The role of the Syrian Army’s Fourth Division in its traditional stronghold areas—including its military housing in Zahrieh, Sumaria and Sabura—differs from its role in the areas that have come under its jurisdiction during the conflict, such as Darayya. This is due to several factors, including the nature of the administration, its existing networks, and its security centralization. While there has been little change in its traditional areas, its role in the areas it has expanded into during the conflict makes it difficult for those communities to recover and reduces opportunities for displaced persons to return.
Traditional stronghold areas: business as usual
The Fourth Division owns military housing where its loyalists reside, which it also administers, thus limiting the freedom of operation and independence of the local and centralized government structures in these areas. Although theoretically subject to the Ministry of Defence, the Fourth Division’s security bureau is exclusively responsible for housing security. For example, civilian police cannot enter the residential blocks belonging to elite security or military formations without the approval of the Fourth Division security checkpoint located at the entrance.
Servicing and financing the housing areas is technically the responsibility of the governorate through its municipalities, but the municipalities are given instructions by the security bureau. As a result, these areas enjoy better services compared to others. According to an interview by the author with a member of the Fourth Division, the contractors used for various projects are closely connected with the division and have paid kickbacks to the security bureau.
In the military housing areas, the security bureau selects local government officials, either by intervening directly in elections or indirectly by appointments, both of which require the bureau’s approval. In areas where Fourth Division personnel are not based in its military housing, such as the eastern neighbourhood of Muadamiyat Al-Sham, it appoints and uses loyal village chiefs as a link with these areas and to help establish local networks that support the division. The Fourth Division’s housing section is responsible for providing relief packages from its own budget for division personnel and it also distributes relief packages from the Red Crescent to the families of its killed and wounded personnel and contractors. The security bureau grants security approvals for organizations wishing to work in areas where its volunteers and contractors are deployed. For example, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) has been allowed to implement a water network in Muadamiyat al-Sham, while a resident of the area told the author that projects in military housing areas are generally opposed for security reasons.
Outside traditional strongholds: interference and corruption
Darayya stands out as an example of an area into which the Fourth Division has expanded and where it has interfered in local administration. The division took over here at the expense of its competitors in air and military security. It could be that Darayya was perhaps allocated by the presidency to the Fourth Division ¬– which is close to Iran – both to appease Iran and to reward the division for its role in the field and in negotiating a resolution for Darayya after the regime took it back from rebel groups. Since 2019, some government facilities and institutions expelled from the city have returned to work.
The security bureau is responsible for checkpoints controlling the movement of residents to and from the city, while the security-military committee of the Rif Dimashq governorate, the National Security Bureau and the Fourth Division share the responsibility of managing the entry of non-residents – although the Fourth Division has final say.
The Fourth Division does not enjoy the same level of loyalty on the ground in Darayya as it does in its military housing areas, which explains its reliance on networks of collaborators. For example, according to a resident of Darayya who spoke to the author, the Fourth Division intervened to help some of its loyalists in the local administration elections of 2018, by nominating them and giving them the necessary security approvals, such as Marwan Obeid, the head of Darayya City Council. It has also worked to support the formation of popular committees, led by Mohammed Abu Shanaq, that are associated with the security bureau and whose dominance has spurred some local intermediaries to cooperate with them.
Through its networks, the Fourth Division has the power to influence local bodies and direct them to focus service provision on certain areas, which helps explain the level of service provision in the city’s sector A, compared to sectors B and C where opposition forces had strong support. The division’s networks facilitated businessman Mohammed Hamsho, a confidante of Maher Assad, in obtaining scrap iron from the ruins of Darayya. According to local activists interviewed by the author, these networks have also been used to purchase properties belonging to migrants and displaced persons from Darayya in order to give them to protégés of Iran, after collecting financial kickbacks which were then divided between the security bureau and its intermediaries. They also benefit from contracts with organizations operating in Darayya, by granting projects to companies known to be close to the Fourth Division, which in turn collects levies on supplies for such projects.
In Darayya, the approval of the Fourth Division officer in charge is crucial. For example, the governor of Rif Dimashq’s request to allow the residents of Darayya to re-enter their areas was refused, while the approval of the officer in charge was decisive for the re-opening of Darayya’s schools in July 2019. As for the restoration of destroyed buildings, it is impossible to implement any permits issued without the approval of the officer and payment of tribute at the checkpoints in order to bring in building materials.
Official bodies are inclined to cooperate with the Fourth Division to ensure their projects and activities are implemented, seeking its opinion and complying with its informal instructions. Thus, local organizations and associations have followed its directives due to the need to restore government facilities and have included personnel from the division’s networks in their services and projects.
There has been little change in the role of the Fourth Division in its traditional stronghold areas. Outside its traditional strongholds, its marginalizing and challenging of central institutions, tampering with the agendas and priorities of local bodies through its informal networks and widespread corruption makes it hard for those communities to rebuild and for displaced persons to return home.