BEIRUT  - President Bashar al-Assad's regime has put together a new paramilitary force of men and women, some trained by key ally Iran, to fight what is now becoming a guerrilla war, a watchdog said Monday.
The force, dubbed the National Defence Army, gathers together existing popular committees of pro-regime civilian fighters under a new, better-trained and armed hierarchy, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The popular committees were originally formed to protect pro-regime neighbourhoods from rebels.
"The (regular) army is not trained to fight a guerrilla war, so the regime has resorted to creating the National Defence Army," said Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman.
Most of the new fighters are members or supporters of the ruling Baath party, said Abdel Rahman. "They include men and women, and members of all the sects."
The new force is not connected to the pro-regime shabiha militia, which the army and security forces have deployed ever since the outbreak of an anti-regime revolt to help it suppress dissent across the country.
Members of the paramilitary force, like the popular committees before, will focus on fighting in their own neighbourhoods.
On Friday, Moscow's Russia Today reported on its website that the new National Defence Army was being set up to "defend districts against gunmen".
"The Syrian authorities are set to create ... a National Defence Army, parallel to regime forces, so that the (regular) army is freed up for combat," the website reported citing an unnamed official.
Abdel Rahman, whose Observatory relies on a network of activists and medics on the ground, said Iran was involved in building the paramilitary force.
"The paramilitary force includes an elite fighting force trained by Iran," Abdel Rahman told AFP. "Iran has provided training to the paramilitary force's commando fighters."
Meanwhile, the Syrian opposition said on Monday it had postponed a decision on forming a government-in-exile at its meeting in Istanbul, saying it needs guarantees of support from dissident forces on the ground.
The Syrian National Council (SNC), a key component of the umbrella opposition Syrian National Coalition, said the meeting held on Sunday formed a five-member panel to consult with the rebel Free Syrian Army, and other concerned parties on the issue.
"After studying the proposals and after deliberation on the question of creating an interim government, we decided to set up a five-member committee tasked with consulting with the forces of the revolution, the Free Syrian Army and friendly countries," the council said.
Meanwhile, Moscow will on Tuesday send two planes to Lebanon to evacuate over a hundred Russians from Syria, a ministry official said Monday.
"At the request of the Russian leadership, the ministry will send two planes to Beirut in Lebanon so all the Russians who wish to can leave Syria," Irina Rossious, spokeswoman for the emergency situations ministry, was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency.  "More than one hundred Russians are expected to leave Syria on board these planes," she said without giving further details.
The ministry could not be reached for further information late on Monday. Russia is one of the last supporters of the regime in Syria where a 22-month-old uprising against President Bashar al-Assad has left over 60,000 people dead, according to United Nations figures.
The traditional Syria ally has used its veto power as a permanent member of the Security Council to block three resolutions which would have threatened sanctions against Assad.