The Syrian Military Rises from the Ashes

Assad's military underwent a profound upheaval during the years of the civil war, which brought it to the point of almost complete dissolution. However, the increased Russian involvement in the country has contributed greatly to the rehabilitation of the Syrian Armed Forces. All of these developments also include some good news for Israel


Syrian army. Photo: AP

Over the course of the civil war that raged in Syria in the years 2011-2018, all of the branches of the Syrian military underwent changes and upheavals that made it necessary to rehabilitate and rebuild the organization subject to the constraints that currently exist in Syria, mainly those imposed by Syria's allies – Russia and Iran.

Until the outbreak of the events of the Arab Spring in Syria, in March 2011, the Syrian Army was the primary element of the armed forces. It consisted of three army corps, each one controlling a different region of the country.


The Syrian Spring Army

With the outbreak of the events the Syrian opposition refers to as "The Syrian Revolution," the regime began to employ the forces of the military in the various sectors throughout Syria, using live fire against the civilian demonstrators. The fast rate at which the events spread through the country presented the regime with a problem it had not anticipated, namely – that the scope of forces available was not enough to handle everything that was happening throughout the country. This problem proved to be particularly acute as an extensive wave of desertion started within the military. A new army, the Free Syrian Army, was established to face Assad's forces. In 2013, a new enemy of the regime appeared on the scene – the Islamic State organization. ISIS evolved into a serious threat pursuant to its successes opposite the forces of the regular army.

In addition to the desertions, the Syrian Army faced increasing difficulties like massive casualties, the cessation of recruitment among members of the Sunni community (the majority community in Syria), and the substantial damage to weapon systems, sustained mainly by the air force, but by the ground forces and military infrastructures as well. Apparently, the weapon system losses have not been filled to this day, as Russia has not supplied new weapon systems to replace those lost in the war.

All of these factors led to a significant reduction in the scope and strength of the military. A military force with a personnel of more than 400,000 men before the outbreak of the civil war was reduced to an organization of fewer than 100,000 men. That was the situation before the beginning of the Russian intervention, with the emphasis on the ground forces and on the substantial degradation in the competence of the military, its operational potential and its ability to fight the various opposition forces. The fragmented deployment of forces to the various parts of the country had initially prevented the concentration of force opposite the enemy. Subsequently, the military focused its efforts mainly on the urban areas: the Damascus basin, the Alawite area along the coast, and the corridor linking these two areas. Against this background, the Syrians were compelled to request the military intervention of Hezbollah, Iran, and Russia.

This state of affairs led to a disruption of the order of battle and organizational structure of the forces, to the downsizing of the existing divisions to the scale of brigades and the splitting thereof to the various parts of the country. Additionally, the situation led to the emergence of local armed militia forces, loyal to the regime, which fought alongside the units of the Syrian Army. In the years 2014-2015, the Syrians began to establish new locally-based brigades, which led to the establishment of new divisions of a similar nature. The Syrians attempted, mainly in the last two years, to forcibly recruit youngsters from the Sunni areas they had recaptured, including men who had belonged to the opposition forces that operated there. These attempts often encountered resistance on the part of the local population.

Since the Russian intervention in Syria began, in September 2015, Moscow has been increasingly involved in the rehabilitation and reorganization of the Syrian military and in converting it to a force that is loyal mainly to the Russian forces operating in Syria. This process took place at the same time as the efforts made by Iran to secure the loyalty of various units of the Syrian military. According to studies in the western world and the Arab world, which monitor the developments in this field, the Syrian regime and the Russians have thus far initiated four major moves intended to rehabilitate the military and incorporate the loyal armed militia elements into it.


Complete Units Eradicated

As stated, the entire Syrian military underwent a severe upheaval during the civil war. Many servicemen (about 190,000, according to some estimates) deserted. It sustained more than 100,000 deaths and a massive number of injuries. Only recently, the Syrian Ministry of Defense announced that the war left some 185,000 military personnel invalid, including reservists. The war also led to the disintegration of the existing frameworks and to changes in the subordination of brigades among different divisions, including the new divisions established during the war, owing to the changes of deployment between the various theaters of operations.

Most of the divisions of the three original army corps, which had existed before the outbreak of the civil war, were severely damaged. As far as the GHQ reserve forces were concerned, the 4th Division and the Republican Guard Division operated as offensive forces against the opposition forces in the Damascus area and other sectors throughout Syria. These units, too, lost many of their men.

After the Syrian Army recaptured the city of Aleppo in northern Syria, the Syrians established, in January 2017, a new division – the 30th Division. This division would serve as a parent command for all of the units of the Republican Guard that fought in this sector, as well as for all of the irregular elements and militia forces loyal to the regime that operated there. According to various sources, this division consists of three brigades and three Special Forces groups, some of which were established during the war, while others were attached to it. The new division constitutes a part of the Republican Guard. Some of the Guard's other units are deployed in the Damascus area and charged with the task of protecting the government.


The Militia Forces Entered the Vacuum

Against the background of the deteriorating situation of the Syrian military during the civil war, militia elements – local armed forces – started to organize as of 2012 in various areas across Syria. These militia forces were intended primarily to defend the civilian population against attacks by the opposition forces, and to prevent total chaos in the country. These militia forces were loyal to the regime and received its support. They operated both independently and alongside the dwindled elements of the military.

Some of the militia forces included remnants of Syrian military units damaged during the fighting. Some of them maintained connections with establishment organs, like the Tiger forces that were associated with Syrian Air Force Intelligence. Other militia forces were independent organizations engaged in security work, including security for such vital sites as gas and oil installations.

In addition to the establishment of the local militia forces, foreign militia elements started to arrive in Syria as of 2012. These were mainly Shi'ite militia forces from Iraq. They arrived, among other things, in order to protect the holy sites of Shi'ite Islam in the Damascus area. Other militia forces were organized by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and other elements. Forces from Hezbollah joined the fighting in 2013.

One of the problematic results of the emergence of militia forces and the fact that the regime relied on them pertained to the aspect of command, as these elements often operated independently and without any connection to the plans and tactics of the Syrian military. This had an adverse effect on the ability of the Syrian command to execute operations, both offensive and defensive, which were coordinated between the military and the militia forces. Additionally, this created a difficulty for the government in Damascus to govern the areas liberated and maintain law and order in those areas, as the militia forces and their commanders did whatever they pleased in those areas, including attacks against the local population and war crimes. In some cases, the government had to act against those elements and even dissolve them.

Apparently, in the last two years, the Syrian military endeavors to incorporate these militia forces in the various formations of the Army, as part of the rehabilitation process and as one of the solutions to the manpower shortage problem.


Disassembly and Reassembly

The Russian intervention in the Syrian civil war, in late 2015, brought with it the potential for the rehabilitation and reorganization of the Syrian military, in addition to the Russian intention to control the military and some of the militia forces operating on the ground that were loyal to them. The Russians realized that in order to save the Syrian regime from a total collapse, the deterioration of the military must be stopped and it must be rehabilitated and reorganized as a primary support for the regime, under complete Russian control and supervision. Since then, we have witnessed several primary efforts that were intended to implement the process led by the Russians.

The first step was the establishment of a new force in October 2015, a month after the Russian forces had arrived in Syria, named the 4th Assault Army Corps. The term "assault" has been well known in the Red Army since the days of World War II, and indicated that the force was intended to execute offensive moves against the enemy. Indeed, the announcement of the Syrian Chief of Staff regarding the establishment of this force coincided with his announcement regarding the launching of an extensive offensive by the Syrian Army against the strongholds of the enemies – Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS. This offensive was staged at the same time as the first Russian airstrikes against these elements. This move could indicate, allegedly, that the Syrian Army was still capable of building up new forces, despite the manpower limitations it was facing, and of embarking on offensive operations against its enemies, despite the failures and defeats it had sustained up to that point.

Some observers regard this move as a Russian measure against the Iranian intervention and the militia forces the Iranians were employing in Syria at that time. In effect, the forces of this Army Corps took only a limited part in the offensive moves staged in the area of Latakia on the Syrian coast and in the theater of operations to the north of Hama, to which the Russian and Syrian air forces provided support. The new Army Corps had a joint Syrian-Russian command structure, and a substantial part of its personnel consisted of servicemen and volunteers, as well as loyal local militia elements, who hailed from these two areas – which should have helped the Army Corps fight in those areas, as those people were familiar with the territory.

According to the various sources, the new Army Corps consisted of six brigades, some of which were well-known from the past. According to researchers, at its peak the Army Corps had a personnel of some 12,000 men. Despite the hopes and expectations, however, this Army Corps demonstrated poor operational performance against the opposition forces it fought in the Latakia area, and for this reason it was regarded as a failure. This led to a Russian decision to establish, in November 2016, a new Army Corps under their full command, named the 5th Assault Army Corps. The objective of this force was to "eliminate the terrorists." This Army Corps, too, was established on the basis of loyal militia forces, along with volunteers and servicemen, and men who had not been recruited into military service before.

The establishment of this Army Corps indicated the expansion of Russian military involvement in the war, beyond air support for the Syrian forces, to ground combat operations as well. The Russians trained the warfighters of the new Army Corps, and attached to it such elite Syrian units as the Tiger forces as well as Russian ground units deployed to Syria for this purpose. In the summer of 2017, they fought in central and eastern Syria. The new Army Corps was equipped with Russian weapon systems – T-62 tanks, BMP armored personnel carriers, cutting-edge anti-tank guided missiles, and more. The new Army Corps received Russian air support out of Khmeimim airbase.

During the battles of September 2017, the Russian commander of the Army Corps, Lt. Gen. Valery Asapov, was killed during the fighting in the Deir ez-Zor sector, eastern Syria. Since then, the new Army Corps evolved into the ground arm of the Russian intervention in Syria, and the Syrian force most loyal to Russia in that country. The Army Corps operated in 2018 and 2019 in sectors in southern Syria, like Daraa, as well as in sectors in northern Syria, like Homs, Hama, and Idlib, enlisting the support of local militia forces, some of which joined its ranks.


The Russian Army Corps

Commentators monitoring the operations of this Army Corps have noted that it failed to demonstrate high operational capabilities in the battles in which it participated, with the exception of the Tiger forces subordinated to it, and that other forces, like the 4th Division, normally led the attacks. The other elements of this Army Corps served as support elements and as occupation forces in areas captured by the leading forces. For example, in the last battles in the Idlib area and to the north of Hama, this Army Corps demonstrated very poor performance on the ground, despite the substantial air support it received, and sustained hundreds of deaths.

This Army Corps consisted of seven brigades, with no divisional commands, and at its peak had a personnel of some 15,000 men. Since its establishment, its brigades operated in various sectors, mainly in northern and eastern Syria, but in the Damascus area as well. Some commentators regard the personnel make-up of this Army Corps, their lack of motivation, poor military training, and non-military organizational structure as the main reasons for its poor performance during the war.

According to commentators, the establishment of this Army Corps was a Russian move intended to constitute a response to the Shi'ite militia forces the Iranians deployed to Syria, which created serious disorders in the setup of forces that operated alongside the forces of the regime, thereby undermining their operational effectiveness on the ground. This contradicted the Russian doctrine, so the Russians wanted to restrict the activity of these forces on the ground, and even have them dissolved altogether. The Russians refused to depend on the Iranian militia forces and insisted on maintaining their operational latitude according to their plans. The establishment of the new Army Corps, which was not associated with the Syrian Army, also enabled them to recruit Syrian youngsters who resisted being recruited into the units of the Syrian Army itself, into their own ranks.

One of the recent moves associated with this Army Corps was the conversion of the Tiger forces into a new division – the 25th Special Missions & Counterterrorism Division. The commander of the Tiger forces, Suheil al-Hassan, a favorite of the Russians, was appointed as commander of the new Division. The regime and the military initiated this move, according to commentators, under Russian influence. Apparently, this move adds up to a series of moves that indicate the expansion of the Russian influence on the Syrian military, although some observers believe that it actually indicates a restriction of the freedom of operation the Tiger forces enjoyed when they operated as part of the 5th Army Corps.

This move could indicate the beginning of the process of incorporating the units of this Army Corps into the Syrian Army, in the context of the rehabilitation of the military and with the emphasis placed on the integration of militia elements into the military as regular forces. This could also be the first step in a process of building up a regular force within the Army that is loyal to the Russians, which would, in the future, be able to stand up to elements loyal to Iran, like the 4th Division, the Presidential Guard Division and Air Force Intelligence, to which the Tiger forces had belonged until the establishment of the 5th Army Corps.


Not Preoccupied with Israel

As stated, the Russians were the driving force behind the process of rehabilitating the Syrian military, both in order to reinforce the power base of the regime and to influence the moves of that regime by ensuring the loyalty of the military units at the same time as the Iranian efforts toward the same goal. Apparently, in the last two years, an intensive effort has been underway to rehabilitate the military, mainly with regard to the ground forces, with Russian assistance, with the intention of building up a new military of a national nature, which would not be involved in internal politics. The Russians apparently follow a plan they had consolidated, which is binding upon the Syrian regime and military. In any case, this plan does not include any involvement by Iran or Hezbollah.

Apparently, the emphasis is placed, first and foremost, on filling the ranks of the various formations with new personnel, including former rebels who went along with the efforts toward reconciliation with the regime, and having the new personnel trained by the Russians. The shortage in weapon systems, mainly tanks and other armored vehicles, and the lessons derived from the long war led the Syrian military, according to commentators, to realize that the most significant challenge facing it is not conducting a conventional war against Israel, but the domestic threats. Consequently, it would seem that the direction toward which the ground forces are being built at the present time is the establishment of mechanized infantry formations, which may be deployed promptly to handle spots of insurgency throughout the country.

According to various sources, the Russian effort focuses on the rehabilitation of some of the well-established divisions of the Syrian Army, and on training the new recruits and former rebels. The Syrian regime also intends to rehabilitate the Special Forces units and the Republican Guard Division. On the other hand, at this stage, the Russians seem unable to gain a foothold in the 4th Division, commanded by the Syrian President's brother, Maher al-Assad, who is very loyal to the Iranians. Maher al-Assad is also close to Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the IRGC Quds Force, and fully cooperates with these elements. It should be noted that his forces have clashed with militia forces loyal to the Russians on a number of occasions in the last year. Apparently, this division conducts its training activities without any Russian involvement – only with the assistance of Iranian instructors.

As stated, one of the most important changes in the training activity conducted by the Russians involves indoctrination, or "political guidance" – the Syrian term for it, a process which takes place as per Russian Army standards – unlike anything Assad's military had been accustomed to. The emphasis is placed on the soldier's duty to defend the state and the nation, not the regime and the leader, President Bashar al-Assad. One of the objectives of this particular training activity is to enhance military discipline and prevent and minimize the phenomenon of desertion, as encountered during the war. This indirect method is intended to intensify the Russian influence on the military at the expense of the Iranian influence. In this context, according to various sources, the Russians compelled President Assad to dismiss hundreds of military officers whose allegiance was pro-Iranian, and brought about the appointment of numerous officers who had shown loyalty to them, in the military as well as in the security and intelligence services. In the same way, senior officers were appointed to various positions in the general staff and divisional commands.

While rehabilitating the Syrian military, the Russians are attempting to build another military, different from the one that had existed until the outbreak of the civil war. The new military should have a national nature which unifies all of the elements of the Syrian nation, and would enable the attainment of peace and stability for the country. According to commentators, the Russians and the Syrian regime face some serious obstacles on the way to implementing these objectives, including the ethnic diversity; corruption; the involvement and influence of Iran and Hezbollah; the Alawite control of the military and the security and intelligence services and the traditional "ownership" (domination) of the families of the regime – Assad and Makhlouf – over the 4th and Republican Guard Divisions; the problem of incorporating the various militia elements in the military; and other hindrances.


Unclear Future

Against this background, the public and the media addressing the subject are unclear about the future, the developments likely to take place, and their direction. Additionally, questions arise regarding the size of the military, its nature, armament, the extent of the Syrian regime's independent control over it opposite the Russian control over it, and other issues. Among other things, rumors abound regarding a Russian intention to establish another army corps – the 6th Army Corps, whose personnel will consist primarily of former rebels, who agreed to the reconciliation with the regime. All of these will have implications on the Russian side, too, as it will consolidate its hold in Syria through an ever-increasing number of Russian consultants and instructors it would send to this country in the future, in addition to those already operating there. Additionally, there are rumors regarding the conversion of the well-established units into regional commands – much like the situation in the Russian military.

The path toward a complete rehabilitation of the Syrian military and the restoration thereof to full operational competence is still long, and substantial efforts still have to be invested toward that goal, while coping with all of the restrictions and obstacles along the way. At the same time, the Russians seem to possess the necessary patience and probably intend to remain in Syria for many years.

One of the focal points of the changes in recent years has been the senior officer cadre. Apparently, the Russians currently determine the appointments to the senior positions within the military, and make it a point of promoting officers who are loyal to them to these positions, while distancing officers identified with Iran. These measures are intended to help them fulfill their vision for the rehabilitation and subsequent domination of the Syrian military.

The aspiration for a national military and for incorporating former rebels in the new military could calm the situation on the ground and also resolve, to a considerable extent, the problem of manpower for the military. At the same time, substantial efforts will have to be invested in addressing the ethnic issue and the sediments and sensitivities accumulated mainly by the Sunni community toward the Alawites, for their acts during the war.

The Syrian military has embarked on a new path following a difficult and exhausting war, in which it demonstrated very poor operational performance against irregular forces of the opposition and ISIS – forces that were highly motivated to defeat it. Will the rehabilitation process bring the Syrian military to a new and different status? Only time will tell.

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