascus, such as in the large Yarmouk Camp in the southern suburbs of the city, to cow Palestinian-Syrian opponents of the al-Assad government (al-Araby al-Jadid, June 25; al-Watan Voice, August 21, 2012).
Starting in 2012, al-Khudra began to organize Palestine Liberation Army forces on behalf of the al-Assad government, with the result being that the Palestine Liberation Army has thus far participated in fifteen different theaters of the conflict throughout Syria (YouTube, September 17; al-Araby al-Jadid, June 25). Al-Khudra states that there are 6,000 fighters in the Palestine Liberation Army, of which 3,000 are currently engaged in different theaters around Syria, and the Palestine Liberation Army has suffered 203 fighters killed since 2012 (YouTube, September 17; Syrian Refugees Portal, September 12). The size of the Palestine Liberation Army, as asserted by al-Khudra, would make it one of the largest indigenous, loyalist forces fighting for the al-Assad government. This is significant due to the increasing attention given by opponents of the al-Assad government, such as senior U.S. government officials, to the large role of Iranian-backed, foreign armed groups fighting on behalf of Bashar al-Assad (The National [Abu Dhabi], December 3).
The casualties incurred by the Palestine Liberation Army—many are young Syrian-Palestinians that its opponents accuse the Palestine Liberation Army of forcibly conscripting— are a source of controversy for al-Khudra (al-Araby al-Jadid, June 25; Filasteen al-Aan [Ramallah], March 15, 2016). The Palestine Liberation Army has also provided security for strategic infrastructure sites and prisons for the al-Assad government, demonstrating a range of capabilities (al-Alam [Tehran], August 3). The Palestine Liberation Army’s operations in and around Damascus have been an important enough component of the al-Assad government’s strategy to control the capital that the Syrian armed opposition forces in the eastern suburbs of the city attempted to assassinate al-Khudra with an improvised explosive device (IED) in Damascus in November 2015 (Rai Al-Youm, November 20, 2015; al-Dorar al-Shamiyya [Damascus], November 20, 2015).
As the Syrian civil war has progressed, al-Khudra has emerged as a key enforce of Bashar al-Assad’s rule among the Palestinian population in Syria, a community which has been a special security concern for the al-Assad government. In this role, al-Khudra has been responsible for organizing an important and consistent source of manpower for the al-Assad government’s forces throughout the course of the war. Although he is no longer a frontline commander, his long history of planning, organizing and leading Palestinian military operations in the tumultuous period between 1967 and 1982, and the prominence that this history provides him within his community, have made him a useful asset to the al-Assad government.
Al-Khudra also provides the al-Assad government with a public-facing commander who can praise Bashar al-Assad to an Arab audience as a leader who is carrying the torch of resistance for the Palestinian cause and for Arab nationalism against the enemies of the Arab people. As the al-Assad government draws intense regional and international criticism for deploying a force on the battlefield that is largely composed of Iranian-mobilized armed groups, al-Khudra’s Palestine Liberation Army provides Bashar al-Assad with a Syrian, albeit Palestinian, component to the government’s order of battle. Given this, he is likely to remain a prominent leader within the security apparatus of the al-Assad government throughout the rest of the conflict and into its aftermath.