As the battle lines in the Syrian Civil War continue to harden, some opposition forces and communities have chosen to reconcile with the Assad regime rather than prolong a conflict that they cannot win. With Russian assistance, the Assad regime has retaken 60% of the country’s territory through a combination of conquest and negotiation with rebel groups. Rebels in Quneitra and Daraa, some of whom are former U.S. partners, laid down their weapons 2018 and negotiated the terms of surrender. Power sharing between the rebel fighters and the Assad regime is a necessary aspect of reconciliation because the opposition does not wish to risk disarming and becoming vulnerable to regime forces who have reason to enact retribution.
In Syria, opposition fighters do not want to be drafted into the Syrian army after they surrender because they would be forced to serve the regime they oppose and fight other opposition forces who have yet to reconcile with the regime. Alternatively, those who do not chose to reconcile with the Assad regime are exiled to Idlib, the largest remaining rebel-held territory where the fighting continues. The most effective reconciliation program was the regime’s formation of Failaq al-Khamis, or the Fifth Legion. While ultimately it failed, the effort (and subsequent failure) to form the Fifth Legion is indicative of the challenges that the regime and opposition will continue to face as they navigate the complexities of an intractable civil war.
What is Failaq al-Khamis?
Failaq al-Khamis is a voluntary security force comprised of the reconciled rebels. It is nominally an auxiliary unit of the Syrian military, placed under a Russian commander so the reconciled soldiers are not forced to directly fight for the regime they opposed. In 2016, the Syrian military orchestrated an extensive texting campaign in southern Syria to incentivize participation in the newly formed Fifth Legion. The regime offered former opposition fighters between the ages of 18-50 amnesty for fighting against the regime or deserting the Syrian army, a $200-300 monthly salary, and excuse from service in the Syrian army.
Instead, this legion is overseen by the Russian military and is permitted to operate in southern Syria, where the former rebels hail from. This allowed former opposition communities greater autonomy by permitting them to police their own communities, and relieved the Syrian military of the need to patrol those territories. This eliminated the possibility of the military abusing those populations. Former rebel soldiers would be able to continue fighting alongside their comrades instead of serving with Syrian army soldiers whom they fought against. Unlike the Syrian Army, the Fifth Legion primarily fought ISIS and al-Qaeda in Syria instead of the remaining Syrian rebels in the north of the country.
The legion partially disbanded in 2018 after many soldiers refused to fight rebel forces in Idlib. The Russian command reneged on the agreement: fighters who made up the legion agreed to reconcile with the regime on the condition that the Russian command would not send them into combat against the opposition in Idlib, their former allies. The soldiers who refused to fight against the remaining rebels were forced to join the Syrian army, or face arrest.
Failaq al-Khamis was of great use to the Assad regime because at the time of its formation, the Syrian army was weak. Numbering at 300,000 at the start of the conflict in 2011, the Syrian army was reduced to an estimated 80,000 soldiers in 2015. Failaq al-Khamis minimized the territory the Syrian army needed to patrol by acting as local security for former rebel communities. Additionally, the Russian military used Failaq al-Khamis to attack ISIS and other terrorist/jihadi groups operating in Syria—shared enemies of the rebels, Russians, and the Assad regime.
Military and territorial power sharing are most important in the case of Failaq al-Khamis. Military power sharing involves granting opposition soldiers the right to remain armed or integrating them into the state military, giving opposing political factions influence in military matters. Territorial power sharing is the decentralization or federalization of state power which grants local governments and communities more power over their own policies. Failaq al-Khamis functions as both because they are rebels who were allowed to remain armed and patrol their communities granting former rebel-aligned territories some autonomy. The rebel groups were not lead by a central command making it impossible to reconcile with all groups at once through a political power sharing agreement, so territorial power sharing and the decentralization of the Assad regime’s power is the most effective way to keep the peace.
Role of Russia
Third-party enforcers are important to maintaining power sharing agreements. However, a third-party enforcer can impede the reconciliation process because their presence can hinder building trust between the formerly warring parties. Instead, they rely on the third party to keep the other faction in check. Russia acted as a mediator in the reconciliation negotiations and became an enforcer of the peace agreement. Russian control of Failaq al-Khamis was initially an effective way to encourage reconciliation because the rebel elements of the opposition consider the Russians to be more professional and trustworthy than the Assad regime. Though the agreement lasted for two years, Russia was more committed to the Assad regime’s interest in defeating remaining rebel fighters in Idlib than maintaining the agreement with the reconciled rebels.
Lessons from the Fifth Legion
Military power sharing is proven to maintain peace between formerly warring parties, and Failaq al-Khamis was an example of the effectiveness of these deals until the Russian military command broke the terms of the agreement. While Assad does not want to give the rebels any semblance of autonomy, he stands to benefit from allowing military units like Failaq al-Khamis to form because by granting militias the right to defend and police their home territories, the Syrian army can avoid entering these formerly hostile communities and possibly incite further resistance. Additionally, instead of conscripting unwilling soldiers into the Syrian army, these special military units can be used to fight the regime’s and former rebel’s mutual enemies who continue to destabilize the region.
The formation and use of Failaq al-Khamis may not be entirely positive. Some critics of the Fifth Legion insist that institutionalizing sectarian auxiliary forces into the greater military structure will encourage sectarianism in the military. In other contexts, this may be true, but in Syria, where the government is a sectarian Shia minority and the population is already divided along sectarian lines, supporting the legitimation of former opposition forces into auxiliary military structure can only protect the vulnerable populations represented in Failaq al-Khamis.
Because this agreement and other aspects of reconciliation agreements were broken by the Assad regime, opposition forces still engaged in combat with the Syrian forces are discouraged from reconciling with the regime. Reneging on reconciliation agreements prolongs the conflict and ultimately costs more resources and lives for the regime and rebels. Though many Syrians are tired of war, the power imbalance between opposition-minded Syrians and the government remains; without stable, reliable reconciliation agreements, conflict becomes more likely in Syria’s future.
 Matthew C. Martin 2017. “Into the Fold: Security Fears and Power Sharing the Credible Commitment of Rebel Military Integration and Durable Peace.” Order No. 10832086, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. https://proxy.library.upenn.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.proxy.library.upenn.edu/docview/2033969511?accountid=14707.
 Caroline Hartzell, and Matthew Hoddie. “Civil War Settlements and the Implementation of Military Power-Sharing Arrangements.”