Arrests and assassinations: Consolidating power in Assad's Syria

Arrests and assassinations: Consolidating power in Assad's Syria
Comment: As the Syrian civil war begins to come to its conclusion, Assad is clearing out any competition by conducting a large purge of paramilitary forces, writes Mona Alami.
4 min read
30 Nov, 2018
Assad appears to be sidelining the power of militia leaders [Getty]
The Assad regime's resilience in the protracted and ongoing Syrian conflict has not only been linked to the support of powerful regional backers, but also to the outsourcing of security efforts to powerful military commanders, and a complex network of paramilitary groups.

Emboldened by its recent gains and the 'stabilisation' of areas it controls, the regime now appears to be aiming at consolidating power internally.

Dozens of arrests and mysterious assassinations have targeted pro-regime commanders, army commanders and rebels who signed reconciliation agreements with the state, in a bid, it would seem, to put an end to the personal politics that have fragmented the power of the Syrian state.  

The Syrian revolution caused the regime massive manpower problems, forcing it to rely on powerful military figures and a complex network of loyalist militias. Before the war, the Syrian army was estimated to be around 300,000 men, composed primarily of conscripted youths.

As of the end of 2015, this figure had dropped significantly to fewer than 100,000.

Several large formations emerged from the chaos of the civil war, the National Defense Forces (NDF), the Local Defense Forces (LDF) and a flurry of paramilitary groups linked to various intelligence services.

These militias not only had local backup from rising security tsars but also showed regional loyalties to foreign countries such as Iran, which trained and financed many of the militias, specifically the LDF.

As Assad tightens his grip on power, personal politics now dominate the security sector

An official circular shown by Syria expert Aymen Jawad Tamimi even underlined that while the LDF coordinated and fell under the aegis of the Syrian army, they remained affiliated to Iran, which insured combat and material support. A flurry of other militias related to business figures and various intelligence services have also thrived in the past few years.

As Assad tightens his grip on power, the personal politics that now dominate the security sector and fragment it significantly, will pose a significant challenge to his rule.

One approach adopted by the regime has focused on the consolidation of paramilitaries into specific forces such as the Fifth Assault Corps or the Fourth Corps, combining NDF and other paramilitary groups.

The move was initiated by Russia, which, according to the Russian International Affairs Council, considered it an important step in breaking the trend promoted by Iran and relying on creating and developing parallel non-state military structures which have no direct subordination to the Syrian state. 

A second approach appears to be sidelining the power of militia leaders. Erem news 
reported that the regime had started removing the privileges acquired by members of the NDF.

A third initiative has centered on the arrest of military commanders and paramilitary leaders as well as rebel leaders who reconciled with the state.

On 20 November, Syrian newswire 
Baladi reported the arrest of four leaders of the First Rebel Brigade. A few days earlier, another arrest targeted Abou Chalan, the leader of a rebel group that had joined a new paramilitary outfit affiliated to the Air Force Intelligence agency.

Earlier, the state's general 
security had also arrested the head of the National Defense Force for the Damascus suburbs, known as Abu Layth. Syrian intelligence also arrested another NDF leader from the Dahieh Assad region known as Allaa Haydar.

Mohamad Salhab, the leader of Areen Assad, a group that is part of the Popular Defense Forces, was also 
killed by Syrian intelligence, according to an article published by Sawt al-Madina.

While most of these arrests and killings have been attributed to corruption and insubordination charges as well as communicating with enemy groups, the sheer number of incidents indicates a larger plan to crack down on the paramilitaries.

It has also extended to the official security apparatus.

Last October, a Syrian parliamentary source 
revealed that the security forces had arrested a "very large number" of officers in the Syrian army and placed them in prison.

The massive number of arrests underlines a state-backed effort to put order among the ranks

Nabil Saleh, a member of the Syrian parliament, said that the officers had not yet been found guilty. The same article quoted pro-regime activist Sana Nasser, who added that the officers numbered about 240 people, accused of corruption and theft.

The massive number of arrests underlines a state-backed effort to put order among the ranks of the official Syrian institutions, and to tame unruly militias, now that their contribution to the war effort is diminishing.

This approach could be successful in the short term, but will not build trust and replace an institutionalised effort for disarming and reintegrating combatants.

Mona Alami is a French-Lebanese analyst who writes about political and economic issues in the Arab world. She is a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center, and the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies.  

Follow her on Twitter: @monaalami

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.