The regime is using a set of short-term incentives to demobilize or co-opt the greatest number of rebel fighters, but the strategy is unlikely to support long-term stability.
Since 2016, the Syrian regime has been pursuing a strategy of negotiating local surrender agreements (also known as reconciliation deals) across the country. Those deals have allowed it to re-establish its authority over the majority of opposition-held areas and forcibly displace those who continue to resist Assad’s rule (both fighters and civilians) to the last remaining rebel-held resistance pocket in northwestern Syria.
Despite the obvious risks involved, a sizeable number of rebel fighters decided to stay in their areas, now under the control of the regime. Some of these fighters laid down their weapons and returned to a civilian life, but a surprising number have joined various pro-regime forces. However, far from being reconciliatory, the mechanisms used by the regime to co-opt these irregular opposition combatants are coercive and are unlikely to support long-term stability.
The Syrian regime usually applies various coercive methods (namely sieges and intense indiscriminate attacks) to pressure the targeted rebel-held areas to surrender. Consequently, the details of the submission agreements are negotiated by committees composed largely of local mediators with ties to the Syrian regime.
Once a surrender deal has been reached, the negotiating committee usually registers the names of armed combatants and activists, and whether they wish to evacuate or remain in their areas. The composed lists are then assessed by various intelligence and military security forces to determine who can stay and who should be relocated to other rebel-held areas.
Obligatory conscription is the regime’s most common tactic to incorporate former rebel opposition fighters into the official armed forces. When the surrender arrangements are completed, former rebel combatants between the age of 18 and 42 who have not fulfilled their military service obligations as determined by law are required to join the army. They are typically given a temporary formal break for six months to settle their affairs (a process is commonly known as taswiyat al-wad’) and register with the local military recruitment branch (Sha’bet Tajneed) in their respective area to be enlisted.
The reconciling militants who do not report voluntarily during that period of time are forcibly arrested and enlisted. In many cases, reconciling draft evaders have been arrested by the regime even before their temporary respite was over.
The aim of enlisting former rebel fighters is not limited to providing the official army with manpower. It also aims to make them adopt the regime political stance. The conscripts are forced to attend political reorientation programmes led by the Political Orientation Branch and designed to instruct recruits in Ba’ath party ideology, emphasizing the regime’s narratives about the uprising.
In addition, formal opposition fighters are lured to join pro-regime auxiliary forces such as the Iranian-backed National Defence Forces (NDF) or the Russian-led 5th Brigade. This is typically facilitated by local influential figures who act as intermediaries, such as former opposition commanders, local notables, prominent businessmen or even regime officials. For example, the leader of the opposition negotiation committee in the city of Qudsiyya in rural Damascus contacted local armed opposition fighters and offered them the options of joining the NDF, both during the negotiations and after. In the cities of Barzeh and Qaboun in Damascus, the leader of the rebel group First Brigade managed the NDF recruitment efforts among reconciling combatants.
Despite the knowledge that the service within the auxiliary forces will likely be more dangerous than other options (such as joining local police services), the majority of former rebel militants who did not leave their areas after regime takeover have joined such pro-regime forces. The main driver behind that seems to be the higher salaries the auxiliary forces provide compared to official armed forces such as the army and local police. It was reported that the majority of armed opposition combatants remaining in the city of al-Tall in rural Damascus had decided to join an NDF group called Qalamoun Shield.
There is no strict formula or rules of procedure for the transition from rebel to the auxiliary forces, but new recruits are usually sent for a brief training after contracts and starting dates are finalized. On many occasions, such training involves a three to seven-day political reorientation program, medical checks and skills evaluation. The process then ends with the recruits assigned to a unit or a group.
Notably, the majority of formal opposition combatants have been co-opted on an individual basis after their groups were disbanded. Nonetheless, on rare occasions, former rebel groups continue to operate in the same area and under the same commander. The only changes they have had to accept were renaming the group and switching their allegiance.
For example, following the surrender deal in the town of Beit Jann, southwest of Damascus, the former leader of a local rebel group called Liwa’ Omar bin al-Khattab created a new NDF group called the Beit Jann battalion, affiliated with the Hermon Regiment. In addition to former Liwa’ Omar bin al-Khattab fighters, Beit Jann battalion accommodated within its ranks both civilians and other former rebels.
Unlike joining the auxiliary forces, which only allows their members to postpone conscription, some former rebel combatants are allowed to join local police services in order to fulfil their conscription requirement. To achieve that, draft evaders usually contact either the police station in their area or a local influential figure known for facilitating such a process.
Once the individuals are accepted by the local police force, new recruits are required to sign a contract for five years. Their ranks and salaries are typically decided based on the police laws and regulations. Their respective police stations are then in charge of following up with the authorities to suspend their military service (taswiyat al-wada’).
Joining local police forces allows former combatants to avoid conscription and remain in their local communities. It also allows them to avoid combatting other rebel fighters. Nonetheless, this option is considered the least attractive choice, as police recruits have to serve for a longer period (a minimum of five years). Their salary is also lower than the average wage paid by other pro-regime forces. Out of hundreds of former armed opposition combatants who have reportedly joined regime forces, there is public data on only 80 people who have joined the local police in Madamiyet Elsham.
The aforementioned mechanisms have allowed the regime, at least for now, to reintegrate or demobilize former rebel fighters remaining in its areas of control. Nonetheless, those efforts are dependent on short-term coercive mechanisms to change the brand of former rebel forces, instead of being part of concrete steps to feed into a comprehensive disarmament, demobilization and reintegration strategy. Without transformative political and institutional reform, these efforts will continue to undermine Syria’s stability rather than enhance it.
Haid Haid is a Consulting Research Fellow in the Middle East and North Africa programme at Chatham House and Syrian columnist who focuses on security policies, conflict resolution, Kurdish and Islamist movements.