As Syria’s civil war enters its sixth year, the balance of the conflict has tilted toward Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s Baathist regime. Bolstered by its international and regional allies, the regime is touting numerous territorial gains — including the reassertion of its authority over eastern Aleppo in December 2016 — as a sign of its resurgence, in contrast to the armed opposition’s dwindling prospects.
The strategic implications of the regime’s return to eastern Aleppo are profound. It consolidates its presence in Syria’s most populous city, a pre-war economic and industrial hub. It also reinforces the regime’s control over Syria’s five largest population centers — Aleppo, Damascus, Homs, Hama and Latakia — solidifying its position in a large expanse of territory across central and western Syria, from where it draws most of its support (al-Akhbar [Beirut], December 23, 2016; Syrian Arab News Agency [Damascus], December 22, 2016).
Russia, Iran, Lebanese Hezbollah and Iraq have also provided vital support to the Syrian government, including coordinating with Syrian forces during their military offensive to recapture eastern Aleppo, and fighting alongside Syrian forces on other fronts. Iran and Iraq in particular have helped to facilitate an influx of Shia militias to strengthen Baathist forces on the ground.
In contrast, the contribution of loyalist Syrian militias in ensuring regime survival has been treated as an afterthought. In this context, the role of the multitude of irregular militias that operate under the auspices of the Quwat al-Difaa al-Watani (National Defense Force, NDF) in helping to preserve the Baathist regime merits consideration. In light of ongoing diplomacy to bring about a ceasefire, the present and future role of the NDF and other heavily armed and battle-hardened loyalist paramilitaries will become increasingly relevant to the debate over Syria’s future (al-Jazeera [Doha] February 15).
Rise of the Militias
A wave of defections among the conscription-based Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and the security services in the days that followed the spring 2011 uprising — compounded in later years by losses sustained over six years of heavy fighting and a dwindling conscript pool of military-age males — provoked a shift in the regime’s counterinsurgency strategy.
The regime organized local militias, known as al-Lijaan al-Shabiyya (Popular Committees), along with other irregular formations with the intention of augmenting the ranks of the SAA and other security forces. These would protect areas that were viewed as loyalist or otherwise neutral during the conflict. Generally equipped with light arms and two-way radios, they organized checkpoints and provided an overt security presence (Terrorism Monitor, May 2, 2013; al-Mayadeen [Beirut], October 28, 2012; SyriaNews.info [Damascus], October 23, 2012; al-Akhbar, October 23, 2012).
The NDF, established in 2012, represented the regime’s attempt to more formally unify these disparate Popular Committees. It has since evolved into a crucial auxiliary force, alongside the regular conscription-based SAA and other armed bodies (Day Press [Damascus], January 18, 2013; YouTube, January 9, 2013).
The NDF has figured prominently in a wide array of military operations across Syria. Its detractors frequently associate it with the loyalist shabiha (ghosts) criminal gangs deployed by the regime during the earliest days of the uprising to confront opposition demonstrators. Despite its significant Sunni Arab contingent, represented in both its command and rank-and-file, the NDF is also often described as a sectarian militia dominated by Alawites and other Syrian minorities (al-Monitor, March 14, 2014; al-Riyadh [Riyadh], April 22, 2013).
The NDF is often compared to Iran’s Basij (Mobilization) militia, a claim repeated by Iranian officials (akhbaralaan.net [Dubai], August 8, 2015; Dezful Emrooz [Dezful], March 2, 2015). Indeed, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force (IRGC-QF) is cited as having been instrumental in the Baathist regime’s decision to raise loyalist militias.
Iran has provided the NDF with critical training and operational support. However, while elements of unconventional warfare — including military advisory and training, counterinsurgency and foreign internal defense operations — are central to its mission, claims that the IRGC-QF essentially controls the NDF without regard for Damascus are overstated (al-Monitor, November 20, 2015). Lebanon’s Hezbollah is also sometimes credited as being behind the NDF.
Notwithstanding the roles the IRGC-QF and Hezbollah played in strengthening the NDF, the Syrian regime’s decision to raise and deploy loyalist militias drawn from the civilian population is not unprecedented. During Syria’s 1976-1982 Muslim Brotherhood-led insurrection, the government organized a host of civilian-led militias from among Baath Party loyalists and other civilian cadres. The resort to state-organized militias by embattled governments is a common feature of civil wars and insurgencies.
The NDF and the turn toward “militiafication” represents the regime’s efforts to transform the command and organizational structures of its military in response to the corruption, disunity and indiscipline associated with the SAA (Syrian Observer, February 17). The formation in 2013 of elite units attached to the SAA, such as the Tiger Forces and Desert Hawks, is likewise emblematic of the government’s goal of reorganizing its military structures (al-Masdar News [United Arab Emirates], June 4, 2016).
The establishment of the Fourth Assault Corps in October 2015, followed by the Fifth Assault Corps in November 2016, has been described as an attempt to introduce into the military attributes of the NDF — particularly its volunteer-driven nature in contrast to the conscription-based structures typical of the SAA. They are also seen as a way to incorporate Russian and Iranian irregular warfare doctrine into Syrian military practice (Syria Deeply, January 7; al-Jazeera, November 30, 2016).
Additionally, they may also reflect plans to further disaggregate Syria’s military power to better insulate Assad from a potential coup directed from the armed forces, a longstanding fear of authoritarian regimes and, in particular, the Baathist hierarchy surrounding Assad.
Some reports have suggested that the NDF will be disbanded and integrated into the Fourth Assault Corps (al-Hayat [London], October 11, 2015). The formation of the Local Defense Force, an Aleppo-based umbrella of loyalist militias, along with the Baath Brigades, Popular Army and a host of other factions — including Palestinian-led militias organized in Palestinian refugee camps — further illustrates the regime’s reliance on paramilitary detachments (Enab Baladi [Darayya], Feburary 21; Etana [Damascus], 2014; al-Monitor, November 20, 2013).
Encouraging Local Support
The NDF’s utility to the regime exceeds beyond the military. It serves as a vehicle for mobilizing the population to ensure loyalty and cultivate support among vulnerable communities caught between competing opposition currents. The NDF provides the regime with a means through which to project its influence in areas where its presence and legitimacy have been undermined or eliminated. In military terms, the NDF acts as a firewall against territorial advances by the armed opposition.
The reliance on locally-recruited cadres also strengthens the regime’s intelligence and overall situational awareness about developments on the ground. In this regard, the employment of the NDF and other loyalist Syrian militias is reminiscent of doctrinal counterinsurgency campaigns.
In organizational and operational terms, the NDF has been integrated into the Syrian security apparatus. This is the case even as NDF elements appear to have retained much of their independence and flexibility, a notable development given the regime’s highly-centralized and despotic nature.
Equally important, the localized NDF may prove an attractive alternative for disaffected insurgents. For example, the NDF is being positioned as a crucial element of the regime’s efforts to entice members of the armed opposition to lay down their arms and rejoin the fold (al-Hayat, February 16; Syrian Arab News Agency, January 9). The regime has reportedly offered armed opposition factions the option of remaining mobilized, albeit under NDF auspices, in areas where they hold sway as part of its broader of amnesty (Zaman al-Wasl [Qamishli], December 10, 2016).
The regime has employed the NDF and other militia formations to reconcile with or otherwise co-opt Sunni Arab tribes fighting on behalf of the regime against the so-called Islamic State (IS) and other armed opposition forces. As the conflict progresses, the NDF is likely to remain central to Assad’s objective of returning all of Syria to government control (Syrian Arab News Agency, January 9).
Cadres and Operations
The NDF is estimated to be composed of between 90,000 to 100,000 members, although a precise assessment of its membership is difficult to gauge (al-Yaum [Dammam], September 25, 2015). Like its Popular Committees predecessor, the NDF has often been associated with Syria’s religious and ethnic minority communities — including the Alawites, Christians, Druze and Armenians — in contrast to the regular Syrian army and other conventional force structures, which draw most of their rank and file from Syria’s majority Sunni Arab population.
While an accurate estimate of its demographic composition is difficult to ascertain, labeling the NDF a sectarian organization would be inaccurate. The generally localized characteristics of its recruitment base suggest that NDF detachments organized on the neighborhood, village, town, city and provincial levels will tend to reflect the demographic composition of their surroundings. For example, NDF formations in locations populated mostly by Sunni, Druze or Christians will likely reflect their respective Sunni, Druze or Christian constituencies. Similarly, NDF formations based in areas that are diverse in terms of their religious and ethnic makeup will likewise reflect these peculiarities.
By contrast, the armed opposition is essentially a Sunni Arab-dominated enterprise. At the same time, however, Sunni Arabs, particularly urban dwellers and members of the middle and merchant classes, constitute a critical part of the regime’s support base. Influential Sunni clans, including the notorious Berri clan, which is implicated in organized crime and a host of abuses in Aleppo on behalf of the regime, are also well represented in the NDF (Orient News [Dubai], July 27, 2013). Sunnis who may be motivated by fear of the armed opposition (as opposed to partisan loyalty to Assad) are also reflected in the NDF. The NDF’s diversity is revealed in its inclusion of women, who even take active security and combat roles (Press TV [Tehran], November 2013).
The NDF offers prospective recruits numerous advantages. Membership offers a steady salary, substantially higher than that earned by SAA conscripts. It is a welcome prospect considering the absence of viable employment opportunities. NDF recruits are also lured by assurances they will be deployed near or around their homes on a part-time basis, as opposed to extended deployments in distant fronts, while the opportunities to participate in more complex operations yield the potential for higher salaries.
NDF recruits are also enticed by the prospect of having their military conscription requirements satisfied in what is widely viewed as a more favorable scenario. Indeed, many SAA members abandoned their posts in favor of joining the NDF (al-Yaum September 25, 2015; Syria Deeply, June 25, 2015).
NDF members undergo both basic and specialized military training and are provided with uniforms and weapons (al-Manar [Beirut], February 4, 2013). The organizational dynamic between the NDF and the SAA and other regular armed bodies is hard to determine. Some accounts report that the NDF operates under SAA orders, receiving intelligence and other tactical and operational guidance. In other instances, Hezbollah and Iranian factions may train and command particular NDF cadres (al-Hayat, January 9; The Wall Will Fall, September 16, 2015).
While the NDF is portrayed as a vehicle of national service, a message that resonates with many Syrians, it also encompasses a patron-client relationship with the regime, a relationship that the regime actively encourages. This dynamic can be seen in its links to loyalist businessmen, a number of whom have been accused of organizing, financing and even leading NDF detachments. One such is Sami Aubrey.
An Aleppo-based businessman who, among other things, owned a chain of amusement parks, Aubrey commands the NDF’s Aleppo contingent. He is accused of utilizing the NDF and other militias to protect and expand his own business interests and perpetrate other abuses. Members of Aubrey’s extended family, such as the local construction magnate Muhammed Jammoul, have also been accused of abuses in Aleppo (eqtsad.net, May 4, 2016; Alsouria.net [Syria] May 1, 2016; Arabi21.com [London], March 1, 2016).
The NDF has likewise attracted a sizeable criminal component that is exploiting the conflict for purposes of personal gain, while many NDF detachments serve as hired guns for criminal enterprises that are thriving amid the chaos of war.
Baathist and sympathetic information outlets, including traditional and social media platforms, extol the NDF’s performance on the battlefield alongside the SAA, Hezbollah and other Syrian armed units such as the Tiger Forces and Desert Hawks. Doing so elevates the NDF’s profile and legitimacy. NDF casualties are likewise eulogized as heroes and martyrs alongside other regular forces in official announcements.
The NDF boasts an extensive presence online, operating multiple official websites as well as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter accounts that are frequently updated with timely reports from various battlefronts and political news. Localized NDF formations often operate their own social media platforms, such as those operated by NDF forces in Aleppo, Baniyas, Homs, Hama and Hasaka.
The NDF’s official Telegram instant messaging application allows users to contact the organization securely and at one point the NDF even boasted its own cyberwarfare and hacker collective modelled after the Syrian Electronic Army.
While the Baathist regime struggles to portray an image of unity between the NDF and other security structures, the reality on the ground presents a far more complex picture. Clashes between NDF detachments and the regular Syrian security forces are a regular occurrence (Alsouria.net, January 4, 2016; Deirezzor24 [Syria], December 24, 2016; Syria Direct, April 30, 2015). Tensions between the NDF and Lebanese Hezbollah have also resulted in internecine fighting between allies (al-Jazeera, January 25, 2015).
As is often typical of the behavior of irregular detachments in civil wars, localized militias operating under NDF auspices have been implicated in abuses including trafficking, extortion, armed robbery, murder, looting and abductions-for-ransom (Democratic Republic Studies Center [Paris], September 2015).
Militias operating under NDF auspices have clashed with each other in what amount to battles over turf and war spoils, while NDF militia commanders have carved out lucrative fiefdoms in the neighborhoods and towns where they hold sway. The government has largely turned a blind eye to these activities, in exchange for continued loyalty, but in doing so has entrenched a climate of warlordism that will be difficult to rein in following any potential peace agreement (al-Monitor, August 24, 2015).
Foreign actors such as the IRGC-QF and Lebanese Hezbollah will likely act to preserve their influence in any post-conflict scenario — Iran has already called for the implementation of a peace accord modeled after Lebanon’s Taif Agreement that would, among other things, legitimize existing militias (al-Hayat, August 24, 2015).
The NDF has become central to Assad’s survival strategy, but while it officially operates under the regime’s control, its localized character has created new centers of authority and local powerbrokers. These are unlikely to easily relinquish their influence when the conflict is finally over and will present a serious challenge for any post-conflict demilitarization, demobilization and reintegration programs.