Syria’s ‘Self-Defence Units’ make up for military shortages
LATAKIA - The Syrian government has set up “Self-Defence Units”, a force of reservists serving behind the front lines to help the Syrian Army address manpower shortages caused by the high number of casualties over five years of unrelenting fighting and the flight of young men skipping compulsory military service.
The Self-Defence Units’ main mission is to reinforce government control in areas recaptured from the rebels. The new force, however, is also viewed as an attempt to plant Alawite recruits, known for their loyalty to the Assad regime, in Sunni areas to prevent breaches by rebels.
Mohran Abdel Razzak, an employee of the state-run Tobacco Institute in Tartous in the mainly Alawite province of Latakia, said he joined the Self-Defence Units to help protect his city. Soon after completing his training, however, he and 130 Alawite colleagues went to Al-Waer in Homs, a Sunni province.
“I was granted a house that belonged to a displaced family and a 40-dunum (40,000 sq. metre) plot of land to cultivate. Three months since we have been in Al-Waer, we were not asked to participate in any security mission but we were given facilities to work in agriculture with promises to receive more land,” Abdel Razzak said.
Another 1,500 recruits from Tartous were transferred to Maan and Souran, Sunni towns in Hama, where they were given houses and land in an apparent bid to encourage resettlement.
Salem Hamed, who worked at the electricity company of Tartous, moved his family to Souran in December. “The offer was too tempting. We were given a house and 25 dunums (25,000 sq. metres) of land planted with pistachio trees,” he said.
Officials say the Self-Defence Units, consisting essentially of public servants and volunteers, are designed to guard newly recaptured towns and man checkpoints to free up regular Syrian Army units to fight on the front lines against the rebels.
Recruitment for the new force started five months ago, as the army, bolstered by Russian air strikes, began regaining control of towns and villages.
“Until the beginning of February, the units have attracted 15,770 volunteers, mostly among government employees, who have received training under the direct supervision of army officers,” a source from the units’ command said on condition of anonymity.
The recruits attend a one-week training session during which they learn how to fire weapons such as rifles and machine guns and man checkpoints, acting as a backup force behind the front lines.
After graduating, the reservists take over checkpoints from regular troops, who are then deployed to the battlefields.
“It is the duty of all citizens to participate in the defence of their country during big crises, like is happening in Syria today,” the source said, arguing that most of the force’s members are civil servants who are not actually in service because a large number of government bodies have not been operating due to the war.
A security official, who asked for anonymity, explained that recent regime gains have made it necessary to enlist civilians to contribute to preserving security.
“We do not want to repeat past mistakes when the army’s rear lines were left undefended and vulnerable to the enemy attacks. The Self- Defence Units are an innovative way for protecting liberated areas and prevent the occurrence of any breach,” the official said. He said in the past four months, the Syrian Army has regained control over 170 towns and villages with an area of 2,000 sq. kilometres.
The regime’s forces, which have seen serious manpower shortages in recent months, have been relying heavily on foreign troops, including Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Afghan and Iraqi militiamen as well as Iranian servicemen, across the country.
The army officer in charge of training recruits in a camp at Al- Dreij, west of Damascus, said they are not trained to participate in actual fighting but fill the void when the army moves on.
“They are tasked with strengthening control over the towns and villages retaken by the military during their advance in order to maintain the size of the attacking troops and not to waste any in securing these areas,” said the officer, who asked to be identified as “General Samir”.
He said the units’ members who work for the government will return to their public jobs once the need for them has ceased. They get an additional 50% above their basic salaries. Volunteers who do not work in the public administration receive a monthly compensation of about $80.
Mahmoud Safadi, who was displaced from Harasta near Damascus, worked at a factory of the Ministry of Industry in Douma in rural Damascus before it was destroyed in the fighting. He said he has joined the Self-Defence Units because he has been “out of job” for several years. “I hope this could be a prelude to restore the army’s control over Harasta so I could return to my home,” he said.
Labour Ministry employee Wissam Rammal had a different reason for enlisting. “I am against participating in the war but I joined the Self-Defence Units to avoid being harassed or accused of taking sides (with the rebels),” he said.