Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Syria’s Dormant Armies

Syria army
Turkey-backed Syrian fighters take part in military training at a snow-covered base in the Afrin region in the northwestern Aleppo province countryside, on January 26, 2022. (Photo by Bakr ALKASEM / AFP)

Ghazi Dahman

Syria presently harbours idle armies that are ready to operate in conflict zones both near and far, and which appear set to become key levers of geopolitical struggles from Libya and Venezuela, to Karabakh and Ukraine. In fact, Syria may soon become one of the most prominent sources and biggest exporters of mercenaries —a result of the failure of the Syrian government, controlled by the Assad regime, to produce even the most basic items of value such as a loaf of bread.

It appears that the growing silence of the artillery on the Syrian front has resulted in idle armies, which in preceding years were regularly engaged in combat. The livelihoods of these fighters were sustained through armed robbery and looting, known as the spoils of war. Such behaviour flourished throughout the years of war, as the spoils became rewards approved by the Assad regime for its military units or the auxiliary troops of its forces.

The wartime conditions have contributed to routing tens of thousands of Syrians—on both the regime and opposition fronts—toward fighting as a career after all means of production were disrupted in an already-weak economy. Over the course of a decade, an entire generation has known no other occupation or source of income than warfare. This, of course, is a generation deprived of sufficient education, and consequently, with the end of the war, fighters face few alternatives to earn a livelihood.

Moreover, the language and logic of war, the mindset and way of life during the conflict, formed the bulk of the culture and creed of these individuals. They will find monotony in civil and peaceful life, and a dissonance difficult to reconcile with or adapt to new requirements. This perhaps explains the prevalence of crime in Syria, ranging from theft and armed robbery to murder and rape, whether in areas under the regime’s or opposition’s control. 

Both Russia and Turkey have benefited from this phenomenon, which has been a contributing factor to advances in their geopolitical ambitions. The two nations are more cognizant of Syria’s social reality and its societal trends due to their proximity, as both have supervised the training and preparation for tens of thousands of fighters.

In fact, the first laboratory in which these Syrian armies were employed was Libya, where Russia and Turkey were engaged in a bitter conflict. Neither party was keen to involve its own military in that war. This was not only due to the legal constraints and consequences it would entail, but also due to the difficulty of justifying the deaths of their citizens on fronts far removed from protecting their nations’ own security. For Russia and Turkey, the success of the Libyan experience —and the realisation of their respective geopolitical goals—led to acknowledging this valuable and cheaply obtainable resource. So the Libyan experiment was reproduced on other battlefields.

The Assad regime, meanwhile, wins on either front, whether the mercenaries are from its own cadres or from the opposition. In either case, it gets rid of disruptive elements which potentially constitute a source of danger to the regime after they’ve grown accustomed to years of battles and warfare. Most importantly, they have become unconcerned with laws and regulations, and have dispensed with reverence for Bashar al-Assad. Instead, the war fostered an image of the regime and its chief similar to a mafia that is not above murder and theft in the pursuit of its goals.

The armed elements on the fronts of the Syrian war both are under the impression that they are victorious. Consequently, they perceive their removal from the battlefields and being denied the spoils of war as a great injustice. They question why the gains should go to only a few while they are excluded. Their dreams led them to view themselves as future leaders, living in better conditions and security for the remainder of their lives.  Instead, they have become idle armies. Even if they remained active, their efforts would not provide them with enough food.

Countries that have suffered political conflicts or civil wars have given first priority to the rehabilitation of combatants. As many other conflicts around the world have demonstrated, these groups have difficulty acclimating to normal life during peacetime. Significant budgets are allocated for former fighters’ education and to improve their behavior with the support of social and psychological therapists. It is not at all an easy matter to address. 

Most former militants faced great dangers that affected their perceptions and views, or they engaged in acts that contravene accepted morals and laws. These rules often fall to the wayside during wartime. This is especially true on the battlefield, where the actors are mixed and are not subject to the laws that govern their leaders. Therefore their values, convictions and beliefs change dramatically. Correcting and restoring them to a life of peace requires a variety of specialised programs. 

If such prospects are not expected in Syria, whether due to a lack of resources or, more importantly, to the lack of significant changes in the structure and attitude at the governance level, then an alternative solution to the quandary posed by these fighters is to become mercenaries in a broader arena. On one hand, large numbers of fighters are disposed of on external battlefields. On the other hand, those who survive death are satisfied with the gains they obtain through fighting. These will keep them distracted and preoccupied until the memory of the war fades within them.

Finally, in the course of ten years of Syria’s war, hundreds of thousands of young people were drawn into the militarization of the country. Yet it failed to provide them with alternatives in order to live a normal life and left them in need of other battlefields in which to release their energy. As a result, the regime would prefer that they do not return from foreign arenas. There is a more innocent and less demanding generation that is being fostered to engage in future Syrian wars—to which the Assad regime may yet succumb.



The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the writer(s). They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of Fanack or its Board of Editors.


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