by Austin Michael Bodetti. He is a student in the Gabelli Presidential Scholars Program at Boston College and a reporter for War Is Boring. He focuses on the relationship between Islam and conflict in Syria and Sudan.The National Defence Forces (NDF), a militia designed to support the Syrian Arab Army against the Syrian opposition and the terror organisation “Islamic State” (IS, ISIL, or ISIS), has become one of the Syrian government’s most controversial, critical weapons in counterinsurgency. Militiamen have engaged in hundreds of war crimes if not thousands (John Heilprin, “UN report on Syria lists at least eight massacres allegedly perpetrated by the Assad regime and one by the rebels“, National Post, 11.09.2013). Yet they have often succeeded where the Army, depleted as its officers and soldiers have defected and died over the years, has failed to defend territory.
The Syrian government had long used mobsters and thugs to maintain its authority in addition to policemen and spies. When the Syrian Civil War started, the militias almost formed themselves. Syrian officials only organized these militias into the NDF August 2013, however, according to the Institute for the Study of War (ISW). Iran, the Syrian government’s closest ally, oversaw this organization. Some militiamen, like Iranian proxies from other conflicts, traveled outside the country to train. “Iranian training efforts for Iraqi and Afghan groups have previously taken place primarily in Iran”, observed ISW, noting that Iran approached Syria with its traditional expertise. “This effort overlaps with Iran’s second objective of supporting militant groups that can survive with or without Assad.” Though supported by several countries, the Army, now weakened, failed to use the initiative it once had against Israel to fight the Syrian opposition. Reuters described the problems that the Syrian government faced: “Army officers belonging mainly to the minority Alawite sect, to which Assad himself belongs, sit uncomfortably in charge of a conscript army of men who are mostly from Syria’s majority Sunni Muslims. Officers wary of their own recruits say they can create a more reliable force out of irregular loyalist militias spread across the country.” The militias behind the NDF would have a reason to defend whichever progovernment stronghold they called a hometown. “After the events began, our leadership started to lose faith in the army and its effectiveness on the ground in a war like this,” complained one commander. “The Syrian army is an aging one. There is a lot of routine. A lot of soldiers fled. Some joined armed gangs.” The NDF, created to win the Syrian Civil War, could remedy the problems of the Army.The NDF soon outcompeted the Army. “Youth in their late teens and early 20s and unemployed men are eager recruits to the defense force,” reported The Wall Street Journal. “They often see it as a more attractive alternative to the army, which many consider to be infiltrated by rebels, overstretched and underfunded. Some defense force members say they have received boot camp and more advanced combat training in Syria from Hezbollah operatives or have been flown to Iran for similar purposes.” The militias, guarding their own cities, towns, and villages, excelled at urban warfare. They could match the rebels as infantry. “They are fighting urban warfare with urban warfare instead of going at it asymmetrically,” a military analyst from the American University of Beirut told The Washington Post. The Syrian government developed the NDF into an effective alternative to the Army.
The militia came with its own problems. Though the NDF expanded to include an all-female brigade, a female activist with the Syrian opposition noted that few civilian women benefitted from this development. “They force women out of cars with deliberate roughness, rip off their veils and scream insults at them,” said Majd Amer. “They treat them like they are female terrorists. They call them al-Qaeda… and say, ‘The veil won’t protect you.'” All brigades of the NDF faced difficulties. The Syrian government struggled to control them because it needed them. “Increasing regime reliance on the NDF has opened the regime to the inherent risks of providing state-sanctioned power to decentralized paramilitary organizations,” claims the ISW. “Local NDF commanders often engage in war profiteering through protection rackets, looting, and organized crime. NDF members have been implicated in waves of murders, robberies, thefts, kidnappings, and extortions throughout regime-held parts of Syria since the formation of the organization in 2013.” These crimes affect Alawis and Sunnis, threatening the Syrian government’s support in vital regions, namely the west of Syria. The NDF looted the homes of a religious minority attacked by IS in the countryside surrounding Hama, the country’s fourth-largest city. It sits on the supply chain between Aleppo, Syria’s largest city; Homs, Syria’s third-largest city and one of the closest to another supply chain along the Lebanese-Syrian border; and Latakia, Syria’s fifth-largest city and the capital of the Syrian government’s heartland in the northwest. Members of the same religious minority expelled the NDF because of how it conducted itself. Just as the NDF has proven itself on the battlefield, it has shown the problems of relying on an irregular military.
Whether future developments define the NDF as a success or a failure depends on whether the Syrian government can control it. The Syrian government must secure its rump state.