Aron Lund writes: In a recent report for Open Democracy, Dutch journalists Robert Dulmers and Teun Voeten tell of a recent trip through the parts of Syria still held by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces. Embedded with the Syrian military, they traveled by car from the capital Damascus via the reconquered city of Homs to Aleppo in the north, and back.
These cities, the country’s three largest, are at the core of Syria in every way: politically, culturally, economically, and, of course, demographically. Assad’s dominance over the Damascus-Homs-Aleppo axis, in addition to the coastal areas, Hama City, large parts of the south, and even a few small pockets in the northeast (Qamishli, Hasakah, and Deir ez-Zor), underscores that he remains the central actor of this war. He is the ruler of not exactly Syria, but of “useful Syria,” a potentially economically viable region encompassing at least two-thirds of the country’s population.
But what about the state of the regime itself? The most interesting part of Dulmers and Voeten’s account is their brief insider view of the pro-Assad forces. “In 12 days travelling some 1,200 km, except for special forces in Aleppo we hardly saw anything of the regular army,” they write, noting that most of the many checkpoints and bases along the road were manned by locally recruited militias.
The slow “militiafication” of Assad’s Syrian state has been going on since the start of the conflict in 2011, when so-called Popular Committees spawned spontaneously or were recruited by intelligence services and pro-Assad businessmen all over Syria, mirroring the mobilization of anti-government demonstrators. The opposition (and much of the international media, which at the time listened to no one else) called these militias “shabiha,” a vague term meaning approximately pro-Assad thugs, and dismissed them as a few thousand paid gangsters or members of the Alawite sect, the minority group to which Assad also belongs. But this was an underestimation of the Assad regime’s social roots. The “shabiha” phenomenon was no mere Alawite militia, but representative of a genuine popular mobilization of a significant minority of Syria’s population in favor of the regime, partly — but by no means exclusively — on a sectarian basis. [Continue reading…]