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3.2. The Government of Syria and associated armed groups

Last update: February 2023

The Syrian State actors include members of security forces and other authorities, such as local councils or other local officials, e.g. mukhtars. It should also be noted that the distinction between official State forces and non-State forces is not always clear.

The Syrian Armed Forces consist of the Syrian Arab Army (SAA), the Naval Forces, the Air Forces, Air Defence Forces and the National Defence Forces (NDF). SAA leaders allegedly lack control over their divisions. Army divisions are said to be controlled by the government’s intelligence services and to be under the authority of Iranian and Russian influence. The army can no longer be considered a cohesive force, but rather a coalition of regular forces and allied militias. The Fourth Division has developed into a parallel army that deploys its forces throughout Syria and has been described as morally, financially and military superior to SAA. [Security 2022, 1.4.1, p. 26]

Intelligence services are operating in Syria. The services operate outside the law with no defined boundaries between their areas of jurisdiction and with overlapping responsibilities. Several laws empower the security apparatus and allow its members to act with impunity. [Actors, 2.3.2, p. 31]

The police force report to the Ministry of Interior, but they can receive orders from branches of the intelligence agencies. There have also been frequent instances where police acted as informers on anti-government activity and political dissidence in support of the services. [Actors, 2.3.3, p. 32]

A number of pro-government militias are operating alongside the regular armed forces. There are local militias, such as the NDF, and non-Syrian militias made up of foreign fighters, mainly backed by Iran. [Actors, 2.3.4, p. 34]

By 2012, the GoS consolidated militias under its control and incorporated them under an umbrella network set up with Iran’s assistance, the NDF. The NDF were reported to be ‘quite inclusive of all the groups that are willing to fight on the side of Syrian government’, including Sunnis from Damascus and Aleppo, ‘mercenaries, crime lords, and unemployed citizens’. They have become auxiliary security institutions, which operate their own prisons and investigation commissions. [Actors, 2.3.4, p. 34]

Other examples of Syrian pro-government militias include the Tiger Forces, serving as the army of the Air Forces Intelligence, militias of wealthy and powerful Alawite businessmen with close links to the Assad government, such as the al-Bustan militias and Suquor al Sahara. [Actors, 2.3.4, p. 35]

Apart from Syrian pro-GoS militias, Shia foreign fighters were mobilised by Iran and sent to fight on the side of the Assad government. The most prominent groups included the Lebanese Hezbollah, the Afghan Fatemiyoun Brigade, the Pakistani Zeinabiyoun Brigade, as well as various Iraqi Shia militias that are members of the Iraqi Popular Mobilisation Forces, and fighters from Yemen. [Actors, 2.3.4, p. 34]

Palestinian militias such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - General Command, the SAA-affiliated Palestinian Liberation Army and the Liwa al-Quds also supported the government military in the conflict. [Actors, 2.3.4, p. 36]

As of the beginning of 2022, the GoS had control over 63 % of the state’s territory, including central and southern Syria, the governorates along the Mediterranean coast, and parts of eastern Syria and Aleppo. The GoS also controlled Syria’s most important cities such as Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, or Hama. [Security 2022, 1.5.1, p. 41]

Syrian State actors including associated armed groups have committed a wide range of human rights violations since the beginning of the conflict. During the reporting period, GoS forces continued to arbitrarily detain people, with detention leading to torture, ill-treatment, and in some instances to death of detainees. Besides arbitrary detentions and enforced disappearances, the GoS was reported to use torture and sexual violence as a method of control, intimidation and extortion. [Security 2022, 1.4.1, p. 27, Targeting 2022, 1.1.2, p. 20]

For further information on human rights violations committed by the GoS and associated armed groups and their relevance as potential exclusion grounds, see 8. Exclusion.


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