Syrian government officials said this week that the regime led by Syrian president Bashar al-Assad intended to form a new military entity called the National Defence Army (NDA) that would operate in parallel to the country’s regular forces.
The NDA would include pro-regime civilian elements with no previous military experience and would also be made up of members of popular committees and pro-regime militias, the so-called shabiha, that the US had earlier imposed sanctions upon because of their role in killing Syrian civilians.
The officials said that the country’s regular security and military forces needed to focus on combat missions and that the role of the parallel army would be to protect districts against attacks by the armed opposition.
The opposition has countered that the regime intends to organise tens of thousands of its supporters, including members of the ruling Syrian Baath Party and Alawite militias, into a formal entity in order to enhance their legitimacy, since many Syrians view them as mercenaries committing crimes across the country.
The new military entity will reportedly include 20,000 members carrying light and medium weapons. These will be paid and will wear non-military uniforms. They will be deployed throughout Syria in towns and cities under the control of the armed opposition, and each group will receive local assistance from regime supporters.
The new entity will be divided into small units, each of which will be able to make its own decisions. Like other security and military forces in Syria, the units will not be accountable for any abuses they commit because there are legally protected from prosecution.
The opposition has said that in taking this step the regime is attempting to disguise the poor reputation of pro-regime militias that have committed massacres across the country, including at Al-Zaytoun, Al-Hasweya, Al-Howla, Al-Tremsa and Darya.
At the same time, it warns that the move will open the door to undisguised civil war in the country.
A few weeks into the now 22-month-old uprising in Syria, the al-Assad regime used irregular armed groups called shabiha to suppress demonstrations and kill protestors demanding freedom and the overthrow of the regime.
These groups operated in most Syrian cities, and under the protection of the army they beat protestors, raided homes and shops, and robbed and sabotaged indiscriminately. They also took control of hospitals and prevented them from treating injured protestors.
Their name, shabiha, is derived from the nickname given to people driving luxurious Mercedes “shabah” (phantom) cars, which are owned by many influential and criminal elements in Syria. Some estimates put the number of such people in the tens of thousands, most of them Alawites and therefore from the same sect as the Syrian president.
Members of the shabiha groups sometimes shave their heads and grow their beards in order to look like stereotypical terrorists. They killed the majority of the protestors who died during the first six months of the uprising, and they are also licensed to kill soldiers trying to desert from the regular army.
One year into the uprising, and with the regular security forces battling to end the protests, the regime formed “popular committees” manned by pro-regime civilians, members of the ruling Baath Party, and some young people from the country’s minorities.
These popular committees were given weapons and the kind of freedoms that they could earlier only have dreamed of. They set up barricades on streets, searched women, insulted residents, and killed anyone they did not like or suspected of being against the regime.
Some members of the country’s minorities have participated in these pro-regime popular committees, and it has become common to see grim-looking young men carrying weapons and gathering on street corners in Syrian cities.
They monitor the streets and communicate with larger checkpoints. Most of these young men are very young, and some of them are teenagers. The majority of Syrians view the popular committees as mercenaries who kill citizens for personal gain and not necessarily even to protect the regime. Their function is to spread mayhem and cause civilians to kill each other, they say.
In December, Washington introduced sanctions against the popular committees and shabiha as part of US sanctions against the Syrian regime and those cooperating with it. In the US view, the regime is using these two militia groups in its campaign of terror against Syrian citizens, and they have been formed with Iranian and Hizbullah support and modeled on Iran’s feared Basij militias.
There are now more than 220 checkpoints in Damascus alone, and sometimes two or three on the same street, manned by regime security forces and sometimes also by civilians from the popular committees or shabiha.
Those manning the checkpoints are armed with machine guns and pistols. Security officials manning the checkpoints often hand activists over to popular committees to be tortured in basements near the checkpoints.
The popular committees and shabiha participate in home raids by the security forces and do not hesitate to rob or to shoot their weapons for entertainment. They clear the city streets of traffic to allow security officials’ cars to pass.
According to the opposition, they are responsible for the extra-judicial killings and much of the spiraling violence in Syria that has thus far led to the deaths of more than 60,000 civilians.
Locals assert that the abuses committed by the pro-regime militias are increasing. Sometimes, the mere fact that someone is from a region that has risen up in revolt against the regime is enough for that person to be publicly humiliated.
Some observers believe that the regime has started to fear that the regular army and security forces are weakening owing to increasing defections and thousands of men having been killed fighting the revolutionary brigades.
Young men have been doing their best to avoid compulsory conscription, with some sources estimating the defections from military ranks at 100,000 with a further 20,000 military and security personnel having been killed.
According to some observers, the regime is now recruiting civilians from the country’s minorities in an attempt to prevent the depletion of its forces and give the sectarian militias a legitimate status instead of being viewed as armed gangs in the eyes of public opinion.
They further state that the regime has recently begun recruiting Alawite women into irregular militias at checkpoints in Alawite areas, as has been seen in secret video footage shot by activists in Homs.
These showed women wearing camouflage uniforms and carrying machine guns, with their fingers on the triggers ready to shoot.
The regime has been trying to use religious figures from minority sects to convince their flocks that the uprising is a threat to them and that their young people should take up arms against it.
However, most religious institutions reject the taking up of arms, and they have distanced themselves from the clashes.
The checkpoints where the militias operate have become targets for the armed opposition, and dozens of them have been attacked throughout Syria over recent months. As a result, living near a checkpoint can be a source of considerable danger, making entire neighbourhoods into targets for the armed revolutionary brigades.