Conflict and Fragility

Policy briefs

The Syrian Desert Hawks: flying no more

12 Feb 2020 - 18:25
Source: Syria, 2008. © Photo

The Desert Hawks were a pro-Assad paramilitary group of 5,000 - 12,000 fighters that fought in the Syrian civil war between 2014 - 2017. Its postmortem highlights how the politics of coercion and the economics of loyalty can link in a wartime autocracy. Having amassed their fortune and influence in Syria before 2011 as part of the patronage systems of the Assad family, the brothers Mohammad, Ayman and Ibrahim Jaber created the Desert Hawks when wartime manpower shortages threatened regime survival.

The paramilitary group gradually took on front line roles and contributed to several regime victories. In return, its fighters received generous salaries and its leaders a stake in Syrian war economy – continuing peacetime patterns of patronage and loyalty. The group also (ab)used its coercive capabilities to enrich itself. Eventually, its greed and arrogance resulted in swift disbandment by the same regime it had faithfully served, as a warning to others that President Assad remained firmly in control.

Download the policy brief