Syria Arming Civilians Sympathetic to Regime

A soldier who defected to join the Free Syrian Army carries a rocket propelled grenade at a base outside the town of Qusayr, January 8, 2012 (Reuters)

A soldier who defected to join the Free Syrian Army carries a rocket propelled grenade at a base outside the town of Qusayr, January 8, 2012 (Reuters)

The Syrian army is reported to be in the process of clearing out opposition fighters from the Damascus suburb of Daraya, an area that has nearly been destroyed by airstrikes and tank fire since the battle started last August. For the most part, the military is slowly taking back that territory, albeit with considerable losses from rebel ambushes and snipers.

Just as the Assad regime is making slow inroads around the southern half of the capital, army units are holed up in bases and surrounded by insurgent fighters pummeling them with rocket propelled grenades and mortars on a daily basis. While loyalist forces are still in control of most major cities in the country — with the exception of Aleppo which is divided in two — the insurgency’s decentralized structure and maturation on the battlefield is forcing the president to enact ever more desperate measures.

With its back up against the wall in vast stretches of northern and eastern Syria, the army has used an ever expanding list of weapons to keep the rebels at bay and give its air force a much needed rest.

The Syrian government has been caught deploying short and medium range Scud missiles on numerous occasions in the last several months but it is perhaps the formation of all-female, pro-Assad battalions that demonstrates the government’s nervousness and increasing despair.

Armed with assault rifles and dressed in military uniforms, dozens of Syrian women have been filmed this month marching in a military base near the city of Homs, chanting the infamous slogan that has dominated Syria after four decades of Assad family rule: “With our blood and our soul we protect you, Bashar.”

The women are nominally a part of the National Defense Army, a popular militia supportive of the regime that has been built up with Iranian assistance.

With Syrian troops stretched to the breaking point across a country of twenty-three million people, the National Defense Army provides Assad with a valuable service: guarding checkpoints; defending loyalist neighborhoods from violence and acting as an unofficial police force to ensure that order is restored.

The female brigade, supposedly named the “Lionesses for National Defense,” perform a similar role in areas of Homs that suffered brutal massacres and bombings from Syrian troops and Shabiha militiamen. The women are already out in full force, conducting patrols and manning checkpoints in certain parts of the city — shocking a number of residents who normally don’t see women dressed in army fatigues and brandishing guns in a combat zone.

How effective the militia will be in performing its job, and how long it will last, remains to be seen. Those who work in the militia are volunteers and many of them are older than those found in the army and security forces. But the fact that the Syrian government is asking ordinary civilians to check cars and defend districts is a big hint that they are pressed for more bodies, whether or not they can fight or not.

At this point in the conflict, effectiveness may not matter much for a government that desperately needs to take some of the weight of battlefield stress off of the army’s neck. But the National Defense Army, projected to reach ten thousand men and women, may not give Assad the advantage for a while. Any edge that can be gained from arming civilians who are supportive of the regime will be offset once the rebel Free Syrian Army starts targeting them in ambushes and raids. Far from creating another layer of security for his regime, the Syrian leader is simply giving his opponents a new, and vulnerable, set of targets.

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