Pro-regime militias operate without restraint in Syria’s anarchy

August 27, 2017
High risk. Forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar Assad carry the national flag as they ride on motorcycles in Qusair. (Reuters)

Tunis- As Syrian forces and their allies surge forward, reclaiming large areas of battle-scarred ter­rain, the Assad regime has little choice but to rely on an unruly array of loyalist militias to hold, occupy and control recov­ered ground.

Much of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s Faustian pact with the coun­try’s militias appears inevitable. Almost from the outbreak of hos­tilities, casualties, desertions num­bering in the thousands and wide­spread draft-dodging pushed Syria’s military to the breaking point.

Syria analyst Charles Lister, in a social media posting in August 2016, recalled a conversation with a Russian official who told him that, at the time of their inter­vention in 2015, Assad’s military had been reduced to about 6,000 troops the Russians considered both “capable” and “loyal.”

Given this, Assad was left little choice but to allow his armed loy­alists, as often as not smugglers or criminal gangs, to form militias and cement their hold over the ter­ritories under their command.

“The Syrian Army is severely overstretched and completely re­liant on militias of various kinds to exert control over its territory,” Columb Strack, senior Middle East analyst at IHS Markit said via e-mail.

“These range from localised mi­litias that report to the National De­fence Forces (NDF), through semi-regular military units attached to the Syrian Army like the Tiger Forces or Desert Falcons (which pro regime media said have been disbanded), to Iran’s proxy Hezbol­lah and various groups of foreign Shia mercenaries under command of the IRGC (Iran’s Islamic Revolu­tionary Guards Corps).”

Stories of abuse are legion. In Aleppo, one Syrian MP described to The Arab Weekly how the situ­ation had become so dire the Rus­sian Army had to assume control of the city’s checkpoints.

Speaking from an unidentified location within regime-held ter­ritory in March, a doctor and his wife described to German maga­zine Der Spiegel how loyalist mili­tias descended on their town and attacked a neighbour. “Uniformed men forced their way into a wom­an’s house,” they said. “They tied her up, stole her money and tor­tured her until she revealed where her husband’s money was hidden. When the men had the money, they disappeared again.”

In the areas under their control, Syria’s loyalist militias are said to exert virtual monopolies over services such as public hospitals, transportation, energy and drink­ing water. These services provide militias with revenue streams that are, a recent report by London think-tank Chatham House said, pooled with the regime’s security services in exchange for benign neglect.

Compounding the situation are the contradictory approaches of the regime’s principal allies, Rus­sia and Iran. While both are com­mitted to upholding the Syrian state, their visions towards achiev­ing that end are fundamentally at odds. While Russia is vested in the preservation of the state and its military, Iran prefers to support and fund a broad range of local and international militias backing Da­mascus.

Conflicts between the two wildly different strategies have spilled over into conflict. After an Iran-sponsored Shia militia rejected the conclusion reached during peace talks in Astana, Russian Military Police had to be deployed to the area around the De-escalation Area in northern Homs to quell tensions. Future friction appears no less likely.

Damascus, near the end of 2016, attempted to corral many of its mi­litias into the “5th Corps,” a newly formed paramilitary group affili­ated to the armed forces. However, members of the country’s myriad pro-regime militias proved reluc­tant to join the official ranks of the regime. Consequently, while the Syrian Army trawls jails for poten­tial recruits, civilians in loyalist ar­eas join local militias, often to fight at home and sometimes for up to three times the pay.

However, with rebel forces in retreat across large parts of Syria, the regime and its allies must con­sider how to return the militant genie to its bottle. Strack said that while Hezbollah might prove hap­py to pull back to southern Syria near the Golan, “Most of the Iran-backed foreign mercenaries will probably leave and the NDF will be integrated into the Syrian Army.”

However, though many of their commanders may be offered sen­ior positions within the armed forces or government, a threat lin­gers. “There is, of course, a high risk that some of the local militias turn to organised crime, particu­larly if they don’t benefit from re­construction,” Strack said.

It seems Bashar Assad’s cynical gamble may pay off. However, it may be the Syrian people who end up settling the tab.