Over the past month, Russia, Jordan and the United States began to implement a de-escalation zone in the southwestern Syrian governorates of Dara’a and al-Quneitra. The de-escalation zone agreement, which is between the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) loyal to the al-Assad government and the armed opposition, is supposed to serve as a model for freezing the conflict in other areas of Syria (al-Jazeera [Doha], July 4; Reuters, June 9). As the de-escalation zone in southern Syria begins to be implemented, the al-Assad government’s security structure in the neighboring Suwayda governorate, generally a stronghold for the regime since the start of the civil war, is in the midst of a leadership crisis (All4Syria [Suwayda], July 3).
Rashid Yasir Salloum, 45, is the leader of the Suwayda governorate branch of the al-Assad government sponsored militia network, al-Quwat al-Difa’ al-Watani (NDF, National Defense Forces), which is a key local Syrian party to the de-escalation zone effort (Akhbar al-Aan, November 28, 2015; al-Quds al-Arabi, November 24, 2015). In this role, Salloum is charged with recruiting, mobilizing and supporting the village and district level NDF militias to provide security for Suwayda, to act as a source of reserve manpower for military offensives and to provide labor support for some public works projects in Suwayda governorate (All4Syria [Suwayda], May 15). Although there are several militia networks supporting the SAA in Suwayda, the Suwayda branch of the NDF under Salloum’s command is considered to be the largest, at more than 2,000 fighters, with Salloum being a local powerbroker with direct support from the Syrian ministry of defense as its man in Suwayda (al-Quds al-Arabi, November 25, 2015).
Salloum is a native of the village of al-Bark, which is located in an area of northeastern Suwayda governorate that is a front-line against Islamic State (IS) attacks and attempts to infiltrate Suwayda from the Syrian Desert that is located to the east of the governorate (All4Syria [Suwayda], August 28, 2016). He emerged as an important local notable with good ties to the al-Assad government in Damascus in the half decade leading up to the start of the civil war (al-Ghad al-Soury [Suwayda], August 19, 2016). Salloum was educated as an agricultural engineer, and subsequently worked as an agricultural engineer in Libya. There he made enough personal wealth to allow him to return to Syria in search of investment opportunities (E-Syria [Suwayda], January 13, 2008).
He found this opportunity in a pre-war Syrian government initiative that sought to leverage Syria’s diverse geographical zones, and rich cultural and archaeological heritage, to promote significant investment in the country’s tourism sector. Salloum, who invested in a tourism hotel project in Suwayda, was an important supporter of the Syrian government initiative, including by presenting on behalf of it at international conferences (E-Syria [Suwayda], February 2, 2010). Additionally, his brother is an important official in the Syrian ministry of justice branch in Suwayda, which provided Salloum with additional connections to the al-Assad government’s security apparatus in the governorate (al-Ghad al-Soury [Suwayda], August 19, 2016).
However, prior to his 2015 appointment as the chief of the NDF in Suwayda, Salloum was not an obvious choice to be the commander of al-Assad’s security forces in the governorate. Although he was a member of the security committee that oversaw the defense of Suwayda from the start of the civil war, he was a secondary commander to more powerful local figures, such as Shibli Jund, a notable in Suweida with deep ties into the Ba’ath Party who was the leader of an affiliate of the powerful Ba’ath Brigade militia in the governorate until Jund’s assassination in 2015 (al-Ghad al-Soury [Suwayda], August 19, 2016; All4Syria [Suwayda], September 24, 2015) Salloum’s brother was also given oversight over local militias organized to defend the Shabha district of northeastern Suwayda governorate, which is near Salloum’s hometown of al-Bark. Salloum is believed to have assisted his brother (al-Ghad al-Soury [Suwayda], August 19, 2016; E-Syria [Suwayda], January 13, 2008). Since his appointment as the chief of the Suwayda branch of the NDF, Salloum has emerged as a highly controversial figure, and potentially as the target of an Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) effort to reorganize the leadership of the militia networks that support the al-Assad government (Zaman al-Wasl [Suwayda], April 8, 2015).
Under Salloum’s leadership, the Suwayda branch of the NDF has been accused of corruption, unlawful detention of political rivals, the illegal seizure of homes and commercial properties from local residents, the sale and smuggling of oil pumped and sold by IS and the sale and smuggling of weapons from al-Assad government controlled areas to IS (Facebook, February 2; All4Syria [Suwayda], September 21, 2016; Akhbar al-Aan, November 28, 2015; Facebook, November 26, 2015). The NDF has also reportedly clashed with the local affiliate of the powerful Air Force Intelligence organization over the distribution and sale of weapons to militias loyal to the al-Assad government in Suwayda (al-Quds al-Arabi, July 20, 2016). Salloum has also been accused of being slow to respond to IS attacks against villages on the outer edges of Suwayda governorate, contributing to the governorate’s instability (All4Syria [Suwayda], May 23; Al-Quds al-Arabi [Suwayda], August 1, 2016). Additionally, he has refused to make Suwayda’s NDF militias available for the SAA’s offensives against IS in Raqqa governorate, a major regime initiative that is part of the al-Assad government’s strategy to out-position the U.S.-led Coalition in seizing territory from IS in eastern Syria (Facebook, June 15, 2016). Salloum also survived an assassination attempt in July 2016, although it remains unclear whether he was targeted because of disagreements within pro-Assad forces over his leadership, or if it was an attack from the armed opposition or IS (All4Syria [Suwayda], July 23, 2016).
The greatest challenge to Salloum’s position is the reported effort that the IRGC, working with the Iranian embassy in Damascus, is engaging in to undermine him and have him replaced by a security official who is closer to the IRGC. Over the last year and a half, Iranian diplomats and security officials have reportedly increased the frequency of their travel to Suwayda, as have officials from the IRGC-aligned, Iraqi Shia militias Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba (All4Syria [Suwayda], October 13, 2016; All4Syria [Suwayda], August 18, 2016). The special attention that Suwayda is receiving from the Iranians is believed to be driven by security concerns. They seek to oversee control of the Syrian-Jordanian border regions and to support a process of “Shia-ization” of Suwayda’s local Druze population (All4Syria [Suwayda], January 2; All4Syria [Suwayda], October 13, 2016). However, he is reportedly being targeted by Iran on the grounds that he is corrupt and has mismanaged the war effort in Suwayda — they particularly cite the alleged smuggling and sale of weapons to IS via the areas the NDF is responsible for in Suwayda (All4Syria [Suwayda], August 18, 2016; Swaida Khabr [Suwayda], August 17, 2016; Al-Modon [Suwayda], May 1, 2016). It is believed that he retains his position at the insistence of his contacts in the ministry of defense, with the agreement of Russia, in preference of slowing any effort by Iran to change the socio-politics of Suwayda to support Twelver Shia proselytizing (All4Syria [Suwayda], May 23).
Over the course of the conflict, the al-Assad government has increasingly decentralized day-to-day authority over the war effort to locally based commanders leading locally organized militia groups. The al-Assad government has also broadened the pool of leadership over local pro-Assad militia forces to notables with the social networks and the personal finances to activate those networks. Rashid Salloum demonstrates this model of a local Syrian loyalist commander supporting the al-Assad government. He is powerful in Suwayda through personal wealth, and he has long maintained well-known ties to the al-Assad government. However, as is true in other areas of the country that are under the control of the al-Assad government, there is significant competition for power among local loyalist commanders. This competition has become more complicated with the rising mobilization of IRGC linked militias, the majority of which are composed of sectarian Shia foreign fighters, to support Bashar al-Assad’s war effort.
As the example of Rashid Salloum demonstrates, the IRGC is seeking to build greater leverage within local loyalist communities throughout the areas of Syria that are controlled by the al-Assad government, even if this strategy is at odds with powerful security organizations in Damascus or with Russia. Salloum is an important loyalist commander to track. His future as a powerful local figure serves as a case study of the degree to which central government security organizations based in Damascus are able to reassert authority over local-level loyalist leaders and manage Iranian influence over the areas of the country that under the rule of Bashar al-Assad.