BEIRUT -- A Syrian government militia that the U.S. has declared a terrorist organization is becoming increasingly important to the Syrian governments strategy as it attempts to shore up its still-loyal but beleaguered military.
The militia, known as the National Defense Force or the Peoples Army, is an extension of the shabiha, the pro-government gangs that were used to suppress demonstrations against the government of President Bashar Assad and that have been accused over the last two years of massacring civilians in rebel-held areas.
Made up primarily of Syrias two largest religious minorities, Shiite Muslims and Alawites, the militia has been training in the cities of Latakia and Tartus, and its been increasingly active in the provinces of Homs and Hama.
Latakia and Tartus, both on the Mediterranean Sea and in Syrias Alawite heartland, are the countrys last two urban areas that have seen no fighting.
Syrias population is largely Sunni Muslim, as are the rebels battling the government. Bashar Assad, whose family has ruled Syria for more than four decades, is an Alawite, a sect thats related to Shiite Islam. Though support for Assad among Syrias Alawites isnt monolithic, its widespread.
Many say the growth of the militia is just one more step in the militarization of Syrian society. The anti-Assad rebel forces already are made up primarily of civilians whove left their regular lives to fight.
They have been in control of the battles in Homs since October, said Amal, who was reached by phone in Khaldiya, a neighborhood in central Homs thats seen heavy fighting in the last year.
The neighborhood remains split between rebels and government supporters, but the army has largely withdrawn to deploy in other areas where rebels are fighting the government. Residents have said that Homs in general is quieter now as the military has surrounded the rebels in the city, largely cutting them off from their supplies and reinforcements.
There arent a lot of soldiers in my neighborhood, said Amal, who asked to be identified only by her first name because she feared for her security.
She described militia members as reporting to local leaders who coordinate with the army and the security forces. Much of the militias equipment is from the army, and it includes heavy weaponry such as tanks and artillery.
My cousin is 17. He drives a tank and can fire it, Amal said.
She said there was little debate about the authority of the militia in her neighborhood. Society is in a state of war, and this is why these militias are in control, she said.
The U.S. government has identified Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia thats allied with Iran and Syria, as being involved in training the Syrian militia, along with members of Irans Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Syrians familiar with the militia also say that some of its leaders have been sent to Iran for training, much the way Hezbollah fighters and Iraqi Shiite militias trained there in past years.
The United States declared the group, known in Arabic as Jaish Shabi, a terrorist organization in December at the same time that it named a rebel faction, the Nusra Front, as an alias for al Qaida in Iraq.
Will Fulton, an Iran expert with the conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington, said it appeared that part of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps mission was building a force that might survive if Assads government lost control of the country.