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Syria’s battlefield has seen the continuous fighting between regular armies, militias and terrorist groups from different countries, ranging from the Turks to the French, from the Chinese to the US and the decisive support of the Russians. A conflict that has left on the ground over half a million victims, mostly civilians.

The Shabiha militias

One of the most ruthless actors that carried out the dirty work for the regime are the Shabiha, irregular military units from the Alawite minority.
They spread at the beginning of the conflict to support the government’s security apparatus under the name of Popular Mobilization Forces to counter the opposition’s street protests and later evolved into a paramilitary force under the command of the Syrian army. They are a force that is paid, trained and armed by the regime’s domestic intelligence agencies, but also by businessmen, wealthy merchants and rich families close to Bashar al Assad.

Their transformation was the direct consequence of the drifting of the civil war towards a sectarian conflict and it was a reply to the political opposition turning into an armed opposition. The majority of the Shabiha are Alawites, but they also include Sunnis and Christians colluded with the regime.

syria map

The recruitment

The recruitment of the Shabiha initially targeted unemployed youths, members of the families loyal to the Assads and Alawite clerics. In time the selection process included former convicts, killers, smugglers and criminal gangs. Basically anyone willing to be part of their dirty war.

From time to time, also other paramilitary groups that were taking part in the Syrian civil war also joined the ranks of the Shabiha. This is the case for the Abu Fadl al Abbas Brigade, the Turkmen from the Iskenderun Popular Liberation Front/Syrian Resistance, a criminal group known as the Berri Mafia in Aleppo, the Palestinians from the Al Quds Brigade and the Palestinian Popular Liberation Front/General Command, the Alawites from the Baath Brigade with links to the Arab Social Baath Party, the Sunnis and Druses and their Commandos, the Desert Falcions, the militias from the National Socialist Syrian Party and the par-Arabs from the Arab Nationalist Guards.

The Shabiha have become an umbrella group for all those armed groups that, for one reason or another, fight for Bashar al Assad’s regime, that has labelled them “National Defense Forces”.

The organization and its modus operandi

Initially tasked with night patrolling and running road blocks in and around Latakia and other Alawite controlled areas, the Shabiha have been deployed by the Syrian army in other regions across the country. To refine their military capabilities, several volunteers have undergone special forces training in Iran.

The Shabiha operate under the command of a General from the Syrian Army that should coordinate their action from Damascus. Yet, in the provinces where they are present, they are not fully integrated into the army. It would be difficult to conform them to the discipline of a regular armed force. The end result is that local commanders still retain a certain degree of autonomy.

The absence of a consolidated hierarchy or knowledge of military discipline has a number of consequences on how these militias fight their enemies or treat their prisoners. After all, having a militia that does not abide to international war law is convenient for the Syrian army, as they can shift the blame to these paramilitary groups. During an offensive, the Shabiha carry out commando ops, infiltrate enemy lines and, once a territory has been seized, carry out sweeps.

bashar al assad

Bashar al Assad

A future problem

At least on paper, the Shabiha work in favor of the Syrian regime, but this does not mean Damascus is capable of controlling them. The creation of the National Defense Forces was an attempt to unify different paramilitary groups under a unified command. But the effort did not yield the expected results.

Their loyalty is guaranteed by it being convenient at this point in time. But once the civil war comes to an end, the motivations that led Palestinians, Druses, Turks, Kurds and Christians to fight for the regime will have to be addressed. The same goes for the criminal gangs that were unleashed and that will have to be either reigned in or sanctioned again. One should consider the possibility that some of these groups will enter in a collision course with the government in Damascus to satisfy their ambitions.

Iran’s role

Lastly, and probably most importantly, most of these militias have direct links to Tehran rather than Damascus. As we’ve said earlier, some of these groups were trained and armed by the Iranians. Iran’s hegemonic aims over Syria go well beyond the support provided to Bashar al Assad.

The Israelis told the UN Security Council that an estimated 80-85 thousand paramilitary or military units currently on the ground in Syria are under direct or indirect Iranian control. A figure that includes both the Iran-trained Shabiha, but also Hezbollah, Pasdaran and Shia volunteers from Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan.

In order to survive, the Syrian regime is in need of some form of coexistence with pro-Iranian military groups. On the other, Iran is interested in creating the conditions that will allow paramilitary groups to fight Israel from Syria in case of a direct attack against Tehran. This is the prelude of a potential confrontation between Syria and Iran. And in case of an Israel vs Iran conflict, chances are Bashar al Assad’s regime will end up with the short end of the stick.

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