Civilian Brigades Are Helping Syrian Army Control Territory

Mohammad Ballout reports on the growing phenomenon of civilian brigades who guard neighborhoods from rebel fighters when the army is deployed elsewhere in Syria. A large percentage of these "committees" played a crucial role in the battles to regain control of neighborhoods in southern Damascus.

al-monitor Members of the Free Syrian Army use a catapult to launch a homemade bomb during clashes with pro-government soldiers in the city of Aleppo, Oct. 15, 2012.  Photo by REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih.

Topics covered

syrian, islamists, free syrian army

Oct 15, 2012

At the western entrance to Jaramana [a southern suburb of Damascus], Wissam says goodbye to another visiting journalist, before — as he does every day — taking his position at a checkpoint made of sandbags piled haphazardly on the side of the road.

He is a young man, large and bearded. A few young men carrying Russian rifles had called him over. They had just finished their daytime duties and were spreading out under the orange trees — remnants of Damascus' fertile Ghouta valley — as night approached.

The trees were now surrounded by slum housing that resembled a cohesive cement jungle. This area was a hub for those emigrating from the countryside, inhabited by Christians and thousands of Druze citizens from Suwayda. The city had been transformed into an unofficial barracks for minority groups, ranging from Alawites, Christians and Druze, to refugees from Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

The Syrian regime was late in developing a counterstrategy against the revolutionary war to crush the spirit of the peace movement and to force a wide segment of this movement’s supporters to pick up arms. The "security option" dominated the regime's strategy from the start, with the regime preferring to use security forces and military intelligence agencies instead of the army.

They succeeded in arresting 70,000 activists, with thousands of others disappearing. This broke the back of the peace movement and removed protests from the Syrian arena.

A year after the security forces began implementing the "security option" [to counter the revolution], two kinds of "coordination committees" have developed. These include middle-class activists and peace advocates — including students, former political prisoners, civil society activists, intellectuals, workers and the self-employed.

What do these coordination committees do today? Zaidun, a member of one of the committees in Damascus, answered that question, saying that "the work of the coordination committees — or what remains of them — has changed to providing relief and aid to the displaced. This is a large and complicated task, and some of these committees have become a logistical partner of the Free Syrian Army (FSA)."

Said opposition member Hussein al-Awadat: "The ordinary citizen — despite being exhausted and tired — is against the regime, he supports the FSA because it is the only way to get rid of the regime."

The "security option" has cleared the way for more radical elements [to enter the conflict in Syria], composed of a mix of foreign opposition groups and others calling for armament and foreign intervention. This is in addition to Islamist groups, including local Salafist groups and other jihadist groups.

The shift away from peace activism paved the way for an open-ended war. In such a war, the military wing of the opposition would control what is left of these trigger-heavy policies. Wissam notes: "We have arrested between 300 and 400 infiltrators. We were kind to them and handed them over to the security services, unlike popular committees in other neighborhoods, which sometimes killed intruders." Coordination committees from the countryside of Damascus had the most moderate and diverse civil activists at the beginning of the movement.

Wissam — along with 24,000 of his fellow compatriots in rural Damascus — is holding a Kalashnikov rifle, testing what has become a key point in the Syrian regime's strategy for maintaining control of its territory. They have entrusted popular committees and liberation brigades with a large share of the responsibility to "guard" areas that have been regained from the hands of the FSA. These brigades — particularly the Republican Guard units, the backbone of these military operations — have been fighting without interruption since the beginning of these missions.

These elite forces have paid the price with at least 3,000 of their members being killed in the battles they carried out in Baba Amro, Douma, Homs, Aleppo, Deir el-Zour and rural Damascus.

It's clear that the regime depends on these loyal units, to the extent that one of the Republican Guard brigades — Brigade 105 — was the sole brigade fighting in many of the battles in Aleppo, Idlib, Homs, rural Damascus and Deir el-Zour. Brigade 105 is led by Brig. Gen. Issam Zahreddine, one of the most prominent Syrian officers, and the officer who is closest to his soldiers during military operations.

When popular committee patrols go out with their weapons at night in rural Damascus and Jaramana (a district of 200,000 people), Syrian army units in the area can breath a sigh of relief. These civilians who have taken up arms — or received light arms and ammunition from army units — prevent the FSA from entering many of the lively and densely populated cities in rural Damascus (whose population totals 1 million).

They save segments of the army — some of which cannot be depended upon because of the possibility of defections — the trouble of inspecting those coming into the city and having to involve additional units.

The third, fourth, ninth and 13th Army divisions — along with forces from the Republican Guard — are today fighting on every front. There are 13 divisions composed of 200,000 combatants and 300,000 recruits, with 10 of these divisions containing armored vehicles.

These divisions are joined by a group of brigades — including sea and air brigades, and those with rocket and artillery capabilities — as well as border guards and special forces regiments that are not affiliated with any division.

Going beyond Jaramana and its armed popular committees — along with the neighborhood’s Druze, Christian and Alawite minority communities — over the past few months this strategy has crystallized to include Sunnis in rural Damascus.

This was done under the title: Reconnect with the public through pushing the largest possible number of young people in rural Damascus into a war against armed groups, and by restoring administrative services such as water, telephones and electricity, and normalizing everyday life by providing security in areas controlled by the regime.

This involves opening schools and markets, and drying up the environment that supported the FSA in the first place. The regime, at the height of economic sanctions, began a campaign to grant loans to any public sector employee that wanted one in an attempt to restore an atmosphere of normalcy, after Syrian banks had stopped doing this.

"In Rukn al-Din, Jobar, Tishreen, al-Qaboun and al-Tadamin — as well as in the suburb of Sahnaya and the Achrafieh district — the organization of popular committees has played a significant role in helping the regime army in its operations against the FSA," Wissam said.

The committees have attracted the support of Sunni residents, "because no one here fears that the opposition will carry out reprisals in the event that the regime falls. Although reprisals remain a possibility, the alternative to the regime could be the committees themselves, division or chaos — or anything else — as long as it is not the current opposition," he added

However, Wissam continues, the committees sometimes face opposition, "and in Beit Shaham — a town in the heart of the Eastern Gouta — the local residents expelled both the popular committees and the FSA. Moreover, in the town of al-Heijana the residents accused members of the committees of collaborating with the regime.

In Jaramana, the committees supported the regime without question, "with the exception of those in the al-Qurieyet neighborhood, which harbored infiltrators from the armed opposition," after the area lost six of its young men in an FSA attack, and after two car bombings during a funeral that killed others. Wissam said.

He continues: "Jaramana is quiet and reliable; [popular] committees were formed eight months ago at the same time that the opposition was becoming more armed. The residents of Jaramana come from every sect — Alawite, Druze, Christian and Sunni — and from a [religious] environment that follows the teachings of Sheikh al-Bouti, Sheikh Kuftaro and the al-Noor Institute."

Until last July, the FSA had a numerical advantage in street battles when compared to the regular army, and also had an advantage in its ability to drag in large numbers of defectors, volunteers and Arab mujahideen. Moreover, it enjoyed superior knowledge of the landscape compared with the regime army.

However, the regime quickly adapted to this strategical fact using popular committees, which became the regime army's guide on the ground and during raids. A large percentage of these committees played a crucial role in the battles to regain control of neighborhoods in southern Damascus.

The regime and its army also adapted by pursing a policy of completely destroying an environment that embraces the FSA. This was the final link in its strategy after the successful test of the popular committees in Damascus.

It is true that the committees and their armed members fill in a prominent gap in the regime's strategy. They make up for the regime’s inability to occupy territory after carrying out relatively successful purges, which it was forced to undertake many times, specifically in rural Damascus, Harasta, Douma, Erbeen, al-Tadamin, Hajar al-Aswad and the villages surrounding Daraa. The FSA had returned to these villages after the regime forces had left to fight on other fronts. These committees by themselves are not enough to stifle the armed opposition.

After the bombing of the National Security headquarters last July, the Syrian security services directly turned to military operations, having failed to protect themselves. Not only did the bombing result in the security services taking a primary role at the expense of the army, but it also led to the security committee in charge of local agreements and making contact with armed groups completely stopping its work.

This was after the killing [in the aforementioned bombing] of two members of this security committee — Deputy Defense Minister Maj. Gen. Assef Shawkat and director of the National Security Bureau Hisham Ikhtiyar. Moreover, Interior Minister Mohammad al-Shaar was also injured in this attack.

Shawkat had taken charge of the task of negotiating the army's withdrawal from Zabadani last year, as well as negotiating their withdrawal from other areas. He had also facilitated the withdrawal of armed groups without a fight, due to his extensive experience in dealing with armed groups "ever since the moment extremists have ascended to power circles surrounding President Bashar al-Assad, and found themselves in decision-making positions," said opposition activist Louay Hussein.

Since July, the army has taken charge of implementing the second part of this strategy: destroying an environment that embraces [the FSA].

When operation "Damascus Earthquake" began, accompanied by [the opposition’s] attempt to penetrate the city using 15,000 combatants, the army — under the smoke of the explosion at the National Security headquarters — began to rely to a heavy extent on warplanes, to the point that it didn't send any of its divisions to areas of resistance to fight those advancing on the capital.

Artillery posts based on Mount Qassion took charge of shelling positions that opposition fighters had advanced upon, or areas that they gathered in. This strategy relied on the fact that local residents would either have to bear the cost of the confrontation, or clear their areas of insurgents.

This strategy was relatively successful, and in Douma — which had previously been subjected to two large army operations carried out by Brigade 105 from the Republican Guard, and paid a high price in terms of destruction and death from shelling — the residents came out to demonstrate, preventing the FSA from returning to the city, which has a population of 500,000.

"Every time the armed groups entered a city, the army would tell [the residents] either you remove them from the city, or we will shell the city with aircraft and artillery," said Hussein.

During a battle in the Hajar al-Aswad neighborhood south of the capital, the residents were standing behind the tanks as they progressed under heavy fire — after the army had succeeded in clearing the slum neighborhood of [FSA militants].

The residents begged the officers and those in charge of the shelling to not target their houses and to try to save whatever could be saved. The army succeeded in isolating the combatants from the residents, after the army destroyed the neighborhood's main street and succeeded in arresting dozens of FSA members who had taken refuge in the nearby Yarmouk [Palestinian refugee] camp.

The new strategy achieved its goals — both in terms of psychological goals and those relating to propaganda — it convinced a large proportion of residents that the FSA is gambling with their lives and that the regime is the only one capable of providing security. 

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