As the Syrian civil war enters its seventh year, it is increasingly clear that analysts will have to pay greater attention to the internal dynamics of the Bashar al-Assad regime, which now has a clear edge over the Syrian opposition following the conquest of Aleppo in December 2016.
That advantage is certain to be consolidated as the remaining insurgent strongholds in the wider Damascus area, most notably East Ghouta, are cleared out, having been weakened significantly by infighting and siege warfare.
No analysis of the regime and its ascendancy is complete without a look at militiafication, a phenomenon that can most broadly be traced to manpower shortages. Damascus has struggled to bolster the ranks of its army in the face of draft avoidance and defections, especially by Sunni servicemen. Consequently, the Syrian regime has had to enlist the support of both local and foreign groups to compensate for its army’s shortcomings. Local formations in particular represent the most understudied aspect of the Syrian war, the result of misconception and poor analysis.
Arguably, the most common misconception is that the regime side has fragmented into a chaotic array of militias, not unlike the opposition, marking the virtual collapse of the Syrian state. Complementing this myth is the inexplicable tendency of analysts to simply list the names and number of armed formations involved in Syria without situating these in a coherent politico-military context.
Besides the fact that this approach fails to take into account key distinctions between the militias (force size and capabilities, for one), the question also arises of how far one goes in classifying larger entities as collections of separate groups. For instance, one of the most well-known militia networks is Colonel Suheil al-Hassan’s Tiger Forces. The network is home to multiple contingents, all with separate names and leaders. When creating an infographic or citing statistics, does one list these formations as separate or as a single force? In addition, the Tiger Forces network is itself affiliated with the air intelligence branch of the regime. Should we put together the Tiger Forces and numerous other air intelligence branch affiliate militias under one moniker in an infographic or list?
At best, misleading representations of the militias supporting the Assad regime misinform readers, and, at worst, they deceive them. Their detrimental impact on popular understanding of the Syrian conflict is compounded as they are distributed across social media: for an example, look to an infographic promoted by analyst Charles Lister, which asserted that most of the militias on the side of the regime were foreign in origin. It contained multiple mistakes, basic ones at that, with some Syrian militias classified as foreign and some foreign groups said to be involved in Syria – all without any factual basis.
These glaring errors did not stop the image from being widely distributed, with prominent rebel group Ahrar al-Sham citing it to support its propaganda, which holds that less than 10% of the forces on the regime side are actually Syrian in origin.
The rise of these militias deserves much more nuanced consideration, in no small part because of the problems militiafication has created for the regime. For one, on many occasions militias have been able to act with impunity and take the law into their own hands, with the weakened Syrian state unable to rein in such excesses. In the predominantly Druze province of Suwayda’, located in southern Syria, internal security has been largely delegated to militias – some ideologically loyal to Assad, others lacking that ideological loyalty but still working within the framework of the regime’s continued existence. As a result, reports of kidnappings in Suwayda’ have grown more and more frequent.
Other problems include the tendency of many militias to engage in systematic looting upon retaking areas from insurgents, as seen in Aleppo and Homs. The regime’s ability to restrain such transgressive behaviour has been dubious, to say the least. Reliance on militias has also complicated the regime’s war effort, with the existence of multiple chains of command and occasional infighting, posing severe obstacles to achieving unity of command and tactical coordination on the battlefield. The establishment of the Fifth Legion (also known as V Corps) in November 2016, a unit backed by Russia and Iran, appears to have been intended in part to address this problem in part by uniting commanders from a range of militias to lead assault units.
Taking these points into account allows for deconstruction of the myths obscuring the role of militias on the regime side. Their presence on the battlefield does not mean the Syrian state has collapsed. It has kept sectors such as education intact, and continues to pay salaries to those in areas not under regime control. Although militias on the side of the regime have engaged in non-military activities, they cannot be said to offer a political alternative that threaten the regime’s existence. The same cannot be said for opposition formations in territories like Idlib province, where factions compete over who has the most popular judiciary and can best provide social services.
Militias fighting in support of the regime have accepted that the foundations of the Syrian state– and Assad’s rule itself – are to be preserved. Among them, even groups that are ideologically and ideationally at odds with the regime, most notably the Beirut-based Syrian Social Nationalist Party, do not envision Syria’s political future without Assad. Instead, they have sought to achieve more limited political goals, whether in targeting specific local communities or seeking to become the new middlemen through the parliamentary elections.
Militias may in fact undertake political initiatives to help solidify the regime’s political standing. A good case in point is Liwa al-Baqir, a militia that consists of Shi’ified Bekara tribesmen from the Aleppo area and has received training from Iran and Hezbollah. Having lost hundreds of fighters since its formation, Liwa al-Baqir successfully promoted an officially independent candidate in the parliamentary elections of April 2016. Working with the Iranians, Liwa al-Baqir also helped bring about reconciliation between Bekara tribal chief Nawwaf al-Bashir and the regime.
In short, the militias can be seen as reinforcing the notion that Assad’s position as president of Syria is non-negotiable, perhaps the main stumbling block to negotiations and the long-touted idea of a political transition to a post-Assad Syria.
Finally, it is important to acknowledge the continuities reflected in militiafication. Competition between different factions and government existed in Syria well before the onset of the civil war. Similarly, some of the more well-known militia commanders, such as Mihrac Ural of the Muqawama Suriya and Muhammad Jaber of Suqur al-Sahara’, were already prominent businessmen before the civil war.
As the regime continues to gain ground in Syria, analysis of that country’s conflict must remain grounded in reality. Promotion of myths that benefit one side or the other is not simply an analytical error. It risks the adoption of harmful and counter-productive policies towards the Syrian conflict, in which one more wrong move could prove the last.