Now that the conflict in Syria is winding down, the Syrian government is looking to bring the numerous loyalist militias under state control – with some difficulty, writes Mona Alami
The drawing down of the conflict in Syria has left the regime of President Bashar al Assad stronger in areas under its control, allowing Assad to begin establishing control over the myriad loyalist militias that emerged during the war. Yet, contrary to some media reports, the process of integrating the militias into a state-organized military structure is still limited in scope and hampered by numerous systemic problems.
“The Syrian government was forced to outsource much of its military effort to a complex network of loyalist militias”
As the conflict in Syria morphed from protests into civil war, the regime began facing a massive manpower shortage in the Syrian army due to desertions and casualties. The Syrian government was forced to outsource much of its military effort to a complex network of loyalist militias. Prior to the war, the Syrian army was estimated to consist of around 300,000 soldiers, composed primarily of young conscripts. By late 2015, this figure had dropped significantly to less than 100,000 with some analysts believing the number to be much lower. Soldiers defected for political reasons or for fear of fighting outside their home regions and because of low pay. Militias, therefore, were seen as an alternative security solution, allowing conscripts to fight in their home areas and for deserters to sort out their military status.
Several large formations emerged from the chaos of the civil war: the National Defense Forces (NDF), the Local Defense Forces (LDF)and a flurry of paramilitaries linked to various intelligence services. The NDF was created by merging local Popular Committees and are believed initially to have been financed and trained by Iran and often operated outside the areas where the fighters lived. According to Syria expert Aymen Jawad Tamimi, the LDF, another Iran-supported militia was confined to fighting in its area of origin. In addition, the LDF members acquired special status as they were considered part of the Syrian army. According to Tamimi, official documents also underlined that while the LDF was affiliated with the Syrian army and coordinated with its general command, it remained technically under Iranian leadership and was supported by Tehran in matters of arms and equipment. Numerous other militias sponsored by business figures and various intelligence services also flourished in Syria during the war.
“Media reports point to an attempt to organize the chaotic paramilitary landscape”
In the last two years, media reports point to an attempt to organize the chaotic paramilitary landscape. Several conduits for the reintegration of pro-regime paramilitaries into the state have emerged, namely through auxiliary forces such as the Fifth and Fourth Corps while other state military institutions such as the Republican Guard appears to have also integrated some paramilitary groups.
The Fifth Corps, a mostly Russian endeavor, has progressively integrated a number of groups such as the Assad Shield, Mahardeh Forces, and Martyrdom or Victory Groups, the ISIS Hunters (which was fully armed and trained by Russia), the Tribal forces, and the Baath Brigades, according to South Front. The regime also established what it called the Fourth Corps, which according to News Deeply quoting pro-regime outlet Al Watan, combined NDF and other paramilitary forces. Other Iran-Iraqi joint projects such as Abu Fadl al Abbas have also been incorporated into the Republican Guard. In addition, former rebels have joined the NDF, according to Syria expert Haid Haid who cites the example of the Beit Jin battalion, led by the former leader to the Liwa Omar Bin Khattab.
While these mechanisms have allowed the regime to begin the consolidation of paramilitary forces, the process faces many challenges. First, the process is still in its infancy, and the numbers of integrated militiamen remain low. In addition, some militias are being integrated at the level of units rather than individuals, a system that perpetuates loyalties to the militia rather than to the state which ultimately undermines the state’s efforts to monopolize power.
It remains to be seen whether the current ad hoc approach to integrating loyalist militias into a state-controlled military structure can be institutionalized effectively. The fact that Iran and Russia are also directly or indirectly involved in the process, further complicates it, as both countries have differing, potentially incompatible, visions of the new Syria and both are ultimately vying for a position in the Syrian larger chess game.
Mona Alami is a senior nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. She is also a fellow with TRENDS Research & Advisory.