Assad in Syria: one king among many kingdoms
An array of forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad is advancing on what remaining rebel strongholds still exist across Syria. As Turkey attacks the Kurds in Afrin, Damascus’s forces closed in on the north and the territory surrounding the capital at Ghoutta.
Assad, who declared victory from the Russian resort of Sochi in November, looks to have pushed back much of the rebellion that nearly defeated him in 2014. However, in this new Syria, plagued by peripheral wars, Assad is one king presiding within many kingdoms, forced by necessity to accommodate many paramilitary forces and indebted to Iran, Hezbollah and Russia for his survival.
Though the principal conflict may be over, amid the number of smaller confrontations as Syria’s various militias compete for primacy within the country’s fractured landscape, hopes that peace may soon flourish look more optimistic. Looking to the future “the regime will be faced with a myriad of local conflicts with the multiplication of local militias, which have different interest, histories and agendas,” said Syria analyst Sinan Hatahet from the Turkish think-tank Omran Dirasat.
Despite the metastasising actors within Syria’s increasingly crowded theatre, regime manpower appears to be rallying. Though estimates vary dramatically, foreign security figures familiar with Syria put regime manpower at 12,000-25,000 combatants. Much of this can be attributed to the plethora of loyalist militias that flourished after regime losses through combat and mass desertion before Russia’s military intervention.
While the number of pro-regime militias is difficult to estimate, researcher Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi was able to ascertain their affiliation, dividing them between Shia militias sponsored by Iran and Hezbollah and those affiliated with the Bustan association, financed by the president’s cousin Rami Makhlouf, and Christian militias. In addition to the various militias are efforts, not least by Russia, to build a Fifth Corps, a more formal adjunct to the army made up of the country’s semi-independent militias.
One of the principal challenges facing attempts to subsume the country’s militias within any formal structure, such as the Fifth Corps, is the traditional impunity afforded to the armed groups throughout Syria’s protracted war. A March 2017 article in Der Spiegel stated that sub-commanders of the Tiger Forces unit have been capitalising on the chaos of war by orchestrating kidnappings, as well as seizing control over some of the region’s smuggling networks. The same can be said of the Druze Sweida region, where militias have contributed to rampant civil insecurity. Sources within Sweida complained of frequent killings and kidnappings.
Within Damascus, there appears little evidence of either the appetite or ability to restrain the regime’s loyalist militias, with efforts by Damascus to check their activity even leading to conflict. Hatahet said efforts to exert control over Syria’s irregular forces are always likely to be flawed. “In this current framework, these militias are recognising the regime sovereignty in exchange for their military support, but this leaves the regime with no real control over the country,” he said.
The promise of the reconstruction money Damascus had hoped would lure its militias under central control is looking increasingly distant. With the West balking at subsidising any reconstruction without a political transition, Iran, Russia and Syria will be left to make up the shortfall, a prospect many economists are sceptical about.
Compounding the Assad regime’s difficulties is the absence of unity among the militias, their sponsors or their chains of command. For instance, while Iran seeks to duplicate its Hezbollah project on Syrian soil, Russia looks to create a more structured military force answerable to a central command.
“There is a false perception of victory in Syria,” Hatahet said, emphasising the conflicting aims and agendas of Damascus’s various allies. Multiple power centres will complicate the unity of command unless an agreement that suits everyone can be achieved. Though that seems unlikely, what is certain is that Assad’s exercise of absolute power in Syria is a thing of the past.
Compounding the Assad regime’s difficulties is the absence of unity among the militias, their sponsors or their chains of command.