Over the past six years, the Syrian regime has delegated a large swath of its powers to loyal militias, entrusting them with preserving security, representing the regime and handling the day-to-day affairs of local communities. Today, it seems almost impossible for the state to recover its authority. In addition to the weakness of the Syrian state and its increasing failure to provide key citizen services, militias have gained so much ground that the state cannot restrain them and exert sole control over weapons and violence, even if it wishes to do so.
The intensity of the current chaos in Syria varies by region depending on social cohesion and the prevailing ethno-sectarian climate; however, an identical model reproduces itself throughout regime-controlled areas. Local militias from Latakia to Suwayda perpetrate looting, murder and kidnapping for ransom on a daily basis when facing financial pressure or as part of the internal conflicts and wars for territory that pit them against one another. Militias also extract protection payments from traders and manufacturers, meddle in the affairs of private businesses, impose ‘taxes’ on private and public businesses and control the prices of goods.
Aleppo, whose eastern neighborhoods were retaken by regime forces in late 2016, may be the most violent example of chaos and insecurity. Aleppo’s eastern neighborhoods are controlled by militias of Liwa al-Baqir, the Popular Committees, the Berri clan, al-Anajira, the Palestinian al-Quds Brigade and the Ba’ath Brigades, while the shabbiha militias, which are linked to the security services, are deployed throughout the city’s west.
Militias hold a monopoly on key services, which have become a source of income for them, from public hospitals and transportation to energy and drinking water. Each armed militia runs a type of service and public utility and shares revenue with the regime’s security services. For example, the Liwa al-Baqir militia runs Aleppo’s transportation sector, using a large fleet of microbuses, and shares its revenues with the Traffic Police Department and Military Security.
Iran’s militias and Russia’s state?
This dynamic between the militias and the state is partly a conflict between the differing approaches of two of the regime’s allies: Russia and Iran. Despite the current agreement between Russia and Iran to preserve the Syrian regime, their long-term objectives diverge. Russia is interested in upholding the Syrian state by way of its official military, embodied in the armed forces, while Iran seeks to form, support and fund a broad spectrum of foreign and local pro-regime militias.
In late 2016, Russia tried to recruit loyal militias and attach them to the Fifth Corps, a newly-formed military unit affiliated to the regime’s armed forces, with limited success. Affiliates are offered limited advantages compared with the influence and illicit financial resources provided to militia members.
Differences between Russian and Iranian interests often translate into armed clashes on the ground among their local proxies. The tension that has recently engulfed regime-controlled areas around the De-escalation Area in northern Homs required the intervention of the Russian military police in order to control the local pro-Iranian Shia militias there, after their rejection of the conclusions reached by the Astana 5 talks.
Pro-regime militias fall into two major categories. One comprises foreign Shiite militias fighting alongside regime forces on the frontlines against the opposition and ISIS, such as Lebanese Hezbollah, the Afghan Fatemiyoun Brigade and the Pakistani Liwa Zainebiyoun. The other is made up of hundreds of local militias that were entrusted with preserving security in regime-held areas, the most important and largest of which is the National Defence Forces (NDF).
Even though Iran sponsors most militia groupings, local militias maintain close relationships with the security services and mostly consist of Syrians. Sometimes local militias, especially the NDF, participate in fighting in nearby regions; however, most militias prefer to stay within the confines of their own region. Therefore, such militias manage to attract Syrian youth who are wanted for military service, since they offer them a way out of fighting on the frontlines. For example, in the Druze-dominated city of Suwayda, over 27,000 individuals have failed to report for military service and many of them instead joined local militias in order to benefit from the advantages provided, such as salaries, power and protection from legal accountability in case of any transgressions.
The security campaign
Popular pressure is building among regime supporters to control the chaos and anarchy of these loyal militias. This was reflected in Bashar al-Assad’s 20 June cabinet meeting speech, where he spoke about ‘some harmful phenomena that have occurred in recent years of the crisis, and which sometimes directly affect citizens’ rights’, namely ‘huge convoys, road closures and creating an impression of terror and panic’ that have been carried out by some government officials, their sons, or non-officials. The president presented this as part of ‘administrative reforms’ that are key to developing the operations of state institutions and increasing the productivity of their staff, in continuation of the ‘development and modernization’ approach promoted by Assad in his speech before the People’s Council following his inaugural address in July 2000.
On 21 June, the Ministry of Interior’s Traffic Department in Damascus decided to conduct patrols to ‘prevent and suppress attempts at destabilization’ and ‘suppress any armed demonstrations in the city’s streets with the exception of weapons used by the police and security forces during their official working hours’. Such decisions were supported by the Ba’ath Party leadership, and the presidency reserved a phone line and a page on social media to receive complaints against whoever ‘breaks the law’.
As a result of these decisions, in Damascus, ‘security licences’ that had not been issued by the National Security Bureau were confiscated from civilians who purchased them in exchange for protection from militias and easier transition through roadblocks, or to flee mandatory military service. The campaign executed by the Traffic Investigation and joint patrols targeted unlicensed motorbikes and cars with hidden license plates and tinted glass, as well as dozens of armed men wandering far from their military posts. The Aleppo branch of the Ba’ath Party issued instructions to ban the members of the Ba’ath Brigades from circulating within the city in military uniform and carrying weapons outside their bases. In other governorates, some security and military posts were removed from cities and towns, hundreds of unlicensed motorcycles were confiscated and hundreds of young men fleeing military service were arrested and transferred to gathering points and training camps.
However, all members of the small local militias were released 48 hours after their arrest. No major confrontation occurred with any armed militia, nor were the missions and powers of any militia curbed. The regime has clearly stated since the beginning of the ‘security campaign’ that it does not want to clash with the militias, as evidenced by the fact that it tasked the Ministry of Interior’s Traffic Department with executing the campaign. Although supported by joint patrols from a number of security services, the Traffic Department still has limited powers and capacity; therefore, it cannot counter even the smallest of local militias. Only the armed forces are capable of that, and they are busy fighting alongside the loyal militias on the frontlines.
On 2 July, an explosion occurred in Tahrir Square in the capital of Damascus, causing a number of casualties. No party claimed responsibility for the incident, which, according to pro-regime sources, was potentially a message to the regime to cease its security campaign, despite its faltering results. Indeed, the campaign came to a stop right after the explosion.
After the limited results of the security campaign were met with disappointment among regime supporters, a protest was held in Aleppo’s industrial zone on 6 July, denouncing the practices of the loyal militias. On the same day, a similar protest was organized in the Shia town of Nubl in Aleppo’s northern countryside, calling on the regime to stop the armed robberies committed by the militias and remove military checkpoints.
The lines separating the state’s authority from that of the militias have become blurred amid the heavily polarized militarization of Syrian society. The state and militias in Syria today are like conjoined twins who cannot be separated without killing one of them.
Mazen Ezzi is a Syrian researcher and journalist. He graduated from Damascus University. He works as an editor at Almodon e-newspaper, and senior researcher in Synaps.