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.