By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi
Though numerous militias exist on the regime side in Syria, only a few have garnered wider media attention. The most notable of these few groups is of course the National Defence Forces (NDF), set up as a counter-insurgency and auxiliary holding force in late 2012 with help from Hezbollah and Iran. The NDF has centres throughout the Syrian provinces where the regime still maintains a viable presence and remains an important force. Another group that garnered attention was the Coastal Shield Brigade (Liwa Dir’ al-Sahel), set up in 2015 as the regime experienced substantial losses in Idlib province and the Homs desert to the rebels and the Islamic State (IS) respectively. The ‘shield’ aspect reflected a broader shift in the strategic thinking at the time, in which the emphasis shifted to defending vital areas amid exacerbating manpower problems.
If the previous year had a defensive focus for the regime though prior to the beginning of the overt Russian intervention in October 2015, then this year has very much seen the opposite approach, which has now culminated in the successful recapture of Aleppo city. While the assault on the rebel-held parts of eastern Aleppo was going on, a new auxiliary force was announced to have been formed last month. This force is called al-Faylaq al-Khamis (“The Fifth Legion”), with the word Iqtiham (“Assault”) appended to its name, very much signifying the offensive emphasis of the regime at the present time. The following statement was issued by the General Command for the Syrian Army and the Armed Forces on 22 November:
“In response to the rapid developments for events, to reinforce the successes of the intrepid armed forces and heeding the desire of our defiant people to put an end to the terrorist acts upon the lands of the Syrian Arab Republic, the General Command for the Army announces the formation of the Fifth Legion- Assault, from volunteers, with the mission of destroying terrorism alongside the rest of the formations of our heroic armed forces and the auxiliary and allied forces to restore security and stability to all the lands of the Syrian Arab Republic. The General Command for the Army and the Armed Forces calls on all citizens who desire to participate in realizing the final victory over terrorism to go to the reception centres in the provinces.”
The statement then defined a number of these reception centres:
– Damascus: Southern Regional Command-Damascus Area Command-10th Division Command Qatana.
– Homs: Central Regional Command.
– Hama: Hama Area Command-Administrative Affairs College in Masyaf.
– Aleppo: Northern Regional Command.
– Tartous: Tartous Area Command.
– Latakia: Coastal Regional Command.
– Deraa: 5th Division Command.
– Suwayda’: 15th Division Command-Special Forces.
Notably absent from this list are Hasakah, Deir az-Zor and Raqqa provinces. In Hasakah and Deir az-Zor provinces, the regime maintains remnant presences, primarily in Qamishli and Deir az-Zor city respectively. In Raqqa province, there is course no regime presence at all. Nonetheless, the statement by the General Command specified that people of the eastern region, like other citizens, could register at any of the centres mentioned above. Conditions for enlistment were specified as follows:
– Must be at least 18 years old and not obliged for compulsory military service (khidmat al-‘alam) and has not deserted from compulsory service.
– In good health.
Eligible for acceptance are state employees and those who have completed their compulsory military service from all classes, including officers, non-commissioned officers and ordinary personnel. Their enlistment will be according to a contract of one year subject to renewal through appropriate agreement. State employees in particular who enlist are entitled to claim a salary from the Fifth Legion while maintaining the salaries and benefits of their existing jobs.
From the conditions for recruitment outlined above, the most important point to note is the contrast with many of the militias that try to recruit through offering an amnesty for those who have avoided and deserted compulsory military service. In addition, the terms for state employees seems to suggest that the army is trying to tap into this demographic in particular as a potential source of manpower for the Fifth Legion. The emphasis on a definitive victory over ‘terrorism’ also points to the regime’s calculus at this point: namely, that it is on the road to decisive victory, eventually entailing the retaking of all of Syria.
It should be noted that a formation similar to the Fifth Legion was announced last year as the overt Russian intervention in the form of airstrikes was getting underway. That formation was called al-Faylaq al-Rabi’- Iqtiham (“The Fourth Legion- Assault”). This force was said to have been formed from Syrian soldiers and volunteers with Russian specialists, in addition to a joint Russian-Syrian command. Its first operations were due to take place in the Idlib, Hama and Latakia countrysides. Subsequent evidence quickly emerged of engagements on the ground. For example, in early November 2015, a ‘martyr’ for the Fourth Legion was claimed in one Rami Marwan al-Khouli, originally from the Homs province town of al-Qusayr near the Lebanese border and killed in fighting in Latakia province. Another individual presented as a Fourth Legion ‘martyr’ at the time by at least one account was Mohsen Afifa, also killed in the Latakia fighting. The Fourth Legion appears to have endured as a formation, with references to the contingent’s existence, its operations and slain fighters occurring throughout 2016, primarily on the Latakia front. In fact, in July 2016, the General Command for the Syrian army reportedly changed the leader of the Fourth Legion (Shuqi Yusuf) on account of repeated errors and false assessments of the battle, leading to substantial setbacks especially on the Kanasba front in Latakia at the time. Below are some more photos of slain fighters from the Fourth Legion.
Memdouh Ken’an, originally from al-Qardaha. Killed on the Latakia front. He was apparently a veteran of campaigns in Deraa and the Hawran area. At least one account also has him as being a part of the Syrian army’s 5th Mechanized Division.
Mahmoud Ahmad al-Ahmad, originally from al-Hamdaniya in Aleppo. Killed in fighting in Latakia province.
Abd al-Hameed Hilal al-Daman, originally from Himo Hanadi in Hasakah province. Killed in fighting in Latakia province.
Amir Ibrahim Hazim, originally from al-Salukiya of the Masyaf area. Killed in Kanasba area, Latakia province.
The issue of mistakes in the field, as illustrated partly in the experiences of the Fourth Legion, is touched upon in an article in the pro-Assad Lebanese newspaper al-Safir regarding the formation of the Fifth Legion. Specifically, the article says that some mistakes and insufficient levels of coordination were revealed in the field and battle experiences since the time of the Russian intervention and the formation of the Fourth Legion. These mistakes are said to have been looked at by the concerned parties, with an aim to resolving them, paving the way for the entry of the Fifth Legion into the battlefield.
The newspaper further claims that the foundational force for the Fifth Legion will be a mixture of existing combat groups that have acquired high-level experience, alongside new recruits or former fighters from the NDF branches. According to the article, forces of Suqur al-Sahara’ (a private elite militia) and Liwa al-Quds (a Palestinian-Syrian militia from the Aleppo area that played an important role in the recent retaking of east Aleppo) are expected to be the tip of the spear and strike force of the volunteers. In addition, the newspaper says it is expected that some of the military command of Hezbollah will play a foundational role in leading groups of the fighters that will join the Fifth Legion, and that some elite forces of Hezbollah will operate either under the Fifth Legion’s banner or in operational coordination with it.
Some commentary has focused on this suggested Hezbollah involvement in the Fifth Legion as a key development of “official integration” pointing to a future trend of Iranian-backed militias being granted legal cover in Iraq and Syria. Leaving aside the Iraqi aspect of the situation with regards to integrating the Hashd Sha’abi units (partly driven by PM Hayder al-Abadi’s desire to exert stronger control over the militias), this interpretation seems to be an over-reading of the available information on the Fifth Legion that also overlooks the fact that Iranian-backed militias are already using the legal cover of the Syrian state in certain ways, such as the Iraqi group Liwa Dhu al-Fiqar under the Dir’ al-Watan conglomeration of the al-Bustan Association, Liwa al-Imam al-Hussein overlapping with the 4th Armoured Division, and some Hezbollah personnel operating under the NDF.
In any case, characterizing the Fifth Legion as an “elite” part of the Syrian army is premature. Properly speaking, the Fifth Legion defines itself as affiliated with al-quwat al-sadiqa (“forces of friends”). To be sure, it is a slightly ambiguous term. On one reading, it can be seen as synonymous with Quwat al-Asdiqa’. This means a function as a formal auxiliary force of some sort for the Syrian army, and one should compare this designation with the case of Quwat al-Ghadab, a Christian militia in the Suqaylabiyah area of Hama province. In initial reporting, the pro-regime outlet Damascus Now wrote that the Fifth Legion will get its training, equipment and salaries from the Asdiqa’ (“The Friends”), though it did not specify further what it meant by this term. An alternative way to read al-quwat al-sadiqa is to look at other occasions on which the term has been used: it often refers to the regime’s foreign allies and their forces assisting the Syrian army on the ground (e.g. the Iraqi militia Harakat al-Nujaba’ and the Russian forces).
If al-Safir’s unconfirmed information on integrating forces from a variety of militias into the Fifth Legion is correct, a motivation clearer than just officially integrating Hezbollah into the Syrian state’s armed forces appears to be improving operational abilities through overcoming rivalries and competition for influence that have emerged between various forces on the regime side and sometimes impeded effective coordination. This is of course suggested in the newspaper’s article.
As of the time of writing, the Fifth Legion has not emerged as an actual operational force on the ground. Amusingly, mobile text messages urging people to join the Fifth Legion have become a subject of mockery and annoyance even among some people on the regime side, prompting the main page for the Fifth Legion to issue an apology:
“Messages are reaching us condemning the frequency of text messages that announce the Fifth Legion and call on the citizen brothers to join its ranks. We will say in simple words: ‘We apologize for annoying you, for we are working for your sake.’”
Where exactly the Fifth Legion will operate for its first assignment is not yet fully confirmed. That said, a post on 21 December by the Fifth Legion’s main page stated the following:
“Leadership from the officers of the Fifth Legion- Assault is participating in the preparation for the battle to recover the city of Palmyra from the Da’esh terrorist organization, and information about the possibility of ruling out one of the auxiliary forces that was a reason for what happened when the city fell.”
The latter part of that statement is particularly interesting. While the regime was focusing its efforts on Aleppo, the Palmyra front was manned by a number of militias, but they appear to have put on a pretty dismal performance in trying to defend the city from IS. These militias on the Palmyra front included Syrian Hezbollah groups like al-Ghalibun, Liwa al-Imam al-Mahdi and Quwat al-Ridha. In particular, the IS offensive on Palmyra was the first major engagement on the Palmyra front for Liwa al-Imam al-Mahdi and appears to have been set as an emergency assignment for al-Ghalibun. The Afghan Shi’a unit affiliated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)- Liwa Fatemiyoun– has also had a presence in Palmyra, with four special contingents stationed there as part of a long-standing line of defence against IS, according to a Fatemiyoun commander quoted by IRGC news outlet Tasnim News. Since the fall of the city, the regime has called up additional forces like the Syrian army’s 10th division, the NDF branch Fawj al-Jowlan and the Qalamoun Shield Forces as IS has also threatened the important T4 airbase. Abu Hayder al-Harbi, an Iraqi member of Hezbollah’s forces in Syria, further told me that Hezbollah and the IRGC are currently fighting on the Palmyra front.
Quwat al-Ridha and the Syrian army on the Palmyra front. December 2016.
Fawj Nusur Homs, another militia (air-intelligence affiliated) on the Palmyra front.
How far the Fifth Legion will come to play a real and important role in the battlefield remains to be seen. The provincial governor of Latakia- Ibrahim Khidr al-Salim- seems particularly keen to have people enlist in the Fifth Legion, involving state administrative bodies in the process. He has even reportedly directed Latakia institutions and foundations to cancel work contracts of male workers in Latakia between 18 and 50 years old from other provinces if they do not join the Fifth Legion. This ultimatum is not to be applied if the worker has been exempted from the Syrian army for reasons such as health. The authenticity of documents circulated with regards to this matter appears to have been subsequently confirmed by postings such as this one on teachers in Latakia joining the Fifth Legion. This may indicate that recruitment efforts into the Fifth Legion have not been as successful as the regime might have hoped. Indeed, it is possible the Fifth Legion will end up going the way of Liwa Dir’ al-Sahel: much hype initially but then fading into obscurity and becoming of little or no operational significance. In any case, there is no doubt of the ongoing manpower problems facing the regime, despite the confident offensive-minded mentality in light of the Aleppo victory.