Inside an Elite Syrian Military Unit’s Power Grab

Throughout the war, the 4th Division has steadily gained social, economic and political power

Inside an Elite Syrian Military Unit’s Power Grab
A poster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the old city of Aleppo on Sept. 27, 2019. (Maxime Popov/AFP via Getty Images)

“The 4th Division belongs to God” — Bayan Muzaael, commander of the former Syrian opposition faction, Liwa al-Hajar al-Aswad.

Ali, a commander in Syria’s National Defense Force (NDF), had spent nearly 10 years interrogating and torturing civilians in the city of Homs, when he was suddenly abducted by the very same force he was serving, and imprisoned in al-Mazzeh, Damascus.

“Nobody realizes the regime’s violent nature better than us, those who exercise it,” Ali said, describing the way that he and six other local commanders were abducted and imprisoned for 72 days, based on accusations of misuse of manpower and resources, brought on by Saqqer Rustom, the head of the NDF in Homs.

After he was released, Ali was dismissed from his position in the NDF, which exposed him to constant harassment from the intelligence apparatus. The secret police covers up the militiamen’s violations against ordinary civilians, yet it has systematically documented their violations against regime loyalists throughout the war. Often, this information is used to manipulate commanders who dare to resist their superiors’ vision. Ali was enlisted as a fugitive on the lam and the authorities seized his properties.

Often, the 4th Division — an elite division of the Syrian army whose main purpose is to protect the army from both internal and external threats — preys on these soldiers, using their desperation to manipulate them into loyalty. It happened to Ali, when a 4th Division broker and businessman persuaded him and others to accept an offer to serve in the Division’s “economic paramilitaries,” stationed in the peripheries of Homs and Deir ez-Zor. (These paramilitary groups are state-sponsored militias, used by businessmen to evade the law and maximize their profits.)

As long as they worked for the paramilitary unit, they would be exempt from persecution and would receive privileges, including salary, compensation and incentives. Depending on the person’s role, these incentives could rise to half a million Syrian pounds per month (about $200), a considerable sum. In Facebook and WhatsApp conversations conducted by the author between 2019 and 2021, former opposition fighters exhibited similar motives to the regime’s sponsored militiamen, joining the 4th Division themselves to avoid the security agencies’ torment, largely out of fear and uncertainty about the future.

Mohammad, now an infamous militia commander within the 4th Division, is a former opposition fighter. During the 2011 Eastern Ghouta uprisings, he and other civilians were arrested en masse in a raid and imprisoned in the Air Force prison in the 4th Division’s regiment 555 base in the Damascus suburb of al-Sumariyah. He survived his imprisonment, which lasted several weeks, but suffered a broken back that left him bed-ridden for another six months. Upon his recovery, Mohammad had already made up his mind to join the opposition’s Free Syrian Army (FSA), a reaction to the regime’s violence that he had now personally experienced. It was driven by neither ideology, nor hatred, but emotional and psychological factors, as well as a desire to leave behind the siege of Eastern Ghouta and oppressive Islamic movements that had started to fill the power vacuum there, even if it meant negotiating an unfair exit with the regime.

It was these exit negotiations that connected him with Gen. Ghiath Dalah, a commander of the 4th Division’s 42nd Brigade and the infamous Gaith paramilitary group. They struck a deal that stipulated his subjugation to the regime in return for absolute immunity for his “deeds against the state.” Additionally, he was offered membership in the division’s combat paramilitary group, providing him with the ultimate protection from the retaliation of intelligence agencies. “With the 4th Division card, no checkpoint dares to stop or question me,” he said, justifying his decision. “I hate intelligence, and I do everything to avoid them. The same applies even if it means dealing with the devil.”

Both of these stories show that the regime’s prison system reduces the potential for disarming civilians. Instead, fear of detention and torture lead them to pick up arms, regardless of differences in their social, ethnic and political backgrounds. Policing has been Assad’s most effective tactic, manipulating the individual’s past traumatic experiences in order to mobilize the ranks. Now, strengthening the elite 4th Division is the regime’s latest tactic to consolidate power and restructure society to favor its patronage networks, as well as to make loyalty essential to socioeconomic mobility.

As the sun set, the commander and his fighters sat around eating, drinking and singing ataaba — a traditional genre of folk music popular in rural areas. On the table were several fresh dishes of Syrian cuisine, made to please the commander, and three bottles of Johnnie Walker Black Label. The whisky is a symbol that sets the 4th Division apart from ordinary soldiers. While homemade arak was once the favored drink among Assad’s soldiers, whisky — particularly Johnnie Walker — points to the elite status of the division’s men, whose monthly wages far outstrip those of other Syrian regime militia members.

For those who have the “opportunity” to work with the 4th Division, it is life-changing. Many come from marginalized Alawite communities in the city of Homs, specifically from the al-Zahraa neighborhood, and the villages in eastern Salamiyah and northern Hama, where ordinary residents are suffering devastating losses because of the war. Often, militiamen beg for money from women and children who have lost their husbands and fathers. They are forced to retreat to the countryside to have any hope of survival. Many civilians are turning to Facebook, posting videos pleading for the president to intervene as a last resort.

Meanwhile, the 4th Division commanders own elaborate newly built villas and run businesses in the same areas, a cause of tremendous dissatisfaction among both civilians and militiamen of other paramilitary groups. The 4th Division has accrued wealth by monopolizing Syria’s resources, gas and fossil fuel trade and agriculture harvests, which dried up other militia groups’ profits and reduced their standards of living. Frequently, other militia members are provoked or harassed at 4th Division checkpoints, as their convoys are searched for “illicit” goods to the extent that possessing two cigarette packs is deemed “forbidden” for the sake of humiliating them into giving one up. Unlike the early years of the war, when being a militiaman was a lucrative vocation, today most militiamen, including the foreign-backed ones, are facing difficulties obtaining basic necessities such as fuel and gas.

Even regime loyalists are subject to excessive harassment — and taxes — at 4th Division checkpoints. I have seen screenshots of conversations in WhatsApp groups that have been created to manage and coordinate businesses. One conversation between a checkpoint commander named Abu Ibrahim showed a transaction dealing with fuel cargo belonging to the infamous businessman and member of Parliament, Hussam al-Qatirji, that was being held, while he told the driver that he needed to consult with his boss. The chat indicated that the driver was deliberately held for 12 hours in harsh weather, just so that the 4th Division brokers could negotiate a higher share of profits from the transaction.

Many are starting to discuss the morality of the division’s economic practices, which is driving an even more severe wealth gap between rich and poor. While some perceive the division’s activities as abhorrent, others argue it is ending Sunni businessmen’s traditional dominance over the economy. Yet even these individuals criticize the distribution of wealth, as it excludes the majority of the community and increases their economic vulnerability.

Because of the excessive militarization of Syrian society and civil institutions, the regime’s destructive policies toward civilians in opposition-held areas have now been extended to the entire population. This has substantially reduced institutions’ ability to provide essential services such as sanitation, clean water, electricity and transportation. Moreover, Assad’s elites, including the 4th Division and the secret bureau’s activities, create an additional layer of economic repression. (The secret bureau has historically been linked to the 4th Division and is often involved in extorting business owners.)

The division has at least 34 checkpoints installed on the main transport and fuel trade routes from Deir ez-Zor to Homs and the coast. Civilians are forced to pay taxes at these checkpoints, lining the pockets of the elite division in a country where 60% of the population is living under the poverty line. In some ways, this mirrors the siege tactic whereby regime checkpoints used to collect profits for smuggling goods, as was the case in Eastern and Western Ghouta.

Residents of traditionally regime-loyal Shiite villages such as Nubul and al-Zahraa never imagined they would one day complain about the 4th Division’s abuses. But recently, some prominent militiamen and elite families expressed bitterness when the division’s checkpoints obstructed the access of two deliveries loaded with essential goods for their villages for two weeks, until the cargoes were taxed. In other words, the 4th Division continues the regime’s war tactics, legitimizing them under the pretext of “collecting funds for the families of the martyrs.”

Amid the social and economic challenges facing Syrian society, the 4th Division continues to legitimize violence against civilians. Since 2017 and the de-escalation of conflict, the rate of reported domestic crimes has risen to unprecedented levels. Most of the victims are women and children, while the perpetrators are former and current militiamen, many of whom are 4th Division recruits. While Syria’s legal system has, historically, rarely made public the names of perpetrators of domestic violence — including those who commit so-called “honor” killings — the political clout of the 4th Division extends impunity to those who commit domestic crimes. In 2018, a 4th Division militiaman hanged his wife in Sabourah, while another in Jaramana killed his wife on the mere suspicion of infidelity the year before. Similar incidents and other violations against civilians are reported almost daily, and the accused are more often than not among the division’s fighters. Criminal police do not dare hold these killers accountable. On occasions when police have arrested such criminals, 4th Division militiamen have stormed the police stations to release them by force.

Furthermore, the division’s fighters have a long track record of abusing women to amuse themselves and their fellow militiamen (Hezbollah and others). One, by the name of Abu Ebrahim, brought three women to the base to please his boss. “Which one shall I choose?” the commander smiled, a whisky glass in his hand. He selected a young woman from Hasakeh who was well educated and studying to become an engineer. With half of her family dead and the other half living in exile, she needed support to finance her studies. She is not the only one. Anyone who walks down the student dorm street in Homs will notice several luxury cars parked under the dim light, often waiting for dates arranged via special groups on Facebook that target young, poor female students who have run out of other options to support themselves and their studies. Many are easy prey for the division’s middle-aged commanders and militiamen who promise to support them, and buy them luxury items and cosmetics. If the girls accept, their life is supposed to change for the better. However, the reality is different. Once these men fulfill their desires, they leave the students facing social stigma or in a coffin.

Militiamen who engage in homosexual behavior are imprisoned and tortured. The division’s commanders act with extreme brutality, regardless of their victims’ identity, inflicting severe torture and degradation on those so much as suspected of same-sex activity. This approach, described as a “behavioral re-correction,” aims to re-educate and prevent them from “corrupting” the rest of the elite division and society at large. Masculinity defines that world, as none of the commanders questions such violence. Instead, they are content to take “justice” upon themselves for the “public good.”

Throughout the war, the 4th Division has steadily gained social, economic and political power. It manipulates both former regime and opposition fighters who are trying to escape the clutches of the Syrian intelligence apparatus into joining its ranks to accrue power and perpetrate violence against civilians without risk. Now, it is seizing power even from those who have stayed loyal to the regime, driving a wedge through Syrian society between the 4th Division elite and everyone else.

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