Rise of the Militias in Syria

By Michael Weiss

The use of chemical weapons and Obama's fudged "red line" has given way to gruesome footage of a schismatic Syrian rebel commander biting into the lung of a slain Hezbollah fighter and vowing revenge against Assadist soldiers. Such is the international press' attention span that the far more significant development in Syria has gone almost entirely unnoticed. The al-Bayda and Baniyas massacres that occurred earlier this month were not just crimes against humanity; they signaled the clearest evidence to date of the regime's transformation from a conventional military force into a consortium of sectarian Alawite-Shiite militias, which have been trained and financed by Iran, or reactivated after years of desuetude. Unlike the Syrian Army, which has claimed to be fighting a nationalist battle against foreign-backed interests, these armed proxies make no pretense about their true objective: to ethnically cleanse Syria's Sunni population in the strategically vital western corridor of the country.

On May 2, around 400 people were slaughtered, and possibly as many as 800 disappeared, in the Syrian coastal hamlet of al-Bayda. Of those killed, 200 were buried in a mass grave in which only 150 bodies were identifiable, the rest having been mutilated beyond all recognition. According to The New York Times, which interviewed eyewitnesses and survivors of the massacre, pro-regime forces clad or semi-clad in military fatigues went house to house, separating men and boys above the age of 10 from women and younger children. Whole families were executed and images have since emerged showing children piled atop each other, some with half their faces blown off. Corpses later recovered in al-Bayda were said to include "the burned body of a baby just a few months old" and "a fetus ripped from a woman's belly." Two days later, on May 4, a similar massacre was repeated in Ras al-Nabeh, a district near the city of Baniyas.

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In contrast to previous atrocities, the regime neither denied that these massacres had taken place nor tried to blame it on the opposition. Rather, it boasted of its success. State television claimed that the army had "crushed a number of terrorists," while pro-regime Facebook pages displayed those grisly photographs of butchered children, categorizing them as militants. Moreover, the National Defense Forces were evidently involved in the assault on al-Bayda and assumed the most barbaric role of beating, shooting, or stabbing families to death, then burning down their houses. This new-minted guerrilla army is actually a professionalized reinvention of the pro-regime Popular Committees, which were, prior to 2013, locally armed Alawite militias that coordinated closely with the Syrian security services, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and Hezbollah. Now the Committees are being trained up, along with Jaysh al-Sha'bi, the Syrian "Basiji," as the primary purveyors of state violence.

"The Syrian military doesn't know how to fight an urban insurgency," Elizabeth O'Bagy of the Institute for the Study of War told me. "The regime would have lost significant territory in Homs had it not been for Hezbollah moving in from Lebanon," a relocation that Hassan Nasrallah was reluctant to order. In a valuable briefing she published, O'Bagy observes that the regime's strategy isn't to carve out an Alawite rump state on the Mediterranean but to retain a necessary arms and personnel resupply line from Damascus to Latakia. That's because the regime's greatest security threat is not a Sunni-on-Alawite conflict, but rather an intra-Alawite one.

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Michael Weiss is a columnist for NOW Lebanon and the editor-in-chief of The Interpreter, a Russian translation journal sponsored by the Institute of Modern Russia. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldweiss. Reprinted with permission.

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