In Syria, Rebel Integration Promotes Conflict Not Peace

Post-conflict integration of former combatants into national armed forces is not a new reconciliation strategy. The Syrian government, however, is doing this before the war ends, which will only prolong the conflict, according to Syria researcher Haid Haid.

Written by Hashem Osseiran Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
Syrian rebel fighters from the Quneitra province walk with their rifles as they wait at the Morek crossing point to be transferred to the provinces of Idlib and Aleppo last month. AAREF WATAD/AFP/Getty Images

BEIRUT Over the past two decades, peace agreements have increasingly prescribed the integration of former rebels into the national armed forces they once fought as a strategy to promote reconciliation.

There is no clear consensus on the extent to which this approach contributes to lasting peace and security, but some countries like the Philippines have had moderate success in mitigating tensions with secessionist groups by integrating these forces into their security apparatus.

However, in Syria, the government is using this approach to reinforce its control over the country and strengthen its fighting capacity, which will only prolong the conflict, according to Syria researcher Haid Haid.

Rather than implementing a comprehensive demobilization, disarmament and reconciliation (DDR) strategy, the Syrian government is forcing rebels to integrate into armed forces as part of so-called reconciliation deals brokered with opposition forces in areas it has recaptured. Rebels who accept such agreements and choose to remain in areas being transferred to government control, must either join pro-government forces or risk arrest or reprisal, Haid says.

Following the recent publication of his Chatham House report on rebel integration into armed forces in Syria, Peacebuilding Deeply speaks to Haid about the government’s approach to this strategy, the conditions under which it is being implemented, and the possible outcomes.

Peacebuilding Deeply: Do you have an estimate of how many former rebels have now joined pro-government forces?

Haid Haid: Unfortunately, that’s not possible. In my report, I cite research that was done by Mercy Corps about the issue. They are the ones who did fieldwork in different areas and basically said that a big percentage of former rebel fighters who chose to stay in regime-controlled areas have joined pro-government forces, be it state-run security forces or auxiliary groups, such as pro-government militias. I was not able to do the fieldwork myself and there aren’t other sources who have been able to estimate the percentage of those who join. If you look at what happened in the province of Daraa recently, there are reports that former rebels there reintegrated into pro-government forces. Only a small number of rebel groups chose to relocate to other rebel-held areas after the government overtook the area. You can find reports of former rebels joining pro-government forces in local media and on social media networks, such as Facebook and Twitter.

Peacebuilding Deeply: In the report, you argue that the government is using short-term coercive mechanisms to reintegrate these rebel fighters. Can you give some examples of such mechanisms?

Haid: The rebels don’t really have another choice other than joining pro-government forces. They either have to accept to joint pro-government militias or they are forced to leave their area of residence. If they choose to stay, they risk getting arrested if they don’t join government loyalists. In other words, joining pro-regime militias was the only way that they could protect themselves from reprisals. So this is one example of a coercive strategy. Another way is through financial incentives. There are no valid alternatives for these people to make a living. The government has not yet started a process that would allow them to be reintegrated into civilian life and take up employment. The only way left for them to make a living is to join pro-government forces.

Peacebuilding Deeply: In the conclusion of your report, you create an important distinction between “short-term coercive mechanisms” that force recruits to reintegrate, and what you call a “comprehensive disarmament demobilization and reintegration strategy.” What is this distinction based on?

Haid: A comprehensive disarmament demobilization and reintegration process, which is commonly referred to as DDR, aims to do three different things. The first one is to demobilize fighters who don’t want to continue fighting, or who don’t want to reintegrate into armed forces. DDR, usually, allows these fighters to return to civilian life. For that to happen, the government will usually provide them with incentives and opportunities to do so, by creating jobs and providing them with protection guarantees that they will not be persecuted at a later stage.

Then the second element is disarmament – and for that to happen you need to provide rebels with incentives to relinquish their arms and create enough trust for them not to feel that they will need those arms to protect themselves on the individual level because that’s the job of the state.

The third important element is reintegration. For those who don’t want to go back to civilian life, and want to join armed forces, you need to create mechanisms that will allow them to do so. You need to give rebels a clear idea about what to expect when it comes to their ranking and the potential for promotion. The government also needs to provide clear answers to questions such as: Will former rebels be treated like other people? What are the rules that will be implemented on them? What are the conditions and criteria that they will fare under?

In brief, this how you do comprehensive/successful DDR. In Syria, what we have been seeing is that the regime is only changing the loyalty of many of those [former rebels] groups without reintegrating them into official/regular armed forces. Some of these former rebels join the army or police, but many join auxiliary pro-government militias, including the government-linked National Defense Forces and other groups that are affiliated with Hezbollah and Iran. In other words, many former rebels continue to exist outside state structures. But rather than being the opposition, they are now members of loyalist groups that operate outside the state. That’s one issue: changing loyalty without really integrating. It more of a short-term fix than a comprehensive strategy.

Another issue in Syria is that the regime does not facilitate a return to civilian life to many rebels who don’t want to continue fighting. The government is not providing them with jobs and basic protection guarantees that ensure they will be safe if they choose not to join pro-government forces.

The last issue concerns disarmament. Because there is no trust between former rebels and the state, many of them are still likely hiding their own individual weapons. The regime is not doing anything to encourage them to give up arms, such as paying them or buying back weapons. Also, the government is not trying to create trust with rebels, so many feel they will not be protected by the state. This is what we are missing. This is what we are looking at when we talk about regime short-term fixes rather than strategies in this area.

Peacebuilding Deeply: According to your assessment, is a peace deal or a power-sharing agreement a necessary precondition for a comprehensive DDR strategy in Syria?

Haid: Definitely, because, when we talk about DDR, we are usually talking about a process that starts after the violence is over. If there’s no political process to officially end the conflict, It’s not possible to implement DDR because two main elements are missing: trust between warring parties and protection guarantees. As long as there is no political process that will end the conflict on the national level and provide people with a clear idea about their future and who will protect them, DDR will only be limited to few areas that are directly under the control of the regime. This process will only allow the regime to continue to rule them and empower the regime by basically enhancing its fighting capacity.

Peacebuilding Deeply: You argue that without transformative political and institutional reform, efforts to integrate former rebels into armed forces will continue to undermine Syria’s stability rather than enhance it. What kind of reform do you have in mind?

Haid: Institutional reform should happen on different levels. The most relevant to DDR involve reform of the state’s military and security apparatus. They are among the most corrupt institutions and they were instrumental to the start of the conflict in Syria: They were involved in firing at protesters, detaining activists, torturing inmates. In other words, the security and military apparatus are among the institutions that sparked the conflict. For that to change, you need to change those institutions. You cannot just basically tell people to join those institutions without changing them. Because if that is the case, then those two institutions, in particular, will continue to violate people’s rights on the ground, either by arresting those who were involved in protests or by keeping peaceful activists or regime opponents in prisons. Those who join will have to take part in these violations. But to add to that, you also need to reform the political regime that created those institutions and instrumentalized them to ensure its survival. For over 40 years, the security and military apparatus has done the government’s dirty work. So there also needs to be reform at the broader political level.

The answers have been edited for length and clarity

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