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