'On a cool morning, an elderly man is standing at his espresso machine on a street in eastern Aleppo. It's shortly after 8 a.m., and this part of the city -- destroyed in the war and reconquered by the regime in December -- is waking up. Green grocers arrive and set out their boxes of produce on the rubble piled in front of their stores. Others are shoveling debris from the roads.
The name of the man with the espresso machine must go unmentioned, otherwise he would soon be dead. A fire is burning in a metal drum next to his improvised coffee counter, and he is using it to periodically warm his hands. Several weeks ago, just after the neighborhood was retaken, he returned to the small workshop where he had run a motorcycle repair shop -- but it was already too late. He immediately saw that someone had shot open the lock.
Inside, he found uniformed fighters from a militia affiliated with the regime. They were in the process, he says, of removing a motorcycle, his German tools and all replacement parts from the garage. Two of the militia members, he says, silently threatened him with their Kalashnikovs, leaving him no choice but to leave as the men loaded his belonging into a pick-up truck.
As he relates his story, other civilians approach the fire and begin nodding. One of them, the owner of a general store, says that regular army soldiers had hardly left before militia members began emptying out his store. Another relates the story of how militia members murdered his brother. The brother had been lying wounded in bed when five fighters forced their way into his apartment. "Bring him out," the fighters ordered before claiming the apartment as their own. The man protested, saying his brother was unable to walk -- whereupon one of the militia members pulled out his gun and shot the brother in the head. Then the fighters looted the apartment.
More and more men from the neighborhood assemble at the coffee machine and tell their own stories of looting, but suddenly, the men at the fire fall silent. A militia fighter can be seen walking down the street with a golden hawk on his uniform, the emblem of the Desert Hawks, one of the two most powerful militias in the territory controlled by Syrian President Bashar Assad.
For months, Assad's army has been on the advance across Syria. But its military success has only been possible due to the significant assistance the dictators' troops have received from Iran and Russia -- and from local Syrian militias. Now, these fighters are taking over control in many areas, committing murder, looting and harassing civilians. And nobody can stop them, not even Assad himself. Indeed, the militias are now more powerful than even the country's dictator and have become the real holders of power in Syria.
Even long before the Syrian revolt of 2011, Assad depended primarily on the loyalty of his fellow Alawites in the top ranks of the armed forces and intelligence services. But the religious group only makes up between 12 and 15 percent of the Syrian population. In 2012, Assad's position became even more tenuous as the army began shrinking rapidly: Tens of thousands of soldiers deserted, conscripts failed to show up for duty and many of those who did fight ended up dead. In September 2015, when the Russians joined the war, the Syrian army only had 6,000 soldiers who were fit for active duty, according to Charles Lister of the Middle East Institute in Washington. He bases his estimate on confidential testimony of Russian officials.
To preserve its regular troops, the regime was forced to make a Faustian bargain, allowing armed loyalists to form their own militias. In many cases, the leaders of smuggling rings or criminal gangs became local kingpins, who were then able to expand their business empires unimpeded in exchange for loyalty to Assad. The two largest militias, the Desert Hawks, headquartered in the northern port city of Latakia, and the Tiger Forces from Hama, each have between 3,000 and 6,000 armed fighters. Additionally, there are hundreds of smaller pro-regime militias.
Bread, gasoline, medication -- there are shortages across the entire country. And those who control the distribution of these goods can profit handsomely, enabling them to purchase more weapons and hire more fighters. As a result, the warlords have replaced the state security apparatus in cities and in entire regions.
While the Syrian army, in its desperation, has been forced to combs jails for recruits, fighters join the militias of their own free will. Some of them, after all, pay up to three times the salary earned by regular soldiers and they have a lot more freedom. They can, for example, extort duties at checkpoints, sell drugs of their own accord, smuggle gasoline and loot conquered towns and villages.
Assad is nevertheless dependent on them. When his troops, supported by Russian units, took eastern Aleppo in December 2016, the Syrian soldiers featured prominently in front of the television cameras. But the actual fighting was conducted by Iraqi, Afghan and Lebanese mercenaries under Iranian senior leadership -- and by the pro-regime militias, who also secured the conquered territory once the fighting had ceased. And they plundered it.
Hama is a veritable warlords' el Dorado. In 1982, troops loyal to Hafis Assad, the founder of the Assad dynasty, brutally crushed an uprising, killing more than 10,000 people in just three weeks. More recently, the city is where the Tiger Forces were founded, formed out of a loose network of officials from the feared air force secret service, local tribal leaders and criminals. They gathered around an Alawite officer and helped crush the anti-regime rebellion in the province of Hama in 2011. Now, the militia has bases and networks in several parts of Syria.
The two most important sub-commanders in Hama are Ali Shelly, a well-known criminal, and Talal Dakkak, who keeps a pet lion. It is said that Dakkak enjoys feeding his victims to animals. The two of them have people arbitrarily kidnapped, they steal, and they smuggle oil and gasoline, which they even sell to Islamic State (IS), against which Assad's army is officially fighting.
In summer 2016, for example, an army unit intercepted several tanker trucks filled with gasoline. The column was travelling on behalf of Dakkak and the fuel they contained was apparently meant for IS units. The soldiers didn't dare confiscate it for fear of Dakkak's revenge and the gasoline was turned over to the local air-force secret service -- which is closely linked with the Tiger Forces. It didn't take long before the tankers could continue their journey.
In a village in Assad-controlled territory, a doctor and his wife are sitting on their living-room sofa staring into the smartphone they are using. The woman's voice trembles in fear as she speaks: "It was here in our village. Uniformed men forced their way into a woman's house. They tied her up, stole her money and tortured her until she revealed where her husband's money was hidden. When the men had the money, they disappeared again."
Her husband adds: "Two days ago, a merchant was kidnapped here." And several weeks ago, he says, friends of his were robbed on a highway. They were stopped at an improvised checkpoint and dragged out of their car before militia members climbed in and sped away.
Farmers wanting to pass such checkpoints must pay a levy on their harvest. If they don't, the entire harvest may be confiscated. In several villages, citizen defense leagues have formed, patrolling at night to scare off plundering militiamen. The doctor says that the division of labor between the two Tiger leaders is clear: Most of the kidnappings can be traced back to Talal Dalakk, he claims, while the smuggling is more likely to be the work of Ali Shelly.
At times, the army or the military intelligence service has tried to come down on the warlords. But such attempts have always ended in fiasco. In March 2016, Assad units arrested the leader of a powerful Christian militia from the north of the province following an exchange of gunfire. But his followers violently protested and the man was soon freed.
"Yes, we have problems," says Hussein Dayoub, head of the Assad's Baath Party in Hama. Sitting in his wood-paneled office beneath a portrait of the president, he admits that militia members have set up checkpoints and extorted tolls. He also says that smuggling and kidnapping is a problem, but adds that he doesn't know who is behind it.
In theory, Dayoub is a powerful man, head of the local chapter of the governing party. But even he is apparently afraid of falling into disfavor with the militias, the true rulers of Hama.
The largest rivals of the Hama-based Tiger Forces in the battle for smuggling profits and power can be found in Latakia, the coastal city in the Alawite heartland. Rain is beating down as low clouds move in from the sea. The steel factory belonging to Mohamed Jaber is located among the fields south of the city. Where T-beams were once manufactured for building construction, rockets are now soldered together and armor is mounted on pick-ups. This is where the Desert Hawks have one of their bases and their weapons factory.
Mohamed Jaber and his brother initially became rich from smuggling. In the 1990s, they began by spiriting oil into the country from Iraq before investing their millions in the steel industry. When the Syrian civil war began in 2011 and international sanctions isolated the Assad regime, they were asked to use their smuggling contacts to bring in badly needed oil and gasoline.
To protect their convoys as they drove through the desert, the Jabers recruited hundreds of former soldiers -- and criminals. In August 2013, Assad signed a decree allowing private businesspeople to maintain their own security forces, thus paving the way for kleptocrats in his favor to become warlords.
Jaber, though, says he isn't interested in either power or money, claiming he already has enough of both. Rather, he only wants to help the great President Bashar Assad. When the war is over, he'll lay down his weapons he says, before adding a bit later: "We could control over 60 percent of the country, if we were allowed to."
The Russians have a pragmatic approach to the militias: Depending on the situation, the local warlords are given weapons, medals and selfies with Russian officers. But privately the Russian generals complain about the shocking state of the army and about the militias.
If the warlords become more powerful, Assad may soon become little more than a figurehead, surrounded by a coterie of robbers and smugglers. And the militias are also gaining political influence: In parliamentary elections last spring, candidates from the old ruling class didn't do as well as they had in the past. Instead, candidates affiliated with the warlords emerged victorious.
Elections in Syria, of course, don't reflect the will of the electorate. They only show who has the power to get his candidates elected. It is often said that, while Assad might be dreadful, he is the last remaining state authority in the country. But the strength of the militias shows that he lost even that authority long ago.'