A new military faction has started to show up at government checkpoints and roadblocks in Damascus, according to Syrian media. The so-called Baath Battalions, a militia controlled by the ruling Baath Arab Socialist Party, was first formed in Aleppo in 2012. It is said to have been active in the coastal provinces of Latakia and Tartus as well, but the group’s emergence in Damascus appears to be a new development.
The Lebanese newspaper al-Akhbar has interviewed “a source close to the party” who says there is now a recruitment drive for the Baath Battalions as it starts to deploy in the capital. The militia “aims to support the Syrian Arab Army and the security services. Supporting them at the checkpoints takes some of the burden off their shoulders, and facilitates their operations at the front.”
“In Damascus we will only work at the checkpoints for now, and carry out some light logistical operations,” explains the source. “Developing the operations is linked to the development of the battlefield situation in Damascus, but we will surely stand next to the army when the moment comes that we are needed.”
Fighters in the Baath Battalions seem to be lightly armed. They wear an arm patch with the Baath Party logotype—a map of the Arab world with a torch superimposed across it. In line with the party’s secular-progressive ideology, the group consists of both men and women, all of whom carry weapons and work at the checkpoints. However, the female fighters are—“despite their insistence”—held back from “direct military confrontations.”
Roots in the Popular Army
Ever since the adoption of a new constitution in February 2012, the Syrian government and the Syrian Arab Army are supposed to be institutionally separate from the ruling Baath Party (it was formerly constitutionally enshrined as the “leading party in state and society”). But the presence of a government-backed party militia at army checkpoints shows that these reforms were at best cosmetic and that in Syria, it’s business as usual for the Baath Party.
Ever since its 1963 coup d’état, the Baath regime has created a number of different militias, often connected to individual strongmen within the party or the armed forces. In the 1980s, then president Hafez al-Assad used a paramilitary wing of the Baath Party called the Popular Army (al-Jaish al-Shaabi) to combat an Islamist uprising.
Although it had been much weakened, the Popular Army still existed and was able to assist the army when the current crisis erupted in 2011, working as part of a wider complex of paramilitary and irregular progovernment forces. But eventually, the remnants of the Popular Army appear to have been absorbed into the Baath Battalions and the National Defense Forces, a larger militia body formed out of local volunteer forces in late 2012.
The Role of Hilal Hilal
Although some describe it as a direct continuation of the Popular Army, the modern Baath Battalions seems to have emerged in Aleppo in mid-2012.
In July 2012, rebel groups in the northern Aleppine countryside merged to form the Tawhid Brigade, a large Islamist force, which then pushed into the eastern half of the city. At the time, forty-seven-year old Hilal Hilal had been head of the Aleppo branch of the Baath Party for about a year. Although a civilian, he was now one of the men entrusted with shoring up the city’s defenses, and he did so by militarizing the party.
By late summer, fighters from the Baath Battalions were fanning out across western Aleppo to relieve the army. In November 2012, a source inside the militia put their number at around 5,000 fighters, but they did not seem to be heavily involved in the fighting. Hilal would later say in a March 2013 interview that the Baath Battalions had lost around 30 dead and 45 wounded, low numbers considering the extreme violence in Aleppo at the time. According to a casualty count run by the pro-opposition Violations Documentations Center, the regime lost a total of around 1,500 soldiers in Aleppo in the six months preceding Hilal’s interview.
Months later, however, Syrian media were reporting that the Baath Party had begun to arm its most loyal members on a mass scale, as the various proregime militias were being expanded. The National Defense Forces has now grown into a very significant force in some areas, for example around Homs, and the Baath Battalions also seems to be expanding, albeit more slowly. According to pro-Baath sources, it now numbers some 7,000 fighters all around Syria.
In July 2013, the Baath’s Central Committee met to elect a new regional leadership. At the meeting, Hilal was promoted to the post of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s deputy party leader. This was clearly a way of rewarding his performance in Aleppo and perhaps thereby giving the go-ahead for an expansion of the Baath Battalions experiment. The deployment of Baath Battalions fighters in Damascus could be a result of that strategy.