Syria’s Assad May Be Losing Control Over His Deadly Militias

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Vahid Salemi / AP

Syrian President Bashar Assad during a meeting with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Tehran on Aug. 19, 2009

As the threat of an imminent U.S. attack on Syria dims, supporters and officials in the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad are quietly worrying about another potential crisis, one that hits even closer to home. Speculation in Damascus that the chemical-weapons attack against the rebel-held suburbs of Damascus on Aug. 21 may have been initiated by rogue elements within the Syrian armed forces raises fears about Assad’s overall grip on the forces fighting under him. One regime official tells TIME that what bothers him most about the long-term prognosis for Syrian stability is not the collapse of the regime, but the rise of Assad’s militias, commonly referred to as shabiha. Says the official: “After this crisis, there will be a 1,000 more crises — the militia leaders. Two years ago they went from nobody to somebody with guns and power. How can we tell these shabiha to go back to being a nobody again?”

Assad’s grip on the constellation of foreign and domestic militias fighting in his name is growing ever more tenuous, says the official, who spoke to TIME while visiting Beirut on condition of anonymity. The longer the war goes on, the more difficult it will be for Assad to control his own paramilitary forces, making a political solution even more difficult to achieve and setting the stage for an even nastier civil war should he fall.

It’s a dilemma that dogs the aftermath of any militia-waged war, from the Balkans to Afghanistan. If the men who lead armed groups on either side of the conflict refuse to give up power in the wake of a political resolution Syria could be torn apart by militias fighting over their hard-won territories, much like Afghanistan in the early 1990s before a widespread backlash against the warlords led to the rise of the Taliban. Western governments rightly fear the rising power of antiregime militias — some of which have ties to al-Qaeda — and are taking tentative steps to rein them in. But there has been remarkably little discussion about the future of Assad’s militias. “Assad is saying, let me win [the civil war] first, then I will deal with them,” says the official, who estimates that the militias number in the hundreds. “But I don’t see how. They could last for decades.”

Aaron Lund, a Swedish analyst who has covered Syria extensively and is now focusing his research on nonstate actors for the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, points out that while the Syrian military is still strong enough to defend Damascus and protect key bases, Assad has become increasingly reliant on both local and foreign fighting groups, like Lebanon-based Hizballah, to recapture lost territory and maintain government control in contested areas. “Their support has improved Assad’s staying power in many areas, but it also underlines the regime’s gradual loss of sovereignty and cohesion. If the war drags on long enough, the Assad regime is likely to devolve into a decentralized patchwork of sectarian and client militias, only superficially resembling Syria’s pre-2011 dictatorship,” he wrote in a blog post about his research.

The prevalence of the term shabiha to describe regime thugs gives the mistaken impression that they are all similarly aligned and loyal to the government. That is not always the case. Most of the proregime militias around the country are regionally based and funded by local businessmen or religious leaders eager to curry favor with the government and shore up their own protection networks. Like the word mafia, which is a close usage equivalent in English, shabiha has its origins in the loose-knit smuggling and organized-crime networks of Latakia province, the coastal enclave where Assad’s Alawite sect dominates. These days, shabiha are just as likely to be Sunni, Kurdish or even Eastern Orthodox Christian as Alawite, says Lund. Some gangs have been organized into Popular Committees, a kind of armed neighborhood watch with independent leadership and few centralized directives other than to defend the regime in whatever way they deem necessary. In many cases this means setting up roadblocks, taking bribes, charging protection money, looting the homes and businesses of suspected rebels and otherwise raising funds to cover their costs by dint of their weapons. “When these gangs can’t get financing from the government they start extorting the local communities,” says Lund. That enables them to keep fighting, but it also means they are less beholden to Assad. “The government has more important things to do than put a stop to it.”

According to a Syrian businessman close to the regime, Assad is aware of the growing threat of Syria’s militias and has struggled, inadequately, to contain it. Assad’s father, former President Hafez Assad, was similarly plagued by the predations of Latakia’s shabiha gangs throughout the 1980s and ’90s, and only managed to quash their strength near the end of his reign, in 2000. Bashar Assad’s success in keeping them reined in when he inherited the presidency from his father is now being undone, says the businessman who spoke to TIME on condition of anonymity. “[Assad] is telling his friends, ‘I managed to contain these groups for over 10 years. Now that they are unleashed, I can’t stop them.”

Assad’s reliance on Hizballah, particularly in the decisive victory over the strategic district of Qusayr in June, is equally fraught, says Lund. “Hizballah doesn’t answer to Syria, but to Iran. He has surrendered to a foreign militia where he is supposed to be sovereign.”

Earlier this year Assad announced the formation of the National Defense Army in Damascus, organizing the disparate Popular Committees into a cohesive organization that is armed, trained and salaried by the government. “This means they can be accountable,” says the businessman, “but only as long as the regime keeps paying them. If it stops, where is their loyalty then?” Loyalty is only part of the problem. As the militias’ depredations on the civilian population become more widespread and rule of law weaker, support for Assad, even in regime strongholds, could begin to waver. “The Assad regime’s selling point is that it can protect the country from anarchy and establish order, even if it is oppressive. If the regime seems to be decaying, it can’t make that sale anymore,” says Lund.

Middle Eastern despots such as Tunisia’s Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh have argued that their authoritarianism was necessary to combat the spread of transnational terrorist groups like al-Qaeda into their respective countries’ opposition. Syria’s Assad is no different. He recently claimed in an interview with French Newspaper Le Figaro the rebels fighting his regime are “80% to 90% … al-Qaeda,” and warned of catastrophic consequences should the fractious and undisciplined opposition militias have their way with Syria. But it could turn out that the next Syrian crisis is one of Assad’s own making.