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1.1. The Government of Syria and associated armed groups

Common analysis
Last updated: September 2020

As of March 2020, GoS controlled most of the country, including the major cities of Damascus, Aleppo, Homs and Hama, and nearly all the governorates’ capitals. GoS has regained control of the majority of territory from opposition forces, including opposition strongholds like Aleppo City, Dar’a governorate, Eastern Ghouta, southern Damascus, Homs governorate and territories in Hama governorate. The rebel-held Idlib area, which includes neighbouring areas in north-western Aleppo, northern Hama and Latakia governorates, is regarded as the main remaining obstacle GoS faces in regaining territorial control of Syria [Security 2020, 1.5.1].

The conflict has significantly affected the State’s role, reach and institutional capacity in government-held areas. In areas nominally under the government’s control, its authority was reported to be ‘dispersed, fragmented, and outsourced to multiple groups in the form of pro-regime paramilitaries, foreign powers and local militias’. This has also created overlapping structures that undermined centralised control by the government. Such areas include, for example, Dar’a, Homs, Hama, Aleppo, Deir Ez-Zor, Quneitra, Eastern Ghouta [Actors, 2.1, 2.3.4; Security 2020, 1.5.1].

Syrian State actors include, for example, members of the Syrian Armed Forces, the police and other authorities. Some militias - mainly backed by Iran – are also considered State actors.

The Syrian Armed Forces consist of the Syrian Arab Army (SAA), the navy, the air force, the intelligence services and the National Defence Forces (NDF). Bashar al-Assad acts as commander in chief of the Syrian Armed Forces [Actors, 2.3.1, Security 2020, 1.4.1]. A number of laws empower the security apparatus and allow its members to act with impunity [Actors, 2.2.5].

The Fifth Corps was initially an association of militias, which was then incorporated into the official military structure in 2016. It is a special army branch that Russian forces actively helped to establish and that recruits from other parts of the population than the regular SAA branches. It consists of individuals who have already completed their military service, civil servants, former militia members and, notably, former rebels. [Targeting, 1.2.1; Recaptured areas,]

Four main intelligence services (Air Force Intelligence, Military intelligence Department, General Intelligence Directorate and Political Security Directorate) are operating in Syria, all with a central branch in Damascus and regional branches across the country. The services operate outside the law with no defined boundaries between their areas of jurisdiction and with overlapping responsibilities. Since the outbreak of the conflict, the regime has relied on the intelligence services to maintain control of the country and to focus on opponents of the regime. Each intelligence agency runs its own prison and interrogation facility, with some controlling more than one facility [Actors, 2.3.2].

The police force consists of four separate divisions: emergency police, traffic police, neighbourhood police and riot police. Police commands are present in each governorate and while they report to the Ministry of Interior, they can receive orders from branches of the intelligence agencies, for example with regard to arrests and detentions. 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].

Various pro-government militias, both local and foreign, are operating in Syria alongside the regular armed forces. Such militias played a key role in the survival of Assad’s government and were involved in many military offensives and local security enforcement throughout the conflict. Experts made a distinction between local militias, such as the NDF, and non-Syrian militias made up of foreign fighters, mainly backed by Iran. [Actors, 2.3.4]

After the beginning of the civil war, the pro-government militias were at first organised as ‘popular committees’ from local communities, controlled or loyal to the regime, to defend their towns and neighbourhoods against opposition forces. They comprised mainly of Shia and Alawite individuals. The regime also relied on a network of criminal gangs of Alawites linked with the Assad family, described by the opposition as shabiha, who were mobilised and armed to suppress the early protests. By 2012, the government consolidated these militias under its control and incorporated them under an umbrella network set up with Iran’s assistance, called 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]

Other examples of Syrian pro-government militias include the Tiger Forces, serving as the army of the Air Force Intelligence and 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]

The Local Defence Forces (LDF), established by Iran, include local militias that operated outside of official military structures but have been formally integrated in the Syrian armed forces in 2017. [Actors, 2.3.4]

Apart from Syrian pro-government 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]

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]

Syrian State actors including associated armed groups have committed a wide range of human rights violations since the beginning of the conflict. Numerous sources report on extrajudicial executions by the GoS, including its intelligence services. Arbitrary detention and forced disappearances by government forces and pro-government militias have also been continuously reported. Detainees have been kept in detention without charges for longer periods than the legal limit set by law or indefinitely. [Actors, 2.2.3, 2.3.2-2.3.4, 2.4]

Government forces, in particular the intelligence services, use torture during interrogations in order to obtain confessions or to gather information. Most of the victims were men but torture of women and children also occurred. It is documented that a high number of people have died under torture inflicted by GoS forces. [Actors, 2.2.2, 2.2.3, 2.2.6, 2.3.2, 2.4]

In recaptured areas, the GoS pursues punitive policies against local populations. Detained civilians from these areas were also being held incommunicado and denied access to a lawyer. There were also reports of rape of and sexual violence against women, girls and occasionally men during ground operations, raids and in detention, considered to amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity. [Actors, 2.1, 2.2.6, 2.4]

Pro-government militias are also involved in a number of criminal activities, such as extortion of companies, stealing, looting and smuggling of guns and drugs [Actors, 2.3.4].

Impunity was reportedly pervasive and there were no functional civil remedies for human rights violations [Actors, 2.1.4].

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