Syrians, including members of the Syrian National Defence Forces (NDF), hang a portrait of President Bashar al-Assad on June 13…
Syrians, including members of the Syrian National Defense Forces (NDF), hang a portrait of President Bashar al-Assad on June 13, 2015 in the ancient Christian town of Maalula.

WASHINGTON - The United States last week imposed sanctions against military, government and financial supporters of the Syrian regime for their role in persecuting civilians in the war-ravaged country. 

One of those targeted by the recent sanctions was Fadi Saqr, commander of the National Defense Forces (NDF), a paramilitary force that has been instrumental in the Syrian civil war.

Formation and beginnings

As fighting between regime forces and rebel groups intensified across the country in 2012, the Syrian government organized local militias that were initially responsible for protecting government-held neighborhoods in major cities, including the capital, Damascus. These volunteer fighters were part of the Popular Committees, which were exclusively stationed in residential districts.

But with the battleground widening, the Syrian military quickly fell short of manpower, forcing it to deploy militia fighters to the front lines.

"Many of the NDF were originally from popular committees or intelligence bodies," said Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, a Syria researcher at Swansea University in the U.K. "For example, in Deir el-Zour province, the groups that became NDF were originally members of the military intelligence as auxiliary groups."

With the help of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, the Syrian government sought to reorganize loyal militias into something more effective, experts said.

To further legalize their presence, the Syrian parliament issued a decree in August 2013 that authorized businesses to fund private militias.

The incorporation of local pro-government militias led to the creation of the NDF. At some point during the civil war, Iranian and Syrian government sources estimated there were about 100,000 pro-government militiamen across Syria.

A rebel fighter, left, walks past Syrian National Defense Forces (NDF), an armed unit of volunteers loyal to President Bashar al-Assad operating under Syrian army command, in the town of Babbila, Feb. 17, 2014.

Rights abuses

Rami Abdulrahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, says fighters affiliated with the NDF committed "major war crimes, especially in the early years of the war."

According to rights groups, NDF fighters particularly carried out atrocities against civilians in 2013 after they helped regime and allied forces oust rebel fighters from the city of Homs in central Syria.

Syrian opposition groups have accused the regime of President Bashar al-Assad of using sectarian-based militias such as the NDF to target civilians. Assad is an Alawite, while rebel fighters are largely Sunni Muslims.

"The strategic objective behind forming this militia was to enhance sectarianism in Syria and deter Syrians, especially Alawites, from joining the opposition," said John Saleh, a Syrian researcher based in Washington.

He told VOA the government’s reliance on NDF militias, which evolved throughout the civil war, could also be used as a legal shield for the Syrian regime in the future.

"When it is time to hold the regime accountable for its actions, it would defend itself in front of the international community by saying that these fighters were volunteers and that the regime wasn’t responsible for their actions, which include war crimes, looting, destruction and displacement," Saleh said.

Analyst Tamimi said NDF fighters "are not officially part of the Syrian military," adding that "they are not registered on the Syrian armed forces. Being a member of the NDF is not equivalent to compulsory military service."

A Syrian national flag flutters in front of members of the Syrian National Defense Forces (NDF) standing behind a statue of Virgin Mary perched on the cliffs overlooking the ancient Christian town of Maalula, June 13, 2015.

Who is Fadi Saqr?

Born in 1974 in the Syrian city of Jableh in Latakia province, Fadi Saqi, also known as Fadi Ahmed, was an employee at the Consumer Corporation in Damascus. With the eruption of the country’s conflict in 2011, Saqr helped form a local pro-government militia made up of Alawite fighters. He headed the group and reportedly played a major role in persecuting anti-government protesters in several Damascus neighborhoods in the early days of the Syrian uprising.

Saqr and his NDF fighters also played a significant role when Syrian government forces recaptured the eastern countryside of Damascus from rebels in 2018 after nearly five years of being under siege.

Because of his close ties with powerful Alawite political and business leaders in Syria, Saqr is largely deemed untouchable.

In June, the U.S. government imposed new economic sanctions and travel restrictions on Assad, his wife, and his inner circle for committing human rights abuses and blocking a political resolution of the country’s nine-year war.

The State Department also has designated 39 Syrian individuals, including members of the Assad family, military leaders and business executives. The new measures also target non-Syrians who do business with these individuals.

The recent sanctions are the result of a U.S. legislation referred to as the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, named after a Syrian military photographer who smuggled out thousands of photographs documenting torture of prisoners held by Syrian government security forces.