Syria: Rising Factionalization of the Assad Camp – by Konstantin Born
Syria will soon enter the fourth year of an internal conflict that has been raging since unrest began in March 2011 within the context of the Arab Spring. According to the United Nations (UN) approximately 220.000 Syrians have died so far in this brutal and relentless civil war that has caused severe human rights abuses from all sides (Hadid 2015). With dozens, if not hundreds of different, factionalized belligerents that are currently active in this internal conflict and ample international involvement, the already existing religious and sectarian challenges that Syria has to overcome to create a peaceful alternative to the current situation are overwhelming. If all these challenges weren’t enough, the government has started to rely primarily on localized, relatively independent militias in their strategy to reclaim lost territory and fight its enemies. This development has been observed in several other conflict situations around the world, usually causing even more protracted situations, which further diminishes the chances of initiating a process to find a solution to the conflict that has the possibility to ensure long-term peace.
The Rise of “Militiafication”
Already with the onset of the popular uprising and the following defection of large parts of the regular Syrian Army, Assad’s Ba’athist state machinery was forced to start mobilizing so called “Popular Committees” in order to mirror the mobilization of the protesters that had virtually expelled the formerly almighty and wide-reaching security apparatus that had formed the bedrock of the al-Assad clan’s four decades lasting rule. Although, these committees were at fist only designed as neighborhood watches that would patrol their district and crush dissent through intimidation, this changed rapidly with a higher degree of militarization on the side of the opposition (Lund 2013). Moreover, the government started to buy the allegiance of unemployed youths and loyalists from their extensive patronage network that were armed and gradually took over local authority (Lund 2015) The international media and policy advisors around the globe started calling these groups ‘shabihas’, following the anti-Assad oppositions narrative that these groups were only a few thousand Alawite gangsters that had been bought by the Assad regime and could easily be defeated. However, over time the international community, as well as the rebels came to the realization that these militias were not only highly motivated and ideologically indoctrinated, but the growing number of militias also revealed the strong social support that Assad still enjoyed amid certain Sunni tribes, religious minority communities and long time followers of the regime and the Ba’athist ideology (Jenkins 2014). The relatively successful mobilization of militias that have started to play an increasingly important role in the government’s military operations and are now 1 The term originates in Lund 2013. It describes the process of the creation of independent, bottom-up organized, grassroots pro-government militia movements by the Assad regime, constituting the core of the regime’s fighters, have shown that Bashar has more social support than initially thought.
However, with shrinking numbers of regular forces due to the unreliability of the predominantly Sunni conscripts and the corresponding expansion of irregular forces in order to generate enough manpower to hold the strategic population centers, the central government’s power is disintegrating slowly but surely (Jenkins 2014). Despite the efforts by the regime to control militias and institutionalize several of them within the militia network of the National Defense Forces (NDF) and the Ba’ath Battalions, they are mostly organized in a grassroots fashion in which the local branches act with considerable autonomy. Hence, although the central government was able to mobilize enough troops to hold the most important strategic points and even retake Aleppo with Hezbollah’s help, it also created a powerful dynamic that has started to disintegrate the Assad regime and slowly replaces the formerly centralized power structure to a cluster of independent areas controlled by de facto warlords (Lund 2015).
Iranian Involvement: Complex domestic-external intervention
This development of an increasing “militiafication” and decentralization of power with the regime has been further aggravated by the deployment of Iranian military advisors and Basiji volunteer combat forces to assist in the creation and training of the progovernment militias. Although, the Assad clan is seen as a firm ally by the Iranian elites and has Tehran’s full support, the Islamic republic is planning for all possible scenarios. Including Bashar’s fall and the complete disintegration of the internally fragmented central government. Accordingly, although Iran could send more regular ground forces or train loyal regular army battalions there seems to be strong evidence for an Iranian rationale that is based on an idea of hedging against events that could undermine their ultimate interest of keeping its influence in Syria – at least partially – without which the Ayatollah’s goal of a “Shia supply-axis” from the Levant to Iran would be rendered impossible (Fulton et al 2013) In other words, Iran could help the Syrian government more effectively, but due to the high uncertainty of the outcome of the conflict – a problem that Western policy makers also grapple with – Iran rather strengthens multiple actors that can outlive the regime in order to keep their foothold in the Levant, with or without Bashar.
Iran’s approach is not unprecedented and has led to similar problems in cases such as the conflicts in Somalia, Sudan and Iraq that are ongoing for more than one decade, where complex outside interventions in which specific domestic militia groups – often based on ethnic and sectarian basis – were supported by internal and external actors in a way that led to obscure conflicts that significantly destabilized the regions and made large parts of the countries ungovernable.
Consequences of Syria’s “Militiafication”
Although the previously described dynamic of “militiafication” is not the only reason for the highly complex environment associated with the Syrian civil war, it has in my opinion several direct consequences, as well as multiple second order effects.
First, Assad’s militia-dominated counterinsurgency campaign increases the disintegration of the formerly centralized Ba’athist state and will cause further divisions along sectarian, ethnical and geographical lines, which complicates the conflict even more by fragmenting the pro-government side in a way that a targeted anti-Assad intervention would most likely be fruitless. 2 Even if Assad could be removed from power, the outcome would most likely be a Somalia-style “failed state” in which localized former progovernment militias and various opposition groups would fight for influence in the power vacuum that Assad’s downfall would cause, similar to the aftermath of Siad Barré escape Mogadishu. Second, Iran’s direct influence in the Levant is growing significantly due to its de facto control of several of the militias, which are being trained and indoctrinated by Iranian forces. In combination with the growing importance of the Iranian backed Shia militias in Iraq caused by the collapse of large parts of the Iraqi military, the regional balance of power will change significantly towards an Iranian influenced Shia-centric coalition that will most likely aggravate the tensions between Israel and Iran. This view can be supported by the recent successful Israeli airstrike on leading Iranian and Hezbollah commanders near the Golan Heights. And lastly, the initiation of a successful peacebuilding process that aims at reunifying Syria in its old form is now going to be harder than at any point during the conflict due to the localization of interest and the newly developing bottom-up structuring of power that makes a political solution in my opinion almost impossible.
To sum up, although there have been several calls by influential Middle East experts such as K.M. Pollack to arm the moderate Syrian opposition and create, train and arm a “New Syrian Army” to defeat the regime, the pro-government forces are not a coherent force anymore and will in my opinion not surrender as a whole. (Polack 2014) This in turn will mean a long and protracted conquest of the government held major population centers that will require foreign “boots on the ground” in order to be successful. I am very doubtful that a Syria campaign would be supported by enough governments to form a coalition of the willing after we have watched deedless for so long already in the fear of renewed Western casualties and military involvement in the Middle East
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