Original by Kirill Semyonov, the Director of the Islamic Studies Center at the Innovative Development Institute, published by Russian Council of International Affairs; translation by J.Hawk
Since the beginning of the civil war, the Bashar al-Assad government has taken measures to adapt loyal armed formations to the conditions of internal conflict for which they turned out to be absolutely unprepared. This article is intended to track the dynamics in the evolution of the structure of the armed forces and paramilitary formations which have supported Damascus throughout the conflict.
The Syrian Arab Army
The Syrian Arab Army (SAA) was dominated by armored and mechanized divisions. There were 11 such divisions, plus two divisions of “special forces”, the 14th and the 15th which was created just before the outbreak of the war. They had a surplus of tanks and other AFVs, but were lacking in mobile, well-trained units. They also had a cumbersome organizational structure and could not pursue missions in the context of an internal conflict.
The mass desertions put paid on their battleworthiness, except for the 4th Mechanized, 14th and 15th Special Forces, and the Republican Guard. The other divisions, whose HQs simultaneously served as military district HQs, combined their battleworthy components under one of the division’s four brigade HQs. Thus, for example, the 1st Tank Division used the 76th Brigade, and the 10th Division the 56th Brigade. Divisional HQs also served as the basis for establishing territorial command structures, most of which are still active today (other than the divisional HQ in Raqqa). They served as the basis for territorial or static defense forces.
The majority of divisions and brigades existed as such only on paper and in news reports. In actuality, they represent no combat value. They instead resemble the divisions and brigades of the Russian Army from the First Chechen Campaign. This situation still persists today, and the second fall of Palmyra in December 2016 plainly demonstrated it. Military units in nearby Homs Province were unable to send significant reinforcements to the Tadmor garrison, even though on paper these forces looked fearsome enough. As a result, in the first phase of the war the main challenges facing the Syrian government were providing personnel for SAA units, and dealing with the shortage of mobile units and light infantry capable of quickly closing breaches and parrying threats on various sectors of the front, or of conducting operations in urban environment or in close terrain.
The four infantry brigades formed after 1982 for operations in the mountains of Lebanon quickly lost their combat worth as their personnel was drawn from Syrians who were not loyal to the regime. Assad’s government could therefore count only on the 14th and 15th Divisions to provide mobile light infantry. Their units operated all over the country and were sent to various sectors of the front. Similar work was performed by the separate special operations regiments. They were “special operations” only in a relative sense, and they were used exclusively as light infantry and assault units. But one should recognize that in terms of their combat training, they were superior to other Syrian forces.
In terms of mobile armored and mechanized units used all over Syria, the most threatened sectors saw the deployment of the brigades and battalions of the 4th Mechanized Division reinforced by units from other “heavy” divisions. Tank and mechanized battalion battlegroups were often used as armor support for units of the 14th and 15th Divisions. Later on, Lebanese Hezbollah detachments were used as the infantry component of the 4th Division, for example during the battle for Aleppo.
Shabikha and the National Defense Forces (NDF)
Damascus was unable to fully reconstitute the SAA due to the mass evasion of military service. It was therefore forced to emulate its opponents by allowing loyal groups, parties, and popular movements, to create own armed formations without oversight by Damascus.
The formation of a large number of paramilitary groups of various provenance, undertaken by local Ba’ath party cells, major businessmen connected to the Assad regime, or even local organized crime, solved the problem of armed forces personnel shortage in 2012. These paramilitary groups were transformed into infantry units, under the general name of Shabikha, that were used to reinforce existing SAA units. Beginning in 2012, Shabikha appeared all over those parts of Syria still under government control. At the time, they were 40 thousand strong. Since then, their strength had only grown.
Some Shabikha units operated only in specific areas, such as the city or town where they were formed. Others, for example those formed by influential magnates, could be used all over Syria. These units also greatly varied in terms of their equipment, training, and discipline. Some were simply local forces, others had a complex hierarchy that led all the way to Damascus. In any event, Shabikha had saved the army from being attrited away, and in some instances they proved to be more effective and resilient in urban warfare or defense of towns than regular SAA forces.
Many of these formations had acquired an evil reputation due to committing crimes against the civilian population, reflected in UN documents. In spite of the commonly held view, far from all of the Shabikha groups were Alawite. Some were formed from among the Sunni. For example, in Aleppo the role of Shabikha was filled by the Barri Sunni gangster clan, infamous for its cruelty; a similar reputation was on by a Christian crime clan which used to control smuggling and which became Shabikha in the area of El-Quseira.
The next stage of the armed conflict saw the reformation of the heterogeneous irregular formations in order to bring them into a common structure and give them more or less unified organization. Starting in 2013, Syrian government created the National Defense Forces (NDF) subordinated to the “People’s Committees.” NDF’s formation took place with the participation of Iranian military advisors who proposed Iran’s Baseej paramilitary militia’s structure and training program.
Foreign Shia Groups
Formations under direct control of the Iranian Al-Quds command are also operating in Syria. They include the Fatimion recruited from among the Afghan Shia (their overall strength in camps in Iran is about 18 thousand, with 3-5 thousand being in Syria at any one time on rotation basis) and the Pakistani Zeinabion.
The “Syrian Hezbollah”–Syrian Shia Groups
The Russian Trail: Volunteer Assault Corps
Moreover, yet another new trend was the strengthening of the Republican Guard, which in the end will absorb all the more capable SAA units. As an example, one can cite the 30th Republican Guard Division, a new Aleppo-based formation which will comprise all the SAA units operating in the vicinity of the city.
At every stage of reforming and improving battleworthiness of loyal forces, the Assad regime has established a variety of new structures, with varying level of dependence on or independence from Damascus. Each of them rests on this or that foreign or internal sponsor, acting as its de-facto “proxy.”
In and of itself, the existence of such a heterogeneous mass of formations that are not fully controlled by Damascus means a time bomb is being placed under Syria (and not just under its government), makes it more difficult to implement ceasefires and demands clear policies to be adopted regarding the future of these formations.
I like this realistic analysis. Well done.
God bless the SAA and its allies, they will be victorious.
Iran has a huge stake in Syria and Russia needs to deal with this directly by clearly dividing areas of responsibility and admitting the truth: Iran saved Syria and needs its rewards. Unless they do that Iran will undermine any attempt by Russia to reconstitute the Syrian Ba’ath state.
Russia needs to defend abortion rights as it does in Russia, and Drive antiabortion Iran out of Syria, backing the YPJ with the US if necessary.
Well although Iran has provided the manpower Russia has also been essential and have proven to have a better doctorine since the intro of the 5th corps they have been engaging successfully in many fronts even though it’s just new , whilst as a comparison the Iranian doctorine is more defensive and has no long-term goal (Probable using tactics from the Iran-Iraq war) and also lack the ability to provide much air defense and supremacy unlike Russia which has achieved substantial results in little time.
Well Russian air force and military in general is a lot better and larger than Iran’s, so thats only natural, but no doubt Iran’s contribution is helping as well I’m sure.
O of course but Syria is also secular and Iran although an ally isn’t and the Russians are better at providing support and training of troops so in the long run I prefer Russias view
Russia is a world power with global interests. Iran is a regional, sectoral and religious power. I prefer Russia’s broader and secular perspective.
Therefore Russia has the right to demand abortion rights as in Russia. At least on it’s own base like in Bahrain.
This is the very essence of the Syria situation (and applies to other factionalised and proxy-directed Middle East countries). Great guidance and leadership is needed. Carrot and stick must be applied to many parties. Nothing is guaranteed. Long road or short road, we will see.
I would appreciate a likewise analysis of the SDF forces, maybe concentrated upon the YPG and YPJ
One thing is clear to me, not completely a surptise, is that Assad is totally depending upon his foreign backers, not only for arms and airforce, but more surprising, upon their manpower.
According to this article with Syrians evading military service and mass desertions it is quite obvious that Syria doesn’t need saving. Should have let the US and her allies take Syria and many lives would have been saved. If the citizens of Syria run from a conflict then they do not deserve to be defended. By all appearances the Syrian government is going to loose especially now that the US has managed to infiltrate the North and South Eastern regions of Syria and will eventually be partitioned. Russia also is too keen to marry herself to the US.
Like in Iraq?
Hasbara troll, go away, bother someone else.
Do you speak for all Syrians? Are you aware the NATO/GCC sponsored militants were always Sunni extremists, it was always a Muslim Brotherhood armed revolt from very outset, and they have a nasty little mantra – ‘Christians to Lebanon and Alawites/Shia into the Sea’?
Yes, Bob. This was always an extermination campaign on the part of the invaders. Only I would not call them sunni extremists, and not even salafi jihadists (jihad struggle is actually something to do with the Quran, this is not), although some of those have joined up. The salafists are being used as pawn as always. Properly speaking they are led by international criminals using insurgency as a cover for plundering a country and destroying their culture. You could only survive them by joining them, if even then. The planning of this take-down took years. But because Syria is a unified culture and the Syrian people finally understood collectively what was done to them they resist (even though they are not very war-like) and the invasion has failed to kill of Syria as a country. New plans are being put into action now by the attackers (IS has lived its day and will be thrown under the bus) and we will see if they will get anywhere. Syria may continue as a smaller country for a while, but it will survive, it always has.
YPJ are no sunni extremists or Muslim brotherhood. They defend abortion rights and I hope they can do so all over the Middle East including Israel; and Africa too.
Why are you so fixated on abortion – and use it as the entire basis for your commentary on the current conflict in Syria? They are not exactly integrally related issues.
The war happened because Assad’s abortion ban produced more people than water in Syria, and for no other reason.
Syria experienced a prolonged and serious drought throughout the 2000’s. Country’s closer to the equatorial band will at times experience periodic historical droughts, and as in Syria the more serious droughts tend to drag on for the best part of a decade. Likewise, Australia equally, had significant drought cycle throughout same 2000’s time frame. It is related to global weather patterns and geographical position, with regard to central equatorial band of planet. Interestingly, the Syrian drought was actually basis for CIA strategic report produced in late 2000’s. That report concluded disaffected Syrian small farmers coming off unsuccessful drought affected farming ventures – essentially in conservative rural Sunni provinces – could be potential in an active (sectarian) Syrian armed opposition, in conjunction with Muslim brotherhood based in those same rural areas. Syria actually has major water assets for a middle eastern country. The upper Euphrates River runs right across the drier eastern half of the country. With hydro electric power system/ dams running off it – critical Syrian state infrastructure assets – which are notably the ongoing strategic focus of both ISIS and US backed SDF military control. Do you have any statistical data that Syria has in any way a permanent ratio imbalance of population as per water allocation resources? You have made yet a further direct correlation between population, water supply and separate a third issue of abortion. That is the sort of claim that actually requires some hard data with numbers to be in any way credible. Based on your remarks, am curious if you are you operating from a Mathusian type ideology, or some other ideological position, of a need to reduce overall world population?
Malthus described the problem accurately and inspired Darwin. Malthus’ recommendations were overly harsh due to inadequate med tech at the time.
It is difficult to judge citizens in a country that is in a civil war. One day you find yourself in a situation in wich you have to fight your neighbor or even your brother. You might say that the existential questions of Syrians in Syria are very different from the existential questions of most SF readers.
Those Syrians who are still with the Gov. (in arms or as civilian) are the real Syrians.
No, they are not! They do not go to fight. Bunch of deserteurs, nothing else. IF they were REAL syrians, then the SAA would not have problems with manpower.
By defending abortion rights, YPJ deserves both Russian and US support, and is getting it; unlike other rebel factions like FSA.
In my mind this iss more or less what the analysis said too.
As far as I can see only the islamist can find recruits (by paying them?) and the SDF can find recruits willing to fight outside of their villages or towns. Both have to some extent an ideological advantage. The kurds especially within the YPG and YPJ, truly inspiring, even to those non kurdish.
That is why SDF forces are now over 100.000 (excluding conscript HXP forces) , not a mean achievenment for a proto state with maybe some three to four million inhabitants.
Unfortunately they are not all Kurds but also include ‘rebel’ militants. Going to be a major problem when there is a ceasation of conflict and the 100,000 odd fighters have to be dispersed, quite a lot of them are not Syrian nationalists.
Assad is a clown who takes more than seven years and is still not able to secure his country despite massive Russian and Iranian aid ? Israel should invade and finish this guy off. Israel is still at war with Syria and he supports Hezbollah his “army” fires missiles and mortars into Israel.
Israel deserves 3 megatons on Tel Aviv. Then the lighting juice can ran in the world…
Pathetic Hasbara troll again, go away. Hezbollah will eat your soldiers alive.
“Hezbollah will eat your soldiers alive.!
such reactions are contraproductive
I think u are the one who needs to be finished off
Do you think that Nusra or the other jihadists will be better neighbors than Assad? Think again. Israel should not intervene in Syria and Russia should ensure that the Syrian / Israeli border is quiet.
Fuck you Nic_223. Spend your time in Haifa until Hezb rockets will hit it and your pissed soul.
YPJ should bring abortion rights back to Tel Aviv, as well as Damascus and Mecca.
No problem, this Great Army of Revenge will take back Golan…
Americas friends, the jihadists are taking the whole south
Never will come the PMU to help. And in short time they take road 95 and cut/isolate deir ez zor …
Perhaps ISUS is waiting for FSA to build a supply base at T2 airfield. And then will attack during a sandstorm to collect all the goodies ?
ISIS has finished. And americas friends are able to destroy armored vehicles with suicide fanatics.
really, i think the gane is over. syrians are cowards, eho do not want to fight for their homeland amd putin coward and overcomplicated zero. after meeting in istanbuk, where obama told him, that it can be much, much worse for russia, he turned by 180°.
I think this is an expression of the agreement between Russia and the Americans. The Kurds will get eastern Syria, the “rebels” southern Syria. And Assad will get the heart of Syria, from Damascus to Latakia. That is how Russia insure Assad’s rule and the Americans are blocking Iran.
I think this, too. But this agreement is betray, nothing else. What do you think, how will be able to exist the wetern part wuthout resources and Eufrates? How will give food for population, now concentrated under Assad? No chance for long existence.
They are smuggling already. Once calm is restored, they will start trading as has already started between Assad and SDF. They have complementary economies, they have to trade or perish.
Northern Syria will provide oil, gas, cotton, wheat and electricity and water. Assad medicines, parts, manufactured good, fertilizer.
Northern Syria will rapidly start diversifying its economy. Small scale industrialisation, diversifying the present agricultural monopoly of wheat and cotton already started.
There is already a small building boom in Northern Syria.
Dier Ezzor is already Isolated. FSA/US forces will relieve civilians and bring food. YPJ relief would do better still, but southern forces will be a big improvement over ISIS.
Good job, SF!
Only saudi-neocon propagandistic shit, picked up acritically by a wannabe russian ‘expert’, who calling Shabihas (wahhabi outrageous nickname for patriotic syrians), the syrian patriotic antiterrorist fighters.