The National Defense Army and Assad’s “Fedayat”

The Formalization and Feminization of the “Lijan” Militias
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“This is not a normal war. It looks nothing like the October (1973 war against Israel). It is not the enemy we knew. This time the enemy is from our family [and] our neighbors…”

In a November post, we mentioned the formation of “Lijan” (people’s committee) militias, special units formed by loyalist citizens, and armed by the regime, to defend their neighborhoods against Opposition forces. These units were comprised mainly of members of minority sects, like Alawites, Christians, and Druze, who, because of regime propaganda and the increasingly sectarian nature of the conflict, fear instability and Opposition control more than they fear the Assad government. By arming these groups, Assad was attempting to kill two strategic birds with one stone: inciting greater sectarian chaos in an attempt to exemplify the role of protection and stability the regime plays in Syrian society, and presenting himself as a beneficent protector of religious minorities.

These militias remained an informal tool of territory defense for the regime. Now, however, these loyalist civilian groups are being more formally incorporated into the Syrian military–and being trained with Iranian assistance–as a guerilla force known as the National Defense Army (NDA). There are two primary reasons for the creation of this new force. First, the Syrian Army, much like that of the United States, is a force trained primarily for inter-state conventional conflict, and is not entirely accustomed to the type of urban and unconventional guerilla rebellion that it is now being forced to combat–this is evident in its use of overwhelming air power against entire neighborhoods rather than pinpoint attacks in strategic rebel strongholds, as noted by Robin Yassin-Kassab in this Foreign Policy article. By arming and training local militias to defend the territories with which they are particularly familiar, the regime has created a formidable guerilla counterinsurgency to combat the FSA and its counterparts, effectively augmenting the unconventional capabilities of pro-regime forces as well as freeing up regular army units to focus on frontline combat in the war’s largest and most contested battlefields. Second, with the frequency of rebel territory gains steadily increasing, morale in the Syrian Army is low. The military death toll, defections, and desertions are on the rise, and the potency of the regime’s ground forces is beginning to drain. By creating and advertising an attractive, new, better-armed, and better-trained “special” unit under the banner of nationalism and homeland defense, the regime is able to incentivize military service by rewarding loyalist populations for defending their individual communities. Expectedly, NDA enlistment is spiking. Opposition activists are already reporting a growing loyalist presence facing FSA units in al-Qusayr, Homs.

The regime has also begun to supplement the new NDA with a large and thus far untapped source of willing human resources: women. By first planting in the minds of women the fear of rape and abduction by Opposition forces, the regime began to supply them with weapons for personal protection against the rebels. Recent video footage from Homs reveals that women are now being recruited and given formal training for ambush tactics, checkpoint control, conducting raids, and handling light weapons, machine guns, and grenades. In Homs alone, the female NDA unit has 450 fighters, aged 18 to 50, in its ranks. These female “fedayat” (a feminine linguistic construct of the word “fedayeen,” meaning “sacrificers”) units are already being used to man regime checkpoints in areas bordering rebel-controlled territories. They are reportedly given live-fire practice by shooting at random civilian/FSA targets in those territories. As a separate function, women are also being recruited to infiltrate the ranks of the FSA, its counterparts, and rebel-friendly civilian populations to collect information and incite fear.

One is reminded here of other historical instances of armed conflict in which chaos and desperation have forced governments to quickly incorporate every available body into frontline combat service: Germany’s female anti-aircraft units in the final days of WWII; the use of child soldiers in stalemated conflicts, like Germany’s Werwolf partisan groups or the “Small Boys Units” in Liberia; young women trained in guerilla tactics and sniping in Israel’s Haganah.

While the creation of the NDA exhibits an increasingly desperate regime, it also likely means that the Syrian conflict is about to become much dirtier. Originally a war between armed Opposition groups and a conventional military force, then as an additional civil conflict between warring sects, there is now an equally unconventional element to counter the tactics of the Opposition’s most efficient fighting units.

Read more about the National Defense Army:
Syria Builds Paramilitary Force Aided by Iran: Activists – The Daily Star
Syria Assembles New Paramilitary Force Aided by Iran – Arutz Sheva
Women Join Ranks of Assad’s New Paramilitary Force in Syria – Rawstory.com
The Syrian Conflict Draws in Christians – The Wall Street Journal
Militias Form as Aleppo Clashes Stalemate – UPI.com

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