print
memri
April 25, 2016 No.
1242

Syria Regime Establishing Popular Armed Militias Modeled On Iranian Basij

By: N. Mozes*

After nearly six years of intense fighting in Syria, the regime army forces are severely depleted, due to the heavy losses they have suffered and also due to increasing draft dodging.[1] The regime has taken several measures to address this problem. In addition to bringing in forces from outside the country, especially from Iraq and Lebanon, it has formed popular paramilitary groups, whose task is to defend the areas under regime control. This allows the regime to rotate army forces to the frontlines without abandoning the rear, while also maintaining the loyalty of the residents. Those who enlist to these paramilitary groups are promised a salary, exemption from compulsory military service, and to be stationed close to home. Militia members wear uniforms and undergo basic training in the use of light arms and in military defense tactics. According to reports, most of the militias are subordinate to the Syrian army, especially to the Republican Guard under the command of Maher Al-Assad, the bother of president Bashar Al-Assad.

The number of enlistees in these forces is unclear. According to regime sources, the response rate is high. However, opposition sources claim the opposite, and mention as evidence that regime officials have threatened to level sanctions on residents who fail to join the popular militias and even to fire state workers who do not "volunteer" to the units that have been established for them.

Iran plays a substantial and active role in establishing these groups, which are modeled on the Iranian Basij militia. This was clearly indicated by IRGC official Hossein Hamadani, who said that "one result of [Iran's] presence [in Syria]... was the establishment of a type of Basij known as the 'National Defense.'" Syrian oppositionist websites and anti-Syrian regime media specifically point to the role played by IRGC Qods Force Commander Qassem Soleimani in the establishment of these groups and in guiding them.

The following is a review of the various groups that have been formed.  

"National Defense" Forces

Since the onset of the Syria crisis in March 2011, the regime has made more prominent use of armed citizen supporters such as the Shabiha,[2]  as well as the Popular Committees that were established as the protests escalated through 2011, in order to suppress them. The employment of armed civilians is presumably meant to distance the army from controversy and counter international and local criticism of the army's involvement in oppressing the citizenry. In January 2012, after the struggle between the regime and its opponents escalated into an armed one, and in light of the need for a more organized paramilitary group following criticism that the Shabiha was out of control and arbitrarily targeted citizens, the National Defense force was established.[3] The force, which is deployed countrywide, and especially in cities, comprises mainly Popular Committees members, as well as members and supporters of the Ba'ath party.[4] It was gradually joined by many other pro-regime citizens, who received basic training with light weapons.

 
Emblem of the National Defense Forces (Facebook.com/National.Defence.Forces.NDF) 

Testimony by an Iranian regime official indicates that these forces were established with Iranian help on the model of the Iranian Basij militia. In an IRGC conference on July 8, 2015, IRGC official Hossein Hamadani said: "When the Syrian crisis broke out, some of Iran's sons arrived in Syria to provide conceptual assistance. One result of that presence... was the establishment of a type of Basij known as the 'National Defense.' The establishment of the National Defense was like an angel of salvation for the Syrian people... The National Defense in Syria has some 100,000 members and has managed to liberate many territories with the assistance of the Syrian army."[5]

Reports in recent months indicate that the regime intends to disband this militia, likely due to recurrent citizen complaints against it.[6]  

Qadesh Forces

"The National Security and Popular Support Forces" (Arabic acronym 'Qadesh')[7] were established in early 2014 and operate mostly in northwest and northeast Syria. The organization is subordinate to the Republican Guard - a highly skilled unit completely loyal to the regime and led by Bashar Al-Assad's brother Maher. The Iranian Arabic-Language TV channel Al-'Alam, which is close to the Assad regime, reported that the organization includes local army reservists who were not called up for active military duty. The members wear uniforms and train in guerilla warfare, explosives and IED detection, sharpshooting, and use of light and medium weapons.[8]

 
Qadesh Forces emblem (Zamanalwsl.net, June 19, 2014) 

Establishing Local Militias

In the first half of 2015, in light of the advance of Kurdish forces in northwest Syria and following defeats suffered by the regime in the Idlib area near the coast, Tadmur in the east, and elsewhere in the south, the regime began establishing local militias to defend their areas. As mentioned, there have been increasing complaints about the behavior of the National Defense Forces, including by regime opponents, but it is still unclear whether these local militias will replace the National Defense Forces or work alongside them. 

Al-Hashd Al-Sha'abi Forces in Deir Al-Zor

In March 2015, regime forces in Deir Al-Zor called on residents to volunteer for a new popular organization - Al-Hashd Al-Sha'abi ("The Popular Mobilization Force") - that would fight ISIS. The group is named after  Al-Hashd Al-Sha'abi - a coalition of Iraqi militias, largely Shi'ite, supported by Iran. According to one report, the call for volunteers was aimed at Sunni residents of regime-controlled neighborhoods in the city, as well as pro-regime tribesmen. Another report indicated that the organization is headed by Iranian IRGC commanders and Hizbullah members.[9] It was also reported that the organization is subordinate to the Syrian Republican Guard.[10] The regime's call for volunteers stated that the purpose of the organization was to assist the army in the Deir Al-Zor area, to open the road to the city that ISIS is blocking, to eliminate ISIS, and to remove the siege on the regime forces and its allies in Deir Al-Zor city.[11]

The rate of response to the call for volunteers was apparently disappointing. A Syrian oppositionist website reported that some two months later, Major General Muhammad Khaddour, commander of the Syrian army's Eastern District, told residents of regime-controlled areas: "Your sons are all sitting in cafes while soldiers and Popular Committees members are fighting on the frontlines." Khaddour threatened that, unless 1,500 locals volunteered for Al-Hashd Al-Sha'abi within 15 days, he would take to the streets himself and take all the young men to the battlefront. He also warned that electricity to Deir Al-Zor would not be renewed as long as the road to the city, which is held by ISIS, was not reopened, and that the homes of residents who leave the city to avoid joining the fighting would be appropriated for the benefit of soldiers.[12]  

Liwaa' Dir' Al-Sahel (The Coastal Shield Brigade)

In late May 2015, as Jaysh Al-Fattah Idlib marched on the coastal area, the Coastal Shield Brigade was established, under the command of the Syrian Republican Guard, to defend the 'Alawi regime's coastal stronghold. A statement posted on pro-regime social media pages called residents of the coast to contact the Republican Guard offices in the city of Qardaha in order to volunteer for the brigade, and were promised a monthly salary of 140,000 Syrian lira (some $140). It also promised that if draft dodgers volunteered, their legal status would be settled (i.e. they would be pardoned). The London-based Qatari daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi reported that IRGC Qods Force Commander Qassem Soleimani had helped to establish this organization and define its role.[13]

 
Announcement of the establishment of The Coastal Shield Brigade (Facebook.com/Syrian.RG.ARMOR, May 29, 2015)


Coastal Shield Brigade shields (Facebook.com/Syrian.RG.ARMOR, May 31, 2015) 

A Syrian oppositionist website reported that the organization has two training camps and that volunteers undergo three months of intensive training.[14]

In an attempt to combat the phenomenon of draft dodging and to encourage volunteering, the organization's Facebook page posted a message that read: "Every young man sitting in cafes and clubs, every young man dodging [military] service and hiding out at home - [know that] there are women whose femininity seeks your masculinity."[15]

  

In contrast to reports on opposition and anti-regime websites that volunteer rates for this organization was low, the brigade's Facebook page reported on June 18, 2015 that 10,000 people from the Latakia area had volunteered up to that point, and that thanks to the large number of volunteers, "the Coastal Shield Brigade [is now] officially [deployed] on the coastal fronts." On June 25, the page stated that recruiting for the organization would soon close.[16]

 
Volunteers for the Coastal Shield Brigade (Facebook.com/Syrian.RG.ARMOR, June 18, 2015) 

Liwaa' Dir' Al-Jazeera Al-Suriyya (The Syrian Al-Jazeera Shield Brigade)

In late June 2015, the establishment of The Syrian Al-Jazeera Shield Brigade was announced. The Syrian Al-Jazeera region includes the Al-Raqqa, Deir Al-Zor, and Al-Hasakah governorates in eastern and northeastern Syria. According to reports, the decision to establish the brigade was made after Syrian Prime Minister Wael Al-Halqi and Syrian National Security Bureau head 'Ali Mamlouk visited Arab tribes in the region.[17] According to its founding statement,[18] the brigade is tasked with assisting the Arab tribesmen The brigade is tasked with assisting the Arab tribesmen who feel that they are trapped between the rock of ISIS, which is trying to take over Al-Hasakah, and the hard place of the Kurdish forces that are fighting ISIS, and who are reportedly also carrying out ethnic cleansing of local Arabs as they advance.


The Syrian Al-Jazeera Shield Brigade emblem (Facebook.com, June 20, 2015) 

Much like the Coastal Shield Brigade, this organization is also subordinate to the Republican Guard.[19] According to a July 2, 2015 post on the brigade's Facebook page, which has over 3,500 likes, it fights alongside the Syrian army in Al-Hasakah City. On July 8, 2015, it issued a call to city residents to come to the military leadership headquarters in the city in order to volunteer for the brigade.[20]

Rijal Dir' Al-Watan Fi Al-Suwayda (The "Men Of The Homeland Shield Force" In Al-Suwayda)

The paramilitary model was also implemented in the Al-Suwayda governorate in southeast Syria, which has a Druze majority, after Jabhat Al-Nusra advanced on this area from the south and ISIS from the east in May 2015. Following claims and reports, which were denied by regime loyalists, that regime forces had withdrawn from the region and abandoned its residents to their fate, the Men of the Homeland Shield Force was established in Al-Suwayda with the support of some leading Druze clerics, chief among them Sheikh Yousef Jarboa.


The Men of the Homeland Shield Force in Al-Suwayda logos (Images: the organization's Facebook page)

The organization is headed by Brigadier General Nayef Al-'Aqil and Colonel Mamdouh Malak, former officials in the Syrian regime's special forces. According to Al-'Aqil, this organization "is not just supporting  the Syrian Arab army, but is a main factor [working] hand in hand with the Syrian Arab army in defending the homeland."[21]

The organization's leaders tour villages in the area to encourage residents to volunteer and promise to settle the legal status of Syrian army draft dodgers if they join their ranks.[22]


Al-'Aqil touring the governorate (Facebook.com, June 9, 2015) 

The organization's Facebook page defines it as "an organized civil popular force meant to organize and unify the unregulated weapons in the governorate and to train and prepare the people to defend the mountain [the Druze Mountains] and vital installations against any external attack."[23] It added: "We must know that our duty is to defend our land with all our might, and not simply leave [this task] to the Syrian Arab army... This is our homeland and this is our army. We will either get wiped out while standing idly by, or tell a new tale, similar to that which our fathers and grandfathers told about [the Druze revolt against French] colonialism..."[24] The women of the governorate were called to encourage their sons and husbands to fight.[25]

It appears that the organization was originally meant to be named Al-Hashd Al-Sha'abi, but due to resident objections in light of the association with the Iraqi organization of the same name, the name was changed.[26]

 
Al-'Aqil and Malak touring the village of 'Orman in the Al-Suwayda governorate (Facebook.com, June 25, 2015) 

The Volunteer Brigades

In addition to establishing paramilitary groups, in December 2015 the regime began establishing Volunteer Brigades comprising state workers and citizens. These brigades are subordinate to the army, as is indicated by the announcement of their establishment, which was issued by the General Command of the Army and Armed Forces. The announcement states: "Together against terrorism. In response to the demands of thousands of citizens who wish to bear arms alongside the Syrian Arab army in order to eliminate terrorism, the General Command of the Army and Armed Forces hereby announces the establishment of the Volunteer Brigades, in order to enable citizens to fulfill their sacred duty to defend the homeland." The announcement listed those eligible to join the brigades and the incentives they would receive:

1.  Any Syrian citizen over 18 who is not required to join the army by law.

2.  Citizens who were called up for reserve duty but whom circumstances prevented from joining their units, and whose legal status has been settled.

3.  State workers, provided they obtain a permit from the relevant minister.

4.  State workers who join the brigades will receive a 50% increase in salary.

5.  Citizens who are not state workers will receive a salary of 20,000 Syrian lira. Those participating in combat missions will receive an additional 10,000 lira.

6.  Volunteers will serve in their governorates or near their homes.[27]

 


Volunteer Brigades poster: "Syria is everyone's homeland, and the responsibility to defend it is on us all. My brother citizen, [join] the Volunteer Brigades: hand in hand with the Syrian army to defeat terrorism" (Facebook.com/homs.governorate.council, January 21, 2016)

 
"A vigilant eye on the homeland - be one of the heroes and join the Volunteer Brigades" (Facebook.com/homs.governorate.council, January 16, 2016) 

Volunteer Brigades recruits undergo military training that includes operating various weapons and drilling defensive and offensive tactics "in order to be true fighters alongside the Syrian army."[28] Members wear military uniforms and are subject to the same conditions as soldiers.[29] As mentioned, many state workers were forced to join these so-called volunteer units.

Volunteer Brigades have been established throughout Syria. On January 11, 2016, a ceremony was held for the first graduating class of the Volunteer Brigades of Rif Dimashq. The official Syrian news agency (SANA) reported that the group had been established "in order to meet the desire of citizens to bear arms alongside the Syrian Arab army in order to eliminate takfiri terrorism and fulfill their sacred duty to defend the homeland."[30]

The local brigade in Latakia and Baniyas is known as the 145th Brigade. Latakia governor Ibrahim Khudr Al-Salem said: "All Syrians are fighters, each according to his job. The new brigade in Latakia was established following the many swift achievements by the Syrian army and after clearing many villages and areas [of terrorists]. There is a need to provide a framework for citizens who wish to remain in their villages and become elements that take part in defending security, after having undergone [Ba'ath party] military and organizational courses, as well as intensive behavioral courses."[31] According to the governor, as of February 2, 2016, some 1,200 people, including 135 women, had volunteered for the brigade.[32]

 

* N. Mozes is a research fellow at MEMRI.


Endnotes: 

[1] For more, see MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series Report No. 1241, In Syria, High Rate Of Draft Dodging Triggers Intensive Military Recruitment Efforts By Syrian Regime, April 25, 2016

[2] Nickname for Syrian government's plainclothes militias who assist security forces in suppressing anti-regime protests.

[3] Orient-news.net, May 1, 2014.

[4] Dp-news.com, January 22, 2013.

[5] Defa Press (Iran), July 8, 2015.

[6] See, for example, All4syria.info, December 9, 2015.

[7] Its name, in addition to its acronym, harkens back to the Battle of Qadesh in 1274 BCE between the Hittite Empire and the Egyptian army led by Pharaoh Ramesses II, which took place near the city of Qadesh in Southwest Syria.

[8] Alalam.ir, February 5, 2014.

[9] Arabi21.com, March 10, 2015.

[10] Sadaalshaam.net, May 27, 2015.

[11] Arabi21.com, March 10, 2015.

[12] Aranews.org, May 11, 2015.

[13] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), June 22, 2015.

[14] Enabbaladi.org, June 28, 2015

[15] Facebook.com/Syrian.RG.ARMOR, June 16, 2015.

[16] Facebook.com/Syria.RG.ARMOR, June 25, 2015.

[17] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), June 21, 2015; Zamanalwsl.net, June 23, 2015.

[18] Facebook.com/pages/رجال-درع-الوطن-في-السويداء/1603349293223141.

[19] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), June 21, 2015.

[20] Facebook.com, July 8, 2015.

[21] Facebok.com/AlSweidaAlSweida, June 21, 2015.

[22] Facebook.com, June 9, 2015.

[23] Facebook.com, June 16, 2015.

[24] Facebook.com, June 10, 2015.

[25] Facebook.com, June 11, 2015.

[26] All4syria.info, May 25, 2015; Almanar.com.lb, June 13, 2015.

[27] Facebook.com/homs.governorate.council, January 21, 2016.

[28] SANA News Agency (Syria), January 11, 2016.

[29] Champress.net, December 8, 2015.

[30] SANA News Agency (Syria), January 11, 2016.

[31] Champress.net, December 8, 2015.

[32] Al-Thawra (Syria), February 2, 2016.