Emboldened by its military gains, the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad started in 2016 to integrate armed irregulars into its official forces—with Russian support and encouragement. This included bringing loyalist militias under tighter control, incorporating former armed opposition groups and combatants in the recaptured areas, and preparing for the eventual co-option of nongovernment forces still outside its control. Notably, this means the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces and rebel groups operating in Turkish-controlled areas in Syria’s northwest.
However, the regime’s approach to reintegration remains limited and does not constitute a comprehensive disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) strategy. If it did, this could resolve the problem presented by the continued existence of an array of irregular armed groups to the restoration of peace, stabilization, and state authority. The government has focused selectively on certain groups over others without an evident rationale, leaving a question mark over the fate of the remaining nonstate factions, including those operating in areas beyond the regime’s control. In addition, these efforts have sometimes involved simply rebranding paramilitary groups as auxiliary forces to the Syrian Arab Army, rather than reshaping these groups as professional bodies with clear-cut chains of command, rank structures, and training.
From Allies to Competitors: Incorporating Loyalist Militias
Approaches to reintegrating loyalist militias fighting alongside Syrian government forces have varied, according to whether the regime, Iran, or Russia pursued them. For the most part, reintegration has involved short-term, ad hoc solutions based either on bringing militias into the framework of temporary auxiliary structures or on taking elements into the regular armed forces.
The Regime’s Approach
In its no-holds-barred war with the insurgents, the regime depended heavily on a wide array of militias, the majority of which were established and funded by Iran. But despite their crucial role, loyalist armed groups posed major challenges to the state’s authority and stability. Their freedom of maneuver allowed them to engage in fund-raising criminal activities such as trafficking, kidnapping, extortion, and looting. This led to turf battles and frequent clashes between loyalist militias and regime forces. But when the power dynamics on the ground started changing in favor of the regime in 2016, Damascus began to reassert its authority over paramilitary allies, which were now viewed as a liability.
The approach has been cautious, aiming to reduce the militias without leaving a vacuum of power on the ground. It has also been piecemeal: local militias that resist being deployed to another area, compete with influential groups or figures, or engage in criminal activities that are blamed on the regime are more likely to be disbanded or compelled to join the regular forces. Smaller militias seem liable to be disbanded or merged within Syrian army units (notably the Fourth Division, commanded by Assad’s brother Maher), while bigger groups are gradually stripped of their financial resources—mainly by removing them from lucrative checkpoints—before being pressured to disband.
The regime’s efforts to incorporate its allied militias have been largely focused on integrating them as individuals in the regular forces (namely the army). This is usually done by obliging males between the age of eighteen and forty-two who have not done their military service (which generally describes many of the loyalist militiamen) to join the army. Their military rank, salary, service period, and training are set according to the conscription laws and regulations (which determines their rank and training from their level of education). As for demobilized fighters who have already completed their military service, the regime has not encouraged them to join the regular forces, which would automatically put them on the government’s payroll. Its inability or reluctance to take on any extra financial burden might be a factor behind the regime’s decision to allow Iran and Russia to co-opt those individuals in other structures and thus cover their expenses.
Unlike the regime, Russia’s efforts to incorporate loyalist militias have focused largely on pressuring them to join the state’s auxiliary forces. According to Syria’s defense law, these may be established as needed, but are supposed to be temporary. To that end, Moscow has been cooperating with the regime to establish volunteer-based auxiliary military structures to unite pro-regime factions. Russia’s motives are unclear, but it seems that it wants to build a new structure from scratch to establish total control over it and bypass the inefficiency of the regime’s existing forces. Russia launched these efforts in late 2015 with the creation of the Fourth Assault Corps, in collaboration with the regime and Iran, to incorporate the loyalist militias under a new umbrella. This effort failed, however, apparently due to resistance from Iranian-backed militias to losing their autonomy.
To overcome that failure, Russia created a new structure, the Fifth Assault Corps, which it established in coordination with the regime but without Iran’s involvement (and thus Tehran viewed the move as an attempt to sideline it). But despite its legal status as an official auxiliary force, the Fifth Assault Corps does not follow the standard military hierarchy followed by other official forces. Instead, it depends on a hybrid army/militia model, where regular military officers hold leadership positions and (civilian) militia members are foot soldiers with no military rank.
Many of the militia members who joined the Fifth Assault Corps did so in groups, without any restructuring. To join, the new recruits had to sign contracts (usually for one year) and attend a brief training course to assess their capacity and train them on new weapons, if needed. While the status of Fifth Assault Corps members who did not fulfil their conscription obligation remains vague, it seems that serving in the corps does not count toward their mandatory military service. The salaries of corps members seem to be paid by Russia (through official channels), which will hinder transferring their loyalty to the state, thereby fostering secondary power centers within the official forces.
Similarly, Iran is co-opting part of the local militias it sponsors into the regime’s auxiliary forces in an evident attempt to ensure long-term influence inside Syria’s official armed institutions. To that end, Tehran reached a deal in April 2017 to merge the Local Defense Forces (LDF), which it formed out of militias it had previously sponsored in 2013–2014, into the regime’s official forces. The LDF’s civilian members acquire legal military status when they sign recruitment contracts with the Popular Army (al-Jaysh al-Sha’bi), a public facilities protection force that forms part of the armed forces reserves. The majority of the Iranian-backed militias that joined the LDF (whether before or after the 2017 agreement) did so as whole units, and did not undergo new training or restructuring. Consequently, the LDF does not follow the standard military hierarchy adopted by official forces; it does not adopt formal ranks, for example.
Integrating the LDF into government forces has not dissolved its affiliation with Iran, which remains solely responsible for arming and funding it, including providing salaries and compensation to members or their families for injuries (or worse) suffered during battle. Nonetheless, the regime exceptionally allows LDF members to count their year of service with the force toward their compulsory military service, which is officially set at up to three years, although many conscripts (and reservists) have served more than five.
Diversifying its influence further, Iran is incorporating its local militia allies into a hybrid military structure in which they come under the nominal authority of Air Force Intelligence, the Fourth Division, or the Republican Guard. They receive funding and ammunition through this structure, but continue to operate more or less independently. As with the LDF, these militias join as whole units (without training, ranking, or restructuring), with members typically signing one-year contracts and receiving pay from Tehran.
A Non-integrated Approach to Integration
These mechanisms have allowed the state’s armed institutions to incorporate a sizable number of loyalist militias. But there is a clear lack of strategy concerning all aspects of their future. Most of the militia fighters were co-opted into the auxiliary forces without a plan to ensure a smooth transition by remolding them with standard hierarchies, ranking systems, and training. In theory the auxiliary forces, whose establishment was an emergency measure under the defense law, may simply be terminated when the war is officially over, but there is no road map for reintegrating or disbanding at that point. The regime lacks the capacity to pay their salaries should they be transitioned as regular forces, yet it does not seem to be developing mechanisms to demobilize these auxiliary troops or easing their return to civilian life through job-creation and skill-development schemes.
Joining the Enemy: Reintegrating Rebel Groups
Since 2016, the Syrian regime has been negotiating local surrender accords (which it terms “reconciliation agreements”) across the country. Those deals have allowed it to reestablish its authority over the majority of opposition-held areas and forcibly displace those who continue to resist Assad’s rule to the last remaining rebel-held pocket in northwestern Syria. Nonetheless, thousands of rebels have opted to sign individual surrender deals, despite the obvious risks involved (including detention and discrimination). Some of these fighters laid down their weapons and returned to civilian life, while, surprisingly, a few thousand were incorporated into the government’s regular and auxiliary forces, mainly as individuals, either voluntarily or out of fear of detention. For example, following the surrender deal in late 2017 in the town of Beit Jann, southwest of Damascus, dozens of rebel fighters from a group called Liwa’ Omar bin al-Khattab joined a group affiliated with the Hermon Regiment, part of the National Defense Forces (NDF). However, this process suffers from the same flaws as those discussed above, with no clear strategies for transition to regular status or for disarmament and demobilization.
While the efforts to incorporate former rebel groups are not part of a comprehensive national DDR plan, they are still applied systematically to all rebel forces who remain in regime-controlled areas. They are usually disbanded as soon as their territory is captured by the regime. Incorporating former opposition fighters into regime forces may help ease the military’s manpower problem, but making those fighters dependable is a different matter; to that end, they are expected to attend programs led by the Political Orientation branch indoctrinating them in Baath Party ideology and the regime’s narrative on the conflict.
As with absorbing loyalist militias, procedures for processing former rebel combatants depend on who is leading the process, in this case mainly the Syrian regime or Russia, and on what units the newcomers are joining. They can choose between the regular armed forces, the voluntary-based auxiliary structures, or the police. The regime appears to favor maximizing intake into the regular armed forces, especially the army. Those former rebel combatants between the ages of eighteen and forty-two who have not done their military service are required to join the army. They are typically given a six-month break to regularize their situation with the military (a process commonly known as taswiyat al-wad') and register with the respective Military Recruitment branch (Shaabet Tajneed) in their area to be enlisted, with their conditions of service determined by their level of education, as usual. Those who had already done military service but still wanted to join the regular forces could, theoretically, enroll directly. However, there is no public information on such cases/examples.
But those who prefer can still join the regime’s auxiliary forces. In fact, most of the former rebels who remained armed did just that, despite knowing that it would likely be more dangerous than joining the police, since the auxiliaries are usually deployed to the front lines. For example, dozens of armed opposition combatants in the city of al-Tall, in rural Damascus, decided to join the NDF group in charge of their area. Primarily, it appears they would be better paid.
This recruiting process is largely done by Russia, which is trying to build up the Fifth Assault Corps. Nonetheless, Iran and the regime also seem to be working together to incorporate former rebel groups in auxiliary forces coming under the nominal authority of regular military units and agencies. For example, around 2,000 ex-rebel fighters have been recently co-opted by Iranian-backed auxiliary forces in southern Syria. Likewise, local sources reported that hundreds of former rebels in western Daraa signed contracts to join the Military Intelligence branch in the city. It is not clear whether such efforts are being coordinated or if the principals are competing for recruits. But none of the auxiliary forces co-opting former rebels follow standard military organization and ranking systems.
The incorporation of former rebel fighters is typically facilitated by influential local figures who act as intermediaries, such as former opposition commanders, local notables, prominent businessmen, or even regime officials. In one case, the leader of the opposition’s negotiating committee in the city of Qudsiyya, also in rural Damascus, contacted local armed opposition fighters and offered them to join the NDF, both during the negotiations and after. In the cities of Barzeh and Qaboun in Damascus, the leader of the rebel group First Brigade managed NDF recruitment efforts among reconciling combatants. Once they agree, new recruits then sign a contract (usually for one year) and attend a quick camp to assess their capacity and train them on new weapons. The various auxiliary forces give a similar range of salaries and positions, which are divided into two main categories: commanders, and rank and file.
While the vast majority of former rebel groupshave been co-opted as individuals, a small number of factions have joined as entire groups and thus maintained their structures. The only changes they had to make involved switching their allegiance, changing the names of their groups, and following the chain of command of the unit they joined. For example, following the capture of Daraa Province, the Shabab al-Sunnah faction joined the Fifth Assault Corps as a group and remained under the command of its leader, Ahmad al-Awdeh.
These efforts remain largely cosmetic, with little real integration taking place. For example, there is no formal mechanism to transpose a former insurgent commander’s previous position and experience to his new place in the regime’s army, and he is not given the officer training needed to equip him with the skills and knowledge to engage his new responsibilities, regulations, and chains of command.
There is a similar absence of clear policy and direction when it comes to career regular army defectors rejoining official ranks. The regime does not seem to encourage them to return to the regular army, and their uncertain fate, should they go back to their old units, may be the main reason why many have signed up with auxiliary forces, which they may see as a safer choice. The same considerations and uncertainties apply to military personnel who left the country altogether, and who are not covered by the amnesty for defectors announced by Assad in mid-October 2018. Precise figures are not available, but there are believed to be several thousand in Turkey and Jordan alone. Clearly they could make a major contribution to rebuilding the Syrian armed forces, and their return might encourage refugees to do likewise, but there is no policy to persuade them to come back and no reassurance about the terms and conditions of their reintegration—or indeed their personal safety—were they to do so.
A smaller number of former rebel fighters have joined the police force, either directly or through intermediaries. The main advantage is that, unlike most of the auxiliary units, it counts as military service and the police take care of regularizing the recruits’ situation with the military authorities. They can also normally stay in their own communities, and do not find themselves obliged to fight their former comrades-in-arms. The drawback is that the police are less well-paid, and recruits are expected to sign up for five years. In Muadhdhamiya al-Sham, for example, only eighty former rebel fighters were reported to have joined the police, while hundreds enrolled with regime military forces.
As for disarmament, the regime has no policy of encouraging former rebels to give up their personal weapons, either by buying them back or through some other program. Given the lack of trust and efforts to regain the former insurgents’ confidence, many are likely hiding their weapons as an insurance policy. As in the case of loyalist militias, nothing is being done to ease their return to civilian life, whether through job-creation schemes or small business grants.
Looking Forward: Future Demobilization
Discussions about possibly integrating rebel groups in areas outside regime control must remain highly conjectural, as there are political and military uncertainties that will have a formative bearing on any such efforts. In both the main cases—the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the northeast and the remaining rebel groups in the northwest—much will depend on the strength and consistency of positions taken by their external backers, respectively the United States and Turkey, and the future relationship of those powers, and their local allies, with the Syrian regime and its partners. Those factors will affect whether any eventual integration effort takes place under duress or as part of a balanced negotiation.
In any event, the piecemeal, ad hoc procedures applied so far are hardly likely to work in these cases. For a reconciliation or surrender arrangement to be imposed on the SDF, its 45,000 or so battle-hardened and highly motivated forces would have to be confronted, encircled, and either overrun or forced to capitulate, a tall order even without the U.S. forces supporting them. So the prevailing offer of “disband or join the regime” is unlikely to apply unless something changes radically.
SDF leaders have indicated a willingness to become part of the Syrian army, but they clearly do not envisage a straightforward integration. They advocate a federal system under which they would exercise a large degree of de facto autonomy in the Kurdish-majority areas they control (around 25 percent of Syria’s territory). These forces would operate along the lines of the peshmerga in neighboring Iraqi Kurdistan, a group that is entirely autonomous but paid by Baghdad and theoretically part of the Iraqi armed forces.
While Russia might be attracted by such a formula, seeing the inclusion of the SDF or at least its Kurdish-majority group, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), as a useful addition to the Fifth Assault Corps, both the Syrian regime and Iran have rejected the proposal. Even Russia’s position is ultimately uncertain, as it is also on good terms with Turkey, which is fiercely hostile to the YPG Kurds. The Syrian regime for its part is not willing to share power with any other Syrian actors and wants to restore its monopoly over the use of arms and force. But a confrontation cannot be entered into lightly, so the issue is left in limbo for the time being.
If the SDF were to be merged into official forces, there are many technical challenges to surmount. Unlike the rebel factions mentioned earlier, the SDF (or at least its main component and real backbone, the YPG) has clear-cut military structures and procedures quite different from those of the Syrian Arab Army, so either group or both would have to make structural adjustments depending on the nature of the agreement. The YPG is organized on the basis of regiments (smaller than conventional regiments) whose officers are electedby the rank and file. It is much more of a guerrilla army than anything under the official Syrian military banner, and much of its success is attributed to a degree of operational autonomy and flexibility absent in the centralized Syrian army. Moreover, the largely Kurdish ethnicity of the YPG’s majority and its strong left-wing, if not Marxist, ideology would also be hard to integrate into the Syrian military structure, although the Arab tribal and militia components of the broader SDF might be easier to absorb. It would clearly be simpler if the YPG units were to operate at least semiautonomously under the wing, for example, of the Russian-sponsored Fifth Assault Corps, in which case they could keep their existing structures, though, as noted, the regime seems averse to this formula.
Any effort to co-opt the rest of rebel forces, which are largely confined to the northwestern region of the country, would also be more complicated than the existing cases in regime-controlled areas. The sheer size of those rebel groups—estimates vary between 30,000 and 80,000 fighters—would make such a task difficult whatever the mechanisms, and the regime could ill-afford financially to put them on the payroll. As with the United States’ support of the SDF, Turkey’s sponsorship of other rebel groups and physical engagement in their territory is a deterrent to regime advances, as the deferred operation against Idlib showed. Similarly, Turkey apparently favors a deal with Russia to incorporate the rebel groups into the Fifth Assault Corps, giving them an official regime affiliation while leaving them in de facto control of their current areas. However, there is no sign that the regime intends to abandon its winner-takes-all approach, so in this case, too, the situation remains in limbo.
Conclusion: Gaps and limitations
A classic, successful DDR scenario, especially after a divisive civil war, involves standing down the combatant irregulars, collecting up their weapons, and implementing programs to ease their path back to civilian life, or integrating them as part of the regular armed forces. All of this should be done within the context of, and by reinforcing, a comprehensive peace agreement, which is usually overseen by international powers given the lack of trust that normally prevails.
None of this applies to the Syrian case. In the place of a nationwide negotiated peace agreement, there has been a series of half-hearted reconciliations imposed by the regime after besieging and battering rebel strongholds into submission. Reintegrating irregulars, be they pro-regime militias or former rebels, into the regime forces has taken place piecemeal and not as part of an integrated national program of rehabilitation. In neither case have mechanisms been set up to help former fighters adjust to civilian life.
In addition, there are many obstacles that have been highlighted by the efforts so far made. Turning a civilian militia fighter with no formal training or discipline into a reliable soldier requires an investment of manpower and finance that the regime lacks. Simply adopting entire loyalist or rebel units may temporarily solve some problems but does not amount to serious reintegration. Lacking professional training, discipline, and regular command structures, and in many cases maintaining divided loyalties, these forces can be of only limited utility and dependability for the regime. It has also done nothing to reform its military and security forces and eliminate the sectarianism prevailing throughout: these forces remain corrupt, brutal, and incompetent, factors that will further bedevil reintegration and trust building.
As beholden as the regime is to Iran and Russia for its survival, it has not been able to resist the inroads into state sovereignty and the implanting of foreign influence represented by the apparently competitive sponsorship of elements in the military and security structures. That process may provide a temporary fix for the regime’s financial and manpower deficits, but in the long term it will complicate any true attempt at national reconstruction and reintegration. It could potentially turn the country’s military and security fields into an arena for regional and international power contests, if they are not already.
This article draws on the author’s interviews with Orwa Khalife, Nawar Shaaban, Mohammad Assallom, and Aymenn Al-Tamimi, who are gratefully acknowledged.