Who fights for Assad?

Who fights for Assad?
Comment: Damascus allies may rail against international support for the opposition, but it is the Assad regime that is propped up by foreign fighters, writes Sam Hamad.
6 min read
14 Apr, 2016
Assad’s forces are now almost solely comprised of foreign forces [Getty]

One of the main propaganda talking points forged by the Assad regime is that the revolution, in both its civil and armed phase, is a foreign conspiracy crafted mainly by the US, Saudi Arabia and Israel. 

This particular line has it that the Syrian rebels are not Syrian at all, or at least are mainly not Syrian, but rather foreign jihadis, and/or agents of Wahhabism and the US. 

Turn or log on to any pro-Assad outlet, whether Hizballah's al-Manar or Press TV, and you'll hear this conspiracy theory repeated in explicit terms. For those who follow events in Syria closely, these kinds of conspiracy theories are easy to ridicule, but one ought not to underestimate their ability to appeal to a certain Manichean political worldview that persists throughout the world and across the political spectrum. 


Moreover, this particular angle on the Syrian revolution isn't always so crude. It occurs in a much more subtle manners within more respectable media outlets, where it is repeated by allegedly serious academics, journalists and intellectuals. 

Its main function is to deliberately conflate the genuine foreign jihadis that comprise significant elements of counter-revolutionary forces such as the Islamic State group (IS) and al-Qaeda with the home-grown rebel forces, for the purposes of depicting Assad as a national saviour.

However, this conspiracy is not just a mere travesty but rather a direct contradiction of the truth. 

There does exist a foreign conspiracy in Syria. However, it has mobilised not to overthrow the Assad regime due to its alleged hostility to "the West" - as the pro-Assad mouthpieces would spuriously have you believe, but rather to defend the Assadist rump from its own people. 

While the foreigners entering Syria to fight for IS have taken the vast majority of column inches in the media, the extent of another jihad, this one primarily marshalled with impressive though vicious efficiency by Iran, doesn't quite garner the same attention.

But it's now impossible to ignore. The more the regime has lost territory and utilised vicious terror to "cleanse" civilian areas, the more it has had to rely on foreign forces to maintain its existence. 

While journalists such as The Independent's Robert Fisk, a veteran writer who embedded himself with Assad's forces, write propagandistic paeans to the SAA, the fact that from the very beginning Assad had to de-mobilise his standing army due to the risk of defections from its mostly Sunni troops - as they were required to fight the mostly Sunni rebels and terrorise Syria's Sunni-majority population - is not something the likes of Fisk care to explore.

Even when those hostile to the revolution concede that there is a strong foreign (Iran and Hizballah) element to Assad's forces, they usually offer up that this is what is required to fight IS. But this point loses all substance when it is understood that these forces are overwhelmingly used against Syrian rebels, while Iran was aiding the regime when the uprising was still peaceful. 

In the NDF, Iran essentially united all of Assad's sectarian shabiha militias

Then there's the fact that, since 2013, it has been the National Defence Forces (NDF) and not the SAA that has been the leading pro-regime ground troops. 

The NDF is an entity that was funded and created by Iran, and organised on an overtly sectarian and communitarian basis, with it being almost solely comprised of Alawites. 

In the NDF, Iran essentially united all of Assad's sectarian shabiha militias - local groups of Alawites loyal to Assad, used early on as death squads and auxiliary forces to the SAA. Its raison d'etre was based on the fact that Assad had extremely limited manpower and could only rely on concrete support from Syria's Alawite minority - but even this now appears to be breaking down.

In a recent article entitled Where Are the Syrians in Assad's Syrian Arab Army for The Telegraph, Richard Spencer exposed the extent to which Assad's forces are now almost solely comprised of foreign fighters.

The article looks at the pro-regime forces that successfully re-captured Palmyra from IS, an act for which they were widely lauded in the Western media and among leading politicans - and referred to without nuance as "the Syrian Army", though there was barely a Syrian among them.

The forces were led by IRGC generals and were mostly comprised of a hodgepodge of Shia militias from Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan - the total numbers of which are thought to total 10-20,000 across Syria - as well as Russian special forces and fascist mercenaries. 

Add to this the Russian occupation of Syria's skies, as well as the large presence of Lebanon's Hizballah, and you have a fully fledged foreign occupation of Syria, all for the purposes of keeping in power a tyrant who now controls only 25 percent of Syrian territory.  

All of this is underlined not just by the fact that Assad does not command enough support from Syria's Sunni majority to put together any truly national force - something which has been obvious since 2012 - but that his Alawite base is steadily fracturing. 

Significant figures within the Alawite community are distancing themselves from both Assad and Iran

It's important to understand that, while the Assad dynasty ruled Syria on a sectarian basis, this didn't automatically equate to Alawites getting preferential treatment - it was mainly Assad's large family and their cronies that comprised the officer class, but normal Alawites were subject to the same authoritarianism as Sunnis.

It's in this sense that significant figures within the Alawite community are distancing themselves from both Assad and Iran. 

In a statement released by Syrian Alawite leaders, it was made clear that a significant number of Alawites are not willing to be used as cannon fodder for the regime, or as Shia footsoldiers - though Alawites have never considered themselves to be Twelver Shias and historically have very little cultural connection to that creed, both Iran and Sunni sectarians have attempted to engender this idea. 

Along with this, there have also been reports of dissension among Alawites and protests against the regime and the increasing hegemony of Iran.

The only reason the Assad dynasty still exists is because it is he who has sacrificed Syria to the whims of foreign imperialist forces, at the price of hundreds of thousands of dead Syrians, millions cleansed from the land and a whole generation of lives ruined. 

The foreign occupation of Syria only makes the idea that the terms of the Vienna agreement, which have as a Russian and Iranian-imposed precondition that Assad remains as president and is able to run in elections, a complete absurdity. 

Iran and Russia have not invested billions of dollars and the lifeblood of their own forces to attempt to crush the Syrian rebellion - only to watch their investment vanquished by democracy. 

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.