The Militia Option in Syria

By October 16, 2017

BESA Center Perspectives No. 616, October 16, 2017

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: The war in Syria has focused attention on the role of militia forces. Although we may see the phenomenon as entirely negative, it also has positive aspects and reflects a genuine need that affects our lives as well.

Much has been said about the Iranian and Iraqi Shiite militias operating in Syria. The Kurdish forces and the forces opposing the Assad regime are in fact also militias.

At first glance, nothing appears to be new in this phenomenon. Since the days of the ancient world, militia forces have played a significant role. In the time of the biblical judges, the tribes of Israel did not have a standing, regular army, and preparations for war were primarily tribal and local. In the war between the forces led by the Canaanite commander Sisera and the Hebrews led by Deborah and Barak ben Avinoam, a regular army equipped with nine hundred iron chariots prepared for war against an army of farmers who had united for action on a tribal basis.

In modern history, too, militia forces have recorded significant achievements. Garibaldi, hero of the Italian resurgence (the Risorgimento) in the nineteenth century, conquered Sicily with a militia that did not number more than a thousand people – all of whom were civilian volunteers.

And yet something is indeed new in Syria. If in the past, militia forces were employed out of circumstantial necessity; namely, the inability to assemble an organized military force. In recent years, militias have become a necessity for other reasons.

The advantages of a militia force

Militia forces were traditionally viewed as offering two advantages. One was the ability to organize more rapidly and flexibly, when the situation called for it, than an institutional military could. The second was the strong motivation arising from a sense of mission, compared to motivation in institutional military frameworks that is based on organizational discipline and obedience to rules and laws. These two advantages of militia forces have proved beneficial during the fighting in Syria.

In the initial months of the Syrian civil war, the standing Syrian army suffered failures stemming from modes of operation that were not suited to the new circumstances, as well as from a weak fighting spirit. The immediate solution was to resort to popular, non-organized forces that operated out of loyalty to the regime – forces that acted with great cruelty and without restraint.

Later, Hezbollah forces joined the fighting. Despite their institutional military organization, they showed an intense martial spirit and willingness to sacrifice that stemmed from religious and ethnic motivation. They proved themselves able to adopt new forms of warfare very rapidly.

In the fall of 2015, when Russian forces got actively involved in the war, the presence in the arena of the local forces – the Syrian army, Hezbollah, and others – fundamentally affected the Russian mode of operation. With local forces already caught up in the fighting, the Russians were saved the trouble of introducing an effective ground force, which would have required time for organization and preparation as well as risks of ongoing entanglement. Under the circumstances that developed, the US and its military allies, along with the Russians, showed operational awareness of how difficult it would be to prepare a ground force and deploy it as an expeditionary force in a way that would jibe with rapid strategic developments. Thus the Russian operational approach combined Russian air power, which was immediately available, with ground warfare based primarily on local forces that were already involved in the fighting and ready for action.

The form of combat the Americans devised in liberating northern Iraq and the city of Mosul from ISIS forces stemmed from a similar logic. Despite differences in culture and doctrinal tradition between the US and Russian military establishments, the two superpowers have so far refrained from adding their regular ground forces to the battlefields in Syria or Iraq. First and foremost, they want to keep their soldiers out of the heavy-casualty fighting. This abstinence is also, however, significantly motivated by the recurrent phenomenon in the new era of war as an adventure that might spin out of control before the goal is achieved. Under these conditions, when the time comes to decide about using military force, national leaders are inclined to turn to local militia forces as a resource of another kind, one that saves them the risk of entering a maze of uncertainty.

The potential for strategic ambiguity

From the standpoint of the Russian interest, deploying the secessionists of Donetsk – i.e., natives of the place – as militia fighters reflected the classic logic of maintaining strategic ambiguity in a tension-fraught area. From a domestic Russian perspective, having the secessionists carry the burden of the ground fighting saves Putin the need to use his own soldiers and parry their mothers’ question: “What are we doing in Donetsk?”

In terms of the world at large, amid criticism from the international community, the approach offers a no less significant advantage: the hybrid identity of the Russians of Donetsk. While they are Ukrainian citizens, their struggle is driven by their Russian identity on behalf of the Russian national interest. Maintaining their militia status means Putin can evade questions of direct responsibility for the fighting.

The louder the international demand for policy transparency grows, the more the global dissemination of knowledge and international supervision curtail the legitimacy of using force in open and direct warfare, the more vital such ambiguity becomes.

The Russian policy in Donetsk sheds light on the dynamic of the past two years of fighting in Syria. More than once, ceasefire agreements between the powers have facilitated a double game: whereas the regular Russian and Syrian forces comply with the ceasefire, the militia forces, which are not subordinate to the institutional chain of command and control, sustain the momentum of the fighting.

The ways in which this logic is used shed light on other arenas that exploit the advantage stemming from systemically combining institutional forces and extra-institutional militia forces. For example, the Palestinian Authority continues to maintain connections between the organizational forces – the Dayton forces – which are under the full authority of Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and deployed under American supervision, and other forces, such as the Tanzim groups, which also are armed but have a militia-type nature.

The positive side of the militia phenomenon

The cases of the Iranian Shiite militias and the secessionist forces in Donetsk could lead us to condemn the phenomenon entirely. Yet it has positive aspects as well, fulfilling a real need that also affects our own lives. The recent movie Dunkirk highlights the worthy aspects of the popular volunteering spirit in times of emergency. Thousands of civilian seamen who had been recruited sailed eastward in their small boats under the terror of German aerial bombardment, and saved hundreds of thousands of soldiers of the British Crown from falling into German hands. The spirit of the British nation, in all its patriotic hues, is the hero of the movie.

Beyond depicting a historical event as a moving cinematic experience, the direction of the film conveys a simple, heroic, relevant message to Western society even as it descends into antipatriotic neoliberalism. The simple and apposite message: not only do the spirit and capabilities of the military depend on the spirit of the people, but in a time of crisis, such as Dunkirk, the spirit of popular sacrifice and the resourcefulness of citizens provides the military with a safety net.

When it came to building up Israeli resilience for times of emergency, that spirit was an unquestioned premise. After the establishment of the state, the various efforts in the spheres of security, settlement, industry, science, and culture were integrated into a single system. Yet within Israel, too, as in the Western countries, neoliberal tendencies, such as those manifested in the report on the settlements by Molad (the Center for the Renewal of Israeli Democracy), seek to distinguish between the responsibility of the security forces – which are entrusted with defending the country – and the rights of citizens, who are supposed to “sleep soundly” even in border settlements and focus on making the most of their civilian lives.

It is worth looking specifically at the defense establishment’s plans to evacuate, in an emergency situation, tens of thousands of residents of the confrontation lines on the northern and Gaza borders. The traditional approach of the defense establishment, up until the tenure of Chief of Staff Rafael Eitan, was to make the settlements an element of defense under the territorial concept of defense. The residents of Malkia, Manara, Avivim, and Hanita indeed complained to me about the directive to abandon their homes in case of emergency instead of mobilizing to defend the border from within their homes. They look to the IDF to arm them and include them in the defense effort. Even an eighty-year-old, male or female, can, if armed and familiar with the locale, make a real contribution in an emergency situation.

Reestablishing the pioneering ethos of volunteering, of joint responsibility and common effort, remains even now the task of the hour.

The danger of losing the state’s monopoly on the use of armed forces

The use of local militia forces exacts a price. Since the Treaty of Westphalia in the seventeenth century, the use of armed forces in sovereign states in Europe has been the exclusive right of state governments. Based on this logic, the Israeli government stuck to its demand that the Palestinian Authority exercise an exclusive monopoly on the use of armed forces – “one sovereign, one law, one weaponry.”

With the growing tendency of advanced countries and superpowers to use local, non-state forces for their own strategic purposes, the chain of command, through which complete, sovereign state authority was supposed to be implemented, has been detached from the actual deployment of force.

When a state authority turns to local warlords to employ force, those warlords are guided by their own local interest. The set of considerations and constraints exists outside the institutional chain of command and is very liable to spin out of control. That is essentially what happened when the IDF lost control of the Christian Phalange in Sabra and Shatila in the fall of 1982. It poses a threat to the Americans as well as they rely more and more on local forces.

It was the advantage of transferring the burden of fighting to local forces that seems to have led Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to say, regarding the Oslo process: “Jibril Rajoub will do the work without the Supreme Court and without B’Tselem.” Rabin apparently foresaw a kind of cooperation like what was maintained with the South Lebanon Army or Tzadal, which at the time operated in the southern Lebanon security zone in coordination with the IDF and under the command of General Lahad. In Rajoub’s case as well, however, as a “warlord” deploying a local force, he went along with the Oslo agreement out of his own interests. It comes as no surprise that from that juncture, things developed in such a way that the state of Israel lost control.

View PDF

A shorter version of this article was published in Hebrew in Israel Hayom on September 14, 2017.

Maj. Gen. (res.) Gershon Hacohen is a senior research fellow at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. He served in the IDF for forty-two years. He commanded troops in battles with Egypt and Syria. He was formerly a corps commander and commander of the IDF Military Colleges.

BESA Center Perspectives Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family

Maj. Gen. (res.) Gershon Hacohen
Maj. Gen. (res.) Gershon Hacohen

Served in the IDF for 42 years, commanding troops in battle on the Egyptian and Syrian fronts. Was a Corps commander, and commander of the IDF Military Colleges. Email: [email protected]