National Security

Former Amusement Park Manager Now Major Warlord In Syria

REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki/File Photo

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Russ Read Pentagon/Foreign Policy Reporter
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Syria’s former entertainment business magnate went from managing amusement parks to supporting one of Syria’s most murderous pro-government militia groups, and he is not the only one to do so.

Sami Aubry made his name as the owner of a majority of Syria’s amusement parks, including the country’s own version of Chuck-E-Cheese family restaurants. Today, he heads up the Syrian National Defense Forces [NDF], one of the largest pro-government militias supporting dictator Bashar al-Assad. He is one of many so-called “robber-barons,” namely, Assad allies who have become warlords due to the Syrian civil war.

“In many instances, localized pro-Assad militias are led by robber-barons and opportunists who hail from the areas they purport to control,” wrote Jett Goldsmith in a piece for Bellingcat Thursday.

While it may seem strange for an amusement park owner to turn into the leader of a national militia, cronyism has been a hallmark of the Assad regime since Bashar’s father, Hafez, was in power. In fact, the Assad family developed its own brand of cronyism which exists to this day.

“The term shabiha, which was coined by Syrians to refer to the state-sanctioned quasi-military paramilitary groups founded by Hafez al-Assad in the 1980s to traffick drugs and engage in illegel economic activities, means ‘ghosts’ — a reference to the shabiha’s apparent impunity for punishment.”

Aubry was known to give free rides to poor children in Aleppo before the war. Today, those same rides and amusement parks are relics among the husks of buildings that once made up one of Syria’s largest cities. Aubry became a warlord partially due to the fact his business was effectively upended.

The NDF formed in 2013 when the Assad government formalized the hundreds of pro-government militias operating in Syria. Shabihas like Aubry were allowed to raise their own private armies in their locales, effectively making them warlords.

The NDF is unique in that it is actively supplied and funded by the Syrian government; most militias have nothing more than a formal association to the government. Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, leader of the notorious Qods Force, is reported to have personally overseen the formation of the militia group. Like Aubry, Soleimani is also a warlord, although much more infamous and influential. He is responsible for all Iranian covert operations in the Middle East, and is believed to have supplied the penetrator explosives which massacred U.S. troops during the occupation of Iraq.

End strength for Aubry’s NDF is estimated to run upwards of 100,000. Most of the militia fighters are relegated to fighting in their home towns, though heavy casualties in the Syrian regular army permit an expanded role.

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