Secondly, in many places, Assad has lost control to local warlords who are acting independently of Damascus, both in terms of their funding and their personnel. As Middle East military expert Tobias Schneider has already illustrated in great detail, the 'government-held areas' are in fact as fragmented and characterised by changing alliances as the regions held by the opposition. Local life around the country is no longer always shaped by the government in Damascus, but by dozens of groups loyal to Assad who are benefitting from the war and above all pursuing their own local interests.
The rival Tiger Forces in the provinces of Aleppo and Hama and the Desert Hawks in Latakia are considered particularly powerful. They are led by smugglers, criminals and militia members and are bankrolled by money-laundering and the trade in weapons, oil and people. Moreover, instead of relying on crumbling state institutions, they have built up their own local support networks.
Assad himself boosted the emergence of these forces in August 2013 when he signed a decree allowing business people to build up their own militia in order to protect their assets. ″With the stroke of a pen,″ says Schneider, ″the regime armed its own kleptocrats.″
Out of control
Some – such as the Tiger Forces – have been able to consolidate their power at regional level to such an extent that even Assad's dreaded military secret police have lost their grip on them. Nevertheless, the regime needs these militias to repel opposition attacks. When it comes to taking back territory, these militias form strange alliances with local warlords, foreign fighters and the remnants of groups loyal to the regime. In those cases where offensives are successful, the region does not automatically fall back into the hands of the powers-that-be in Damascus, but is instead dominated by the most influential militias in that area. This is why the areas that were recaptured over the past year only superficially seem to strengthen Assad. In reality, they are an illustration of his loss of power within his own camp.
The situation is compounded by the regime's dependence on foreign support. Without military support from Russia and Iran, Assad would have been finished long ago. Moreover, without the reinforcement of Shia militiamen from Lebanon (Hezbollah), Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan, no territory would have been captured on the ground.