Many groups fall under the rubric of “loyalist militias.” For example, there are those funded by Iran, such as the National Defence Forces (
Despite their role in helping the regime avoid losses to rebel forces, loyalist militias have posed challenges to the authorities and to the stability of the state. Their extensive number and the lack of a unified management structure has limited the regime’s ability to control them. They engage in criminal activities, such as human trafficking, kidnapping
The integration process varies, depending on local conditions and rivalries. And, while the exact criteria used to prioritize groups for integration remain unclear, some outlines can be discerned. It generally appears that militias are dissolved and reabsorbed elsewhere if they reject deployment to another area; if they compete for control of an area with more influential groups or figures; or if their engagement in illegal activities attracts too much public attention.
Integration also usually takes place in areas that have been secured, where the presence of armed groups is no longer necessary. For example, many loyalist militias in Barzeh, Ish Al-Warwar
Once a decision is made to disband a militia, its members are treated according to their conscription status. Those subject to the draft — males aged 18 to 42 — who have not yet fulfilled their military service obligations are required to join the army. In some cases, the regime has asked militia groups to send all draft-age members over to the army, regardless of their conscription status. Some government employees who joined pro-regime militias have been told to return to their old jobs or face being fired — and thus lose the pay they have still been able to draw.
Those not subject to conscription or required to rejoin government work can either be demobilized or they can join the regime’s paramilitary forces. To serve the latter end, and absorb potentially tens of thousands of combatants, the regime, with Russia’s support, created the 4th Assault Corps, a volunteer unit. Sources in Syria tell this writer, however, that this experiment has not been successful because of a lack of cooperation by Iran and, as a result, only a handful of loyalist militia members joined.
To address that failure, Russia took the lead in creating the 5th Assault Corps in 2016. This has been partially successful, allowing the regime to assert control over former militia fighters numbering between 10,000 and 15,000. Likewise, the regime brokered a deal with Iran to bring a large number of militiamen in local defense forces into the regime’s “emergency forces” — units that can be called
The regime has also incorporated some militia groups into elite security agencies outside of army control. But here they are given hybrid status: While nominally under the authority of an established agency, they continue to operate more or less independently. For example, the Coastal Shield unit, or Dara’ Al-Sahel, funded by Iran, was inserted into the Republican Guard. Likewise, militias in Hama and Qudsaya in the rural outskirts of Damascus were integrated into the 101st Brigade of the Republican Guard.
All in all, the integration initiative has allowed the regime to incorporate a sizable number of loyalist militia groups into the state’s auxiliary forces. Nonetheless, these efforts have resulted mostly in changing the “brand” of the militias. Individuals within these groups remain loyal to their original backers rather than the state. Moreover, much of the integration effort is being led by Iran and Russia, and the overly large influence of these two foreign powers in Syria’s armed forces will continue to undercut regime legitimacy, as well as create rivals within the military structure.
Without real political and institutional reform, efforts to co-opt loyalist militias into the armed forces will serve only to magnify differences over loyalty and goals within the military establishment. Rather than reclaim the state’s monopoly on the exercise of military force, the Assad regime is incubating more problems it will eventually have to address. And, chances are, those problems will manifest themselves violently.