Syria’s Militiafication and Sectarianism: Can Fragmentation be Avoided?

Updated: Mar 4, 2021

Denise Morenghi

The conflict that has been tearing Syria apart for almost a decade has irreversibly changed the security landscape in the country, releasing the monopoly of force and weapons from the hands of what was once its sole holder, the Syrian Armed Forces, directly commanded by President Bashar al-Assad. Over the course of the conflict, a high rate of fragmentation of the security landscape became evident (Erfan, 2018), with equal impact in the regime loyalist camp and the opposing, or rebel, camp. This happened mainly for two reasons, both linked to the posture of the regime itself. In fact, on the one hand Bashar al-Assad, not enjoying sufficient human strength to support the war effort, had to co-opt militias and groups funded by his international sponsors or external actors (Lister, Nelson, 2017). On the other hand, Assad himself has not been able to control the proliferation of militias and the establishment of informal security providers, in fact legitimizing them end even benefitting from their presence where the Army could not operate. (Khlebnikov, 2020)

These informal security providers have been formed mainly after the outbreak of the revolution, following a common dynamic: they are mainly local groups, often popular committees, which in the deep instability that has characterized the years of conflict have identified the need to defend their own community. The distribution of the Syrian population, however, at the geographical level has traditionally developed along sectarian lines, especially for minorities. This factor, in unstable contexts, contributes substantially to the increase of sectarian cohesion against the “other”, often perceived as dangerous. Furthermore, this perception found a practical echo in the violent attacks perpetrated by some confessionally-oriented groups against other communities: it is the case of the attacks on the Druze of Suwayda by Sunni Islamist militias, or the attacks on the Sunni community of Houla perpetrated by Alawite militias (Shabiha) close to the regime in 2012, just to name a few.

Suwayda offers one of the most emblematic examples of the formation of sectarian militias: the violence inflicted by some Sunni militants coming from Deraa on the inhabitants of Suwayda has pushed the formation of the militia called Jays al-Muwahhidin, "The army of the monotheists" (term traditionally used to indicate the Druze community), with a strong confessional connotation (al-Tamimi, 2013). The militia has assumed an even more prominent position after the attacks, kidnappings and murders inflicted by ISIL on Suwayda, after which a Druze delegation turned to Damascus asking for help, which however was denied since the Druze had previously refused to fight in the pro-Iranian militias close to the regime. This certainly increased the importance of the armed group as the sole guarantor of the village's security. Such dynamics, however, stimulated a narrative increasingly based on sectarian and confessional assumptions. This became observable right from the visual aspect, with the creation and proliferation of flags and logos religiously connoted, as well as the formation of ad hoc groups and pages on social networks. At a critical moment for Syrian national identity, the rediscovery of another identity, based on local communities and religious factors, provided the basis for a greater sectarian awareness. Until then, sectarianism had been much less evident in Syria than in neighboring countries, primarily Lebanon and Iraq.

The same pattern can be observed elsewhere in Syria. For instance, in the valley of Wadi al-Nasara, in the region of Homs, with a Greek Melkite and Greek Orthodox majority and generally loyal to Assad, confessional militias have also been formed, as in the cases described above, aimed at the protection of local communities (Andresen, 2017). On the north-eastern region of the country, where Christian minority converge in the area of Qamishly and al-Hasakah, many Christian militias were created. Among these, some are loyal to the regime, such as the Sootoro or Office for the Protection of Syriacs (Drott, 2013), and others are opposed to it, such as SUP Sutoro, allied with the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), and the Syriac Military Council. The latter has been accused by many of stirring up sectarian tensions by highlighting the need to defend the Christian-Syrian population of Syria, its rights and its cultural and historical heritage (Al-Tamimi, 2014).

Other regions, mainly the ones close to the borders with Lebanon, Iraq and the Golan Heights, have witnessed the mushrooming of Shi’a militias, systematically created by Iran and Hezbollah to guarantee a lasting pro-Iranian presence in the country, whatever the military outcome of the conflict (Ezzi, 2020; Smyth, 2016). Iran has also been successful in coopting parts of the Ismaili community, mainly concentrated in Salamiya, in pro-Iranian militias (Smyth, 2019). Finally, the Alawite community has organized pro-regime militias, often following the same bottom-up dynamic described above, which were then legitimized by the regime itself as Shabiha, “ghosts”, alawite militias fighting for Damascus in protection of Alawites, and sometimes Christians. The “predatory and heavy-handed action” of the Shabiha in many parts of the country (Wehrey, 2018) towards components belonging to different confessions has further reinforced the confessional dividing lines.

Concerning the Sunni community, traditionally associated with the opposition and described as "terrorist" by the pro-Assad front, is often seen as a threat by the other Syrian religious components, mainly for two reasons. On the one hand, Sunnis represent the majority of the Syrian population and therefore, trivially, enjoy a demographic imbalance in their favor, and consequently numerically superior human strength compared to all other confessions. Precisely for this reason, the size of the Sunni community, scattered throughout the Syrian territory, has facilitated the birth of very heterogeneous and different groups, especially in the degree of extremism adopted and in the religious connotation assigned. Moreover, the fragmentation of the Syrian territory and the collapse of the State have made Syria “a magnet for global jihadist movements, as had already happened previously in Iraq” (Alvarez-Ossorio, 2019), a point that has been easily exploited by the pro-regime camp to label the entire Sunni community as “terrorist”. This, in turn, has fostered the emergence of strong anti-Sunni fear on the part of minority communities, further giving water to the mill of sectarianism.

Indeed, the proliferation of sectarian militias has also been incentivized by the narrative that President Assad himself has built around the conflict in the country since the first protests broke out in March 2011. In fact, Assad initially tried to delegitimize them, designating them as a manifestation of Sunni extremism in the country against the various minorities. On the other hand, many Sunni groups have described the revolution as a “Sunni awakening” (Alvarez-Ossorio, 2019), to overthrow the tyrannical Alawite regime, stressing the fact that Alawites are a minority in Syria, whereas Sunnis constitute the big majority of its population. All of this of course contributed to stirring up sectarian notions, which until that time were considered taboos in Syria (The Day After – TDA, 2016), because of the drift that sectarianism had at the end of the 20th century in neighboring Lebanon and of the posture adopted by the Baath party in power. Confessional assumptions and inter-sectarian fears also have an indirect impact on Syria’s society. For example, cities such as Idlib and Aleppo have recorded large flows of emigration from the Christian, Druze and Alawite components, due to the lack of trust between the religious communities. These sections are likely to remain reluctant to return, reinforcing the Sunni predominance of these cities. At the same time, they reinforce the sectarian character of the destinations: predominantly Wadi al-Nasara or the northeast for the Christians, the coast for the Alawites, Suwayda and the southern region for the Druze. Adding this to the so-called militiafication of Syria creates a security architecture in which each community has its own security provider, or militia, to guarantee protection from all the “others”.

Besides, the proliferation of militias along sectarian lines, of which those mentioned above represent only a part, has undergone a substantial change with the intervention of external sponsors in the conflict, which until then had been internal to Syria. Besides regionalizing the conflict and increasing its dimensions exponentially, the external support has also touched the local militias, especially from a financial and military point of view. International actors, in fact, have supported local groups in order to achieve broader geopolitical goals within Syria and the Middle East region. International sponsors include Iran for the Shi’a, Russia for the pro-regime Christian communities and the US for the Christian militias close to the Kurds. Also, Lebanese Druzes (Ezzi, 2015) and partially Israel (Reuters, 2017) for Druzes, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey for Sunnis (Erdemir et al., 2019), and European Syriacs advocating for the Syriac component in the West. The consequences of this support, however, have underscored sectarian rifts in several ways. First, the support of external sponsors has provided an additional layer of legitimacy to local militias. Second, the delivery of arms and financial support to them made them more assertive in their actions, which in some cases deviated from mere communal defense to a more offensive posture, refreshing their sectarian nature.

Based on what has been discussed so far, in many areas of Syria the emergence of a multi-military structure is evident, within which different security providers became responsible for the protection of different local communities. They either make up for the shortcomings of the governmental Armed Forces in traditionally loyalist areas, or react to the blows launched by the latter in areas of opposition to the regime. As we have seen, it is a bottom-up phenomenon which, however, has received a legitimacy, even if unconscious, both from Damascus and from the international actors intervening in the country for wider geopolitical aims: “rather than reverse hybridization of security structures and governance, regional and international powers are making it permanent.” (Sayigh, 2018)

A multi-layered security architecture based on the multiplication of security providers divided along confessional lines runs the real risk of further fragmenting Syrian society, as has already been observed in recent decades in Lebanon and Iraq. The consequences of such a conformation of the security landscape in Syria could reinvigorate sectarian and confessional lines, giving rise to fractures in Syrian society that cannot be ignored in the future, if only because of the fragmentation of the centers of power legitimately recognized by the various communities. This could force Assad to relegate part of the authority to local representatives, and therefore to the aforementioned militias, making the Syrian security landscape extremely chaotic.

The context described until now is proving to be one of the main obstacles to Syria’s DRR, “disarmament, demobilization and rehabilitation”, effort, a process intended to demobilize the paramilitary forces that have proliferated during the war. (Khaddour, 2018) “Although many countries worldwide have institutionalized security hybridity, geopolitical rivalry between the intervening foreign governments – and the domestic counter-balancing this prompts – impedes adopting hybridity as an alternative means of resolving security dilemmas” (Sayigh, 2018). Therefore, if a durable balance is to be found, security institutions in post-conflict Syria will need to be subjected to wide-scope reforms especially with regards to governance (Wehrey, 2018). Concrete possibilities include decentralization and diversification of security providers at the different levels, mainly local and national, with the diminution of foreign military support to local groups in exchange to the allocation of a share of authority.

However, the most urgent point underlying sectarianism and security fragmentation concerns the feeling of insecurity perceived by civil society. It is therefore imperative for it to be countered, through a new instillation of reciprocal trust – a task that will inevitably be labored and protracted, but nonetheless necessary for the sustainability of a united Syria in the future.


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Denise Morenghi is Editor of APRA's Think Tank Team.

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