Syria’s Border Guards: From Auxiliary to Frontlines

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On June 9, 2019, rebel inghimashi fighters stormed a Syrian regime position in Jebal Turkmen, Latakia, killing at least six regime soldiers.1.https://bit.ly/2nFjejO Rebel raids of isolated regime outposts in these forested mountains have become an expected facet of life on the Latakia frontline, but what set this attack apart was the death of at least three members of Syria’s Border Guards, including the battalion’s commanding officer, Colonel ‘Aqil Haider.2.https://twitter.com/GregoryPWaters/status/1138554853008007169 These men belonged to the Border Guards’ 11th Regiment, consistently stationed along the Turkish-Syrian border in Latakia province but increasingly taking on front-line duties in this governorate.

Little has been written about the Border Guard in either Arabic or English. The Border Guard, also known as Hajjane, traces its origins back to the founding of the Syrian state when camel-riding bedouins were paid to patrol Syria’s borders. Gradually, these men were incorporated into the army and turned into a regular unit. According to a United Kingdom Syria report in 2009, the Border Guard was initially tasked with border patrol and preventing smuggling, particularly between Syria and Iraq following the 2003 Iraq war, and operated under the command of the General Intelligence Directorate.3.UK Home Office Country of Origin Information Service Jane’s, a security analysis firm, estimated the Border Guards’ strength at 10,000 personnel in 2007.4.UK Home Office Country of Origin Information Service It should be noted that this is not the similarly named Syrian Border Security Force, which was created under U.S. oversight in 2018 to patrol the de-facto borders of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northeast Syria.5.“U.S-Led Coalition Helps To Build Border Force in Syria” : Radio Free Europe

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The emblem of the Syrian Border Guard

During the war, border guards have generally served as auxiliary units, participating in both defensive and clearing operations alongside Syrian Arab Army (SAA) units and loyalist militias. Historically, most border guards have been tasked with guarding oil and gas infrastructure in central Syria alongside Russian PMCs, with defensive duties on other fronts, and preventing smuggling across Syria’s borders.6.Anonymous, Interviewed by Author, July 21, 2019 While they have largely played a secondary role during the war, there have been several instances where the Border Guard has suffered high level losses. The 11th Regiment lost a lieutenant colonel in northern Hama in September 2013, battalion commander Colonel Madher Jouria in Latakia in June 2016, and battalion commander Colonel Haider in Latakia in June 2019. The 5th Regiment lost a lieutenant colonel in Hasakah in July 2015, a colonel in Deir Ez Zor in January 2016, and a brigadier general in the eastern Damascus countryside in April 2016. These two regiments have the most prolific social media presence of all Border Guard units, possibly owing to their central roles in Latakia and Hasakah.

Despite their intended function of guarding the border, the force did engage in combat and witness defections in the first years of the war. On December 13, 2011, border guards reportedly clashed with a group of 15 rebels near Ayn al-Bayda, Idlib.7.حرس الحدود يحبط محاول تسل مجموعة مسلحة إلى داخل الارضي السورية” : SyriaLife On July 10, 2012 a Latakia-born border guard was killed in the Idlib governorate while rebel forces captured a Border Guards barracks in Abukamal, Deir Ez Zor, the following month.8.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E4ezMkvEQhE Meanwhile, a member of the 11th Regiment either went missing (loyalist claim) or defected (rebel claim) along with 29 other members of his unit while manning a checkpoint outside the village of al-Lani, Idlib in October 2012.9.Claims come from April 9, 2018 and October 28, 2012 Facebook posts, respectively A video uploaded to YouTube on December 12, 2012 claims to show eight men defecting from the Border Guard in Homs, although the specific regiment is not mentioned.10.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ev2ZSEttSg4 Rebels also captured Border Guard battalion bases in southern Dara’a and Hawwarin, central Homs, in October 2013.11.“الجيش الحر يسيطر على أكبر كتيبة للهجانة على الحدود الأردنية” : Enab Baladi12.“المجاهدون يحررون كتيبة الهجانة في حوارين، والعبدالله يرافق النصرة” : al-Zaman al-Wasl

Today, the Border Guard consists of seven regiments, although only six could be verified via social media posts.13.Anonymous, Interviewed by Author, September 15, 2019 Each appears to have a specific region of operation. They are:

  • 5th Regiment (Hasakah pocket)
  • 6th Regiment (Southern Homs)
  • 8th Regiment (Jordan-Syria border)
  • 10th Regiment (Iraq-Syria border)
  • 11th Regiment (Latakia)
  • 12th Regiment (Manbij and East Aleppo)
  • Unknown (likely Lebanon-Syria border)

The unknown unit likely operates along the Lebanese-Syrian border, as the Border Guard has reportedly led anti-smuggling operations in August 2013, August 2015, and February 2018 along the Lebanese border near Talkalakh, Homs.14.Facebook Page15.“قوات حرس الحدود تضبط شحنة أسلحة معدة للتهريب من لبنان إلى الإرهابيين في ريف حمص” : SANA16.“قوات حرس الحدود تحبط محاولة تسلل مجموعة إرهابية من الأراضي اللبنانية عبر معبر غير شرعي جنوب منطقة الدبوسة في منطقة تلكلخ بريف حمص” : al-Boselah Furthermore, a video published on July 31, 2014 shows Border Guard members at the Qumar Bridge crossing between Lebanon and Syria, just outside Tal Kalakh.17.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8hhDH_vEnrg

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A member of the Border Guard’s 5th Regiment poses next to a T-55 tank in Hasakah

The recent fighting in Latakia highlights the expanding role of some Border Guard regiments as Damascus’ victories increased following the Russian intervention in September 2015. The 5th Regiment sent units to aid regime forces besieged in Deir Ez Zor in 2016, units of the 6th Regiment participated in much of the anti-ISIS fighting across central Syria from as early as March 2015, and the 11th Regiment took on frontline duties in Latakia by mid-2016. Interestingly, the 5th Regiment also played a central role in the brief clashes between the YPG and regime forces in Hasakah city in July 2016.18.Via the 5th Regiment’s Facebook page

Members of the 5th Regiment firing at YPG fighters in central Hasakah in July 2016

While the Border Guard operated under the command of the General Intelligence Directorate prior to the war, they reportedly came under the command of the 5th Corps for a period of time after the Corps was formed in November 2016.19.Anonymous, Interviewed by Author, July 21, 2019 However, a currently serving member of the 11th Regiment claims that the force does not officially operate under any divisional or corps command, but rather each regiment is attached to the divisional command of the region in which it is currently deployed. Thus, the 11th Regiment currently serves under the command of the 4th Corps’ 2nd Division, which is charged with the defenses of much of Latakia.20.Anonymous, Interviewed by Author, September 15, 2019

It is difficult to know how many border guards exist today, although it is likely still around 10,000 men. According to one interviewee, the force fielded 3,000 men in Latakia in 2014, an increase from the number of men deployed in 2011.21.Anonymous, Interviewed by Author, July 21, 2019 It is not clear if all 3,000 men belonged to the 11th Regiment (making it twice its nominal size) or if they belonged to two or more regiments. If each of the seven regiments operates at near full strength (1,500 men), the force would number 10,500 fighters.

According to the same source, the Border Guard “is probably one of the more diverse groups that bear arms”, recruiting members from across Syria, including many from Raqqa.22.Anonymous, Interviewed by Author, July 21, 2019 The force also recruits among former opposition members, as was made clear in the July 10, 2019 rebel raid in Latakia in which at least four 11th Regiment men from the reconciled Damascus towns of Beit Tima and Ruhaybah were reported killed. The June 9 attack highlights this diversity, as the three confirmed border guard martyrs were Alawite, Assyrian, and Sunni. However, many members of the force still come from typical loyalist strongholds in Alawite and Christian towns in Latakia, Hama, and rural Homs.

The Border Guard remains a small and largely inconsequential force in the larger scope of the war. However, its history and evolving use as both a frontline defensive force (in Latakia), an anti-ISIS force (in central Syria), and an anti-smuggling force (in southern Syria) reflects the ways in which the Syrian regime has adapted and reshaped its armed forces over the course of the civil war.

Gregory Waters

Gregory Waters holds a Masters in Global Studies from the University of California, Berkeley and is a fellow at the UC Berkeley Human Rights Investigations Lab. He researches conflicts and political transitions in the MENA region, primarily using open source information. His current research focuses on mapping Syrian militia unit structures. He publishes his research here and on Twitter.

References   [ + ]

1. https://bit.ly/2nFjejO
2. https://twitter.com/GregoryPWaters/status/1138554853008007169
3, 4. UK Home Office Country of Origin Information Service
5. “U.S-Led Coalition Helps To Build Border Force in Syria” : Radio Free Europe
6, 19, 21, 22. Anonymous, Interviewed by Author, July 21, 2019
7. حرس الحدود يحبط محاول تسل مجموعة مسلحة إلى داخل الارضي السورية” : SyriaLife
8. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E4ezMkvEQhE
9. Claims come from April 9, 2018 and October 28, 2012 Facebook posts, respectively
10. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ev2ZSEttSg4
11. “الجيش الحر يسيطر على أكبر كتيبة للهجانة على الحدود الأردنية” : Enab Baladi
12. “المجاهدون يحررون كتيبة الهجانة في حوارين، والعبدالله يرافق النصرة” : al-Zaman al-Wasl
13, 20. Anonymous, Interviewed by Author, September 15, 2019
14. Facebook Page
15. “قوات حرس الحدود تضبط شحنة أسلحة معدة للتهريب من لبنان إلى الإرهابيين في ريف حمص” : SANA
16. “قوات حرس الحدود تحبط محاولة تسلل مجموعة إرهابية من الأراضي اللبنانية عبر معبر غير شرعي جنوب منطقة الدبوسة في منطقة تلكلخ بريف حمص” : al-Boselah
17. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8hhDH_vEnrg
18. Via the 5th Regiment’s Facebook page