Gangster's Paradise Assad's Control Erodes as Warlords Gain Upper Hand
Part 2: Ending in Fiasco
At times, the army or the military intelligence service has tried to come down on the warlords. But such attempts have always ended in fiasco. In March 2016, Assad units arrested the leader of a powerful Christian militia from the north of the province following an exchange of gunfire. But his followers violently protested and the man was soon freed.
"Yes, we have problems," says Hussein Dayoub, head of the Assad's Baath Party in Hama. Sitting in his wood-paneled office beneath a portrait of the president, he admits that militia members have set up checkpoints and extorted tolls. He also says that smuggling and kidnapping is a problem, but adds that he doesn't know who is behind it.
In theory, Dayoub is a powerful man, head of the local chapter of the governing party. But even he is apparently afraid of falling into disfavor with the militias, the true rulers of Hama. In faraway Damascus, the country's minister of reconciliation also tells DER SPIEGEL that the regime is aware of the problem but does not have the power to put a stop to it.
The largest rivals of the Hama-based Tiger Forces in the battle for smuggling profits and power can be found in Latakia, the coastal city in the Alawite heartland. Rain is beating down as low clouds move in from the sea. The steel factory belonging to Mohamed Jaber is located among the fields south of the city. Where T-beams were once manufactured for building construction, rockets are now soldered together and armor is mounted on pick-ups. This is where the Desert Hawks have one of their bases and their weapons factory.
The gray hangar on site, made of cement and corrugated sheet metal, is maybe 200 meters long. Eight Soviet-made T-72 tanks are sitting in the mud to one side while military trucks, armored personnel carriers and heavy artillery surround the building.
Certificates of Gratitude
Young men are milling about in front of a former office building, some no older than 15. They are dressed in camouflage and their eyes are tired: It wasn't that long ago that they returned from the battle for Aleppo. They huddle in the rain, smoking cigarettes among truck parts and anti-aircraft guns. Inside, where invoices and order slips were once filed away in wooden cabinets, boxes crammed full of munitions are now stacked.
Following the surprisingly candid tour of his weapons factory, Desert Hawks leader Jaber leads the way to his apartment. He lives on the fourth floor of an upscale apartment building with a view of Latakia's harbor: The walls are paneled, the floor is marble and in the back is a gigantic flat-screen television playing propaganda videos for his militia. On a sideboard, framed certificates of gratitude from Russia are on display.
Jaber is a corpulent, conceited man. He spends an hour holding forth on the military successes achieved by his militia, periodically shouting at his staff to bring maps and tea.
Yes, he finally admits, his men have engaged in plundering, but only rarely. Black sheep, after all, can be found everywhere, he says. "We are a large group. Some are good, some are bad. But they are fighting for our country, that's the most important thing."
And he adds: "In Hama there are militias. They are kidnappers, robbers and murderers." The reference, of course, is to the Tiger Forces, his rivals.
During the March 2016 battle for the city of Palmyra, famous for its ancient ruins, the two militias exchanged gunfire. A high-ranking military delegation was quickly sent from Damascus to mediate. Since then, Assad's people have tried to assign the Tigers and the Hawks to different fighting fronts.
From Kleptocrat to Warlord
Mohamed Jaber and his brother initially became rich from smuggling. In the 1990s, they began by spiriting oil into the country from Iraq before investing their millions in the steel industry. When the Syrian civil war began in 2011 and international sanctions isolated the Assad regime, they were asked to use their smuggling contacts to bring in badly needed oil and gasoline.
To protect their convoys as they drove through the desert, the Jabers recruited hundreds of former soldiers -- and criminals. In August 2013, Assad signed a decree allowing private businesspeople to maintain their own security forces, thus paving the way for kleptocrats in his favor to become warlords.
Jaber, though, says he isn't interested in either power or money, claiming he already has enough of both. Rather, he only wants to help the great President Bashar Assad. When the war is over, he'll lay down his weapons he says, before adding a bit later: "We could control over 60 percent of the country, if we were allowed to."
The Russians have a pragmatic approach to the militias: Depending on the situation, the local warlords are given weapons, medals and selfies with Russian officers. But privately the Russian generals complain about the shocking state of the army and about the militias.
If the warlords become more powerful, Assad may soon become little more than a figurehead, surrounded by a coterie of robbers and smugglers. And the militias are also gaining political influence: In parliamentary elections last spring, candidates from the old ruling class didn't do as well as they had in the past. Instead, candidates affiliated with the warlords emerged victorious.
Elections in Syria, of course, don't reflect the will of the electorate. They only show who has the power to get his candidates elected. It is often said that, while Assad might be dreadful, he is the last remaining state authority in the country. But the strength of the militias shows that he lost even that authority long ago.
With reporting by Tobias Schneider
- Part 1: Assad's Control Erodes as Warlords Gain Upper Hand
- Part 2: Ending in Fiasco