Before Syria can contemplate post-conflict democracy, it must deal with the proliferation of armed political groups.
Many envisioning a resolution to the Syrian conflict see multi-party elections as part of Syria’s future. But a genuine political transition will have to take into account how much politics in the country has been militarized.
The Syrian crisis has given political parties the opportunity to set up their own military wings as well as encouraging both Syrian and non-Syrian military forces to form political fronts. Without serious guarantees and demobilization efforts, elections are likely to create a ‘regime of militias’ with little legitimacy or stability.
Historically, several Syrian political parties have had military wings. Some formed military committees with the aim of taking over power, as in the cases of the Nasserists and the Baathists. Others, including the Muslim Brotherhood, formed quasi-military entities to fight the regime. All this led to waves of political instability.
The same scenario has played out during the Syrian crisis. Parties both old and new, rebel and pro-regime, saw the crisis as an opportunity to make political gains by use of force. At the same time, armed groups, both Syrian and non-Syrian, have been trying to transform themselves into political or civilian bodies to preserve their role and future influence.
Despite a law banning it, several parties allied to the regime have established military entities. For example, Eagles of the Whirlwind (Nosour al-Zawba’a), the military wing of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, which counts up to 2,500 fighters among its members. The Arab Socialists Movement has a military wing made up of tribal fighters, with some 2,200 troops under three commands that are often in dispute. Safwan Qudsi, secretary general of the Arab Socialist Union Party, has said the party has an auxiliary force made up of 700 fighters.
The ruling Baath party has a Baath Battalion with an estimated 15,000 members, which includes fighters as well as civilian trainers working at universities and government centres.
Most of Syria’s licensed political parties post pictures on their official websites extending condolences to the families of deceased members, without saying whether they were in the army or auxiliary forces.
The Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) also has a military wing supported by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), with some 10,000–15,000 fighters in its YPG and YPJ formations. Several other parties loyal to the PYD have armed wings, such as the Sutoro of the Syriac Union Party with 1,000 fighters, and the Haras al-Khabour of the Assyrian Union Party, with fewer than 200 individuals.
The opposition Syria’s Tomorrow Movement, led by Ahmad Jarb,a has an elite force with 1,000 fighters. The Muslim Brotherhood set up a force to protect civilians, then established the Revolutionary Shield force before joining other factions.
In addition, armed groups such as Shia militias and jihadist factions have begun to mobilize politically. Some sources have revealed that the Quwwat al-Rida (a Syrian Shia militia) has sought the help of Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Iran to attract the support of Syria’s Shias, with an aim to securing representation on the municipal and provincial councils of Homs. Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham has set up a political front labelled ‘the government of salvation’ which aims to impose the group’s control over local councils. Other opposition factions have also attempted to take control of local councils in order to win legitimacy and guarantee their influence.
The spiral of instability
The militarization of political parties and government bodies entails serious dangers that threaten any form of political solution in Syria and undermines the rule of the state. On top of that come the dangers posed by both Syrian and non-Syrian military actors using civilian fronts in their attempts to dominate the current government and local councils or penetrate the structure of the state.
Syrian political life lacks the institutions that could mitigate against attempts at state capture or gangsterism. Rushing too quickly into elections while these groups still exist, and without serious democratic guarantees, is a sure path the further political instability and violence.
Ayman Aldassouky is a researcher at Omran for strategic studies. He is currently a Master’s student in International Relations at Gazi University. His research is concentrated on governance and local councils, jihadi movements, and the relations between states in the Middle East.