The Quest for Control – What does the spread of militias mean for Bashar al-Assad?

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While the multi-factional nature of the Syrian opposition has been well documented, the fragmentation of pro-government forces has been less apparent. Some of the more well-known Syrian pro-Assad militias include the Tiger Forces under Major General Suheil al-Hassan, the Desert Hawks founded by the Jaber brothers,1. the Syrian Social Nationalist Party’s (SSNP) militia “Eagles of the Whirlwind,”2. and the Palestinian Liwa al-Quds3. who played an important role during the fight for Aleppo. In addition, the National Defence Forces (NDF) had their origins in the many localized militias but have since been bound more tightly to the official Syrian state apparatus. This article aims to analyse how this fragmentation impacts Bashar al-Assad’s role as the leader of Syria.

Corruption has long been a problem in Syria, but it has become increasingly acute since the war began. According to Transparency International, an international NGO dedicated to combatting and gathering data on corruption, Syria ranked 173 out of 175 countries in the 2016 Corruption Perception Index, falling from 126th in 2009.4. This increase in corruption can partly be attributed to the fragmentation of Syria’s military forces. Extortion at the various checkpoints, kidnapping and looting have all been recurring problems. For many, the militias have primarily become a means of profiteering, eclipsing their role as defence forces. Some groups within the NDF have previously been accused of extortion and furthering the interests of local warlords.5.,6. Even the well-reputed elite troops of the Tiger Forces and the Desert Hawks have been implicated in various corruption scandals, ranging from looting of captured areas to the disappearance, and presumed selling, of loyalist oil convoys.7.,8. In one very extreme case, one friendly convoy was outright destroyed, albeit by accident.9.

Another additional motivating factor, especially for the local political party SSNP (Syrian Social Nationalist Party), is possible political gains. Their role in the war assisted the recruiting of many new members, gaining them popularity, prestige and several supporting strongholds in Syria.10.,11.

While it is clear that the Syrian opposition and their foreign backers have sought Assad’s ouster from power, his future as Syria’s president has also been disputed among pro-government international powers. While Iran has been beholden to Assad throughout the war (his status as an Alawite makes it all but impossible for him to fall into Saudi-Arabia’s Sunni sphere of influence), the same doesn’t hold true for Russia. Russia’s goal has been to keep the Syrian State intact, which does not necessarily require Assad to remain as president. Russia has repeatedly indicated they are open to peaceful solutions that include Assad stepping down.12.,13.,14.

However, this position has become increasingly problematic due to the fragmentation of the pro-government military forces. That private militias control swaths of the country and act as de-facto warlords has increasingly led to the possibility that the Syrian state could break apart, even in the foreseeable event that pro-government forces win the war outright. In the absence of a widely accepted leader who can navigate the interests of various factions toward a unified force, the war could be prolonged by inter-factional conflict. It is arguable that there’s no single person in the Syrian government’s camp that can rival Assad’s popularity. Possible successors might command the respect of the military, intelligence, or even civilian branches of government, but none are yet accepted by all the constituent parties without significant challenge.15.Week in Review; Volume 2; Issue 2; Zohan Tariq: The Question of Succession; Russian analyst Mikhail Hodarenok aptly states that “there is an understanding that if you touch Assad now, everything in Syria will fall apart. It’ll be the last day of the country.”16.

Among some parts of the general population, Assad has become akin to a “saviour” for his opposition to excesses and corruption by pro-government militias.17. But politically, as Assad relinquishes some of his control to the various militias, his position as head of government is strengthened out of a common fear that deposing him would shatter the Syrian state. Without Assad as the overarching figurehead, conflicting interests could escalate towards chaos and even armed conflict. No major party regards this as an attractive option.18.

On the other hand, it follows that Assad must contend with aspiring warlords within his own camp, in order to retain his monopoly on the legitimate use of force within Syria. Assad has indicated he is aware of this and showed his willingness to address these challenges when he recently made a speech denouncing crime and corruption in Syria.19.

He is also ramping up a campaign to combat corruption and its associated crime by militia forces in Aleppo. Head of State Security Mohammed Dib Zeitoun was dispatched to Aleppo in June to oversee the crackdown on corruption: several arrest waves of former loyalist fighters are early signs that these efforts are bearing fruit, rather than simply being for show.20.

Nevertheless, Assad has depended on these militias, especially the more prominent groups such as the Tiger Forces and the Desert Hawks. These two particular formations have been rare among the loyalist factions in that they have been able to successfully mount offensives rather than simply defend territory. The recent dissolution of the Desert Hawks after a series of incidents, ranging from posing with decapitated heads to the aforementioned destruction of an oil convoy, displayed that the Assad government has more control over the militias than many analysts previously credited. It has been reported that the group’s founder, Mohammad Jaber, left Syria for Russia, and that many of the Desert Hawks’ rank and file have been encouraged to join other armed forces.21.

The dissolution occurred quickly and came as a surprise to many. This demonstrated that Assad’s government will continue to maintain significant control over the militias, unless he were to challenge them on multiple fronts simultaneously. The Desert Hawks had overstepped the boundaries of accepted self-enrichment and as a result, most other militias raised no objection to their dissolution. Without good reason, they would not have likely remained silent. Nevertheless, it is unlikely that most militias will be dissolved as easily when the appropriate time arrives.

A possible post-war outcome is that militia leaders would be compensated for disbanding their various schemes and illicit businesses that the war has allowed to flourish. Alternatively, their entrenchment in their areas of operation may be unofficially sanctioned by the government as they become the government’s primary means of controlling public opinion and suppressing dissent. The previous local client webs that performed population control have been destroyed in much of the country. The militias could be used to resurrect such a system, as they currently exert significant local influence, backed by their military might.22. It would mutually serve the interests of both Assad and the militias to allow their continued domination over local economies to strengthen these client webs. However, it is the civilian population that would be reverted to their pre-war subjugation; a status which was part of the reason that contributed to mass-demonstrations and the call for change in the first place, only this time it would be with a new set of masters.

Sebastian Gonano

Sebastian is a history student currently doing his master at TU Dresden. His focus at the International Review is the Syrian and Iraqi Civil wars, terrorism and the geopolitics surrounding it.


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15 Week in Review; Volume 2; Issue 2; Zohan Tariq: The Question of Succession;
International Review