Research questions

How and why did paramilitarism emerge, function, and develop in Syria? How did paramilitary units contribute to large-scale violence; how did they influence warfare and state-society relations; and what happened to them after their role changed?

NDF fighters at checkpoint Nubl Zahraa

This project examines the emergence and transformation of pro-state paramilitarism in Syria in the context of the uprising and civil war. From the outbreak of the uprising in March 2011, the Syrian government’s violent response to the mass protests became more extensive and intensive. Within four years, a civil war had devastated economic and civic life, killed 250,000 people, reached military and political stalemate, and fragmented Syrian territory (Lesch 2012; ICG 2012). The key aspect of the Assad regime’s repression against the population was its use of paramilitary forces, the ‘Popular Committees’ or so-called Shabbiha, a catch-all category for irregular paramilitaries dressed in civilian gear and linked organically to the regime. From March 2011 on, their acts were well-documented in video clips, leaks, confessions, defections, and victim testimonies. The Shabbiha carried out storming of neighborhoods, dispersion of demonstrations, as well as property crimes, torture, kidnapping, assassination, and massacre (Starr 2012).

Suleiman al-Assad

Whereas the Shabbiha seem to have appeared out of the blue, they had a clear prehistory: these networks had been engaging in illegal activities (protection rackets, smuggling, gambling) before 2011, including during the Lebanese civil war. The Assad regime connived with them and maintained them ‘on retainer’ through its elaborate patronage system (Middle East Watch 1991; Zisser 2000; Perthes 2004; Bar 2006). This project traces the Shabbiha historically to their deployment and conduct in the current conflict. How were these networks embedded in the Syrian state prior to the conflict? How and why were they recruited? The rank-and-file of the militias is often said to be drawn largely from young unemployed men from particular sections of Syrian society (Nakkash 2013; Lund 2015). How and why did these men get involved in the repression, and how did they experience the conflict? In the summer of 2012, the Assad regime reorganized the Shabbiha into the ‘National Defense Forces’ (NDF). This transformation of paramilitary forces introduced a formalization of their structures, a devolution of state power, and a further criminalization of the conflict. This project will also examine what these developments means for an understanding of the Syrian state.