The Syrian Phoenix is Arising

The Syrian military has embarked on a process of reconstruction and rehabilitation after a bloody civil war that lasted several long years. A review of the Syrian efforts (with Russian and Iranian support) to restore their military to its former glory

A Syrian Army commander in the town of Rastan, Syria (Photo: AP)

Against the background of the victories of the Syrian military over the opposition forces in the course of the last offensive, with support provided by Russia, Iran, Hezbollah and the various Shi'ite militia forces, the Syrian military has embarked on a process of reconstruction and rehabilitation. This effort comes in the wake of a long, exhausting war that led to the near annihilation of the Syrian military in the various battles it waged, until foreign intervention, mainly by Russia, brought about a reversal of the situation on the battlefield in favor of the Assad regime and its armed forces.

The Russians are intensively involved in this rehabilitation process, and according to the Syrian website Zaman al-Wasl, the process follows a Russian plan. The Syrian military had undergone similar processes at least three times during its history in the past fifty years: after the Six-Day War (1967), after the Yom-Kippur War (1973) and after the First Lebanon War (Operation Peace for Galilee, 1982). The roles the Russians play today and the Soviets had played back then, were to plan the rehabilitation process and supervise it and to supply new (and in some cases cutting-edge) weapon systems to the Syrian military. Additionally, they deployed hundreds of consultants and specialists to help the Syrians assimilate the new weapon systems, teach them how to operate those systems and drill the Syrian military so that it regains full operational competence.

Beyond the direct involvement of Russian forces (mainly Russian aerial forces operating out of Khmeimim airbase in northern Syria) in the fighting in the last two years, the Russians have been involved in the reorganization and reconstruction of the Syrian military. Among other things, they have been implementing the lessons learned over the course of the prolonged civil war, which started in 2011. Information published recently points to the elements of the reconstruction process, which the Russians and Syrians are implementing according to the plan prepared by Russian military specialists operating in Syria. These elements include various organizational and structural changes, at the Syrian GHQ as well as in the field formations.

One of the moves already taken, according to the information, is the merging of two important elements of the military in the field of personnel: the organization and administration directorate and the officer administration – a powerful administrative body within the Syrian military. The new element created by the merger is the personnel directorate or administration. The person appointed to head the new directorate is Liwaa (major general) Bassem Warda, formerly the head of the officer administration. The previous head of the organization and administration directorate, Liwaa Adnan Mukhrez Abdo, has been appointed as the commander of the Syrian Southern Command, which is responsible, among other things, for the area opposite the Golan Heights and the border with Israel.

Apparently, this change was intended to enable the Syrian military to deal effectively with the extensive range of problems that emerged during the war in the field of personnel, against the background of the heavy casualties it sustained, the massive desertions and its efforts to renew the regular draft (which suffered serious interruptions during the war). All of these processes led to a decrease in the scope of personnel throughout the military during the war, and particularly among the combat field units.

In merging the aforementioned elements, the Syrian authorities may have also intended to improve the regime's security supervision over the entire officer cadre of the Syrian military and the officers' loyalty – a traditionally sensitive and highly important aspect of the relations between the regime and the military in Syria.

Rehabilitation of Armored Divisions

Last June, a process of rehabilitation and reorganization began within the Syrian First Armored Division, henceforth designated the First Mechanized Infantry Division. According to the report on Zaman al-Wasl, during the civil war the Division's brigades sustained substantial casualties in weapon systems (with the emphasis on the weapon systems of the armored elements) on the scale of 40% to 65%. In the context of the rehabilitation process, the Russians have recently delivered the first shipment of new Armored Personnel Carriers (APCs) to the Syrians.

Before the outbreak of the civil war, the First Armored Division had consisted of four brigades, of which three were armored brigades – the 91st, 76th and 57th – and one (the 58th) was a mechanized infantry brigade, plus the 141st Divisional Artillery Group. Each armored brigade had consisted of three tank battalions with 33 tanks in each battalion, plus a mechanized infantry battalion with 31 BMP Armored Personnel Carriers, an artillery battalion with 18 self-propelled guns and an air-defense battalion operating ZSU-23x4 self-propelled antiaircraft guns (Russian designation "Shilka").

In the context of the rehabilitation process, only the 91st Brigade will remain an armored brigade, with its tank fleet complemented by the tanks transferred to it from the two other armored brigades. Consequently, the two other brigades will be converted to mechanized infantry brigades. Each brigade will consist of one tank battalion (which, according to the new standard, will include 41 tanks), plus three mechanized infantry battalions, each with 31 BMP Armored Personnel Carriers, an artillery battalion with self-propelled guns and an air-defense battalion, similar to the armored brigades. Additional tanks remaining from the other divisional units will transfer to other formations of the Syrian military, which operate tanks of the same model.

Once the Syrians have completed the rehabilitation of this division, they will initiate the rehabilitation of the Third Armored Division and the other armored divisions the Syrian Army had prior to the outbreak of the war, all in line with the Russian rehabilitation plan. Notably, the elements that assisted the First Armored Division in its combat operations against the opposition were forces of the Palestinian Liberation Army (PLA), as indicated by the letter of appreciation published by the division commander, Liwaa Zuhayr Tawfiq al-Assad. In the letter addressed to the warfighters of the 413rd commando battalion from the Hettin Brigade of PLA, the division commander expresses his appreciation for their courageous fighting against the opposition elements (originally "The armed terrorist groups") and hopes to continue the joint fighting on the way from the Golan Heights to Jerusalem (al-Quds). Notably, this brigade fought shoulder to shoulder with the Syrian Army in the Syrian offensive on the Golan Heights during the Yom-Kippur War of 1973. During that war, this particular battalion was attached to the Syrian Fifth Division, which fought in the southern part of the Golan Heights.

New Appointments & Promotions

In the context of the officer cadre restructuring, the Syrian military published the new appointments on July 1, in their "Military Bulletin." This document, normally published twice a year (in early January and early July), deals with officer transfers and promotions within the Syrian military. This time it reported numerous changes, notably at the Air Force HQ and the units subordinated to it.

According to the Syrian source, the most important information in the bulletin involves the continued service of Liwaa Jamil al-Hassan as Head of the Air Force Intelligence Division, one of the worst intelligence agencies in Syria, which al-Hassan has headed since the outbreak of the civil war. Owing to his activity against opposition elements, al-Hassan gained prominence as one of the most senior regime functionaries accused of War Crimes. He belongs to a group of senior officials upon whom the West imposed sanctions and a German court has recently issued a warrant for his arrest.

Additionally, the Syrian military extended the service term of Liwaa Pilot Ahmad Baloul as Air Force Commander – a position he has held since January 2013. Baloul faces accusations for issuing most of the orders for the air strikes by Syrian Air Force fighters against opposition elements (including civilians). The Syrian authorities promoted the commander of the air college to the position of Deputy Air Force Commander and appointed the commander of the 59th Air Brigade in his place. The 59th Air Brigade is a helicopter force whose pilots excelled at dropping barrel bombs on opposition strongholds in the various villages and towns of Syria. Consequently, the commander of the 59th Brigade is regarded as one of the most prominent officers of the Syrian Air Force and its helicopter force facing accusations for war crimes. His replacement also faces accusations for war crimes, for the same reason. Other air force commanders whom the authorities have recently appointed to senior positions in the helicopter brigades also face accusations for war crimes owing to the role they had played in the attacks and the dropping of barrel bombs on population centers during the civil war.

The Syrian source also reported that the Syrian Air Force currently suffers from a serious shortage of weapon systems – fighter aircraft and helicopters, as well as from a shortage of pilots and mechanics. Another problem the Syrian Air Force currently faces is the lack of pilot regeneration. The pilots currently serving in the various squadrons are relatively old. Pilots at the ranks of Aqid (colonel) and Amid (brigadier general) currently account for more than 80% of the pilot complement of every squadron. This situation is the result of the fact that the war had interrupted the pilot training process in the last few years, and no new pilots of lower ranks have been assigned to the various squadrons. Additionally, the squadrons were unable to train new pilots owing to the deterioration in the technical state of their remaining active aircraft, and the fact that they used the remaining flight hours to attack the villages and towns in the areas outside of the regime's control.

More on the Syrian Air Force: according to a report published by a Syrian human rights organization, the Syrian Air Force had dropped, in the past six months of 2018, more than 2,900 barrel bombs, including 400 barrel bombs dropped in the month of June alone, mostly in air strikes in the Daraa Governorate. These and other pilots, who were involved in those operations and received no promotion in the last bulletin, will most likely get their promotion in the next bulletin, which the Syrian military authorities would publish in early 2019. In this way, those who helped the Syrian regime remain in power, fight against the opposition forces and butcher the Syrian people receive their just rewards, on behalf of the regime, for their part in the civil war.

Additionally, it is reasonable to assume that the Syrian Air Force is also included in the rehabilitation plan for the Syrian military the Russians are currently leading in Syria.

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