The National Defence Forces (NDF), also referred to as the National Defence, is arguably the best-known name among the various auxiliary forces fighting on the side of the Syrian government. Yet it is also the case that there is a deficiency in concrete information about the NDF's history and its role in the fighting. Further, rumours have circulated regarding alleged plans to dissolve the NDF.
To discuss these matters and more, I interviewed Abu Talib, one of the founders of the NDF in the eastern Syrian province of Deir az-Zor. To this day he remains an NDF official in Deir az-Zor.
Below is the interview. Explanatory insertions are in square brackets. This interview was conducted on 22-23 August 2018.
Q: Firstly can you tell me a little about yourself? From which area are you and what were you doing before the crisis in Syria?
A: I am from Deir az-Zor and studied at the Arab University of Beirut, the law college, 1987. I graduated in 1991 and did not continue study and worked in self-employment with contracts and undertakings in building and distribution of food. This was so until 2012 at the beginning of the crisis when I formed a small group against the insurgents composed of 13 people affiliated with the air intelligence branch, until the martyr lieutenant general Jami' Jami' summoned me and I met him and he told me of a new formation called the National Defence.
I opened the professionals union after the agreement of the martyr lieutenant general Jami' and I began by establishing the centre and increasing the number of personnel. And after a short time the major general Hamidan al-Arsan came and the defence centre was handed over to him as commander, while I received the position of office director and security official for the centre.
And I continue to work but in a new position: as head of the information branch in the National Defence centre.
Q: Approximately in what month was the National Defence in Deir az-Zor established?
A: In 2013.
Q: Not in 2012?
A: No, the first month of 2013. It [the initial NDF] was established in 2012 in Damascus.
Q: Fine. What was the role of the Iranian side in establishing, training and arming the National Defence in the beginning? Because there is a lot of talk about this matter but I don't know the truth.
A: There is no role for it [the Iranian side]. The first role for the party [Hezbollah] was in offering salaries.
Q: You mean Hezbollah?
Q: But the idea of establishing the National Defence was from the Syrian military command?
A: Yes, from the general command for the Syrian Arab Army, and note that there are officers in the general secretariat and all the centres in which they are appointed.
Q: Yes. So what was the main reason for establishing the National Defence?
A: It was self-evident that there is an elite from the people defending their homeland and country against those who engaged in chaos, destruction and displacing people from their lands. And the establishment of the National Defence was an important matter as it includes both civilians and military personnel and both of them are in the battle in defence of the land and honour. And of course members of the National Defence have had the important role in defending the city, especially during the siege of it.
Q: Yes. I was going to ask. What have been the most important battles for the National Defence in Deir az-Zor? How many martyrs does it have?
A: They resisted with all their capabilities and force so that the organization (Da'esh) could not enter the city [the government-held parts of it] and indeed they were not able to enter. There are 750 martyrs for the National Defence centre in Deir az-Zor and 300 wounded. And most of the martyrs were in the battle of al-Maqabir and the al-Baghilih region, and Hawija Sakr from the side of al-Jafra.
Q: When were these battles exactly?
A: In 2016 and 2017. Of course that was through the presence of the national leaders Mr. Firas al-Jiham (Abu Ali)- the leader of the National Defence [in Deir az-Zor]- and his deputy Emad Muhanna. And they were leading the battles themselves. Of course these people are field commanders on the ground and were with us from the beginning of the crisis.
Q: Yes. During the  American strikes on the positions of the army and the auxiliary forces near Deir az-Zor airport, were there martyrs for the National Defence in this incident?
A: There were martyrs from our ranks and all the forces.
Q: Do you remember the number of martyrs for the National Defence in this incident?
A: 22 martyrs.
Q: With the end of most of the military operations in Deir az-Zor what are the responsibilities of the National Defence in Deir az-Zor today?
A: Of course our members are still in the most important points of confronting the armed gangs in the desert. And there are important points on the bank of the [Euphrates] river for the presence of the personnel with the aim of preventing infiltrations through the river.
Q: By desert, do you mean the desert between Deir az-Zor province and Homs province?
A: I mean the desert to the southwest of the city towards al-Tanf.
Q: Yes exactly. Because it's said that Da'esh is still present there.
A: Yes according to the information.
Q: There are rumours about the arrest of dozens of members of the National Defence in Deir az-Zor because of pressure from the Iranian side. What is your response to these words?
A: There is no truth to these words. A quarrel of tongue began in the Albukamal area between people and it ended on its land. And I am responsible for my words.
Q: Yes. It is said that the personal quarrel was between members of the National Defence and the Iraqi Harakat al-Nujaba'. Is this true?
A: Of course there were some people from al-Nujaba' [in Albukamal] but they have no relation with the problem. The quarrel was between members of the National Defence and people recruited into the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. A personal quarrel, nothing more.
Q: Yes I have understood you. Thanks for the clarification. Fine. Of course, the National Defence is not on the registers of the army and armed forces, whereas the Local Defence that works with the Iranian side is on the registers of the army and armed forces. Have you asked the Syrian government to recognise the National Defence as official forces?
A: Of course there has been a dispute regarding this matter. And I have no response on this matter. In the end we are auxiliary forces.
Q: Currently there are no salaries for members of the National Defence?
A: Regarding salaries Hezbollah offered salaries in the beginning of opening the path and that was to affiliate the personnel to them, but the salaries were stopped. And currently the leader of the National Defence offers the salaries.
Q: You mean the leader of the National Defence in Deir az-Zor?
A: Yes, the leader of the National Defence.
Q: Yes. Of course there is talk of a plan to dissolve the National Defence generally in the near future. Is this talk true?
A: The rumours are many and there is no truth to this talk currently.
Q: Yes. After the liberation of Deir az-Zor, did many of the youth of the province join the National Defence (for example in Albukamal and al-Mayadeen)?
A: Yes of course. The majority have been recruited for the interest of the National Defence.
Q: Can we say that there is competition between the National Defence and other formations to recruit the youth?
A: There is nothing called competition. We are all in the same boat and under the roof of the homeland and the master of the homeland.
Q: Currently does the National Defence offer taswiyat al-awda' [sorting out of affairs/regularizing status] for the youth? The training for the youth in the National Defence is at the hands of army officers who work with the National Defence?
A: Roughly speaking, the majority [of the trainers] are from the army officers and a portion from the hujjaj [senior personnel] of Hezbollah. The issue of taswiyat awda' of the personnel is under consideration: affiliating them with military units while they remain for the interest of the [National] Defence.