Posted by Aron Lund on Tuesday, July 23rd, 2013
MEET ALI KAYALI
The murder of the Syrian regime loyalist Mohammed Darrar Jammo in Lebanon, now said to have been an internal family affair, led to much firing in the air. At Jammo’s funeral in Latakia, there was a heavy presence of militiamen, and militiawomen, who were there to pay their respects to the dead. These fighters belong to a group now known as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Iskanderoun/Syrian Resistance, which considered Jammo one of their own. It is led by a certain Mihrac Ural, who works under the nom de guerre of Ali Kayali.
Kayali is a Turkish-born Alawite, and now a naturalized citizen, having lived in Syria since the early 1980s. His background is murky and controversial. He cut his teeth in 1970s Turkey as an ultraleftist, then took up arms against the government and added the cause of Syro-Arab nationalism to his repertoire. From there, he entered the Beqaa Valley-centered underworld of Syrian-backed radical factions, developed a connection to the Kurdish PKK, and also seems to have struck up a lasting relationship with the Assad regime itself. Exiled in Syria since escaping a Turkish prison in 1980, Kayali ran a small splinter faction of his communist sect, the THKP/C-Acilciler, and worked to reattach the Hatay (or Iskanderoun or Alexandretta) province to Syria. This is a longstanding Syrian government demand, and Hafez al-Assad briefly toyed with the Hatay separatists in his cold war with Turkey. But it was a passing fancy, and Kayali himself had been long forgotten by the time Bashar took over and patched up relations with Turkey.
After the start of Syria’s unrest in 2011, Kayali suddenly reappeared as a force to reckon with. He began recruiting young Alawites on the coast to PFLI/Syrian Resistance, and set them to work as a pro-regime militia. The group has been fighting to keep rebels contained to the Sunni areas of northern Latakia, and even made some forays into the Homs region. While it uses Syrian-nationalist and leftist imagery, Kayali’s group has only made half-hearted attempts at hiding its Alawite character. Kayali himself is often accompanied on official occasions by a rising Alawi religious figure called Mowaffaq al-Ghazal. This spring, Kayali’s militia was rumored to be involved in the Baniyas/Beida massacres, a sectarian slaughter of Sunni civilian families and one of the worst war crimes to date in the Syrian conflict. He has also been accused by his enemies of involvement in narcotics trafficking into Hatay and of organizing bomb attacks in Turkey. But details are scarce, and it’s very difficult to tell fact from fiction.
But, now – here was Kayali at the funeral of Mohammed Darrar Jammo, sheikh Ghazal at his side. The PFLI/Syrian Resistance had in fact organized part of the funeral ceremonies, along with the party, state and army. In pictures from the event, we see Kayali’s militia fighters in full camouflage and battle gear, waving flags and rattling off some obligatory AK47 rounds. Banners and placards glorifying the group and its martyrs were held high. Kayali himself had a seat of honor next to the Christian and Alawite religious dignitaries, with representatives of the army also on the scene. The photographs show Ali Kayali basking in the adulation of his supporters – a loyal fighter for Assad, but now also a political figure in his own right.
THE SHABBIHA MISNOMER
The Syrian opposition has had a tendency to lump together every pro-Assad organization under the term ”Shabbiha”, just like the Assad regime would want us to believe that all the rebels are ”Wahhabis”.
The ”Shabbiha” term itself comes from old Alawite coastal smuggling gangs, some of them linked to Fawwaz al-Assad. (This great post by Mohammed D. has more on that.) It was originally a local phenomenon, and first entered the national – and international – lexicon when thugs cracked down on the Latakia-Baniyas protests of March 2011. For the local demonstrators that reported the killings, the word ”Shabbiha” had a very specific meaning. But many other reporters and opposition members took the term and ran with it. Soon, it was being applied to pro-Assad vigilantes all across Syria, causing much confusion about how Fawwaz al-Assad and his little gang of street brawlers could be everywhere at the same time.
Opposition gossip about how you can recognize a ”Shabbiha member” by his white sneakers or this or that style of beard, particular cars and so on, not to mention their ق-heavy Alawite coastal accent, have been spread as fact in the media. But in reality, of course, there was no single Shabbiha movement and no single type of Shabbiha character. The people called ”Shabbiha” belonged to lots of different organizations and communities. Syria is a complicated place, and just about every corner of the country has inhabitants who for some reason have seen fit to fight for Assad. Far from all have been Alawites, and most have had nothing whatsoever to do with Fawwaz al-Assad.
For example, a gang of mafiosi from a politically connected Sunni clan played the part of ”Shabbiha” in Aleppo, until its leaders were captured and summarily executed by rebels in July 2012. Something similar went down in Idleb City, where gangs of Sunni regime supporters did Bashar’s dirty work, until the army stepped in. Tribal rivalries played a part in Deir al-Zor, while Arab-Kurdish tension and the ambiguous role of the PKK influenced developments in Hassake. In Quseir, some members of the Kasouha clan – Greek Orthodox – set up checkpoints to stop the opposition. In Homs and many other places, local Alawite thugs were funded by regime-connected businessmen like Rami Makhlouf, to transform their street gangs into well-armed militias. (Aziz Nakkash has written better than anyone else about how sectarian and regional dynamics, and politics and money, helped shape the militia structure in the Homs region.)
A thousand contradictions, and a million nuances – yet, most of the media swallowed the opposition’s ”Shabbiha” concept hook line and sinker. The USA Department of the Treasury even went as far as sanctioning ”The Shabbiha” as if it were an organized nation-wide group led, of course, by Fawwaz al-Assad. Which probably says more about how the US government is run than it does about the Syrian militias.
Today the “Shabbiha” term is generally used in this new, post-2011 meaning – as a generalized, insulting description of an Assad supporter. That happens to words, and it’s okay. But it’s also important to try to look behind such vocabulary, since it serves a political purpose. On the one hand, it’s been useful for the opposition – but it has also, quite unintentionally, helped the regime conceal the increasing fragmentation of its repressive apparatus.
WHO ARE THE PRO-ASSAD MILITIAS?
It’s news to no one that the opposition movement in Syria is extremely fragmented, but what hasn’t received enough attention is that something similar seems to be happening on the regime side. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, it too has begun to decentralize and drift apart. Assad’s growing reliance on local proxies, paramilitary forces, and foreign militias is the best evidence.
Ali Kayali’s PFLI/Syrian Resistance on the coast is only one example. The most common type of pro-Assad militia has been the Popular Committee, a sort of government-backed neighborhood watch which has mushroomed across the country since spring 2011. When the uprising began, the regime could also draw on a legacy of Baathist paramilitary groups, most of them set up during the intra-party power struggles in the 1960s and to counter the Islamist uprising of the 1980s. The Baath’s paramilitary wing, the Popular Army, is the best known of these groups. But they were far from the only such group – in the early 1980s, even the state-run Peasants’ Union created its own armed wing. Add to this some Palestinian client groups like Ahmed Jibril’s PFLP-GC, Fath al-Intifada and al-Saeqa, other international proxies, and the bodyguards and thugs loyal to individual members of the ruling family. Fawwaz al-Assad’s original Shabbiha gangs on the coast were only the best known. And of course, many Alawite villages and neighborhoods will receive arms one way or the other, whether it is organized or not.
The Baath Party has also reportedly begun putting guns in the hands of its members. Hilal Hilal, who led the Baath’s Aleppo branch, successfully oversaw the creation of a new party militia to counter the rebels there. He claimed to have gathered 5,000 volunter fighters in the newly created Baath Battalions already by November 2012. Hilal has just been named Bashar’s assistant regional secretary; it may not sound very impressive, but it means he’s now responsible for running the day-to-day affairs of the Baath Party. If he received that post as a reward for holding his ground in Aleppo, and for successfully militarizing the local party branch, we can assume the same thing is now going to be repeated elsewhere.
Last but not least, of course, we’re seeing Shia jihadist groups flood into Syria, just like their Sunni counterparts. Chief among them are the Lebanese Hezbollah, which will require no further introduction, and the Iraqi-majority Abul-Fadl al-Abbas Brigade in Sayyeda Zeinab, south Damascus. There are several other, smaller Shia militia formations, many of them connected to Islamists in Iraq, as has been so well documented by Phillip Smyth.
LOSING COHESION, LOSING SOVEREIGNTY
These militias have been very useful to Bashar al-Assad and his government, but they also represent a weakening of its centralized structure. There’s already talk of how some pro-Assad gangs have begun to self-finance through smuggling, looting, protection rackets and so on. That makes them able to keep fighting for Assad – but it also makes them less dependent on him. Neighborhood leaders, tribal figures, and militia bosses are all developing power bases of their own, no longer limited to the titular positions granted them by Bashar al-Assad.
The Syrian regime is, since 2011, slowly losing the trappings of state sovereignty, even in the areas still held by Assad. Hezbollah is now propping up Baath control in the strategic Quseir area – and it’s an Iranian client, not a Syrian one. The Iraqi Islamists of the Abul-Fadl al-Abbas Brigade help keep the opposition away from the Damascus International Airport. But they do so to protect the Sayyeda Zeinab area from rebel incursions, for their own religious reasons, and to protect the Iraqi Shia who live there – not because they have strong feelings about who should operate Syrian Air. Meanwhile, men like Ali Kayali have taken up arms on behalf of the regime, gathered their own private armies, and are now rising political stars on their home turf. There must be hundreds of similar but smaller militia bosses now, in neighborhoods and villages across Assad-held Syria.
These fighters, some of whom are only indirectly linked to Assad or even to Syria, will eventually emerge as powerbrokers in their own right. Just like Assad felt the need to reward Hilal Hilal and other effective Baathist hardliners, he will have to share resources and power with militia commanders on the fringes of the state.
If Assad were to win the war and reconquer Syria – but I can’t fathom how – he could probably bring his many militias back in line without major problems. But he isn’t winning, and the war will go on, and on and on.
Wait long enough, and at least some of these newly-empowered regime subcontractors will realize that they have become dictators of their own little republics – stretching sovereign from Abu Ali’s cornershop to the street by the gas station. When the day comes that Assad can neither protect them nor finance them, their loyalty to him will be tested. Many are going to stick together in the ex-regime camp out of fear or ideology or sectarian solidarity, but others will transfer their allegiance to someone who can pay their way – whether it’s a bigger militia leader, a wealthy businessman, a foreign government like Iran, someone else inside the regime, or even an opposition group.
The central Syrian state has begun to disintegrate, but the regime’s component parts are not going anywhere. They will adapt to anarchy, like everyone else.
CAN ASSAD KEEP DECENTRALIZATION IN CHECK?
The Baath Party and Syria’s official media are trying to conceal and reverse this process as best they can. Regime propaganda is very centralized and on-message, and internal discipline seems impressively strict even after two years of war. The cult of personality around Bashar al-Assad also helps. His centrality is not just about dictatorial powers, it’s also symbolic. Assad-era Baathism is all about a fusion of Party, Nation and Leader as Souriya al-Assad, in classic fascist style. The president was always the symbolic embodiment of that holy trinity, and cult worship of him has been the pillar that kept big-tent Baathism standing. For as long as Bashar is around, every opponent of the uprising will know who s/he is supposed to rally around (Assad), whose instructions to obey (Assad), and what type of regime to ask for (Assad). Not an inspirational ideology, but it goes a long way towards presenting a common front. The Syrian regime needs an Assad like an army needs a flag.
But even if this symbolic unity helps a lot, reality can’t be ignored. Unless the war changes course dramatically, the regime won’t be able to reverse the ”militiafication” of its repressive apparatus, it can just try to cope with it and control the process. In 2012, many Popular Committees and other local militias began to be merged into a bigger and supposedly more cohesive paramilitary organization, called the National Defense Forces. It seems to have received some level of Iranian financing and training, and we saw it play a role in the regime’s recapture of Quseir not long ago. But putting Volkssturm at the frontline was never a sign that your war is going well.
However much the creation of the NDF helped Assad to re-centralize control over the pro-regime armed movement, he can’t buck the trend in the long run. We may be years from the day the that these changes take full effect. But there is no doubt that if this conflict goes on, and Assad continues to grow weaker, then the withering of state sovereignty will proceed unchecked. Warlordism is coming, and not only on the opposition side. Cracks can now be seen on fringes of the regime, and the center will not be spared.
— Aron Lund
Added on July 24, 2013: Several people have sent me an article just published by the Aks al-Sir website, that illustrates some of these issues very well. The article is based on a text first published on Kulluna Shuraka, an influential opposition news site run by the UAE-based dissident Ayman Abdel-Nour. For context, Jeremana is a suburb of Damascus, mostly populated by Christians and Druze. What follows is my own translation of the article.
Republican Guard forces have arrested the man responsible for the Basel Street checkpoint in the city of Jeremana, this Monday, “Abu Yazin” Basel Seif. They also arrested “Abu Ayman” Emad Dawoud, who is responsible for the Oscar checkpoint that leads to the airport road, as well as other people. This was part of a campaign started days ago, with the arrest of the Shabbiha leader Hussein Shoeib.
The arrest of Shoeib provoked the wrath of his adherents (about 50 people). They launched an armed attack on the so-called National Defense Forces in Jeremana, which had been set up by the regime using people from Jeremana, led by one of them called Farhan al-Shaalan. It frightened the city and forced shops to close, according to the Kulluna Shuraka website.
An activist in the city says that the people arrested today were useful to the regime at the start of the uprising, when they worked alongisde it to repress the movement and persecute activists in the city and outside of it. They broke into houses and robbed their owners and attacked them. With some of them, the situation reached a point where they established their own private prisons in the cellars of their houses and on farms, to kidnap and extort people, particularly outsiders who were not from the city, in exchange for money. They also used these places to collect and resell what they had stolen. This created discontent with their actions among people in the city.
Analyzing the reasons for the campaign against the Shabbiha in Jeremana, the activist says that their actions blossomed and they started to work for their own purposes, and some of them began to refuse the orders to go on security assignments outside the city, fearing that this would be dangerous. Conflicts about the “loot” started to appear among them. Each group was linked to a particular security section, and they began to reveal the theft and transgressions of each other.
On the other hand, the regime has created what is known as the Popular Committees, and developed them into what is known as the National Defense Army [sic] in the city (some 600 young Druze and Christian men). It set up a structure for them, and gave them the Water Unit building to serve as headquarters, and turned them into an organized force on the ground. It also sent tens of them on training courses in Iran, and distributed arms and communications equipment among them, and it gives them a monthly salary. Therefore, the “first” Shabbiha have become a burden to the regime, and it became necessary to cut them down to size in order to win public support in the city, and to get rid of the danger posed by so-called “disloyal” groups that it did not fully control, which competed with the new groups for “loot” and stolen goods.