In the outskirts of Damascus last week, insurgent gunfire erupted at a checkpoint where an elite branch of the Syrian military was carrying out an operation for the “elimination of terrorists.”
One of the people killed in the attack was Mirfaat Mohamad Saeed, a female officer in Bashar al-Assad’s Republican Guard. She has become an overnight pro-regime military hero, and instant fodder for a government propaganda campaign. News of her death has spread quickly on pro-Assad Facebook pages and blogs, which have bestowed her with the title of martyr. Women have been fighting on both sides of the Syrian civil war since it began in 2011, but this is a rare case of one of them dying in combat.
Saeed, according to the government’s account, was never slated for the front line, but her patriotism propelled her into battle. Army service isn’t mandatory for women in Syria, but Saeed and her sister enlisted to defend the regime, according to the reports. The two women were first assigned a desk job, like many women who enlist. But they longed for the battlefield, and soon were transferred to a checkpoint in Daria, outside Damascus.
In a tear-jerking account, pro-regime outlets said Saeed, who was born in the coastal city of Latakia, died after saying twice saying the Shahada (an Islamic credo declaring belief in God and Muhammad as the prophet) as she was holding her sister’s hand. The group said she had died when “the unholy Wahabi Zionists mercenary villains attacked the checkpoint.”
HOW WE KNOW
We mapped many social media accounts and used indicative text analysis to find mentions of special terms and words. After finding the first posts about Saeed we used reverse image and text search to find more leads.
A pro-regime Facebook page called Sama Youth Volunteer Group Youth Network said the sisters’ father had resisted allowing his daughters to join the army, but the two women wanted to bring him honor. According to the post, her father asked, “Isn’t war for men?” And she and her sister answered in one voice saying, “We are the sisters of men, and because God did not provide you with sons, we will be the men and you will be proud of us, father.” Reports quote her father saying he was, indeed, proud that his daughter died for the homeland. He also said he has five more daughters, and he’s willing to give all of them up for the cause, along with his wife.
Saeed’s death did not go uncelebrated by the rebels. A post on the Free Syrian Army website said, “We stepped on the dead…Mirfat Mohamad Saeed, which was one of Assad’s Shabiha in the presidential guard. …May she go to hell and good riddance.”
Female fighters in Syria are nothing new, and reports of women joining Assad’s military started last January when the military reportedly recruited 500 women for the Lionesses for National Defense, a branch of the National Defense Force in Syria.
Some reports have likened the group to former Libyan leader Col. Moammar Gaddafi’s female bodyguards, named the Amazonian Guard. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimated that at least 5,000 women were fighting in Syria last year, but the number is sure to have grown since then.
The rebels also have their own group of female fighters, like the Mother Aisha Battalion fighting with the Free Syrian Army. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, a jihadi group that Al Qaeda recently disowned for being too violent, recently formed two female brigades in northern Syria.