Gangster's Paradise Assad's Control Erodes as Warlords Gain Upper Hand

Bashar Assad's power over the areas of Syria under government control is slipping. Armed militias are growing stronger and the country's president can do nothing to stop them.

Christian Werner / DER SPIEGEL

By Fritz Schaap (Text) and Christian Werner (Photos)


On a cool morning, an elderly man is standing at his espresso machine on a street in eastern Aleppo. It's shortly after 8 a.m., and this part of the city -- destroyed in the war and reconquered by the regime in December -- is waking up. Green grocers arrive and set out their boxes of produce on the rubble piled in front of their stores. Others are shoveling debris from the roads.

The name of the man with the espresso machine must go unmentioned, otherwise he would soon be dead. A fire is burning in a metal drum next to his improvised coffee counter, and he is using it to periodically warm his hands. Several weeks ago, just after the neighborhood was retaken, he returned to the small workshop where he had run a motorcycle repair shop -- but it was already too late. He immediately saw that someone had shot open the lock.

Inside, he found uniformed fighters from a militia affiliated with the regime. They were in the process, he says, of removing a motorcycle, his German tools and all replacement parts from the garage. Two of the militia members, he says, silently threatened him with their Kalashnikovs, leaving him no choice but to leave as the men loaded his belonging into a pick-up truck.

As he relates his story, other civilians approach the fire and begin nodding. One of them, the owner of a general store, says that regular army soldiers had hardly left before militia members began emptying out his store. Another relates the story of how militia members murdered his brother. The brother had been lying wounded in bed when five fighters forced their way into his apartment. "Bring him out," the fighters ordered before claiming the apartment as their own. The man protested, saying his brother was unable to walk -- whereupon one of the militia members pulled out his gun and shot the brother in the head. Then the fighters looted the apartment.

More and more men from the neighborhood assemble at the coffee machine and tell their own stories of looting, but suddenly, the men at the fire fall silent. A militia fighter can be seen walking down the street with a golden hawk on his uniform, the emblem of the Desert Hawks, one of the two most powerful militias in the territory controlled by Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The Real Power-Holders

For months, Assad's army has been on the advance across Syria. But its military success has only been possible due to the significant assistance the president's troops have received from Iran and Russia -- and from local Syrian militias. Now, these fighters are taking over control in many areas, committing murder, looting and harassing civilians. And nobody can stop them, not even Assad himself. Indeed, the militias are now more powerful than even the country's leader and have become the real holders of power in Syria.

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Even long before the Syrian revolt of 2011, Assad depended primarily on the loyalty of his fellow Alawites in the top ranks of the armed forces and intelligence services. But the religious group only makes up between 12 and 15 percent of the Syrian population. In 2012, Assad's position became even more tenuous as the army began shrinking rapidly: Tens of thousands of soldiers deserted, conscripts failed to show up for duty and many of those who did fight ended up dead. In September 2015, when the Russians joined the war, the Syrian army only had 6,000 soldiers who were fit for active duty, according to Charles Lister of the Middle East Institute in Washington. He bases his estimate on confidential testimony of Russian officials.

To preserve its regular troops, the regime was forced to make a Faustian bargain, allowing armed loyalists to form their own militias. In many cases, the leaders of smuggling rings or criminal gangs became local kingpins, who were then able to expand their business empires unimpeded in exchange for loyalty to Assad. The two largest militias, the Desert Hawks, headquartered in the northern port city of Latakia, and the Tiger Forces from Hama, each have between 3,000 and 6,000 armed fighters. Additionally, there are hundreds of smaller pro-regime militias.

Bread, gasoline, medication -- there are shortages across the entire country. And those who control the distribution of these goods can profit handsomely, enabling them to purchase more weapons and hire more fighters. As a result, the warlords have replaced the state security apparatus in cities and in entire regions.

While the Syrian army, in its desperation, has been forced to combs jails for recruits, fighters join the militias of their own free will. Some of them, after all, pay up to three times the salary earned by regular soldiers and they have a lot more freedom. They can, for example, extort duties at checkpoints, sell drugs of their own accord, smuggle gasoline and loot conquered towns and villages.

Securing the Conquered Territory

Assad is nevertheless dependent on them. When his troops, supported by Russian units, took eastern Aleppo in December 2016, the Syrian soldiers featured prominantly in front of the television cameras. But the actual fighting was conducted by Iraqi, Afghan and Lebanese mercenaries under Iranian senior leadership -- and by the pro-regime militias, who also secured the conquered territory once the fighting had ceased. And they plundered it.

Regime-held territory today is similar to areas under rebel control -- splintered and characterized by shifting alliances. Hundreds of groups with competing loyalties have taken control, earning money from the war and controlling their territory through fear.

Hama is one of those places, a veritable warlords' el Dorado. In 1982, troops loyal to Hafis Assad, the founder of the Assad dynasty, brutally crushed an uprising, killing more than 10,000 people in just three weeks. More recently, the city is where the Tiger Forces were founded, formed out of a loose network of officials from the feared air force secret service, local tribal leaders and criminals. They gathered around an Alawite officer and helped crush the anti-regime rebellion in the province of Hama in 2011. Now, the militia has bases and networks in several parts of Syria.

The two most important sub-commanders in Hama are Ali Shelly, a well-known criminal, and Talal Dakkak, who keeps a pet lion. It is said that Dakkak enjoys feeding his victims to animals. The two of them have people arbitrarily kidnapped, they steal, and they smuggle oil and gasoline, which they even sell to Islamic State (IS), against which Assad's army is officially fighting.

In summer 2016, for example, an army unit intercepted several tanker trucks filled with gasoline. The column was travelling on behalf of Dakkak and the fuel they contained was apparently meant for IS units. The soldiers didn't dare confiscate it for fear of Dakkak's revenge and the gasoline was turned over to the local air-force secret service -- which is closely linked with the Tiger Forces. It didn't take long before the tankers could continue their journey.

Happy to Help His Enemies

Assad, after all, needs the help of the militias on the front lines. And even if he didn't, he could hardly stand up to them due to their wealth and power. In early February, there were once again shortages in Aleppo and urgently needed medications were running out. Shelly's militia, which collects tolls on the only access road to Aleppo controlled by Assad, confiscated the medical supplies sent into the city in order to resell them later at a profit.

If there is money to be made, militia-leader Shelly is even happy to help his enemies: A May 5, 2015 document from the Syrian military secret service describes in detail how Shelly supplies rebel groups with weapons. And it is, perhaps, not accidental that the document was leaked, given that the military secret service is bitterly competing against the air force secret service and its Tiger Forces friends for power and money.

These are the men fighting Assad's war.

In a village in Assad-controlled territory, a doctor and his wife are sitting on their living-room sofa staring into the smartphone they are using to speak with DER SPIEGEL. The woman's voice trembles in fear as she speaks: "It was here in our village. Uniformed men forced their way into a woman's house. They tied her up, stole her money and tortured her until she revealed where her husband's money was hidden. When the men had the money, they disappeared again."

Her husband adds: "Two days ago, a merchant was kidnapped here." And several weeks ago, he says, friends of his were robbed on a highway. They were stopped at an improvised checkpoint and dragged out of their car before militia members climbed in and sped away.

Farmers wanting to pass such checkpoints must pay a levy on their harvest. If they don't, the entire harvest may be confiscated. In several villages, citizen defense leagues have formed, patrolling at night to scare off plundering militiamen. The doctor says that the division of labor between the two Tiger leaders is clear: Most of the kidnappings can be traced back to Talal Dalakk, he claims, while the smuggling is more likely to be the work of Ali Shelly.

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pwells1066 03/08/2017
1. How interesting (and concerning)
A well written descriptive piece with sufficient analysis to make me want to read more.
nsmith 03/08/2017
2. Sic transit gloria mundi....
Honestly. What is there to say? Just when one thought it couldn't get any worse for Aleppo, or for that matter, Syria, comes this report of unbridled greed -- once again at the expense of the Syrian people. If there was ever any doubt that Bashar al-Assad had no interest in anything other than himself and his strangle-hold on power, it has all but vanished now. The country, now but a shell of itself, is nothing more than a tomb for both the living and the dead -- its long and glorious history brought to an end by the carnage of a senseless war that was waged upon it by its own leader. There is no more sorrowful epilogue to the story than that.
brightr6 03/10/2017
3. syria
warlords fragmented destruction of syria ~ usa and israel happy same fragmentation as iraq ! syria with assistance or russia may have fought off isis al nusra al qaeda but israel and usa get what they want the destabilisation of syria
fish2064 03/12/2017
4. I got as far as Charles Lister
Does the author really think anyone who knows anything about Syria is going to believe anything quoted from Lister?
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