BEIRUT: The strength and reach of pro-government paramilitary groups in Syria is growing and could threaten any future state, according to a report released this week by a U.S. conflict resolution advocacy group.
The report, issued Wednesday by the Carter Center’s Syria Conflict Mapping Project, says the growth of these groups represents a further decentralization of state authority and warns that the “reformulation of the government’s armed forces from a traditional military into militias could lead to a growth in warlordism.”
Taking advantage of areas where the state is absent, whether due to pressure from the opposition or strained resources, “the new commanders of these paramilitary groups may seek to provide services as well as protection, which will add more players to an already complex mosaic of militias, warlords, and local powerbrokers,” the report says.
The most prominent of the pro-government militias is the National Defense Forces, an umbrella group which has drawn most of its fighters from minority communities and now has an estimated 60,000 recruits.
Most paramilitary fighters are now within the NDF command, according to Chris McNaboe, report author and program associate at the Carter Center.
In total, paramilitary groups represent about one-third of all pro-government fighters, and the regular army the remainder, he said.
The total opposition forces number around 120,000, he added.
As the NDF continues to expand and replace regular army units, the already pronounced sectarian nature of the war will also grow, the report predicts.
Much more grounded in their home communities than units of the regular army, such paramilitary groups “have been formed out of the sense of existential threat, perceived by so many of Syria’s minorities. These fears are unlikely to dissipate soon.”
While the rebels are overwhelmingly Sunni, those supporting his government mainly stem from President Bashar Assad’s own Alawite community, as well as some Christian and Druze groups.
“This suggests that these pro-government militias could be a feature in Syria for some time, and these groups, in turn, could give Iran, and other Syrian government allies, a bridgehead for a long term proxy war in the country.”
As the regime steadfastly pursued a policy of violently suppressing the popular uprising-turned-insurrection that erupted in March 2011, pro-regime paramilitary groups often referred to as “shabbiha” were increasingly called on to help in the crackdown.
Members of the so-called “Popular Committees” initially manned checkpoints in areas where protests were growing, and later began to carry out “cleanup” operations after government shelling of an area, the report says.
As the war has continued, the regular army has been depleted by deaths, defections and desertions, and the loyalty of many units has been a cause for the concern for the government. The formation of the NDF was announced in early 2013.
Motives for joining varied, the report says: “Some were highly motivated by sectarian sentiments; others were seeking revenge against the rebels. Others still joined the new force to guarantee a steady salary, as well as prize money from looting.”
Members of this new force are receiving training in “asymmetrical, urban, and guerrilla warfare – a style of war that the Syrian army was not prepared for and which happens to be the dominant fighting mode of the opposition.” Hezbollah has been involved in some of the training exercises, McNaboe said.
He also dismissed suggestions that the military had been significantly weakened by defections, adding that they had actually made the regular army more streamlined.
“They have in fact been strengthened by the loss of those who might not have been loyal ... It has been win-win for them,” he said.
“The local militias are loyal, and they have localized information on the neighborhood and its population.”
Ultimately, he added, even if Assad’s foreign partners are unable to protect his government, the NDF will allow them to maintain their influence in Syria.
“Propping up proxy militias that outlive the government of Bashar Assad would help guarantee long-term Iranian influence in Syria and a corridor to its Lebanese ally, Hezbollah.”