As Syria’s war winds down, much discussion today centers on how to demobilize the paramilitary forces that have proliferated in the country during the seven years of conflict—a process often referred to as DDR, or “disarmament, demobilization, and rehabilitation.”
An effective DDR effort that aims to prevent a continuation of the conflict must be based on an awareness of the porous boundaries between Syria’s regular and irregular forces. Given the manner in which the Syrian regime has already begun integrating militias into its regular forces, the United Nations or other states are unlikely to have much of a say, if any, in carrying out DDR on their own terms.
Militias emerged in Syria as a result of the regime’s survival strategy. This went beyond defeating the opposition militarily, but also included sustaining a network of regime-affiliated personnel to neutralize domestic opponents, compensate for the shortcomings of the Syrian state and army, and prevent the regime’s collapse. In the post-conflict phase, these militias will not be easily dismantled because they have become an integral part of the power structure and will increasingly operate under the umbrella of the regular forces.
Throughout the course of the war, the regime and its Iranian and Russian allies relied heavily on creating informal networks of local and foreign militias to bolster their position throughout the country. Broadly speaking, the regime’s method of incorporating these local militias into its official structures was highly organic, resulting in a hybrid military structure in which formal and informal forces frequently overlapped. Local militias were created and mobilized—either through the efforts of regime military officials or often local private individuals—and then gradually integrated into formal structures. The presence of preexisting militias from Lebanon and Iraq further muddied the picture.
The examples of the Qalamoun Shield (Dara‘ al-Qalamoun) and Coastal Shield (Dara‘ al-Sahel) militias provide an illustration of the regime’s methods of building a hybrid model on a broad scale. These two groups were founded in 2014 and 2015, respectively, and were placed under the authority of the Republican Guard, with Coastal Shield originally receiving Iranian funding.
For its part, the Republican Guard, since its foundation in the 1970s, had traditionally been stationed in Damascus with the mission of protecting the regime. However, when the conflict broke out after 2011, two units of the Republican Guard were dispatched outside the capital—one to Deir Ezzor in the east of Syria and another to Aleppo in the north, to combat rebel groups gaining territory in both areas. Members of Qalamoun Shield and Coastal Shield were deployed with these units to Deir Ezzor, and eventually they were incorporated into the Republican Guard’s 104th Brigade, which also included local tribal elements in Deir Ezzor that were allied with the regime.
Similar dynamics played out in Aleppo one month after regime forces defeated the rebels in December 2016 and pushed many residents to leave the city. In January 2017, the regime established the 30th Division of the Republican Guard, which included all local militias in the area. The end result was that although these groups continued to operate more or less independently, they were absorbed into the framework of official state institutions.
Thus the regime is already carrying out a sort of DDR process on its own terms—one which has effectively sapped the notion of its meaning because large numbers of fighters will continue to carry weapons and remain mobilized, only now nominally within the confines of the state. The cases of two local militia commanders show how this process has played out on the ground, and highlight the incentives that have encouraged individuals to either lay down their arms or pursue integration within official structures.
The first case involves a young civil servant who had worked in a municipal electricity agency in Homs. When the Syrian uprising began in 2011, this man—who was 32 years old at the time—joined the local armed groups, then known as the Popular Committees (lijan sha‘biya), or referred to by their critics as Shabbiha. Gathering together about 30 men from his neighborhood and nearby villages, the man formed his own group and entered into an informal agreement with an officer from the regime’s armed forces, then fighting around the Wa‘er district. Under the agreement, the group agreed to clear specific areas of opposition combatants in return for the right to engage in looting there.
Gradually, as the man accumulated experience he was able to enter into a more formal deal with the Lebanese Hezbollah in 2014, whereby each of his fighters was provided with a salary of around SYP40,000 per month, as well as uniforms and identification cards to help them pass through checkpoints and pickup trucks equipped with heavy machine guns. The man himself received a monthly salary of SYP100,000 and a truck of his own. This arrangement continued until 2015, by which time the commander had amassed enough money to open a restaurant and a butcher shop in his hometown, where he now employs some of his former fighters.
But while this arrangement led to a sort of de facto demobilization, this has not always been the case. The example of another young man who was working as a carpenter in Lebanon when the uprising broke out shows why. After the work situation became more difficult for Syrians in 2014, the young man returned to his home area of Masyaf in Hama Governorate. By then, three of his brothers had joined militias. One was a leader in the Desert Hawks (Souqour al-Sahara) group in Palmyra. So, the young man joined the group, remained with it for about a year, and then returned home to form his own group, bringing together about 70 men from villages and towns in the region. Eventually, his group was able to enter into an agreement with the Tiger Forces (Quwaat al-Nimr)—under the authority of the Air Force Intelligence Directorate—whereby he was given SYP75,000 per month, a vehicle, identification documents, machine guns, and a supply of mate (a herb for infusions) and tobacco. He was eventually stationed in Abou al-Duhur in Idlib Governorate, and, following a six-month period in which he and his men were given a temporary status, the group was incorporated into the Tiger Forces. Many small, very localized groups have been integrated through similar processes, making any DDR process extremely difficult to carry out.
The most prominent paramilitary commanders active during the conflict will play a crucial role in its aftermath. Over the years, these leaders have become very influential, meaning that even if the regime were willing to demobilize them, it would be unable to do so without placing itself in a vulnerable position. Dismantling the militias would not only create powerful enemies, but could unleash intra- and inter-militia conflict similar to what Iraq witnessed after 2003.
Rather than risk such an outcome, the regime would prefer to continue to incorporate these militias and leaders into official structures while attempting to keep the system in balance by playing different power centers off against one another. Integrating the militias into the regular forces also gives the regime room to employ the state’s legitimacy to try to keep them in check. The regime-led process, in which large numbers of fighters remain armed and mobilized—although nominally under the umbrella of the state—is likely to continue, given that the regime is potentially the only entity capable of managing the chaos it created.
However, the concept of DDR is typically based on the assumption that clear distinctions can be drawn between regular and irregular forces—with the latter integrated into the former, or simply disbanded. For any demobilization process in Syria to be successful, it is crucial to understand that many militias have operated within the same structures as regular forces, resulting in a hybrid military order in which regular and irregular forces are not easily distinguished.