With the beginning of the popular uprising in Syria in early 2011 and of the armed conflict later in 2012, the Assad regime found itself in need of more human power to try to control local communities and suppress demonstrations. To do so, the regime militarized the population by setting up local militias — not only to be at the forefront of the military struggle against the opposition, but also to gain complete and blind support from the local communities. The military struggle became therefore a fight for the survival of the regime through the militarization of communities against each other, at the expense of the social fabric and civil peace.
This article focuses on two key loyalist militias that have marked the course of the Syrian conflict: the National Defense Forces (NDF) and the Al-Quds Brigade (Liwa’ al-Quds). Both of them had a similar trajectory: after being established to impose the localization of the conflict strategy by the Assad regime, they increasingly gained authority and importance through tailored allegiances with Assad’s foreign allies. More importantly, by being tightly associated to their own local community, they implemented the vision of the Syrian regime — driving the local society to participate in the survival of Assad’s regime.
The military development of the NDF: from counter-revolutionary militia to foreign-supported armed group
The NDF were created in mid-2011, when local armed groups, mostly from the Alawite community, gathered under the name of People’s Committees (Lijan Sha‘biyya) to suppress the popular demonstrations in Homs. Under the security sector, the NDF managed to effectively control many residential neighborhoods of the Sunni majority. This success encouraged the regime to replicate this strategy in other areas such as Latakia, Aleppo, and Damascus countryside.
In 2012, with the start of the armed hostilities against the opposition, the Assad regime found itself in need of loyal infantry manpower. The NDF were therefore re-arranged to participate in military operations and, in some cases, became the spearhead in key battles against the armed opposition in the countryside of Damascus, Homs, and the city of Aleppo between 2012 and 2014, in which they were found involved in serious war crimes and crimes against humanity.The growth of the NDF as a key loyalist armed group also resulted in attracting more fighters to its ranks — a result of the favorable incentives offered to its fighters, such as the exemption from military service, and the provision of far better salaries and terms of services compared to the Syrian Arab Army. 
The intervention of foreign countries in support of the Assad regime in the war represented a key turning point for the NDF. Russia and Iran found an opportunity in the NDF to increase their influence on the ground and use it to their advantage. In addition to establishing its own militias, Iran was keen to use the NDF as an entry point to spread within local communities and obtain their loyalty in the majority of regime-controlled areas in eastern Syria, Aleppo, and south Syria.
Russia instead played a key role in restructuring the Syrian military forces and granted the NDF an increasingly central role in the new structure. Indeed, to respond to the weaknesses and inability of the Syrian Army to coordinate, Russia created a central hierarchical command affiliated with its army in order to increase the efficiency of the military operations of both regular forces and militias. As a result, Russia gathered several military battalions fighting on the ground in the Latakia governorate, namely the Second Division, the Republican Guard, and the NDF in Latakia, into the Fourth Corps. Later, the Fourth Corps expanded to include all NDF battalions, in addition to the Baath Brigades and other small militias.
Beyond military interests: the role of the NDF in localizing military alliances in the Syrian conflict
The regime’s establishment of militias was aimed at enhancing the localization of the conflict — that is, driving the local society to participate in the regime’s war against the opposition within a single town or city or against nearby geographical communities, through the formation of local militias linked to the security sector or foreign allies.
Indeed, despite the increased centralization in the decision-making process within the regime since Hafez al-Assad came to power, the regime has always used local figures and leaders to win the loyalty of the population. The NDF are a key example in this regard, as the regime appointed as leaders of the NDF those figures known for their loyalty, and that were able to push the population to support the regime in its war against the opposition. These leaders were not limited to individuals from the Alawite community but were as diverse as the local population targeted within this loyalty campaign. 
The NDF built their local support by establishing key relationships with clans and tribes. For instance, in Hasaka the NDF enjoyed the strong support of the Sheikh of the Tayi tribe, Muhammad al-Faris; while in Aleppo and Raqqa countryside, they built on clan connections, in particular with the Al-Beri militia. It also succeeded in exploiting the ethnic identities of the local population. For example, the Golan Regiment branch of the NDF was formed by the Syrian-Circassian Khaled Abaza, son of Walid Abaza, a former major in Syrian intelligence and close to Hafez al-Assad, which relied mainly on the Circassian population of the Quneitra governorate for its popular support. However, despite the intention to diversify their popular support base, the sectarian character of the NDF remained their most prominent feature, as they aligned with sectarian majorities of Alawites in Latakia, Druze in al-Suwayda, and Christians in Maharda, Hama countryside. 
Al-Quds Brigade: Bringing Palestinians into the Fire of Conflict
According to UNRWA official statistics, around 560,000 Palestinian refugees were living in Syria by 2011, primarily residing in the Yarmouk Camp of Damascus, and the Neirab and Handarat camps in Aleppo.  The camp maintained a strong Palestinian identity throughout all its years (due also to its distance from the heart of the city of Aleppo, which hindered its integration into the social structure of the city), unlike Handarat camp, whose residents formed good social relations with their Alepine neighbors.
While until 2011 the Assad regime was mainly interacting with the traditional Palestinian factions, with the expansion of the demonstrations and the participation of larger numbers of young Palestinians in the popular uprising — followed by the takeover of the Yarmouk camp by the Free Syrian Army Palestinians, and the failure of traditional Palestinian leaders to respond to such defeat — prompted the regime to search for new Palestinian leaders inside the camps. In this period, the number of Palestinian militias fighting alongside the regime increased and led to the establishment of Liwa’ al-Quds (Al-Quds Brigade) in particular.
The al-Quds Brigade was established around the end of 2011, when some of those associated with the regime established a battalion of the Popular Committees, under the name of the Lions of Jerusalem Brigade. The Palestinian engineer and businessman Muhammad Al-Saeed contributed to arming and training more fighters because of his close relations with the officers of the security services and the Fatah Intifada movement in which Al-Saeed's father was a leader. By mid-2013, the Al-Quds Brigade - Commandos of the Syrian Arab Army were playing an important role during the battles against the opposition forces that tried to take control of the camp. At this stage, the militia became affiliated with the Air Force Intelligence branch in Aleppo, which was under the command of Major General Adeeb Salameh. 
In addition to its relationship with the Syrian security sector, Al-Saeed also established good relations with Iran, whose support led to its number of fighters reaching 300 people and to greater involvement in the conflict in Aleppo. With the Russian intervention in 2015, Russia set the goal of controlling the city of Aleppo among its main objectives. Therefore, Russia found in al-Quds Brigade the right partner to fight on the ground because of the good relationship with Brigadier General Suhail al-Hassan, the commander of the Military and Security Committee in Aleppo at the time. After the regime took control of the city of Aleppo in 2016, the al-Quds Brigade’s fighters moved for the first time out of Aleppo and, in the coming years, ended up participating in all of the major military operations by the Syrian regime, ranging from the Damascus countryside to Southern Syria and North-West Syria, leading to the regime re-taking control of the majority of formerly opposition-held areas. 
However, the most prominent features of the close cooperation between al-Quds Brigade and Russia consisted in Russia utilizing the Brigade as a spearhead for its military and security operations in the Syrian desert (badiya) against the cells of the so-called Islamic State (IS), that increased their activities against regime forces since the beginning of 2020. The Syrian badiya has great financial importance for Russia due to its gas and oil fields and phosphate mines near Palmyra. In its operations in the Syrian badiya, IS relied on small-sized combat cells that deployed IEDs to target Syrian military cars and trucks on the Desert Road, in addition to military posts. Through its private security companies, Russia further trained Al-Quds Brigade fighters on combat operations and supported its increased recruitment, reaching 7,000 fighters by mid-2019. Russia didn’t only support Al-Quds Brigade from a merely military and logistical perspective, but increasingly showed its public support to the group by awarding its commanders with the Russian Army’s Medal of Courage.
Al-Quds Brigade and their local and social role
The role of the Al-Quds Brigade goes beyond simply being an armed militia fighting on the frontlines. Rather, the brigade has gradually become a political and military movement now dominating the Palestinian camps in Aleppo, Latakia, Hama, and Homs, leading a complete shift against traditional factions in control of the camps. The brigade’s control of the local communities in the camp is achieved through various activities such as the Jerusalem Cultural Forum in Neirab camp and the Jerusalem Youth Organization, which provides recreational and educational activities for students, in addition to military training for youth from 16 to 30 years old. The brigade also provides medical services, especially with the spread of Covid-19, in addition to distributing food aid. The Office of Martyrs and Wounded in the brigade is also active in providing material and relief support to the families of the dead. The commander of the brigade, Muhammad al-Saeed, also became an important figure inside the city of Aleppo, as he meets dignitaries and Muslim and Christian religious figures in the city. The Brigade also supported one of its affiliates in the People's Assembly elections for the southern Aleppo countryside district, called Abdul-Ilah al-Abdo, but he failed to win a seat.
Nevertheless, the authority and control of the Al-Quds Brigade over the local community in the camps is causing a negative impact on people’s lives and rights, that goes well beyond the militarization of the community against neighboring groups supportive of the opposition. Human rights organizations such as the Action Group for Palestinians in Syria have accused Al-Quds Brigade of committing grave violations such as arrests and kidnapping for ransom, seizing of civilian property in Neirab and Handarat camps, in addition to drug trafficking and child recruitment. The involvement of Al-Quds Brigade fighters in international crimes has resulted in criminal complaints being filed against them in EU countries, with a former fighter being arrested in the Netherlands in May 2022.
 Nakkash, Aziz (2013) The Alawite dilemma in Homs: Survival, Solidarity and the Making of a Community, Friedrich Ebert Stiftung.
 Khaddour, Kheder (2014) Securing the Syrian regime, Carnegie’s Middle East Center.
 Khaddour, Kheder (2016) Strength in Weakness: The Syrian Army’s Accidental Resilience, Carnegie’s Middle East Center.
 Lavrov, Anton (2020) The Efficiency of the Syrian Armed Forces: An Analysis of Russian Assistance, Carnegie’s Middle East Center.
 Antonio Giustozzi and Reinoud Leenders, (2017) Outsourcing state violence: The National Defence Force, ‘stateness’ and regime resilience in the Syrian war, Mediterranean Politics.
 Omran Center for Strategic Studies (2018) Transformations of the Syrian Military: The Challenge of Change and Restructuring.
 UNRWA, Neirab Camp
 Abdullah Al-Khateeb, Tom Rollins and Abdelrahman Shaheen (2020) A New Palestinian Community?, Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung.
 Abdullah Almousa (2020) "Liwa al-Quds"... Russian militia outside the borders of Aleppo, Syria Tv (Arabic)
 Khaled Al-Khatib (2020) "Liwa al-Quds" is a military company to protect Russian interests in the Assad regime, Syria Tv (Arabic)
 See note 10
 Action Group for Palestinians in Syria (2022) Liwa al-Quds in Syria, the false name and the truth of the role (Arabic)
 Reuters (2022) Dutch police arrest suspected Syrian pro-government militia member