Having recaptured swathes of territory, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad aims to regain all of Syria. But could the militias he relies on come back to haunt him?
A ddressing soldiers of the Syrian army on its 72nd anniversary, President Bashar al-Assad lauded the “courageous men of this distinguished army”. According to state media, he said they had made sacrifices in preserving the “dignity, freedom and independence of the homeland”. While large swathes of territory remain in the hands of the armed opposition, Kurdish groups or jihadi factions like Islamic State, the Syrian government has been riding on a wave of military successes ever since Russia intervened on its behalf in 2015.
The Syrian president has been adamant that he will regain control over all of Syria, which his family has ruled since the early 1970s. In fighting the opposition, the government has been able to count on pivotal military support from outside sources such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah and other Iran-backed groups. Less documented, but no less important, are the vast network of local militia that have bolstered the ranks of the regime.
“The militias are really important,” says Aron Lund, fellow at The Century Foundation, a New York-based policy institute, adding that they now make up a substantial portion of the armed forces. Many observers trace the rise of the militias back to mass desertions from the military and the flight of millions of Syrians from the country, many of whom were escaping the draft.
Before the war, the Syrian army was estimated to be 300,000-strong. In October 2015, it was down to 80,000-100,000 soldiers.
“The word ‘militia’ can mean a lot of different things,” Mr. Lund tells The World Weekly, “ranging from tiny, family-based outfits whose only task is to run a checkpoint at the entrance to their village, to big mobile paramilitary forces that are sent back and forth between fronts to spearhead government offensives.” In addition, there are foreign forces like Hezbollah, Iranian troops and Tehran-backed groups made up of Iraqi or Afghan fighters and on top of that the Russian air force, none of which “really obey Assad at all”.
The network of local militias includes groups operating as subunits of parts of the military like the Republican Guard or the army’s 4th Division, while others function more independently. Among the most important formations are the National Defence Forces (NDF), which were founded in the western city of Homs in 2012. Originally tasked with protecting their local areas, the NDF, drawing civilian volunteers from a range of backgrounds in different areas, now operates across the country.
Militia forces were heavily involved in enforcing the siege on opposition-held areas of Aleppo late last year and the city’s eventual capture. Among them were the Tiger Forces led by Suheil al-Hassan, a notorious air force intelligence officer known as ‘The Tiger’.
The capital Damascus and its surroundings are a battlefield where a wide range of militias are currently involved in fighting against rebel groups. The Republican Guard, created before the war to protect the city and senior regime officials, and the army’s 4th Division are the dominant forces, says an anonymous military analyst closely following events in Syria known as Twitter user @QalaatAlMudiq. Militias fighting in and around Damascus which are independent from the latter two include volunteers from the military wing of the ruling Baath Party, the NDF, the Palestine Liberation Army (the main Palestinian group in the Damascus region), the Arab Nationalist Guard (according to the analyst consisting of Sunni Syrians and some foreigners), Saraya al-Areen 313 (a militia based in Latakia which got involved in Damascus due to manpower problems) and units from the feared air force intelligence branch.
In the current battle to recapture the capital’s last rebel enclaves, these groups, while having their own commanders, are under the general command of the 4th Division, the military analyst told TWW. He also stressed that some militia leaders were taking independent initiatives, as was evident in a recent botched operation during which Palestinian fighters were ambushed in the rebel-held Eastern Ghouta area.
A threat to the state?
In June, an upscale district of government-controlled western Aleppo was the scene of a brutal crime. As 13-year-old Ahmed Jawish tried to sell chewing gum to the passengers of a car, a man in military uniform pulled out a gun and shot him in the head, subsequently fleeing the scene. Although members of the official security forces have also been accused of atrocities, the incident was emblematic of a larger problem for the government: can it rein in the excesses of the militias it depends on for its survival?
Residents of Aleppo, once Syria’s economic capital, have reportedly experienced widespread looting and other crimes carried out by pro-government militias since the start of 2017, Mr. Lund wrote for IRIN. As regular military units focused their efforts elsewhere in the country, militias took over and the security situation deteriorated.
But it was the shocking murder of the 13-year-old boy that prompted the government to round up members of pro-regime militias. Government IDs issued to militia fighters were reportedly withdrawn after Damascus sent the head of State Security, Lieutenant General Mohammed Dib Zeitun, a powerful intelligence chief, to Aleppo. In late June, Aleppo’s governor announced that Ahmed Jawish’s murderer had been arrested and was being investigated.
Instances of looting or extortion with impunity have also occurred elsewhere as the government has outsourced security tasks. Infighting between loyalist militias, Mr. Lund says, “seems to be about money and personal feuds”.
Nevertheless, observers note that while crimes and corruption present major challenges to Damascus, local militias “don't seem to pose a threat to the government in the sense of a military revolt”, as Mr. Lund puts it. He adds that these groups typically depend on the government for “salaries, logistics, leadership, and other types of support”. Aymenn al-Tamimi, a researcher at the Middle East Forum, believes that the militias’ “presence on the battlefield does not mean the Syrian state has collapsed” and that loyalist groups have accepted that President Assad’s rule is to be preserved.
“Most pro-government militias remain under the direct and indirect control of the Baath regime,” says Imad Salamey, associate professor of Political Science at the Lebanese American University in Beirut, pointing to the exception of Hezbollah and other Iran-sponsored groups. To him, Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guards Corps “remains the major fighting force capable of protecting and safeguarding the regime from a total collapse”.
In the long run, however, “there's a ton of little neighborhood bosses that will want to keep whatever influence they clawed out for themselves during the war,” Mr. Lund concluded. This will pose a challenge for the broken Syrian state.