How Syria's vast militia network is eroding state sovereignty

Although the Syrian regime escaped overthrow, around 30-35% of Syria remains under the control of various armed groups.

Armed groups, both pro and non-regime, pose myriad threats to the fundamental functions of the Syrian state.
Nash Weerasekera
Armed groups, both pro and non-regime, pose myriad threats to the fundamental functions of the Syrian state.

How Syria's vast militia network is eroding state sovereignty

As of March 2020, the Syrian regime has reclaimed significant territories from opposition forces, asserting control over the majority of the country. This military success — largely supported by Iran and Russia — bolstered Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's rule, rescuing it from near-toppling by adversaries.

However, the regime fell short of complete territorial control, with around 30-35% of Syria remaining under the authority of other armed groups. In the northwest, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army hold military and administrative control, while the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces govern the northeast region.

Yet, the presence of non-state armed groups extends beyond these areas. Numerous militias continue to operate within territories controlled by the Syrian regime.

Some, like the National Defence Forces, align themselves with security and military bodies, while others, such as former rebel forces and local Druze armed groups, operate with a degree of autonomy.

Additionally, various foreign-backed militias — notably supported by Iran, such as Lebanese Hezbollah and Iraqi armed groups — remain active, especially along Syria's borders.

While pro-regime militias have played a crucial role in ensuring the survival of the regime, their presence and actions pose a serious threat to the fundamental functions of the national state: undermining societal cohesion, disrupting law and order, eroding state sovereignty, and violating national borders.

Nash Weerasekera

Similarly, the presence of non-regime armed groups and the competing economic and administrative structures they have established in their operational zones have significantly impacted the role and concept of the national state.

The dangers they pose include threatening territorial integrity, enforcing governance fragmentation and social isolation, and breaking apart the national economy.

Pro-regime militias

Allied with regular armed forces, pro-government militias have been pivotal in sustaining al-Assad's government and enforcing security during the conflict.

However, as the regime's grip strengthened in 2016, efforts to reassert control mainly targeted militias seen as liabilities or threats, leaving doubts about the fate of remaining non-state factions.

The regime's strategies occasionally involved rebranding paramilitary groups as auxiliaries to the Syrian Arab Army rather than transforming them into professional entities.

Consequently, irregular armed groups persisted, challenging peace restoration, stabilisation, and state authority.

As the Syrian regime's grip strengthened in 2016, efforts to reassert control mainly targeted militias seen as liabilities or threats, leaving doubts about the fate of remaining non-state factions

Local and foreign militias 

For analytical purposes, it is easier to distinguish between local militias, formed by Syrian fighters regardless of external support, and foreign militias, comprising non-Syrian fighters.

Since the uprising's start, the Syrian regime leaned heavily on locally-funded militias formed by Iran called 'popular committees.' Initially protecting towns against opposition forces, they evolved structurally and became crucial in defending the regime and reclaiming territory.

The extensive list of militia names will be condensed, highlighting the most significant ones and grouping them where possible.

National Defence Forces (NDF): Formed in 2012, the Syrian government united various militias to form the National Defence Forces (NDF) with Iranian aid by 2012.

Swiftly becoming the country's largest group, it amassed around 40,000 fighters from diverse communities. While operating under Syrian army command, NDF groups established independent prisons and conducted investigations, mostly in remote areas.

With the conflict's decline, some NDF leaders delved into illicit activities, prompting the regime to disband several groups and assert tighter control over others.

Local Defence Forces (LDF): Iran pivoted to the LDF when the regime hesitated to incorporate the NDF into Syria's formal armed structure to bolster its influence. This strategy proved successful in 2017, enabling Tehran to orchestrate the merger of the LDF into the government's official forces.

Despite official integration, the LDF maintained strong connections with Iran, receiving arms, funding, and compensation. This setup fortified influential militias like the Al Sefira Corps, the Al Bagir Brigade, and the Qatraji forces, preserving their significant influence.

Shiite militias: Iran recruited Syria's Shiite minority in areas like Aleppo, Homs, and Raqqa, amassing an estimated 5,000 to 8,000 fighters spread nationwide.

Notable groups include Aleppo's Imam al-Hajjah branch, Nubul and Zahra's Mahdi soldiers, the Damascus' Rukia Brigade, Idlib's al-Waed al-Sadiq Corps, Homs' Quwwat al-Rida, Deir ez-Zor's Brigade 313, and Lattakia and Hama's Al-Mukhtar Al-Thaqafi Brigade.

Beyond military roles, these militias enhance Iran's influence through aid, education, and religious initiatives within Syrian communities.

Diana Estefania Rubio

Read more: Syria has 830 foreign military sites. 70% belong to Iran

Sweida amed groups: Emerging in the Druze-majority governorate, local militias protect their communities from security threats, avoiding engagements beyond provincial borders.

While most lack political motives, some align with regime security for influence. Reliant on self-funding and donations, a few engage in illicit activities. Key groups include the Rijjal al-Karama Movement, Sheikh al-Karama, and the Fahad Forces.

The 8th Brigade: Established in 2018 under the Fifth Corps after a Russia-brokered reconciliation agreement in Dara'a. Led by Ahmed al-Awda, the brigade includes fighters from disbanded opposition factions. Unique within the 5th Corps, it operates semi-autonomously, leading to conflicts and clashes with pro-regime forces due to its distance from regime oversight.

Foreign militias: Iran enlisted Shiite fighters from abroad, including Lebanese Hezbollah, the Afghan Fatemiyoun Brigade, the Pakistani Zeinabiyoun Brigade, and Iraqi militias linked to the Popular Mobilisation Forces, to reinforce al-Assad's regime and safeguard Iranian interests.

Russia employed the Wagner Group for ground operations, gaining a significant share of gas, oil field production, and phosphate mines in liberated areas.

While many of these groups persist in Syria, two in particular pose significant threats to the nation. They are: 

Hezbollah: Since 2013, it fought alongside Syrian and Iraqi forces, helping recapture opposition-held areas. As its role expanded, Hezbollah spearheaded the formation and direction of additional militias in Syria.

Despite enduring losses, Hezbollah remains committed to staying in Syria, as political and financial gains outweigh any setbacks.

Iraqi Shiite militants: Directed by Iran in late 2012 to support al-Assad, these factions escalated their involvement as Syria's conflict turned into civil war.

Beyond Shiite-majority regions like Damascus, they've seized control in northeastern Syria, notably along the Iraqi border, reaping profits from lucrative smuggling, including drugs. Prominent groups include the Asaad Allah al-Ghalib Brigade, the Abu al-Fadl Abbas Brigade, the Imam Ali Brigade, and Kata'ib Hezbollah.

Since the uprising's start, the Syrian regime leaned heavily on locally-funded militias formed by Iran called 'popular committees.'

Threats to the state

Various definitions exist for what constitutes a state, with many highlighting key features such as territories, government, a monopoly on violence, and sovereignty.

While pro-regime militias have played a crucial role in ensuring the survival of the regime, their presence and actions pose several threats to the fundamental functions of the national state, outlined below:

Undermining societal cohesion: Iran and Hezbollah's endeavours to establish religious networks and indoctrinated militias beyond state control pose a risk of exacerbating exclusionary identity politics.

Beyond the potential for inter-community conflicts, these initiatives intensify divisions and impede efforts to cultivate a unified national identity, hindering the reconstruction of a cohesive Syrian society.

Disrupting law and order: Sponsoring local militias operating beyond the state's control poses a grave challenge to its monopoly on the use of force, especially in Syria's weakened state due to ongoing conflict.

The deteriorating economic conditions, insecurity, corruption, and inadequate state services have created an environment where militias resort to illicit activities for revenue.

Some engage in smuggling, while others turn to criminal acts like looting and kidnappings for ransom, triggering rivalries and violent clashes. These actions not only impact the involved factions but also have severe consequences for civilians.

The presence of such militias significantly hampers the state's ability to restore law and order, essential for resuming normal state functions.

Eroding state sovereignty: Although foreign militias operate in regime-held areas with al-Assad's approval, they pose a direct challenge to the state's sovereignty. This challenge goes beyond their foreign origin, extending to implementing policies not sanctioned by the state or contrary to its interests.

For example, despite al-Assad's reluctance to engage in military escalation with Israel, Iranian-backed factions have persistently launched attacks against Israel from Syrian territory since October 2023.

These actions have continued despite the damage caused by Israeli strikes inside Syria and the looming risk of further escalations, as these foreign militias take directives from Iran, not Damascus.

Syria's Prime Minister Hussein Arnous inspects damage at the runway of Damascus International Airport on the outskirts of the Syrian capital on October 13, 2023 after an Israeli air strike.

Similarly, Iranian-backed Iraqi militias have frequently launched attacks against US forces in Syria based on Tehran's orders rather than Damascus.

Consequently, the presence of these militias grants Iran the ability to conduct future attacks without Syrian state approval, posing an ongoing threat to the security of the state and its residents.

Violating national borders: Hezbollah and Iraqi militias exercising unchecked control over border territories have severely hampered Syria's border security.

Hezbollah's longstanding use of illicit routes for smuggling has intensified during the Syrian conflict, with the group earning substantial revenue, up to $300mn monthly, primarily from trafficking diesel fuel.

Iraqi militias, too, exploit their dominance of border crossings, creating makeshift routes for smuggling weapons and drugs, evading detection.

Beyond security concerns, the smuggling of both illicit and licit goods between Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria exacerbates shortages, drives price increases, and deprives the state of vital import-export taxes.

Local militias, in coordination with Hezbollah and Iraqi counterparts, further contribute to these activities across borders and domestically.

Beyond security concerns, the smuggling of both illicit and licit goods between Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria exacerbates shortages, drives price increases, and deprives the state of vital import-export taxes.

Non-regime armed groups

These actors can be categorised into three main factions.

Hayat Tahrir al-Sham(HTS) is at the forefront — a significant and influential player in northwest Syria. Concurrently, Turkish-backed armed groups operating under the Syrian National Army (SNA) banner control parts of the same region.

In northeast Syria, a distinctive landscape unfolds, dominated solely by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Unlike militias in regime-held territories, these groups operate autonomously, overseeing both military and administrative functions within their respective domains. 

Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS): This coalition, primarily led by Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (previously known as Jabhat al-Nusra), wields influence over the northern territories of Idlib governorate and smaller sections in northern Hama, Latakia, and western Aleppo governorates.

Labelled a terrorist organisation by the UN and various nations due to its historical ties with the Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda, HTS has an estimated 10,000 fighters as of 2022.

Notably, HTS does not directly administer territories. Instead, it entrusts these responsibilities to the Syrian Salvation Government (SG), which emerged in 2017.

The SG comprises a prime minister, 11 ministers, technical directorates, and administrative councils. It is overseen by a Shura Council that serves as a nominal legislative body. In exchange for military and financial support, the SG assists HTS in maintaining its control and dominance over the region.

Consequently, HTS holds significant influence over the northwest Syrian economy, particularly in sectors like fuel, financial services, and telecommunications.

Syrian National Army (former Free Syrian Army): It is a Turkish-backed armed coalition, ranking as the second-largest opposition coalition in Syria, following HTS. Its affiliates govern two distinct regions along the Syrian-Turkish border. The larger expanse spans from Afrin to Jarablus, while the smaller area stretches from Tel Abyad to Ras al-Ayn.

A Free Syrian Army fighter comforts a young wounded boy at a hospital in Syria's northern city of Aleppo, who was injured when a shell, released by regime forces.

Officially, the SNA falls under the jurisdiction of the Syrian Interim Government's Ministry of Defence. However, the ministry lacks effective control over the SNA, which operates without a strong central command structure for its constituent factions. Turkey heavily influences decision-making within the SNA.

The SNA exerts substantial control over daily operations within its governed areas, impacting aspects such as security, real estate transactions, commercial dealings, NGO activities, and local administrative bodies.

Despite this, semi-autonomous councils in these regions retain significant executive authority. These councils receive financial and technical support from Turkey, granting Ankara significant influence over council decision-making.

Like other non-regime areas, the commanders of SNA factions and their close associates predominantly control economic activities and smuggling operations within their areas of influence.

Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF): Created in October 2015 with support from the United States, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) embody a diverse coalition composed of Kurdish, Arab, and Christian fighters.

However, the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) hold predominant influence within the SDF's structure. The SDF operates through a strong hierarchical command system overseeing units scattered across northeastern Syria.

Following IS's defeat, the SDF expanded its territorial control to include critical regions like Manbij, Raqqa, and Deir ez-Zor. This expansion led to the establishment of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) in 2018.

The AANES oversees seven self-governing regional administrations under SDF control, consisting of an Executive Council for governance and a Legislative Council for parliamentary functions.

While the formal governance structure distributes executive powers across administrative tiers, practical implementation often leans toward centralisation. Like other areas, SDF affiliates dominate the region's economic activities and smuggling operations.

Labelled a terrorist group by the UN due to its ties with IS and al-Qaeda, HTS, which operates in northwest Syria, has an estimated 10,000 fighters as of 2022.

Threats to the state

In contrast to pro-regime militias that lack parallel administrative setups, armed groups in other regions have taken on full-fledged state roles within their domains.

These factions have developed administrative frameworks, established governing bodies, and implemented legislative systems to manage local economies and the day-to-day affairs of inhabitants under their jurisdiction.

Notably, they have taken control over both domestic and international borders, effectively stripping the central state of authority in these regions. The extent of the challenges these armed factions pose to the national state and the substitute structures they create depends on when and how their respective areas will be reintegrated, if at all.

Threatening territorial integrity: Although non-regime armed factions emphasise their pro-nation-state stance and the importance of maintaining territorial unity, their strong opposition to the al-Assad regime jeopardises the country's territorial integrity.

These factions insist that peaceful reunification with the nation requires a fundamental political transformation that signals the end of the current regime in its current form.

Presently, military constraints and a political deadlock suggest that the existing de facto arrangements will endure for the foreseeable future. The prolonged persistence of these divisions will inevitably complicate the reintegration process — if and when it occurs.

Members of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) attend the funeral of an Arab fighter in SDF who was killed the previous week in the eastern Deir Ezzor province, in northeastern Syrian Kurdish-majority city of Qamishli.

Enforcing governance fragmentation and social isolation: The proliferation of various de-facto government bodies and the enforcement of localised policies have resulted in substantial physical and administrative disconnections among different regions.

A critical point of divergence lies in the education curriculum, differing significantly from one area to another. These differences, among others, are likely to leave a lasting impact on younger generations, affecting their ability to relate to peers from other areas.

Additionally, restrictions, high costs, and associated risks have impeded the movement of both people and goods between these regions, further deepening the sense of isolation.

Fragmenting national economy: The non-regime de facto authorities have introduced separate taxation systems in their territories and enforced various trade regulations and customs fees to govern inter-territorial trade within Syria.

Northwest Syria went a step further by transitioning from the Syrian currency to the Turkish Lira, deepening its integration into the Turkish economy. These practices threaten to create lasting separate economies in the country.

The lack of a resolution to the Syrian conflict — marked by military constraints and political gridlock — points to an enduring status quo where the presence of armed factions will persist.

This not only intensifies the challenges they pose to the national state but also heightens the risk of solidifying these realities to an irreversible point.

The attainment of a reunified Syrian state necessitates a just and comprehensive political resolution to bring together fragmented territories under a unified and mutually accepted national framework.

Such a solution is crucial for reinstating state authority, safeguarding territorial integrity, and nurturing a unified national identity across Syria.

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