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Syria's pro-government militias a major boost for Assad's army

The numerous militias in Syria have gone from ill-organized neighborhood watch groups to a coherent paramilitary organization.

September 21, 2013|By Patrick J. McDonnell
  • Syrian men walk through a damaged street in the Tadamun district of Damascus, a heavily contested urban patch divided into government- and rebel-held zones.
Syrian men walk through a damaged street in the Tadamun district of Damascus,… (AFP/Getty Images )

DAMASCUS, Syria — At age 70, Ahmad Saidi took up arms after the slaying of his son, a father of five who was killed when a remote-controlled bomb blew up his car.

A neighbor suspected in the attack was later overheard bragging about his "gift" for the Saidi family.

"This is our homeland," Saidi, a textile merchant, said this week as he stood in camouflage pants amid the shrapnel-scarred interior of the Zubair Mosque, where even a stack of Korans had been shredded by bullets. "We will die defending it."

The defiant septuagenarian with the patrician crown of snow-white hair and matching beard is not a soldier with the Syrian army or a militant in a rebel brigade. Rather, he belongs to a neighborhood branch of Syria's National Defense Forces, a government-backed umbrella group of militias that has emerged as a kind of parallel national army.

Saidi said his son Imad was killed Feb. 2 in the Tadamun neighborhood of Damascus, the Syrian capital, for refusing to join the rebellion against the government of President Bashar Assad.

The many pro-government militias that sprang up with official encouragement after the uprising began in 2011 have been transformed in the last year from ill-organized neighborhood watch groups into a coherent paramilitary organization. The militiamen are near-ubiquitous in the capital and other government-controlled areas of the nation.

The emergence of the militias has provided a crucial boost for the overstretched army, which has suffered heavy losses in a grinding, 21/2-year war on multiple fronts. More than 100,000 people have died, according to the United Nations.

The arming of loyalist militias is a classic if not always winning tactic of counterinsurgency doctrine, employed in Vietnam, Central America and Iraq, among other war zones.

The pro-Assad militiamen, carrying AK-47 rifles and usually decked out in military fatigues and combat boots, sometimes appear indistinguishable from regular army troops, though their numbers usually include some aging and scruffy combatants and others lacking proper gear. On Wednesday, one pro-government gunman near the sand-bagged entrance to the Tadamun district sported a T-shirt, jeans and sandals, with the only sign of authority being a pair of hand grenades and a pistol tucked into his belt.

The militiamen are considered a crucial factor in turning the tide of battle in the government's favor in recent months. They number in the tens of thousands, and their ever-expanding ranks have allowed the military to dispatch its best troops to vital fronts and leave rear-guard duties to the generally lightly trained militiamen.

The citizen-soldiers man checkpoints, search bags, check IDs, question people deemed suspicious and take on sundry other security tasks, such as trying to spot bomb-laden vehicles and hidden weapons caches. They work in close coordination with the army, and sometimes fight alongside regular forces in the fierce daily battles that mark the conflict.

"We took the burden off the army and let them deal with wider and more extensive operations," said Abu Elie, nom de guerre of the militia commander in Tadamun, a heavily contested urban patch divided into government- and rebel-held zones.

As he spoke in a second-floor office in an anonymous apartment block, the building shook from the thud of government tank rounds, periodically answered by mortar shells fired from the rebel side. It's the area's unvarying soundtrack, along with sporadic gunfire.

No regular troops were visible during a two-hour visit Wednesday to the strategic district, which is an important conduit for rebels trying to infiltrate the capital from the south. Heavy fighting has left swaths of the southern tier of Tadamun in ruins. Much of the population has fled, though children can still be seen playing in the streets a few blocks from the front lines. On one day last year, 98 rebel mortar shells hit the district, according to Abu Elie, who said he was a former army intelligence officer.

"What you hear now are our tanks," said Abu Elie, boasting that the militia had armored vehicles, artillery and other heavy equipment at its disposal. "As the armed groups have gotten better weapons, so have we."

The militiamen's training and other operational details remain hazy. Various fighters interviewed described training sessions ranging from brief refresher courses (most Syrian men must do compulsory military service) to two weeks or even several months for those assigned to fighting in hot spots.

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