The Growing Role of Pro-regime Militias in Syria
Lina Khatib, August 2017
As the battles for Deir Ezzor and Raqqa escalate, the Syrian regime is escalating its own rhetoric about regaining state authority in those areas. But the dynamics between the Syrian army and pro-regime militias show that the matter of state authority is not straightforward. The Syrian regime is relying on Iran-backed militias in the battlefield as a way to bolster the capacity of the Syrian army, but those militias are not puppets in the hands of the regime. The army itself is also marred by internal problems that further hinder its capacity. This is paving the way for a growing role for pro-regime militias.
Having been left at only a fifth of its original capacity, the Syrian army is trying to boost the number of soldiers in its ranks. Reports have said that the Syrian army has attempted to attract former defectors who are currently fighting as part of rebel groups on the Syrian-Iraqi border to get them to re-join the army. The regime has also stepped up conscription for Syrian males. But even though conscription is mandatory for those who qualify, many young men are trying to evade conscription through enrolling at universities or travelling abroad.
Of those who are in the army as officers and not low-level soldiers, some are avoiding being on the frontlines if they happen to have the right high-level connections, and are instead handling mundane tasks, administrative jobs or are posted in areas with low intensity fighting. This has left the frontlines to be largely occupied by militias, both Syrian, like the National Defence Forces, and non-Syrian, like Hezbollah.
The command of those militias does ultimately report to the regime, but opinions are divided as to how much control the regime will have over them in the long run. While some observers are confident that the regime will eventually be able to contain the militias despite their Iranian backing, others see in the militias a potential challenge for the authority of state institutions in the future. Despite its huge losses, the Syrian army has managed to keep its top ranks together. This is partly to do with the informal structure of the army command that is built on having alternating Alawi and Sunni officers at the top of the hierarchy, so that an Alawi officer would report to a Sunni officer who in turn reports to an Alawi officer. This informal sectarian arrangement has played a role in keeping part of Syria’s Sunni community loyal to the regime. But further down the ranks, there is growing mistrust between Sunni and non-Sunni soldiers, which is having a negative impact on the army’s capacity in battles. All this is further empowering pro-regime militias.
The militias have a margin of freedom that is greater than what the Syrian army possesses. Some Syrian young men in regime areas prefer to join the militias as a way to escape from army conscription, because being part of a militia does not come with the same legal binds that come with joining a regular army. The salaries offered to militia members, financed by Iran, are also higher than those in the Syrian army. Militias also have the potential to exercise greater power without much accountability. Some areas in regime-controlled western Syria are dominated by militia leaders at the local level, and in some cases, Syrian army commanders need the permission of those militia leaders before the army can enter those areas.
All this means that the Syrian regime may not be able to fully control the militias fighting on its side in the future. As things currently stand, those militias are performing key military tasks that would normally be handled by the Syrian army, and as such, the militias are likely to make demands in return for their services once a settlement to the conflict happens. As the Syrian army’s capacity has dwindled, it is likely that militia members will be offered the path of joining the army once the conflict ends. But the restrictions of army life and the lower salaries mean that this policy of containment might not fully work.
Another challenge is that the Syrian army today has itself become more localized in the way it operates, with less motivation on part of its soldiers to fight in areas that are far from their places of origin. There are also growing rifts within Syria’s military institutions, such as between the army and the security services, partly due to the influence of different foreign donors on different bureaus and military entities. This makes it harder for those institutions to trust one another and share information and capacity in the future. Once again, this paves the way for militias to try to manoeuver a role for themselves that takes advantage of these gaps.
The Syrian army may be presenting itself as the entity that will take back Deir Ezzor from ISIS and restore the authority of the state in eastern Syria, but the internal challenges that it is facing show that it is the pro-regime militias and not the army that might gain the most from this liberation.
-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Dr Lina Khatib is head of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House.