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Middle East

Fighting among pro-Assad groups points to factional future

Residents pass by a checkpoint as they arrive to inspect their homes in the Wadi Al-Sayeh district at the al-Khalidiyeh area in Homs May 14, 2014. (REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki)

BEIRUT: Fierce clashes erupted between pro-Assad militias from the National Defense Forces and the Syrian Social Nationalist Party in Homs this week in an unusually public confrontation between allies.

The skirmish, which left one person dead according to activists, came in the wake of a landmark deal that saw the last remaining anti-Assad fighters surrender the city last week. The deal was seen as an important victory for Bashar Assad, crowning a string of recent gains and as he campaigns for re-election in a presidential vote to be held on June 3, on a platform of restoring security and stability.

In the days following the deal, Homs residents have flooded back to their battered and abandoned homes in the Old City, where the rebels had been penned in under an intense government siege for over two years. But the city remains deeply divided, and the days following the deal have also seen intense looting and vandalism by vengeful elements of NDF paramilitaries and others, according to dozens of reports circulated on social media and residents’ testimony.

While it remains unclear what triggered the firefight in the Hamadieh neighborhood of Homs, the incident has served to highlight the chaotic and acrimonious conditions in the city, and the challenges that factionalism and rivalry present to any lasting settlement.

Some reports suggested the battle broke out after NDF troops looted Christian homes.

“It started when the NDF stormed some of the houses in Hamadieh. One person was killed,” said Rami Abdel-Rahman of the opposition-aligned activist group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Abdel-Rahman said it was the first incidence of open clashes between the groups in the city. But elsewhere, differences have emerged.

Phillip Smyth, a researcher at the University of Maryland who specializes in Shiite militant groups and uses open-source material to track their movements, said that while it remained unclear how this incident erupted, “there have been others.”

He noted that as Assad forces, backed by a host of various militias, including Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiite forces, have made gains, factionalism has become more pronounced, with the SSNP in particular appearing to assert control of territory.

The SSNP, itself split between pro- and anti-Assad factions, is considered a political “loyalist opposition” group, advocating reform inside Syria. The party has maintained a tenuous historical alliance with the Assad regime under both Bashar Assad and his father and predecessor, Hafez, tolerated within limits and used as proxy force in Lebanon at other times.

“In this case, it could have been anything; it could have been about trade or control of territory or just a fight,” he said.

“But it is clear that the SSNP is really trying to stamp their mark on Homs. It’s becoming a very interesting relationship, not just between the SSNP and the NDF, but Hezbollah and the SSNP, which also includes Lebanese fighters.”

He noted that the SSNP had started to raise their flags in areas under their domain and recently launched a new website promoting their activities and victories over rebels in Syria, independently of the army and other allies.

“The best comparison is the Lebanese Civil War, when slight ideological differences [between allied factions] would see them open up on each other now and then.”

Sectarian differences have been sharpened over the course of the Syrian civil war, with mostly Sunni rebels pitted against an Alawite-dominated regime that has presented itself as the protector of minorities, including Christians, against a Sunni Islamist threat. In Homs, which has sizeable Christian, Alawite and Shiite populations among a Sunni majority, those differences have been bitterly played out at the hands of mostly sectarian-aligned militias.

The SSNP has a large Christian component, something that Smyth believes it could use in order to assert its influence.

“The SSNP is taking on a role [in addition to other parties] as a ‘Christian’ group in some areas of Syria, due to membership and areas of operation, despite their militantly secular outlook,” he said.

With smaller factions on both sides asserting control over territory across the country, there are fears that warlordism is on the rise, independently of any pro- or anti-Assad allegiance.

The Daily Star has heard multiple complaints of war profiteering and thuggery from both opposition and regime-aligned militias across the country.

One government supporter in his early 20s, in a regime-held neighborhood in Aleppo said Thursday that anger was growing toward the NDF there.

“The National Defense Forces ... the people just hate them. They earn 20,000 or 30,000 pounds per month ($134 or $201) compared to the 500 pounds ($3.30) or so that the army gets. They are not even trained to fight. They are stealing from people, bullying, threatening with weapons and not protecting us. The Syrian army is the only group protecting us,” the man said, asking that his name not be revealed for fear of reprisals.

In the event of a political settlement or an outright victory for Assad, Smyth believes he will have to rein in increasingly powerful groups.

The NDF, he said, is already becoming restructured as a formalized paramilitary force along the lines of the Iranian Basij.

Regarding the SSNP or other factions, he said, “Assad may cut them a greater share of the pie or make a deal for them to control some areas.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 17, 2014, on page 10.

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Summary

Fierce clashes erupted between pro-Assad militias from the National Defense Forces and the Syrian Social Nationalist Party in Homs this week in an unusually public confrontation between allies.

In the days following the deal, Homs residents have flooded back to their battered and abandoned homes in the Old City, where the rebels had been penned in under an intense government siege for over two years.

Some reports suggested the battle broke out after NDF troops looted Christian homes.

Phillip Smyth, a researcher at the University of Maryland who specializes in Shiite militant groups and uses open-source material to track their movements, said that while it remained unclear how this incident erupted, "there have been others".

He noted that as Assad forces, backed by a host of various militias, including Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiite forces, have made gains, factionalism has become more pronounced, with the SSNP in particular appearing to assert control of territory.

The SSNP, itself split between pro- and anti-Assad factions, is considered a political "loyalist opposition" group, advocating reform inside Syria. The party has maintained a tenuous historical alliance with the Assad regime under both Bashar Assad and his father and predecessor, Hafez, tolerated within limits and used as proxy force in Lebanon at other times.


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