National Defence Force (Syria)

Country: Syria
Details of Formation: The Syrian government formed the National Defense Force (NDF) from other pro-government militias and pro-government residents from villages (Human Rights Watch). News sources say that the groups began as pro-government militias known as Shabiha. Some of the Shabiha had the formal status of Popular Committees and were then merged and organized under the structure of the NDF. Sources disagree whether the group was founded in 2012 or 2013.
Details of Termination: It is difficult to say whether the organization is still a semi-official militia or to be regarded as part of the regular forces.
Purpose: The main purpose of the NDF is to support the Syrian army. This includes fighting alongside the army against insurgents, manning checkpoints, controlling towns after army interventions against rebels, protecting government offices and buildings, as well as collecting evidence for the army. They were increasingly used to offset the losses suffered by the army and to compensate army desertions and defections. It contributes to free the army for conducting military operations. It is supposed to know better than the army how to fight a guerilla war. The NDF is considered to give the regime a psychological boost.
Organisation: The NDF is operating on the instructions of the Syrian army command. The Syrian officers commanding the NDF insist that it will be kept under the strictest military discipline. Some NDF commanders were (distant) cousins of Assad. Militias that operate under the umbrella structure of the National Defense Forces are registered under the direct control of Assad’s presidential office. In 2014, news sources suggest that the regime was losing control of the NDF and that the NDF was a powerful independent army. A news source from November 2014 reports Iranian plans to help the Syrian military reshape the NDF into National Security Forces, which would substitute the NDF and fill the place of the weak army. The new National Security Forces would then be led by a Hezbollah officer called Al-Hajji Akbar. Iran allegedly took over the direct control of the NDF. It is unclear to what degree this plan had been realized until the end of 2014.
Weapons and Training: Members are armed with Kalashnikov rifles, light rockets and Russian-made heavy machine guns. The government provides them with arms. They receive training by Iran (through the Quds Force and Revolutionary Guards), Hezbollah and Syrian officers.
Size: When the PGM was founded, it was expected to have 10,000 members. Already in April 2013, a news source speaks of tens of thousands of recruits. In May news sources suggest the group had between 50,000 to 60,000 members. In June 2013, another news source mentions 80,000 members, a number which is repeated by another news source from May 2014.
Reason for Membership: There are two parts of the PGM: Those who fight for the front receive a payment of £100 a month, with the possibility for extra payment for courageous achievements. Others are remaining in villages and towns. They are unpaid, but motivated to protect their own neighborhood. Members recruited are volunteers loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and many are members of the Alawite branch of the Shia Islam sect to which the President belongs. Another source mentions that its fighters are members or supporters of the ruling Baath party. One news source reports that young men and adolescents join sometimes voluntarily, sometimes forcibly.
Treatment of Civilians: The NDF committed multiple atrocities and massacres against civilians. Alongside the Syrian army they killed civilians, looted their homes and destroyed property (Human Rights Watch). They are accused of ethnic cleansing against Sunni Muslim families in Baniyas. The NDF is arresting displaced Sunnis in an attempt to evict them. Since 2011, government forces had conducted massive arbitrary arrests; later, the NDF took over the responsibility to conduct them. The NDF committed rapes and are kidnapping to extort ransom. Many of the atrocities the NDF is accused of were committed alongside the Syrian army. The NDF is guarding areas where resident are supporting the regime.
Other Information: The National Defence Force has an all-female brigade called "The Lionesses for National Defence" with at least 500 recruits. Members of the NDF include members of the Popular Committees and civilian elements that had served in the army in the past.
References: Human Rights Watch. 2013. “’No One’s Left’. Summary Executions by Syrian Forces in al-Bayda and Baniyas.” September 13.

Information was taken from news sources listed in the PGMD