The (Last) King of Syria: The Feudalization of Assad’s Rule
Losing control of 78 percent of Syria and $226 billion of the country’s GDP – to say nothing of the untold human cost – has not meant defeat for Bashar al-Assad’s regime. To prevent the rebels from marching on Damascus, he needed the military intervention of Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah. At the same time, the regime has had to sacrifice some of its sovereignty to loyalist militias in order to augment its fighting capacity and maintain security away from the frontlines. As the existential threats to the regime posed by the Islamic State and the various rebel forces fade, it is critical to understand the balance of power between Assad and these militias. Regime-held Syria has become more of a feudal model, in which Assad permits loyalist militias to maintain security or fight on the front lines in exchange for certain privileges and a degree of autonomy.
To be sure, the fact that the regime had to turn to – and in some cases create — militias to shore up its fighting and policing capabilities was a sign of weakness. That, combined with incidents of unauthorized violence by these loyalist militias, has been taken as a harbinger of the regime’s imminent demise. There has been a tendency to point to isolated examples of unauthorized violence, such as when two loyalist militias fought each other, and extrapolate from this a drift towards the dissolution of the regime. No amount of Russian or Iranian assistance could save it from itself – or so the thinking goes. But this reasoning belies the resilience of Assad’s Ba’athist regime, which has proven willing to deploy any tool and make a multitude of devil’s bargains to ensure its survival. While Assad has undoubtedly sacrificed a degree of his authority to loyalist militias, these groups’ autonomy to operate still depends on the regime’s permission.
To survive, the regime has militarized its component parts, which reinforced the already existing feudal characteristics of personal patronage and local autonomy of security services. So far, Assad has not fallen victim to these empowered militia leaders – who sometimes resemble warlords – in part because he relies on the external support of Russia and Iran. In short, Assad remains king. Policymakers and Syria watchers should still be concerned, however, since any international engagement on recovery and reconstruction in Syria is bound to become enmeshed in the opaque and fluid negotiations between the regime and loyalist militias.
Today there are dozens of militias fighting on the side of the Assad regime. These groups are diverse in their beliefs, the areas in which they operate, and their fighting capabilities. They are more locally rooted than the Syrian Army, which draws recruits indiscriminately from across the country. These militias range in ideology, sect, and motivation from Ba’athist (Ba’ath Brigade) to Pan-Syrian (Eagles of the Whirlwind), to nationalists/Khomenists (Imam Mehdi Brigade), to smugglers-turned-patriots (Desert Hawks).
To compensate these loyalist militias for their wartime sacrifices, Assad made a number of concessions. The regime tolerated loyalist militias’ plundering of newly reclaimed (or “liberated”) areas, with the most vindictive looting seeming to come after particularly long and vicious battles, such as the recapturing of Aleppo. Loyalist militias were also permitted to set up and maintain checkpoints, which provided a way to extract revenue from other Syrians in the name of providing security.
The fear, of course, was that these wartime allowances would become permanent fixtures of the Syrian landscape. Reports have pointed to the problem of militias plundering recaptured east Aleppo and their establishment of an arduous set of checkpoints throughout the city. Loyalist militias tasked with maintaining sieges of towns have also been accused of undermining ceasefire negotiations, sparking violence in order to sustain smuggling profits they receive from running the sieges. Worryingly, some of these militias have started to look and act like little warlords.
Assad is aware that his popular legitimacy would be undermined if he allowed the militias to engage in totally unchecked aggressive behavior. The Assad family has always sought to rule both unchallenged and with popular backing for its policies. Syrians under regime control have tolerated a great deal in the name of winning the war, but there are limits. How Assad deals with the warlord tendencies of loyalist militias says much about the balance of power within the regime.
Indeed, these checkpoints, looting, and sieges have become so onerous that Assad has been forced to publicly respond to loyalist militias’ behavior, albeit obliquely. For example, he referred to the issue in a speech to his cabinet in June when he spoke about “abusive manifestations that emerged in recent years, which directly harm the rights of citizens… including manifestations by some officials.” The day after the speech, the Ministry of Interior’s Traffic Department in Damascus began conducting patrols aimed at suppressing the unauthorized use of weapons inside the city. Around the same time, the government also launched a crackdown in Aleppo, rounding up armed fighters from loyalist groups in the Aleppo neighborhoods of Adhamiya, Akramiya, and Seif al-Dawla.
In the spring of 2017, the government removed the right of these militias to carry military IDs, which had allowed them to speed past checkpoints that ordinary Syrians were forced to wait at. Part of the reason for rescinding this privilege was security-related: Once military IDs became too easy for rebels to obtain, they then used them to sneak past checkpoints and launch attacks. But according to my conversations with local sources, the privilege was also rescinded because there was a growing feeling among Syrians in regime-held territory that militia fighters had become self-important and aggrandizing. Assad’s move demonstrates that the militias’ actions were weighing on the regime’s popular legitimacy. He could only ignore the concern of these ostensibly loyal Syrians at his own risk.
“My Name is My Name”
In addition to threats to his popular legitimacy, Assad has had to be equally concerned with the regime’s potential loss of a monopoly on coercive power at the expense of domestic allies. However, analysis of regime-held Syria has been unable to show evidence of any single militia or group of militias being able to continually demonstrate superior coercive force against the regime. Such a trend would demonstrate the regime’s weakening hand and could portend Somalia-style anarchy. But my quantitative analysis of the conflict, conducted by monitoring sources such as the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, shows that this is simply not happening.
On the contrary, several incidents have demonstrated the regime’s ability to enforce its will against misbehaving loyalist militias. Take, for instance, the disbanding of the Desert Hawks, once one of the most effective and visible pro-regime militias, earlier this year. Sometime in early 2017, when Assad drove with a small motorcade to his ancestral home of Qardaha to visit his mother’s grave, he was met by a group of armed men led by Ibrahim Jaber, the younger brother of Desert Hawks leader Mohammad Jaber. Ibrahim’s bodyguards trained their guns on Assad and his motorcade, not knowing who was inside. Assad’s reaction was to throw Ibrahim in jail and – equally important – to cut down Mohammad’s Desert Hawks by limiting their movements and eventually disbanding the group.
The fighting competence of the Desert Hawks cannot be understated: It was one of the few loyalist militias that could be counted on for offensive action. The group was often rushed across the country to assist weaker Syrian Arab Army units under attack; for example, in the regime’s heartland of Lattakia.
So why was Assad willing to disband one of his most effective fighting units? On a personal level, it was an act of revenge against a group that had trained guns on him. At the same time, however, the move served to send an important message to other loyalist militias: Incidents of reckless violence would not be tolerated, and moreover, Assad still retained the ability to do something about it. To not respond wholeheartedly would have been a sign of weakness. According to my research, no other militia has provoked such a reaction by the regime, which may suggest that Assad has simply not needed to move against any single militia in such dramatic fashion.
The Jabers were also eminent smugglers who were undoubtedly known to the regime and upon whom the regime counted on a variety of fronts. Perhaps the Desert Hawks’ growing prowess meant that they were destined to be cut down by Assad at some point, and Ibrahim’s infraction was simply a convenient excuse. Regardless, ultimately Assad proved that he had the will and ability to disband the militia when he felt it was necessary.
The Struggle is Real
Assad’s ability to act against loyalist militias at his discretion demonstrates that the balance of power still favors the regime. That does not mean, however, that the militias don’t pose a problem: Assad may end up playing whack-a-mole with rapacious or outsized militias for some time. But he can rescind the groups’ privileges and autonomy at any time through his superior coercive power. Power and authority in regime-held Syria, though decentralized and militarized, for now still runs through Assad. On the war’s current trajectory, the scales seem likely to continue to tip back in his favor.
But as the Syrian war draws to a close – and gives way to an interminable post-conflict phase – Assad is not just fighting the declining threat of rebel forces pitted against him. He is also renegotiating a regime that was always built on selective privilege, personalized rule, corruption, and overlapping security institutions. This type of political economy faces high transactional costs, for which Assad will seek to use any international financial contributions for Syria’s reconstruction to grease the wheels of the machinery.
Knowing this, Western donors should refrain from funding recovery and reconstruction in Syria, at least at this juncture. The Assad regime is uninterested in the political conditions that Western funding would come with. Any funds for reconstruction would almost certainly be appropriated to grease the aforementioned wheels, just as Assad has ensured that individuals close to the regime benefit from UN contracts for the delivery of humanitarian aid. Moreover, an intervention could inadvertently empower loyalist militias, engendering further instability .
At most, Western actors should commit more resources to research and intelligence gathering on these loyalist militias and to monitoring the state of play between them and the regime. Assad’s resilience has been underestimated and is likely to persist in post-conflict Syria, but it should not be taken as a given.
Nick Grinstead is an independent Fragility and Conflict consultant focusing on the Levant. He spent most of his 20s working and studying in Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. He holds a Master’s degree in Political Science from the American University of Beirut and has written extensively on the political economy and hybrid security arrangements in Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon. He enjoys a good club sandwich and brewing his own beer.