That the regime has faced manpower problems in trying to deal with the rebellion is by now a familiar point. While problems partly derive from lack of trust in many Sunni conscripts since the early days of the civil war, there are also more general issues surrounding the poor pay and terms of army service. In the civil war atmosphere, there may also be reluctance to fight in areas far removed from one’s home and local area. As a result, there has been widespread evasion of compulsory and reserve service, along with desertion from the army ranks. Fear of arrest for these offences would also prevent many people from venturing too far beyond their hometown or area, on account of the risk of encountering a security checkpoint that might have their names on a wanted list.
Instead, militias may be seen as offering a better alternative, as the salaries are often higher than those of army conscripts. Fighting may also be limited to a more local area, though exceptions exist. Perhaps more importantly, many of the militias offer taswiyat al-wad’ (‘sorting out of affairs”) for deserters and those who have evaded compulsory or reserve service. The concept of taswiyat al-wad’ in this context means an amnesty that should ensure you are not arrested for these offences. However, it does not follow from taswiyat al-wad’ that one will be permanently exempted from army service, and failure to comply with a subsequent call-up would make one liable for arrest.
The following documents that are the subject of this post touch on both taswiyat al-wad’ and fighting within one’s local area, for they concern a formation in Syria known as the Local Defence Forces (LDF), which should be distinguished from the much more familiar National Defence Forces (NDF). I had previously profiled the LDF network in Aleppo and was under the impression at the time that the LDF was specific to Aleppo.
However, it turns out that the LDF exists beyond Aleppo, though as suggested by the documents and open-source evidence, the LDF is most prominent in Aleppo. The other LDF networks seem to have a much lower profile. Some examples that have emerged in the open-source evidence outside Aleppo include Hama localities like Mahrada (predominantly Christian) and Sabura.
So if the LDF exists beyond Aleppo, how is it different from the NDF? As the names suggest, the LDF unit is something confined to fighting in its area of origin: thus the LDF of Mahrada will only work to defend Mahrada. In Aleppo, LDF units have confined themselves to fighting in Aleppo province. When the regime retook the eastern Aleppo town of Deir Hafer from the Islamic State, a notable participant in the fighting alongside the Syrian army and the air intelligence’s Tiger Forces was an LDF unit called Fawj Shuhada’ Deir Hafer (Deir Hafer Martyrs Regiment), which as its name suggests is composed of people from Deir Hafer. In contrast, some NDF units (e.g. the Golan Regiment, originating in ex-rebels in Quneitra province) are known to have been deployed in areas far outside their areas of origin (for example, in the case of the Golan Regiment, fighting in the Homs desert). It is also important to look at emblems of the LDF. Consider one below.
An important part of the emblem is the “Army and Armed Forces” reference, which according to the LDF Mahrada page in a conversation yesterday, means that an LDF member is considered to be within the official Syrian armed forces: “A soldier of the local defence is a soldier from the Syrian Arab Army. The National Defence is considered as part of the auxiliary forces and not registered in the military records.”
At the same time, as I have also discussed previously (and as will become clear in the documents discussed), the LDF was set up by Iran, which has clearly played a part in training and advising the LDF. Concomitant with Iran’s role in helping the LDF would be a Hezbollah role in working with the LDF. Looking at the emblem above, the Iranian role is alluded to in the inclusion of the name ‘al-‘Asdiqa” (“the friends” supporting the regime) in the emblem, pointing to a foreign role in the LDF. The approximate time frame for the LDF’s creation and emergence was around 2013-2014. In terms of the LDF’s composition, the LDF Mahrada page explained: “There has been recruitment of all personnel who are reservists [of the army] or newly withdrawn or deserted from service and their affairs have been sorted out. Most of the officers in it are Syrian officers from the well-known fighting formations.” That testimony should not however obscure the Iranian role in the LDF.
While a number of LDF personnel are people who have indeed carried out taswiyat al-wad’, the documents illustrate that there are far more personnel guilty of desertion and evasion who have not come under this category, though ordinary civilians seem to constitute the largest single category. This issue brings us to the primary point of these documents: applying taswiyat al-wad’ to all deserters and service evaders in the LDF units, while altering their status (including those who have done taswiyat al-wad’) such that service in the LDF is actually considered obligatory/reserve army service. This decision further illustrates that taswiyat al-wad’ by itself does not amount to permanent exemption from army service, and that serving in a militia that offers taswiyat al-wad’ does not prevent you from being called up to the army. Indeed, despite the use of the moniker of the “Army and Armed Forces” in reference to the LDF, the apparent inclusion of LDF personnel in the armed forces’ military records did not exempt those liable for military service from being transferred to the Syrian army’s regular divisions. Meanwhile, civilians in the LDF now have the opportunity to serve in the jaysh sha’abi (popular/people’s army) on a voluntary basis.
Looking at the numbers of personnel given in these documents, some of the Iranian and Hezbollah claims that emerge of having tens of thousands of Syrian personnel working under them/affiliated with them become more understandable, though it may be the case that many of these personnel recorded as numbers on paper do not exist on the ground in practice. The documents also specify that these LDF units can remain affiliated with Iran while coordinating with the army’s general command ‘until the crisis’ is over or another decision is issued: the ‘crisis’ is a common term in regime circles to refer to the civil war. Thus, the idea is that the Iranian role in training and advising the LDF units should end once the civil war ends, implicitly on account of a regime victory and a return to normalcy. This stipulation illustrates the dual position the LDF occupies: Iran plays an integral role in the LDF even as the LDF is deemed to be part of the armed forces.
Notions of the LDF as the main vehicle for Iran to exert ideological influence on the Syrian population are less warranted: the clearer medium for that exertion of ideological influence and longer staying power beyond the civil war is the rise of the multiple factions of Syrian Hezbollah, which most notably recruit among Syrian Shi’a but have to account for the fact that the Shi’a still account for only a small proportion of Syria’s population.That said, there is one case of important overlap in Liwa al-Baqir, which has also been a part of the Aleppo LDF.
Finally, looking at the distribution of personnel by provinces, Aleppo unsurprisingly turns up as the place with most LDF personnel, corresponding with the prominence of the Aleppo LDF units that emerges on social media. Notably absent from the list of provinces is the primarily Druze province of Suwayda’. Perhaps the LDF does not have a presence there because most of the militia factions there already focus largely or solely on defending Suwayda’ province. Also absent is Quneitra province on the border with the occupied Golan Heights. Perhaps Quneitra does not have LDF personnel because available fighters and civilian personnel are integrated into other units.
In sum, these decisions are addressing the ongoing problem of unwillingness to undertake regular army service. While the regime is clearly on the offensive and has the upper-hand in the main conflict with the rebels, there is also a realization that there is a long way to go until it achieves what it might call victory. In 2015 in the months before the Russian intervention, there was a clear emphasis on shifting to an overall defensive posture and defending people’s local areas and vital assets, thus the formation at the time of militias like Coastal Shield in the Latakia area. While that overall defensive posture no longer exists, the regime still has to account for war weariness and the unwillingness of many people to fight in the regular army in places far removed from their local areas: translating LDF service into official army service for deserters and draft dodgers with complete taswiyat al-wad’ is one key way to address this problem. This matter also has wider implications for the question of whether/how the regime can retake wider Islamic State-held areas in eastern Syria: as can be seen in the existence of groups like Quwat Muqatili al-Asha’ir, it is hardly as though the regime is oblivious to the idea of having at least some forces of local origin to work with it to retake such areas.
Below are the documents translated in full.
Syrian Arab Republic
General Command for the Army and Armed Forces
Organization & Admin Branch
Organization and Arming Division
Date: / /1438 AH
Corresponding to 4 April 2017 CE
Dear Lieutenant General [/field marshal]: the general commander for the army and armed forces, president of the republic [Bashar al-Assad]:
– Implementing the decision of the brigadier general, the deputy general commander, deputy head of the council of ministers, minister of defence, on the memorandum of the leadership of the popular army- operations and training division- no. 45 on date 19 January 2017 guaranteeing the formation of a committee headed by the organization and administration branch in order to organize the forces working with the Iranian side within the organization and propriety of the local defence units in the provinces and put forward suggestions to your excellence.
– The committee specified by admin order no. 562/67 date 11 February 2017 held a number of meetings and studied and discussed the situation from different angles, including organization, leadership, combat and material guarantee, rights of the martyrs, wounded and disappeared, sorting out the affairs of those commissioned who have avoided obligatory and reserve service and deserters, and the civilians working with the Iranian side. And it culminated in the following suggestions:
1. Organizing the Syrian personnel (military and civilian) who are fighting with the Iranian side within the local defence units in the provinces according to the following table.
|No.||Province||Those who have avoided obligatory service||Those who have avoided reserve service||Desertion||Civilians||Affairs sorted out||Provincial total||Notes|
2. Sorting out the affairs of the military personnel (deserters) and those commissioned who have avoided obligatory and reserve service, and transferring them, appointing them, and modifying the party of their summoning to the local defence units in the provinces and including those personnel who have sorted out their affairs and are working with the Iranian side within the local defence units according to the following table:
|1||Those who avoided compulsory service||14873|
|2||Deserted the army||8003|
|3||Avoided reserve service||16731|
|4||Personnel who have sorted out their affairs||12122|
3. Organizing recruitment contracts for the interest of the armed forces- the people’s army, for a period of two years for the civilians working with the Iranian side for whosoever desires, regardless of the conditions of recruitment implemented in the armed forces (permanent matter no. 1 and its modifications/recruitment) and renewing it by agreement of the two sides according to the following table:
|1||Civilians working with the Iranian side||37004|
4. Commissioning an administration of the affairs of the officers by sorting out of the affairs of session 69 of active officers and those who are working with the Iranian side currently in Aleppo province, their number being 1650.
5. The leadership of the local defence units in the provinces that work with the Iranian side remain affiliated with the Iranian side while coordinating with the general command for the army and armed forces until the end of the crisis in the Syrian Arab Republic, or issuing of a new decision.
6. Combat and material guarantee in all its types for Syrian military personnel and civilians working with the Iranian side on the shoulder of the Iranian side after organizing them into the local defence units in the provinces in coordination with the relevant parties.
7. Guaranteeing the material rights for the martyrs, wounded, and disappeared who have been working with the Iranian side since the beginning of the events, placed on the shoulder of the Iranian side. As for the rest of the determined rights for the martyrs, wounded and disappeared according to the systems and laws as follows:
a) Military personnel and those commissioned who have avoided obligatory service after sorting out of their affairs in principle.
b) Civilians in the framework of the comprehensive solution.
8. Issuing organization instructions guaranteeing implementation instructions for military personnel and civilians working with the Iranian side after organizing them into the local defence units in the provinces.
Attached is a table of the combat equipment handed to the Iranian side from the popular army and that which is present with it.
Please review and decide.
Brigadier General Adnan Mahraz Abdo
Head of the organization and administration branch.
. Opinion of the major general, head of the general chief of staff for the army and armed forces.
I agree to the suggestions: 5 April 2017
. Opinion of the major general, deputy general commander, deputy head of the council of ministers, minister of defence.
I agree to the suggestions: 5 April 2017.
. Decision of the lieutenant general [/field marshal], general commander for the army and armed forces.
Agreed- 11 April 2017.
24 April 2017
To: the national security office, the intelligence branch [military intelligence], general intelligence administration, air intelligence administration, political security branch, criminal security administration, migration and passports administration, military police:
. Implementing the decision of the general, the general commander for the army and armed forces on our memorandum no. 1455, dated 4 April 2017, and the decision of the major general, the deputy general commander, deputy head of the council of ministers, the minister of defence on our memorandum no. 1681, dated 21 April 2017:
– You are asked not to obstruct or detain personnel working with the Iranian side who are carrying temporary cards for the local defence forces as long as their affairs are being sorted out.
– Attached is a copy of our memorandum no. 1455 date 4 April 2017 and our memorandum no. 1681 dated 21 April 2017.
Major General Ali Abdullah Ayoub
Head of the General Chief of Staff and the Armed Forces.
With the mandate of:
Brigadier General Adnan Mahraz Abdo
Head of the branch of organization and administration.
(Update 3 May 2017): Useful feedback to this piece comes from my friend Tobias Schneider, who thinks more attention should be paid to the Iranian angle here. One helpful question he put to me is how many Syrian Hezbollah groups might be included under the LDF mantra. To my knowledge thus far, Liwa al-Baqir is the most important match here. There is also at least one militia from the two Aleppine Shi’i villages of Nubl and Zahara’ under the Aleppo LDF: Fawj Shuhada’ Nubl wa Zahara. It is unclear though whether it has a Syrian Hezbollah image. Most of the other Syrian Hezbollah groups I know of differ from Liwa al-Baqir in acting as smaller ‘special ops’ outfits that are deployed to a variety of fronts in different provinces.
Schneider highlights the document below that is related to the issue of the LDF and army service. It is a letter from the leader of the Aleppo LDF to Zayd Ali Saleh, head of Aleppo’s security and military committee and leader of the new 30th division of the Republican Guard to which all Aleppo formations are supposed to be affiliated. The letter was written just before the internal decision above was issued.
“Syrian Arab Republic
The General Command for the Army and the Armed Forces
Local Defence Forces
Date: 28 March 2017 CE
Dear Brigadier General Zayd Ali Saleh head of the 30th mobile infantry division Republican Guard, head of the security and military committee in Aleppo:
Please extend the period of not arresting fighters of the LDF wanted for compulsory service and reservists as well as those who have refrained and deserters until 1 May 2017 CE, so that their affairs should be sorted through the general command. Thank you for your cooperation.
Leader of the Local Defence Forces
Army and Armed Forces
LDF in Aleppo
Issue of the Committee
29 March 2017 CE
Brigadier General Zayd Ali Saleh
Head of the 30th mobile infantry division Republican Guard,
Head of the security and military committee in Aleppo.”
For crucial context, Sayyid Jawad is an Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) general (Ahmad Madani). Schneider’s suggestion is that a key issue here is Iran’s maintenance of a client network for the long-term, which ties in to the broader point about staying power that I arguably should have given more attention to in the original post. In Aleppo in particular it could tie into an ideological influence through Liwa al-Baqir.
In my opinion there is merit to these points, and they are not necessarily incompatible with the broader issues of manpower and the problem of fighting in the army far removed from one’s local area under poor conditions and service terms. Both the regime and Iran could be seen as benefiting from this arrangement. The regime prevents antagonising populations under its control as the civil war endures on account of arrests for army service and develops better strategies for retaking areas through developing more local forces, in addition to economic benefits in outsourcing most LDF material and funding matters to the Iranians (note the stipulations of financial burdens of combat equipment and rights for ‘martyrs’ etc. on the Iranians), while the Iranians develop a client network more locally rooted not entirely associated with promotion of Shi’i Islam and Iranian ideology. Indeed, the question of when the ‘crisis’ will end and thus the stipulation of the end of Iranian affiliation is still a very long way off.