Rise of the Militias in Syria

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    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.

    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.

    A recent example O'Bagy cites is the death of close relative of exiled Rifaat al-Assad, the brother of Hafez al-Assad best known for masterminding the 1982 Hama massacre and attempting a failed coup in the early 1980s. The relative has been dead for roughly two and a half weeks but lies unburied because Rifaat, who has postured as an "opposition" figure for years, has not gained permission from Damascus to return to Qardaha, the Assads' ancestral home, to attend her funeral. As a result, a lot of latent or dormant clan tensions have flared up again, tensions not made easier by the dwindling Alawite demography along the coast. Sunnis are now said to comprise 45 percent of the population of Tartous, half the population of Latakia, and 70 percent of the population of the Latakia outskirts, which only means that they have been tolerated by Alawites in these areas - a phenomenon that is retrograde to the divide-and-rule strategy that Assad has pursued from the start of the uprising. The wholesale slaughter of Sunni communities in Houla, Quebair, Tremseh, al-Bayda, and Banias is therefore meant to dial up inter-tribal hatred and precipitate Sunni reprisal attacks.

    The messaging in this regard has been unmistakable. The savagery in Banias occurred almost simultaneously with the leaking of an undated YouTube video showing a Turkish Alawite commander from Hatay province called Mihrac Ural discussing the need to "cleanse and liberate" the Alawite strongholds of the Syrian coast. Presented next to Sheikh Mouaffac Ghazal, an Alawite cleric (a rare sight in pro-regime propaganda), Ural is in fact a secular communist, whose curriculum vitae is is reminiscent of an Anatolian Carlos the Jackal. He was imprisoned in Turkey briefly after his participation in the 1970s in the Marxist-Leninist People's Liberation Party/Front, as well as its splinter faction Acilciler (the "Hasty Ones"), which is widely believed to have been the creation of Syrian intelligence. Released in 1980, Ural relocated to Syria and gained citizenship there. He's rumored to have been the man who first introduced Abdullah Ocalan, the now-imprisoned head of the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK), to Hafez al-Assad.

    Former CIA officer and counter-terrorism expert Edward Mickolus believes that Ural married Rifaat al-Assad's secretary, which would have made him extremely close to the fiefdom in Damascus that was in charge of the Defense Companies, one of the most elite (and overwhelmingly Alawite) regime protection forces until the early 1980s. Ural now heads the Syrian Resistance, an Alawite super-militia, that is suspected as the main perpetrator behind the Ras al-Nabeh massacre.

    Following the Al Bayda attack, Ural spoke a funeral for a local militiaman, vowing to wage war against Saudi Arabian-supported rebels, and pledging fealty to Assad. Ural has also been implicated as the mastermind behind the car bombings in Reyhanli last week, which killed 51 people and were clearly designed to exacerbate both Turkish-Syrian and Alawite-Sunni animosities in that restive city.

    That a thirty-year Red conscript of the mukhabarat is resurfacing just as the regime relies more and more on Khomeinist proxies is hardly a coincidence. It should also give the United States pause in its already ridiculous pursuit of further diplomatic efforts with Damascus. It's not entirely clear that a regime per se still exists, much less controls the loyalist swaths of Syria any more. Agents more akin to the Sudanese janjaweed or Rwandan impuzamugambi now appear to be the ones in charge.

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