In a decision that is certain to arouse fear among the regime’s enemies, the Syrian government has decreed that thousands of volunteers loyal to President Bashar al-Assad should be recruited into uniformed and armed units under Syrian army command to fight on the front lines against anti-Assad rebels, and to control newly “ liberated” towns and villages. The “National Defence Forces” will, according to their commander – interviewed by The Independent in the fiercely loyalist city of Latakia – include tens of thousands of recruits, many of them from the same Alawite branch of the Shia Islam sect to which the President belongs.
The Syrian opposition already claims that the regime’s decision will merely legalise the brutal pro-Baathist “shabiha” militia – a word that can be chillingly translated as “ghosts” – which is accused of torturing and killing both civilians and armed opponents of the government around the central city of Homs. But Syrian officers charged with training and commanding the new “defence force” insist that it will be kept under the strictest military discipline and used only as a support for the regular army in its battle against the rebels.
“We are trying to stop undisciplined militias everywhere,” the National Defence Force’s commanding general told me in his office in Latakia. “We and our leadership, side by side with the [government] Syrian Arab Army will try to stop looting and killing in every part of Syria – by all sides.”
The general – the only senior officer in a visit to north-western Syria, who asked me not to reveal even his first name – said that his men would be divided into two separate forces.
“They will be on the front lines, performing the same tasks as the army, and they will also form a self-defence force in the villages to protect government offices and buildings.”
The creation of this new force could indicate that the regular army, after its recent military successes, is short of manpower; or that Syria’s President – aware of the lawlessness of pro-government militias and the massive condemnation they have provoked internationally – realises that they must be brought under the control of the armed forces to avoid further bloodshed. According to the general, however, the new force “does not mean that the Syrian army is weak”, but that it will be able to maintain control of areas “until the arrival of the Syrian army” in towns and villages loyal to the government. “Their job will be monitoring, protecting and collecting intelligence and helping the Syrian army to advance,” he said.
National Defence Force recruits who fight on the front lines will be paid £100 a month and will be armed with AK-47s, pistols, light rockets and Russian-made heavy machine guns. After a month of training, they will wear army uniform and must serve full-time until the end of hostilities – or “the crisis” as Syrian officers refer to the war. For “courageous achievements” at the front, recruits will receive extra payment. Those remaining in villages and towns will be unpaid. “They are doctors, engineers, farmers and shopkeepers,” the general said soothingly.
But this is no “Dad’s Army” of ancient military veterans and local mayors. The only members of the force identified by an officer to me in Latakia were young men aboard a truck mounted with a heavy machine gun near the airport. All were carrying Kalashnikovs and all wore black ski-masks. When I went to meet the general in Latakia, I found a decoration of a huge 15ft-long, double-bladed metal sword – a symbol of Shia Islam – on the wall of his outer office. To put it mildly, this did give a slightly disturbing edge to his claim that his was a secular part-time army.
The general became upset when I suggested to him that his new force – especially in the Latakia region – would be composed mainly of Alawites. “The majority of the people in the coastal areas are Alawites,” he roared at me. “But why don’t you ask about our National Defence Force recruits in Aleppo and Hama and all the other governorates where there are even more recruits than in Latakia? They are of all religions. The people want to keep Syria safe because they love their country.”
This, of course, is a view that can be applied to the government’s opponents. The tens of thousands of civilians who originally protested against the regime’s continuing rule in 2011, also proclaimed their love of country. But since the Free Syrian Army and its cohorts of “jihadis” coalesced into an armed insurrection against Assad in Idlib and around Aleppo, Hama, Homs – and indeed, in the suburbs of Damascus – government forces have felt able to portray their enemies as “foreign terrorists”, the very words the Latakia general used to describe the target of his National Defence Force.
When I recalled for him the fate of the Algerian “village defenders”, recruited in similar circumstances by the Algerian government in the ferocious 1990s war against Islamists – and whose wives and children were massacred by the Islamists once they had left their towns for the front lines – the general shook his head vigorously.
"What happened in Algeria will not happen here,” he said. “On the coastal front near here, we have not lost a single martyr in our forces. Our people know the mountains and the valleys on the front lines, which are tough places in which to fight. It is a mistake to call honest people who defend their lands and dignity ‘ shabiha’. The television chains which lie use this word to refer to people who loot and kill – but why do these television reporters use this term ‘shabiha’ to describe these honest people?”
The general was warming to his subject. “Why don’t they refer to the foreigners who come here from Saudi Arabia, Libya, Tunisia – even Europe – as terrorists? What do they mean by ‘shabiha’? Do they mean those who thieve and kill, or what? But the acts of the ‘ takfiri’ are known to everybody. They are terrorists.” In its most literal interpretation, a takfiri is a Muslim who accuses a co-religionist of apostasy, but it has become shorthand in Syria for Islamic extremism. Even now, the general continued, National Defence Force volunteers had taken over government army positions on a 1,625-metre hill called Nabi Younis from which they can control large stretches of road across Hama, Idlib and Latakia. “The National Defence Force is now responsible for keeping these roads open.”
The new “army” will have one clear advantage for the regime; as well as putting thousands of new men under arms, it provides an alternative to the system of conscription which has failed in time of war in so many Middle East states, from Afghanistan to Iraq. And its roots were planted months ago. Since last year, armed men in civilian clothes have guarded Catholic and Orthodox Christian villages north of Damascus.