Will the Saudi-Iranian Confrontation be Decided in Syria?

Shi'ite and Sunni Muslims have been fighting a bitter all-out war in the Middle East over the last few years. Will the battles raging on Syrian soil decide the outcome of the struggle between the aspiring leaders of the region? Exclusive analysis

Will the Saudi-Iranian Confrontation be Decided in Syria?

We have recently witnessed some important changes in the context of the prolonged, bloody fighting taking place in Syria. The military forces of the Assad regime and their supporters are suffering defeats on the battlefield and losing control over more and more territory. These progressions have also been reflected through the media recently.

In his "struggle for survival" speech, Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, whose forces are fighting alongside the disintegrating Syrian military, presented to his followers the connection between the collapse of the regime in Syria and the continued survival of the organization he heads. Ironically, Nasrallah addressed this issue on the 15th anniversary of the pullout of the IDF from Lebanon – an event regarded by Hezbollah as an important victory over the IDF and the State of Israel. This was demonstrated when Nasrallah compared Israel's military strength to "cobwebs" in his speech at Bint Jbeil on May 26, 2000. Nasrallah explained that it would be better to defend Lebanon with the actual fighting conducted on Syrian soil than to engage in fighting on Lebanese soil. He promised to further intensify his organization's involvement in the fighting in Syria as circumstances will require.
Another media event was Al-Jazeera's interview  with Abu Mohammad al-Julani, the leader of the Jabhat al-Nusra organization affiliated to al-Qaeda, which fights the Syrian military and the forces of Hezbollah (on May 27). This interview followed the rebels' victory in the campaign over the Idlib governorate, because of which the opposition forces drew even closer to the Alawite-dominated governorate of Latakiya in the coastal region. Al-Julani promised that "it will not be too long before Assad falls," and that his organization will capture Damascus. He added that Hezbollah, which helps Assad remain in power in Syria, "knows its fate is interlinked with that of the Syrian president, and that their efforts to save him will not succeed."

At the same time, the way Russia conducts its affairs vis-à-vis Syria indicates that the Russian regime is turning its back on the Syrian regime, with whom it maintained a relationship of friendship and cooperation for decades.
This is evidenced by the recent evacuation of 100 Russian specialists and their families from Syria, a move reminiscent, to some extent, of the evacuation of the Russian specialists' families from Egypt and Syria on the eve of the Yom-Kippur War in 1973 (according to reports by the newspaper 'Asharq al-Awsat'). Even prior to that (on February 25, 2015), the Russians signed an agreement with Cyprus which allows Russian Navy vessels, as well as Russian aircraft, to use the sea ports and airports on the island. This naturally suggests that the Russians have found an alternative for the naval base in Tartus, Syria, which they have been using for many years, and that due to the events in Syria they no longer use this base as intensively as they used to.

The Syrian Military

Since the outbreak of the civil war, the Syrian military has been deployed and engaged in combat operations in various sectors across the country, as stated by the Syrian ambassador to the UN, Bashar al-Ja'afari: "The Syrian military has been fighting on 400 fronts against 2,000 organizations." Since the beginning of the rebellion, in March 2011, the forces of the Syrian military have grown progressively weaker, quantitatively and morally, and it is undergoing a process of disintegration, which has intensified over the last year. This has led to the increasing involvement of the various militias fighting alongside the Syrian military, including the forces of Lebanese Hezbollah and Syrian Hezbollah, all through Iranian backing and support. One of the articles published recently on this subject summarized this process using the following headline: "Autumn for the military of the Syrian Regime, Spring for the Militias".

The nature of the ethnic conflict has dictated a situation where the manpower of the Syrian military is based primarily on members of the Alawite community, which is a minority within Syria. This has been one of the reasons for the disintegration of the Syrian military since the rebellion began. According to various analysts, the Syrian regime is currently reaping what it has sown and cultivated over their 50 years in power – ethnic segregation, corruption and personal interests. These analysts claim that the Syrian military is currently experiencing the same process the Iraqi military had experienced, except this time the blows are not being inflicted by a foreign conqueror but by elements that had emerged from the Syrian military itself.

The process began with the desertion of officers and enlisted men from the ranks of the Syrian military, as early as the outbreak of the civil war in 2011. These desertions led to the establishment of a new military force – the Free Syrian Army – made up of deserters and members of various opposition groups, which has been fighting the Syrian military ever since.
According to a detailed report issued by the joint HQ of the Free Syrian Army early last year, the total number of Syrian military deserters and military service dodgers was 190,000 men. Some 3,000 deserter officers currently stay in refugee camps in Jordan and Turkey, while in Syria, about 3,700 former Syrian military officers are fighting the Syrian military as members of the various opposition groups. The attempts of the Syrian authorities to mobilize reservists in order to reinforce the ranks failed, and many reservists deserted and joined the opposition forces. These figures should be complemented by the statistics of the losses suffered by the Syrian military thus far, as well as by the numbers of wounded servicemen and troopers taken prisoner. According to the same report, the Syrian military and security forces had lost 135,000 men up to that date. Another report, issued by the Syrian Human Rights Organization in August 2014, states that the total number of servicemen who remained in the Syrian military comes to about 70,000 men, as opposed to the manpower of nearly 420,000 officers and enlisted men prior to the outbreak of the civil war.

This disintegration of the Syrian military is reflected not only in the dramatic reduction of its manpower, but also in the serious damage sustained by its Order of Battle and command and control system. The damage has been inflicted on a large number of military formations and command centers by the opposition forces fighting them as well as by the forces of ISIS.
As early as 2013, elements within the Syrian military estimated that it was losing its strength: from the outbreak of the crisis to that date, the military had lost about two-thirds of its combat strength. About 800 tanks and other armored vehicles were either damaged or destroyed in the fighting. This nearly equals the amount damaged and destroyed during the Yom-Kippur War of 1973. The losses sustained by the forces of the Assad regime were more than 25,000 killed in action, mostly from the military and some from the various security forces – eight times the number of losses they had suffered in the Yom-Kippur War, and about 30,000 wounded in action – three times as much as they had suffered during that war.

It has also suffered substantial command losses. Since the beginning of 2015 alone, the Syrian military has about 200 officers of various ranks killed in action: 5 Liwa'a (major-general) officers, 28 Ammid (brigadier-general) officers, 26 Aqid (colonel) officers and about 140 officers of other ranks. Additionally, 15 Iranian and Afghan officers and some Palestinian officers that were loyal to the Assad regime were also killed in action. This has affected, first and foremost, the Alawite community, as the majority of the officers killed were members of that community.
Several divisions can no longer be regarded as a fighting force (after being stricken off the Syrian OrBat). The 18th Division, for example, had disintegrated almost completely. Similarly, the 17th Division was eliminated by ISIS in the battles around Raqqa, in north-eastern Syria. Other brigades and commando forces, regarded as the elite fighting forces of the Assad regime, suffered the same fate in battles around Aleppo and other sectors in northern Syria. Syrian forces on the scope of more than a division, including elite Presidential Guard forces, commando forces and army militia forces, alongside national/popular defense forces and Hezbollah forces, took part in the battle for Idlib.

The 5th, 7th and 9th Divisions, deployed in southern Syria and charged with defending the Golan Heights, shared the same fate: they lost a major percentage of their brigades as well as their command of the front opposite the Golan Heights. Some of the troopers of these divisions escaped to Jordan and refused to fight – neither against their former comrades-in-arms, nor against the civilian population and the rebels. The same may be said of the Syrian 1st and 3rd Armored Divisions, which evolved from elite combat formations into security forces assigned to guard airbases and other strategic objectives in the Damascus area and outside it. Additionally, the number of people reporting for military service and reserve duty decreased substantially in all Syrian governorates (with the exception of the Alawite-dominated governorates of the coastal region).

The Syrian Air Force and air-defense forces shared the same fate: opposition forces, including ISIS, dominated a substantial part of the Syrian airbases and air-defense units in various parts of the country. The personnel of these forces suffered, too. Many servicemen, especially the technical crews, escaped their bases. Some of the helicopters were shot down while others were rendered unserviceable: they cannot be repaired in Syria and have to be shipped to Russia. As far as air crews (pilots, navigators and technicians) are concerned, it may be stated that the opposition forces executed the most severe massacre in the history of this force since its establishment. The number of pilots decommissioned for various reasons – killed, imprisoned or wounded – is about 300. Most of them were murdered outside their service stations, either at their homes or on their way to their units. Additionally, more than 700 navigators and technicians were decommissioned.

The Syrian Air Force is still active, however, and in the last six months its helicopters dropped more than 7,000 explosive drums – a new, improvised weapon – on opposition objectives, normally in urban areas throughout the country, which resulted primarily in civilian casualties. Additionally, Syrian Air Force fighters flew about 5,800 strike missions. The Syrian air-defense layout is no longer operational, which explains the occasional reports of unidentified aircraft flying over Syria and attacking various weapon system objectives.

Corruption in the military is yet another factor that affects the state of the Syrian military, as since the outbreak of the civil war Syrian officers have sold arms and ammunition from army stores to opposition elements for cash, and even enabled servicemen to escape for substantial bribes.

The distrust between the servicemen that remained in the military and their commanders should be added to this equation. The Syrian commanders looked after their own skin first, and distanced themselves from the combat zones, as was during the recent battles, leaving their subordinates as easy prey for their enemies. This conduct led to the assignment of Iranian officers to various units, to supervise the Syrian officers, which led to friction and even to firefights between the two sides on several occasions.

In various places, units of the Syrian military evolved into fighting militia groups that are loyal to their commanders and are not organized according to accepted military patterns or standards. These groups were formed by commanders who are loyal to the Assad regime, and were involved in combat operations that even resulted in some local success, but were eventually eliminated in battles against the opposition forces – as was the case in Idlib recently.

All of these elements failed to help the Syrian leadership prevent the attrition of the military, so it was forced to enlist the assistance of all those foreign elements – Hezbollah from Lebanon and various militia groups from Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan, as well as Palestinian militia groups – to fight alongside the Syrian military and the militia groups that are loyal to the regime. This only made the situation worse and added to the confusion and disorder on the ground, especially among the commanders of the Syrian military, who had actually lost control over the fighting and the developments in the field. According to various reports, the friction that developed between the commanders of the Syrian military and the leaders of the militia groups sabotaged quite a few military operations conducted against the opposition forces.

The failures of the Syrian military at the operational level that we have witnessed recently – like the attacks staged in the Hauran area and southern Syria, in the Idlib governorate and in Tadmor – led to the use of psychological warfare in order to glorify successes, mainly at the local, tactical level. The defeat in the Idlib governorate probably constitutes a turning point in the fighting. Its primary significance is the fact that it enabled the opposition forces to draw nearer to the coastal region (Latakiya) and that it whet their appetite for subsequent operations (according to Abu Mohammad al-Julani).

This dramatic reversal on the battlefield, which has been reflected in a series of defeats and withdrawals by forces of the Assad regime and its supporters in the face of the opposition and ISIS forces constitutes, in the opinion of several analysts, a clear indication of the imminent collapse of the Syrian military.

Lebanese Hezbollah & Syrian Hezbollah

Lebanese Hezbollah has been involved in the fighting since the first half of 2013, for the purpose of preventing the collapse of the Syrian regime and also in order to prevent the end of the organization itself, as stated by its leader, Hassan Nasrallah. Hezbollah's primary (and only) success was the capturing of the city of al-Qusayr in June 2013. According to various sources, Hezbollah has committed about 7,000 warfighters, probably the majority of its regular force, which constitutes the elite combat element of this organization. Nasrallah promised in his speech to commit all of his forces to the war in Syria. He has at his disposal an additional force of tens of thousands of warfighters who are not as well trained as those currently fighting in Syria.

The fighting in Syria has exacted a toll – about 1,300 Hezbollah warfighters, possibly more, were killed in action. The deteriorating state of the Syrian military has only increased the burden borne by Hezbollah, and according to Nasrallah himself, it has also solidified his commitment to saving the Syrian regime as well as to saving his own organization. The organization is attempting to mobilize additional forces in Lebanon among the Palestinian refugees that have fled to Lebanon from Syria and even among the inhabitants of the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, due to the increasing internal pressure exerted on Hezbollah inside Lebanon, owing to its involvement in the fighting in Syria. Conversely, its intensified involvement in the fighting enhances the will of opposition elements in Syria (like Jabhat al-Nusra) to enter Lebanon and engage Hezbollah there. Consequently, the collapse of the Syrian military could determine the fate of this organization, and possibly the fate of Lebanon as a whole.

Syrian Hezbollah is a force organized by the Iranians, which consists primarily of Shi'ite Iranian warfighters from Iran's Revolutionary Guards, Basij and other volunteers, Shi'ite warfighters from Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, etc. This force, which is similar in its characteristics to the Lebanese Hezbollah, also totals a few thousands of warfighters and is under Iranian control. The extent of its cooperation with the Syrian military has not been determined. In this context, it should be noted that Syrian Defense Minister Fahd Jassem al-Freij visited Iran in April of this year, ostensibly in order to present the plight of the Syrian military to the Iranians, along with the need for additional support.

The Opposition Forces

Conversely, the opposition forces, notably the Free Syrian Army, have managed over the last year to assimilate and implement the lessons they drew during the previous years of fighting. They united their forces under a joint command, organized them as a regular military force in battalions, brigades and divisions and received – and are still receiving – new weapon systems, equipment and financing from outside sources. Morale among those forces in on the rise and their successes present the forces of the Syrian regime with the challenge of their continued survival.

According to various analysts, this change stems, among other things, from the recent diplomatic effort on the regional level led by the new ruler of Saudi Arabia, King Salman, aimed at assisting the opposition in Syria. This effort succeeded in establishing a triple cooperative alliance with Turkey and Qatar with regard to assistance for the opposition forces fighting against the Syrian regime, and has been reflected primarily in the supply of manpower and weapon systems to these forces. This assistance was reflected in the actual fighting and has boosted confidence among the leaders of the opposition elements regarding their imminent victory over the hated regime in Damascus.

It appears as though the civil war in Syria is approaching a decisive stage, be it in the Damascus basin or in the Alawite-dominated coastal region. The efforts by the Sunni coalition led by Saudi Arabia in support of the Sunni opposition forces in Syria have been reflected on the ground, opposite the failures and defeats sustained by the Syrian military and its Shi'ite supporters. The Sunni-Shi'ite conflict, represented by Saudi Arabia and its allies in the Gulf plus Turkey on the one hand, opposite Iran and its satellites on the other hand, is now becoming more acute through the fighting taking place in Syria, which is apparently drawing to a conclusion in this part of the region. This is possibly a response to the Iranian effort and their support of the Houthi rebels in Yemen, who fight against Saudi Arabia, and to the developments in Iraq, and constitutes a part of the effort made by the Sunni coalition to prevent Iran from executing its expansion plans in the Middle East.

Iran is currently facing a dilemma, namely which front they should concentrate their efforts against: Syria, Iraq or Yemen – with the negotiations the Iranians are engaged in with the West on the subject of their nuclear program and the lifting of the economic sanctions looming in the background. In light of the above, Syria could prove to be the first front where Iran could suffer a strategic defeat in the titanic struggle it is engaged in with the Sunni forces of the region. The Iranian leadership should decide how to prevent this defeat, either by dispatching substantial forces into Syria, which will prolong the fighting there for years, or by initiating a direct, overt war against Saudi Arabia and her supporters, which could drag into this vortex the western superpowers headed by the USA – something the Obama government is definitely not interested in. Apparently, additional developments and reversals can still be expected in the context of this struggle. In any case, the anticipated collapse of the Syrian military – the mainstay of the Ba'ath regime and one of its most prominent symbols – could mark the collapse of the other elements of the present Syrian regime and lead to the opening of a new leaf in the history of Syria.

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