Pro-Assad militia threatens to go on strike
Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat – The state of unity exhibited by the Syrian regime since the outbreak of protests more than 5 months may have finally come to an end. Over this period of time, the al-Assad regime has relied on Syrian military forces and the pro-regime “Shabiha” militia to suppress the protests taking place across the country, but both forces have now begun slowly to move out of the Damascus regime’s control. This is a state of affairs that could significantly change the equation on the ground and may lead to a scenario that will result in a quick and indeed surprising end to the Syrian crisis, which has so far claimed 2,200 lives, according to Human Rights groups’ estimates.
The “Shabiha” militia has played a prominent role in silencing the demonstrations taking place in Syria. The Syrian security apparatus hired the “Shabiha” militia to suppress anti-regime protests, and eyewitness reports indicate that “Shabiha” militants have beaten and killed unnamed Syrian demonstrators, as part of the al-Assad regime’s campaign to quell the popular uprising against it.
However the Syrian regime is now running out of funds, particularly after the protests and demonstrations have continued for more than 4 months. This has led to a situation where the al-Assad regime is no longer able to continue paying the “Shabiha” militia. This has reportedly angered members of the pro-regime militia and may even lead to them electing to withdraw from the picture.
The Syrian regime’s trouble finding funds to pay the pro-regime “Shabiha” militia, who have been instrumental in the al-Assad regime’s campaign to quell the popular uprising, represents the first overt indication that the economic sanctions imposed on the Syrian regime by the international community is having an effect. Earlier this week, Syrian Central Bank Governor Adib Mayaleh acknowledged that “we [the people of Syria] will have to tighten our belts” adding that “all [Syrians] will be increasingly affected [by the economic sanctions], and this will create unemployment and poverty.”
This confirms information reported to Asharq Al-Awsat by a well-informed source that the “Shabiha” militia has threatened to go on strike if the Syrian government continues to fail to pay up. The source stressed that this is an extremely urgent issue, particularly as many members of the “Shabiha” militia in Damascus left the capital for Latakia and other Syrian provinces, after the Syrian regime stopped paying them.
Well-informed sources told Asharq Al-Awsat that a single “Shabiha” militant in Aleppo can be paid up to 5,000 Syrian Pounds [SYP] ($100) per day, in addition to being provided with transportation. As for other areas of Syria, a “Shabiha” militant can be paid up to 2,000 SYP ($42) per day. The source also revealed that the “Shabiha” militia charges more for operating on Fridays – when the largest Syrian protests take place following Friday prayers – and that a “Shabiha” militant can be paid between 7,000 and 10,000 SYP for working on Friday. Reports indicate that the “Shabiha” militia has played a major role in ensuring that President al-Assad remains in control of a number of major Syrian cities whose residents have not come out to protest in fear of “Shabiha” suppression. The “Shabiha” strike, should it occur, would therefore significantly change the situation on the ground in Syria and may lead to many more regions of Syria joining the popular uprising against the al-Assad regime.
An Aleppo resident Saif Mulali, speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat under an assumed name, revealed that the “Shabiha” militia is playing a major role in preventing the city from rising up against the al-Assad regime. Mulali told Asharq Al-Awsat that “the Shabiha are in control of the city [of Aleppo], they are everywhere, and they do not hesitate to kill anybody for any reason.”
However the “Shabiha” militia’s role goes beyond suppressing anti-regime protests, and includes even ensuring government control of the Syrian armed forces, monitoring military movement and ensuring that government orders are carried out. One eye-witness in Daraa told Asharq Al-Awsat that the “Shabiha” militia is monitoring the movement of Syrian army officers and is in contact with Syrian government officials, giving them reports on army movement and communication. The source stressed that “the entire [Syrian] army is in the grip of the Shabiha [militia].”
The eye-witness added “at the beginning of the protests, we did not see Shabiha militants with security officers in the same manner that we do now. In the beginning, they [the Shabiha] would mingle amongst the ranks of the protesters and sow chaos and carry out acts of violence so that the Syrian regime could challenge the legitimacy of the protesters.” He then told Asharq Al-Awsat that “however now, with such accusations proven false, we now begin to see Shabiha militants with security officers in public” adding that “they [the Shabiha] are monitoring them [the security officers] as well.”
“Shabiha” militants are known to work in groups, although their command and organizational structure remain unknown. Nobody is sure of the strength of the “Shabiha” militia in terms of numbers, although Syrian Human Rights organizations indicate that there may be between 5 and 10 thousand militants working for the Shabiha militia. The “Shabiha” militia forces are known to be concentrated in Syrian regions loyal to the al-Assad regime, like Qardaha, Jabla, Tartous, and Latakia, as well as coastal Alawite-controlled areas in the An-Nusayriyah Mountains. However the Syrian regime’s inability to continue paying the “Shabiha” militia, and secure their loyalty, may lead to them losing control of some of these areas on the ground.
The Syrian regime is also facing another crisis with regards to the defection of hundreds of Syrian army officers and soldiers. The Free Officers of Syria, a group of officers and soldiers who defected from the Syrian army in protest of the government crackdown, published an online statement claiming that “large” defections from the Syrian military were reported in the Damascus suburb of Harasta, and that troops loyal to al-Assad and Shabiha militants were pursuing the defectors. This represents the first public clash between the Syrian army and army defectors, and the first public division within the Syrian army – that has been strongly suppressing the protests taking place in the country – since the beginning of the Syrian uprising. The Syrian military has strongly denied any split or division.
A source within the Free Officers of Syria movement, speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat on the condition of anonymity claimed that a large number of Syrian army officers and soldiers have defected from the al-Assad regime, which is desperately trying to cover this up. The source added that the Free Officers of Syria is organizing itself on the ground to counter the army forces that are assaulting unarmed Syrian citizens. If the Free Officers of Syria claims are true, then this may represents the gravest threat that the al-Assad regime has faced since the beginning of the popular uprising.
Syrian dissident Ashraf al-Moqdad, head of the Damascus Declaration in Australia, told Asharq Al-Awsat that the Syrian crisis will only be resolved through the use of force. He stressed that “the problem is that the revolutionaries are facing a heavily-armed army, and in order to overcome it the revolution must be transformed into an armed uprising.”
However al-Moqdad downplayed the influence of the Free Officers of Syria movement, stressing that they lack heavy arms or senior leadership that is capable of managing the conflict on the ground in the same manner as the Libyan scenario, where armed Libyan rebels were able of overcoming Gaddafi’s battalions. Al-Moqdad also made reference to the economic crisis being faced by the Damascus regime and its inability to mobilize the “Shabiha” militia to continue suppressing protestors, which may confirm that al-Assad’s control on the ground is slipping. This may lead to a number of different scenarios regarding the end of the al-Assad regime.