Syria 'is being swallowed whole by its clients': Assad may be losing control over his own militias

SyriaScreenshot/TwitterA screenshot from a video purporting to show a loyalist militias in Hama province pledging cooperation to the ‘forces of order’ — the regime — in return for amnesty for their crimes.

Pro-regime militias that have thrived amid the chaos of Syria’s 5-year civil war are becoming increasingly powerful and prone to warlordism as the state rapidly loses its ability to reign them in, defence analysts say.

Tobias Schneider, a defence policy analyst, recently highlighted a particularly extreme case of Syria’s evolving warlordism, which he claims is already too deep-rooted for the regime to try and reverse.

The increasingly powerful clans have their roots in pro-Assad Alawite groups of armed gangs, known as Shabiha, who re-emerged as militias in 2011 as a tool of the Syrian regime to suppress dissent.

If Schneider’s case study of militiamen gone rogue is any indication, however, Assad’s strategy of giving them free reign may now be coming back to haunt him.

“Military Intel and SAA [Syrian Arab Army] command have tried to reign in Hassan’s warlords with little success,” Schneider continued. As a result, “the situation is tense in Hama Governorate.”

“It’s reached a point where the state is being swallowed whole by its clients,” Schneider writes. “Loyalist commanders openly defy Damascus without consequence.”

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has characterised the militiamen as mercenaries. They have been accused of raping and murdering protesters and engaging in a “scorched earth campaign” on behalf of the Assad regime to quell opposition and strengthen the embattled president’s hold on power.

To that end, Assad initially allowed the militias to operate with impunity — presumably under the mistaken impression that the protest movement would be wiped out fairly quickly, rather than evolve into a five-year civil war that has left nearly 500,000 people dead.

As Schneider points out, the regime is caught in a catch-22 when it comes to reigning in the militias: both the government and Syria’s economy — what is left of it — rely largely on the armed gangs’ smuggling and manpower.

Notably, the militias are from all sects — they are not just Alawite, the branch of Islam practiced by the Assads, but Sunnis as well. And none of them have any formal military rank, training or authority.

“They just enjoy camo[flouge],” Schneider wrote.

In any case, he said, “There is no loyalist force left strong enough to reign these people in. We’re moving towards ‘War of the Camps’ phase of this conflict…[and] this is a problem of the regime’s own making.”

In 2014, Vocativ tracked down some Shabiha militiamen on Facebook, where they frequently posted photos of themselves flexing and posing with weapons.

 

Tony Badran, a research fellow at the Washington, DC-based think tank Foundation for Defence of Democracies, confirmed that Syria’s warlordism goes well beyond one or two case studies.

Incidents of warlordism — and even clashes between “regular” Syrian Arab Army forces and militias such as the National Defence Forces (or, depending on the locale, tribal militias, Kurdish PYD militias, etc.) — are fairly common, Badran told Business Insider, and have been reported on in Arabic-language outlets.

Last May, for example, reports emerged that the National Defence Force (NDF) militia clashed with regime soldiers in Homs. In January of this year, the NDF apparently clashed with regime soldiers in Deir Ezzor. And one of the first reported clashes, in July 2013, took place roughly six miles southeast of Syria’s capital, Damascus, in the city of Jaramana.

Schneider provided another example:

“When fighting raged at Harbinafsah [Hama] this February, local warlord Ahmed Ismail from Seghata suffered heavy losses. So he requested reinforcements from Fadi Qaribish, a commander in nearby Baarin [Hama]. Fadi refused. So the Syrian Arab Army and Ahmed’s men subsequently attacked Baarin …and were FOUGHT OFF! Fadi then established his own check points. Ahmed Ismail himself had previously lynched Military Intel officer Rifaat Hassan on the streets of Masyaf for investigating smuggling.”

Badran noted that not all of the incidents were on the same scale as the one in Hama. But they have become a more regular occurrence, Schneider said, as the political, social, and ethnic fragmentation of Syria’s battered landscape deepens.

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