A Fight for the Spoils: The Future Role of Syria’s Armed Groups
Aug 23, 2012
On August 6, 2012, President Bashar al-Assad’s prime minister defected, dealing another blow to the Syrian leader’s efforts to preserve his regime. Since the start of the Syrian uprising in March 2011, the strong central authority the al-Assad regime built and institutionalized during four decades has been rapidly crumbling. Yet the factors that made Libya’s uprising succeed—a united and organized opposition, sparse population patterns and a weak army—are absent in Syria. The country becomes more militarized after each passing week, with various, competing rebel groups gaining more leverage and territory—and even reportedly committing their own massacres. For now, the rebels—habitually termed the Free Syrian Army (FSA)—mostly operate independently on tribal and geographic bases, and interaction between them, violent or cooperative, is for the most part relatively rare. Jihadist groups, such as Jabhat al-Nusra, have also definitively entered the fray.
The role and future actions of the milieu of armed groups operating in Syria is sure to affect the shape of the country following the seemingly inevitable fall of al-Assad’s regime. Rebel units number in the dozens. Some are secular, while others call for an Islamic state in Syria. All are vying for weapons and territory. For now, what unites them is their shared goal of defeating the Syrian regime. This mutual interest will likely change if the regime falls.
Conversely, the future role played by those who fill the ranks of the government’s roving shabiha gangs is also troubling. Infamous for their brutality mostly upon civilians in dissenting areas, the largely Alawite shabiha have been successful in sowing sectarian divisions among Syrians by attacking Sunni civilians. As the central authority controlling the shabiha breaks down, the role these government militias play will be significant in the future.
If the al-Assad regime falls, these heavily armed, battle-hardened fighters will likely destabilize the country going forward. As a result, the post-Assad authorities will face a number of challenges. This article will assess the evolution of the FSA and what role the group will serve in a post-Assad Syria. It also addresses the challenges of the shabiha, determining whether the pro-Assad militias will return to their mountain villages or attempt to mount a counterinsurgency against a new FSA-organized government in Damascus.
The Evolution of the Free Syrian Army
The FSA is largely a collection of defected Syrian army soldiers and local civilians who have grouped together to fight the Bashar al-Assad government in their immediate neighborhoods and towns. The FSA is not a unified entity, and as a result there will be difficulties restructuring or disbanding these forces in a new political system. Many FSA battalions are clan- and tribe-based, organized around a specific geographical area—such as a town, village or city district. Fighters answer to local commanders—often a respected member of the local community—not to a central command. In many respects, this operational system has worked to their advantage in a guerrilla war against the Syrian army.
At its core, the rebel movement is not manifestly Islamist. Religious rhetoric has been a feature of war rebels seeking inspiration for centuries. Against a far more powerful army, the rebels turn to God for inspiration and to find meaning in continuing their fight under such testing conditions. As the regime upped the ferocity of its attacks on both civilians and armed opposition elements, the rebels have turned more religious in their rhetoric.
Limited public backing from Western states makes the rebel movement often appear a product of, or at least sponsored by, Gulf states Saudi Arabia and Qatar, two conservative and undemocratic countries. Many secular Syrians, particularly in the major cities, fear Gulf influence in the country and believe these states are attempting to destabilize Syria and replace the al-Assad regime with an Islamist government. Indeed, both Saudi Arabia and Qatar have openly committed financial support and weapons to the rebels. This is a version of events that also worries Syria’s non-Sunni minorities, who compose around a quarter of the country’s population.
Violent Islamist elements, however, have attempted to hijack the uprising, and jihadists are beginning to puncture through the rebel movement. Militant groups such as al-Qa`ida and Jabhat al-Nusra are confirmed to be operating in Syria, once a country with an extraordinarily competent security apparatus. The Muslim Brotherhood, an organization that excites significant fear among Syria’s minority groups, reportedly now has fighters on the ground.
The capture and consequent release of two Western photographers held by foreign fighters inside the Syrian-Turkish border post of Bab al-Hawa confirms past suspicions about foreign jihadists. Up to 100 fighters had camped inside the Syrian border in July, and evidence of al-Qa`ida activity in other parts of the country grows each week.
Moreover, foreign fighters have recently been confirmed in Syria fighting government forces. The Irish Times reported the presence of a number of Libyan fighters outside the northwestern town of Idlib in July. An Irish-Libyan revolutionary, Mehdi al-Harati, has been operating a militant group in Syria since last spring and has introduced an Islamic undertone to the Syrian revolt. A Syrian fighter working with this Libyan-led brigade, the Liwa al-Umma, said he wanted to take part in their operations because they are “fighting for truth and justice with an Islamic background.”
As the violence surges and the regime endures, the growth and spread in jihadist activity will likely expand. Islamists will begin to claim responsibility for military gains against the regime and consequently assert that they have a genuine stake in shaping Syria’s future.
What constitutes today’s FSA leadership, where it exists, will likely become the central military figures in a new Syrian political system if for no other reason than it is they who fought and died to oust the al-Assad regime (and not the traditional political opposition watching events from the safety of other countries). Divisions between rebel leaders and the political opposition—such as the Syrian National Council (SNC)—are likely to destabilize the political climate post-Assad as neither are united and both feel it is their right to govern the country.
The perfunctory head of the FSA, Riad al-Asaad, is unlikely to hold much sway in a post-Assad Syria since he has spent much of the revolution in Turkey rather than fighting regime troops inside the country. He is a figurehead; few FSA members answer to him today, and they are unlikely to in the future.
The central kernel in the regime’s attempts at maintaining control of power centers is the deployment and actions of the government’s militias, the shabiha. Originally a small group of men—some from the president’s extended family—who operated in trafficking and smuggling in and around the coastal city of Latakia on Syria’s northwest coast during the 1980s and 1990s, the shabiha today number in the thousands.
Many in the newly rejuvenated gangs are career criminals whose loyalty was bought through a series of “political prisoner amnesties” enacted by the regime over the course of the uprising. The shabiha are mostly drawn from the Alawite sect to which President Bashar al-Assad belongs and have roamed town centers and surrounded mosques at prayer time since the uprising’s beginning. They have been accused of atrocities in the towns of Houla, Tremseh and Qubeir in May, June and July 2012.
As of December 2011, one respected source claimed that shabiha members were reportedly being paid 50,000 Syrian pounds ($800) per month in cash that came from Iran via Hizb Allah in neighboring Lebanon. If true, Iranian meddling in Syria illustrates yet another difficulty facing any post-Assad government. The possible role played by the shabiha gangs after the inevitable demise of the al-Assad regime is difficult to quantify and chart. If regional supporters Hizb Allah and Iran provide them with financial backing, however, then they will be a destructive force during the reorganization of the Syrian state. With outside backing, the shabiha could mount a counterinsurgency, possibly resulting in a long-term civil conflict.
Until now, direct confrontations between rebel forces and pro-regime militias have been rare. In the absence of a central authority (the Syrian armed forces) controlling important cities, the future may bring many such clashes. As the regime seeks to consolidate its control of urban centers such as Damascus and Aleppo, Syria’s open countryside will be free for shabiha and rebels to operate and fight each other.
The Syrian government’s stockpile of chemical weapons and missiles remains secure. Yet if al-Assad falls, an organized transfer of government weapons and security installations to a new authority appears unlikely. The possibility of these weapons falling into rebel, shabiha or Islamist hands is a growing prospect.
Controlling a Multifaceted Powder Keg
The bloodshed and destruction that has engulfed Syria for the past 17 months means that a successful revolution will not bring the stability seen in Egypt or Libya. As such, it will require far more international involvement in peacekeeping and post-conflict reconstruction. A UN-backed monitoring presence to oversee the internal workings and developments of the nascent government will be crucial to maintain law and order. Furthermore, an international peacekeeping force that protects against the possibility of reprisals and sectarian fighting in regions where tensions between Alawite and Sunni towns exist may be necessary. Few international actors want Alawite militias roaming western Syria and Lebanon, destabilizing an already volatile neighborhood.
For Syrians themselves, amnesties and statements that assure the safety of Alawite civilians will be essential in helping eliminate further inter-religious strife. Dialogue between rebel leaders and the political opposition that includes, among others, the SNC, over the makeup and formation of a new Syrian army and government must be fruitful. A nationwide arms dump program that incentivizes rebels and shabiha militias to hand in weapons will help Syria on the road to a more peaceful future. Of course, none of these measures are guaranteed to take place. As more Syrians die, piecing the country back together becomes increasingly difficult. As long as the al-Assad regime remains in control of militias and key army divisions—which looks likely for at least several more months—Syria’s future looks dark.
Stephen Starr is a freelance journalist and author who lived in Syria from 2007 to February 2012. His writings have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, ForeignPolicy.com, USA Today, the Guardian and the London Times. His book, Revolt in Syria: Eye-Witness to the Uprising, was released in North America on August 14, 2012.
 “Rebels ‘Execute’ Regime Loyalists in Aleppo,” al-Jazira, August 1, 2012.
 The Free Syrian Army is less an army, and more a series of armed groups operating independently across the country. Although in propaganda videos groups claim to be part of the FSA, in reality their chain of command stops at a local commander.
 In Aleppo this summer, rebels from all over northern Syria joined in the fight against government forces in one of the only examples of a large-scale coordinated military campaign against the Syrian army. Rebel groups regularly bicker over funding and weapons. See Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, “Al-Qaida Turns Tide for Rebels in Battle for Eastern Syria,” Guardian, July 30, 2012.
 Christoph Reuter and Abd al-Kadher Adhun, “Searching for the Truth Behind the Houla Massacre,” Der Spiegel, July 23, 2012.
 As of August 4, 2012, 10 FSA military bureaus were operating inside Syria. See Rania Abouzeid, “Going Rogue: Bandits and Criminal Gangs Threaten Syria’s Rebellion,” Time Magazine, July 30, 2012.
 Although the Syrian National Council signed a memorandum of understanding with the rebel leadership in March 2012, in reality FSA rebels do not take combat orders from the SNC.
 Justin Vela, “Arab States Arm Rebels as UN Talks of Syrian Civil War,” Independent, June 13, 2012.
 Stephen Starr, Revolt in Syria: Eye-Witness to the Uprising (London/New York: Hurst/Columbia University Press, 2012).
 See the YouTube video apparently showing al-Qa`ida operatives after taking control of the Bab al-Hawa border crossing in northwest Syria, available at www.youtube.com/watch?v=fYfsVOMyAms.
 Abdul-Ahad; Neil MacFarquhar and Hwaida Saad, “As Syrian War Drags On, Jihadists Take Bigger Role,” New York Times, July 29, 2012.
 Ruth Sherlock and Richard Spencer, “Muslim Brotherhood Establishes Militia Inside Syria,” Daily Telegraph, August 3, 2012.
 Rod Norland, “Syrian Rebels Free 2 Journalists After Weeklong Ordeal With Islamic Extremists,” New York Times, July 27, 2012; Rania Abuzeid, “Meet the Islamist Militants Fighting Alongside Syria’s Rebels,” Time Magazine, July 26, 2012.
 Mary Fitzgerald, “Syrian Minds Focused on Likely Outcome at Aleppo,” Irish Times, July 28, 2012.
 Joshua Landis, “Syria’s Next Leader: Will He Come from the SNC or the Militias?” SyriaComment, February 16, 2012.
 Ahed al-Hendi, “The Structure of Syria’s Repression,” Foreign Affairs, May 3, 2011.
 “1,180 Detainees Involved in Events in Syria Released,” Syrian Arab News Agency, November 15, 2011; Starr.
 Personal interview, civilian familiar with their activities, Damascus, Syria, December 2011. This information, however, has not been corroborated by other sources.
 John Reed, “What’s Up with Syria’s MANPADS?” Foreign Policy, July 27, 2012.