After nearly seven years of war, the military balance of power in Syria appears to have shifted in favor of President Bashar al-Assad and his allies, Russia and Iran. Since Russia’s military intervention in September 2015, Assad has managed to either retain or recapture most major population centers in the country encompassing so-called ‘Useful Syria’—including Damascus, Homs, Hama, Aleppo and Latakia. It most recently broke the ISIS siege on Deir Ezzor, paving the way for further gains in the city and its surrounding areas, leading to the Iraqi border town of Al-Bukamal.

While a wide array of factors has contributed to the regime’s survival, one key characteristic has been its ability to overcome the Syrian Arab Army’s (S.A.A.) initial lack of structural effectiveness by sub-contracting the regime’s critical military efforts to loosely associated loyalist militias. However, despite the gains this strategy may have reaped on the battlefield vis-à-vis the opposition, the ‘militiafication’ of pro-regime forces has diluted the level of full, central government authority over these groups.

This raises important questions surrounding the prospects for the regime’s future ability to stabilize the country, or parts of it controlled by the government. At times, this militiafication phenomenon has also pitted the regime’s two most important international backers, Iran and Russia, on opposite sides as each has tried to pull these militias under its own respective sphere of influence. The United States would do well to recognize the problems that many of these militias pose for Syria’s future and address them accordingly.

Lack of Manpower

Assad’s reliance on loyalist and often sectarian militias to combat opposition forces instead of his own formal military structure begs an obvious question: why did this need to happen in the first place? The answer lies in the early phases of the crisis, when the Assad regime found itself in need of additional manpower to replace or supplement the S.A.A.’s depleted ranks. By mid-2013, two years after the fighting began, the S.A.A. had lost half of its forces, shrinking from an estimated 220,000 strong at the beginning of the war to 110,000 in 2013. This trend has continued into the present day, with estimates of S.A.A. manpower under direct government control now as low as 20,000-25,000 active and offensively deployable troops. At the same time however, militias fighting on behalf of the Assad regime are estimated to currently number between 150,000 and 200,000 fighters. The distinction is as sharp as the implications are significant for Syria’s future.

However, this explanation does not get to the root of why the S.A.A. proved to be such a structurally inefficient fighting force when faced with a nationwide uprising. If the problem was exclusively one of numbers, the regime could have expanded and more aggressively enforced conscription at an earlier phase. Moreover, why did Assad choose to allow the proliferation of semi-independent militias on his soil rather than attempt to rebuild, expand or reform the state institutions directly under his control?

First, consider the initial structure of the S.A.A. Proponents of the Assad regime have correctly pointed out that because the bulk of the S.A.A. was conscription-based, its ranks were overwhelmingly represented by members of Syria’s majority Sunni population. Sunnis also made up a large proportion of the military’s upper ranking positions. However, this is far from the end of the story. While Sunnis were indeed proportionally represented within the S.A.A. both in rank and number, real power was concentrated elsewhere—frequently in the hands of loyalist members of the minority Alawite community. The majority of special forces brigades and other units that were heavily depended upon for the regime’s most important frontline operations, such as the Republican Guard, the 4th Mechanized Division and irregular units like Suheil al-Hassan’s Tiger Forces, have all been markedly Alawite-oriented in their demographic makeup and core leadership.

Meanwhile, Sunni S.A.A. officers were frequently relegated to remedial logistical tasks that had minimal effect on the battlefield. Many Sunni officers even noted that their aides were usually Alawites who reported their each and every move to intelligence services and thus held more authority than the Sunni officers they technically served. Given the sectarian nature of this pre-war set-up, it is not surprising that following the outbreak of fighting in mid-2011, not one of the S.A.A.’s approximately 20 divisions has ever managed to deploy more than a third of its nominal strength on the battlefield.

Almost as soon as protests began in March 2011, Assad sought to delegitimize his opposition by framing the situation in sectarian terms, branding them Sunni extremists. To further this, the regime targeted Sunni communities with increasingly heavy and indiscriminate forms of military violence while turning to less brutal and often non-violent means to punish Alawite and other minority areas. Amid other factors, this use of selective violence created a self-fulfilling prophecy, whereby many Sunni S.A.A. soldiers were widely suspected for their potential disloyalty, which in turn incentivized the regime to rely formally upon Alawite-heavy S.A.A. units and informally upon local militias and loyalist gangs. Many of the latter were representative of minority communities and utilized as local enforcers.

Disobedient Militias

With time, mounting S.A.A. desertions, defections, and battlefield casualties forced the regime to more formally contract its military efforts out to various foreign and local militias, many of which were highly sectarian in design and often subservient to interests beyond Syria.

While the proliferation of loyalist militias served to bolster the regime’s defensive and offensive efforts against opposition forces, it also fractured Assad’s own direct authority, as many militias were never officially, or sufficiently integrated into state institutions. This has resulted, at times, in the regime’s inability to stabilize areas of the country that are supposedly under government control, and to avoid such areas becoming zones of corruption and warlordism.

Take, for example, the National Defense Forces (N.D.F.), a pro-Assad umbrella force formed by the regime with Iranian training and funding. Despite being arms of regime power and manned almost entirely by local Syrians, N.D.F. formations have clashed with the S.A.A. and other government forces on numerous occasions. Allegations of corruption and malpractice have often been at the center of such inter-factional incidents. In April 2015, for example, the S.A.A. clashed with the N.D.F. in al-Zahraa in Homs after reports emerged that the N.D.F. affiliate there had been engaged in kidnapping, extortion, and other criminal behavior against the local population. The clashes left forces dead on both sides. Again in early-2016, there were reports of government clashes with the N.D.F. after government forces entered northern Homs to check N.D.F. influence in the region. In December 2016 in Deir Ezzor, infighting erupted between the group and military guards over a dispute regarding access to a government-controlled military hospital. The N.D.F. has even sparred with other militias loyal to the regime, such as the Lebanese Hezbollah in the Qalamoun.

The problem does not end with the N.D.F., as pro-regime militias have also been disproportionately implicated in massacres against Syrian civilians including those in Banias, Ras al-Nabaa, and Aleppo. Indeed, according to one report, close analysis of atrocities against civilians since the beginning of the crisis indicates regular paramilitary involvement, as these incidents are particularly concentrated in majority Alawite areas around Syria. Given their abysmal record of human rights abuses and sectarian motivations, the continued existence of these militias will make any process of reintegrating Syria’s anti-regime Sunni communities an immense challenge. Unfortunately, loyalist militias have also benefited politically and economically from the chaos of war, and are therefore unlikely to give up their newfound power willingly. The existence of this attractive war economy does not bode well for the future of Syria’s stabilization or reconstruction.

Competing Interests—Russia and Iran

The extensive network of pro-regime militias across Syria has also provoked tensions between the regime’s two principal backers, Iran and Russia. Ideally, Russia would like to recapture all territory under opposition control and put it back under the regime’s direct authority. However, due to the current weakness of the S.A.A., Russia has been forced to concentrate its offensive efforts on the Damascus-Homs-Aleppo corridor in western Syria at the expense of rebel held territories spread out around the country, where it has prioritized de-escalation. Such a process may in fact prolong Russia’s intervention beyond what it desires. In order to fulfill its goal of eventually uniting all of Syria under a strong central government that it has substantial influence over, Russia has attempted to rebuild and revitalize Syrian state institutions like the S.A.A. in order to centralize power directly under the government in Damascus.

In an attempt to hasten this process, Russia has worked to reduce the role of loyalist militias in the conflict, many of which are frequently fueled by extra-national motivations rather than by objectives driven by the Syrian state. In this regard, Russia has sought to integrate pro-regime militias back under the direct control of the S.A.A. In the fall of 2015, Russia pressured the regime to create the Fourth Corps, a force that integrated loyalist militia fighters around Latakia into the ranks of the S.A.A. Although the corps ultimately failed to totally eliminate militia influence around Latakia, it proved that loyalists outside of direct regime control could be incorporated into the S.A.A.

Furthermore, in late 2016 Russia announced the formation of the Fifth Assault Corps, a force that integrated units from the Iran-backed N.D.F. and those who had previously defected or deserted from the army back into the S.A.A. This group essentially expanded the local Latakia-based charter of the Fourth Corps into a nationwide one. Moreover, by opening its ranks to S.A.A. defectors and those who refused to be conscripted, the Fifth Corps has sought to reduce the sectarian kaleidoscope of militias acting on behalf of Assad by legitimizing the inclusion of Sunni soldiers back into government institutions. However, Russia’s decision to establish an elite, largely Alawite force known as “ISIS Hunters”—trained exclusively by Russian Spetznaz special forces in loyalist mountain camps in Latakia—as a new, frontline Syrian force suggests de-sectarianizing the Assad regime’s image is not always Moscow's foremost concern.

While the theory underpinning these Russian initiatives appears both logical and justified, the foundations upon which it was built have since been revealed to be shaky. In September 2017, Moscow revealed that the Fifth Assault Corps had in fact been commanded by a senior Russian general, who was killed in action in Syria. That revelation underlined the extent of the challenge ahead, and the pressure felt by Moscow to rebuild Syria’s central state institutions from the rubble they found in 2015.

While Russia is attempting to rebuild institutions under the direct control of the Syrian state, Iran is intent on preserving alternative instruments of power that run parallel to the state. Since 2012, Iran has co-opted, trained, and funded a large portion of the loyalist militias currently operating on Assad’s behalf. This effort originated in 2012 with Iranian efforts to send Shiite militias from Iraq and Lebanon to reinforce Sayyeda Zainab, a Shiite holy site in Damascus. This sectarian reasoning was quickly integrated into Assad’s own strategy, as Iran-backed militias, both foreign and local, began emerging across the country in the name of propping up the Assad regime against Sunni extremists. Today, nearly every major militia in Syria, including an array of Hezbollah affiliates and Liwa Fatemiyoun—an Afghan Shiite militia that was formed to fight on behalf of the Syrian government—as well as many components of the N.D.F., continue to fight with some degree of Iranian backing. Tellingly, senior U.S. officials believe that 80 percent of Assad’s military manpower is made up of foreign forces such as Hezbollah and other Shiite militias linked to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (I.R.G.C.), and Iraqi Popular Mobilization Units (P.M.U.).

Militias loyal to Iran in Syria, in tandem with the Iran-backed elements of the P.M.U.s in Iraq, have successfully secured the strategically significant Iranian goal of a land route from Tehran through Baghdad and Damascus to Beirut and the Mediterranean. Given the gains these militias have reaped for Iran, it is virtually impossible to see why they would surrender to Russian and Syrian central control in the name of future peace. In fact, Iran’s only logical path forward is to replicate the P.M.U. structure in Iraq in Syria, creating and consolidating an extensive militia infrastructure that represents a source of Iranian asymmetric power that will, in all likelihood, outweigh the power of state institutions.

Militias Undermine Syrian Stability

Despite some recent attempts by Assad to enforce his authority upon challenging militias, the militiafication of Syria does not bode well for the country’s future stability. The rampant warlord-like behavior associated with many of these groups serves to fracture the sovereignty of the Syrian state. Crucially, the sectarian motivations of many militia groups, and their allegiance to non-Syrian bodies and causes, serves to further exacerbate already rife internal tensions within Syria. Instead of representing mechanisms for stabilizing Syria from internal extremist threats, this reality is more likely to empower the narrative of Salafi jihadist groups like Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, al-Qaeda and ISIS. The United States would do well to pay attention to the proliferation of Syria’s loyalist militias. Washington will not be able to pressure these groups short of massive military intervention, including troop deployment, which appears extremely unlikely. Given the benefits these loyalist factions have accrued for Iran, it is also unlikely that Tehran would be willing to give up its gains in any diplomatic settlement.

As a point of policy, the United States should exert public pressure upon Russia to continue its efforts to recentralize pro-regime militias that are not Iranian proxies back under Syria’s state institutions, such as the S.A.A. Russia’s intervention to protect the regime in Damascus in September 2015 guaranteed a substantial stake in the country and ensured Moscow’s responsibility for Syria’s future. Although not the most ideal scenario, Russia’s position as an eminent powerbroker in Syria deems such an approach necessary. This does not mean Washington should give up on its own proxies in the conflict, or give up protecting territories liberated by those proxies. U.S. policy should protect gains made by its partner forces, as a durable source of pressure on the regime in Damascus.

Meanwhile, in dealing with pro-Iranian militias in Syria, the U.S. government should make greater efforts to publicly map said militias and to designate those deemed to have violated international law, in particular through maintaining direct links to the I.R.G.C.’s Quds Force—an organization designated as a supporter of terrorism. [AI1] Iranian proxies in Syria, ostensibly those that fall under the command of the Quds Force, should, like ISIS and armed groups linked to al-Qaeda, be excluded from all diplomatic arrangements, whether cease-fires, de-escalation zones or other negotiated agreements.

Such a policy should help guarantee that the United States retains meaningful sources of leverage against Russia, Iran and the regime in Damascus, while simultaneously working toward isolating and disempowering the most troublesome actors, whose future spoiler capacity is of most concern. 

The Middle East Institute (MEI) is an independent, non-partisan, non-for-profit, educational organization. It does not engage in advocacy and its scholars’ opinions are their own. MEI welcomes financial donations, but retains sole editorial control over its work and its publications reflect only the authors’ views. For a listing of MEI donors, please click here.