Syria Hybrid Defense Sector
Attrition in personnel between 2011 and 2013 prompted the formation of local militias loyal to the governing political order, and led to the utilization of non-Syrian Shiite militias supported by Iran. The most important Syrian loyalist militia was the National Defense Forces, comprising a number of brigades and battalions with a total strength of 60,000 at their height. Other local militias include the Baath Battalions, drawn from the ranks of the ruling Baath party, and the Desert Hawks and Eagles of the Whirlwind.
Russia sought to reverse this situation following its intervention in September 2015, by incorporating prominent militias into the official Syrian military. To this end, it established new army units, including the 4th Corps (2015) and 5th Corps (2016). The Baath Battalions formed the nucleus of the 5th Corps, for example.
The incorporation of former opposition fighters into the ranks of these new army corps reduced Iranian influence, prompting Iran to establish the new Local Defense Forces militia. To imbue them with legal status, Iran obtained a presidential decree attaching the Local Defense Forces to the General Command of the Armed Forces on an open-ended basis, "until the end of the crisis."
The lack of transparency makes it impossible to know the exact strength of loyalist militias, but it is estimated that approximately 140,000 individuals belong to militias loyal to Russia or Iran.
No legislation specifically regulates loyalist militias, but the 2003 Military Service Law legitimizes the establishment of "other forces when necessary" under the legal designation of "additional forces." However, a large portion of the militias currently operating in Syria remain outside the actual control of the military. The government also lacks the means to disarm, reintegrate, or employ former fighters, forcing it to permit militias to retain their ties to Russia or Iran. This negatively affects efforts to stabilize local communities, increases the risk of continued armed conflict, and reduces opportunities to reform the defense sector and professionalize the armed forces.
Compulsory military service for males had a melting pot effect until 2011, but the military’s role in suppressing the popular uprising prompted large numbers to desert or defect to the opposition, bringing overall military strength down by an estimated two-thirds. Few conscripts have reported for service during the civil war and the SAAF often uses conscription to control or punish communities that previously sided with the opposition.
Prior to 2011, such activities as paramilitary training for high school and university students anchored nation building, but the militarization of politics and society has weakened the sense of shared national purpose since then. A large part of the population no longer feels it owes allegiance to the central state or the military, as demonstrated by refugees’ reluctance to return, tenuous government control in recaptured areas, and survival or resurgence of armed opposition groups in parts of the country.
Patterns of recruitment and assignment in the career armed forces have long revolved around confessional, ethnic, regional, clan, and class identities. Alawis head most key commands and combat units, a trend that began under former president Hafez al-Assad (1970–2000). Preferential admittance to military academies and patronage networks within the SAAF have intensified the militarization of the Alawi community. Informal quotas exist for non-Alawi communities and regions, and Sunni Muslims tend to be assigned to support services or nonessential combat units as they rise in the ranks.
Alawis identify closely with the military, but many other Syrians see the military as sectarian, partisan, and corrupt. Even Alawis recognize that military careers and material entitlements depend on favoritism and political connections. The SAAF profiles population groups according to their perceived loyalty, in line with the general outlook of the ruling political order. SAAF units enjoyed good community relations until 2011, but the military now recruits more heavily among Alawis, and draws on select Sunni clans in the north and east to form ad hoc units. Profiling has been evident in the use of indiscriminate firepower and chemical weapons in specific localities.
The SAAF recruits women, and does not discriminate between male and female personnel with regard to pay and pensions. A military academy for women has an annual intake of 70‒100 cadets, and increased recruitment during the ongoing civil war has swollen the number of women in the SAAF to some 8,500, including in combat units assigned to garrison roles. Female personnel face no formal impediments to promotion, but the military does not open up avenues for career advancement, promotion, or diversification of military specialties for women. SAAF regulations allow for maternity leave and flexible working hours for women, but the military penal code does not address sexual discrimination or harassment.
The military does not engage in large-scale public media or outreach, nor does it have a civil-military cooperation program. It leaves all related activities, including the provision of medical services, development assistance, and rehabilitation and reconstruction in the context of the ongoing civil war, entirely to civilian government agencies.