Security

Hollowed out Syrian army unable to act independently from Russia, Iran

By Waleed Abu al-Khair

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Syrians throw rocks at a Russian military convoy near the village of Ein Diwar in al-Hasakeh province, Syria, on October 11 in an attempt to stop the convoy from reaching its destination. [Delil Souleiman/AFP]

Weakened by a decade of war, the Syrian regime's military apparatus is a husk of its former self, propped up by and operating under the control of foreign powers such as Iran and — in particular — Russia, analysts say.

These forces no longer function as a cohesive army but rather form a patchwork of regular forces and allied militias, with foreign powers vying for control of each and using them to pursue their own agendas.

In this fragmented state, pro-regime forces in the eastern desert (Badiya) have faced a spate of attacks from the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS).

On February 8, for instance, ISIS elements ambushed a regime convoy in Deir Ezzor province, killing at least 26 regime soldiers and allied militiamen, AFP reported.

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A Russian army helicopter, part of a patrol, flies over an oil field in al-Qahtaniyah, al-Hasakeh province, Syria, October 11. [Delil Souleiman/AFP]

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Elements of the Iran-backed Fatemiyoun Division, a militia fighting in Syria, attend an event January 3, the first anniversary of the death of IRGC Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani. [Fatemiyoun/Telegram]

A series of bus ambushes in late December and January also saw the death of dozens of regime soldiers at the hands of ISIS in eastern Syria.

ISIS attacks have killed more than 1,200 regime fighters and allied militia forces since March 2019.

These attacks make one of two things clear, analysts say: either Russian support for Syrian regime forces is severely lacking, or supporting the Syrian regime is not a priority for Russia, as it pursues its wider regional goals.

These goals include gaining control of Syria’s natural resources and its ports.

Hollowing out of regime forces

Though recent incidents have shed light on this situation, the hollowing out of the Syrian army has been under way since the start of the war.

In the early years of the conflict, regime forces suffered from mismanagement, desertion and heavy losses of equipment and personnel in battle, such that by 2013, the army was close to collapse.

In 2015, the Russian regime stepped in, starting the process of rebuilding it.

But the rescue effort created as many problems as it solved for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad — subverting the regime's command and control structure by placing Russian officials at the top of the pyramid.

The regime itself paved the way for its own subordination.

Al-Assad issued Legislative Decree No. 55 in 2013, which enabled the licencing of private security companies. It provided a mechanism through which foreign powers could legally establish an armed presence in Syria.

In a July 2019 report, the Middle East Institute noted that "the preponderance of paramilitary units and the regime's reliance on them" had weakened the SAA high command's ability to co-ordinate offensive and defensive operations.

The proliferation of these militias also created "a serious challenge" to the regime's "ability to maintain order in the areas it controls", the report said.

Militias exert oversized influence

Militias affiliated with Russia and Iran control most regime-held regions, said former Syrian army officer Saleh al-Afisi, who defected from the regime's army and joined the opposition Free Syrian Army in Aleppo.

"Even the regime-loyal militias that emerged at the onset of the [Syrian conflict] now have their loyalties divided between Iran and Russia," he said, pointing out that regime soldiers have no authority on the ground.

"They must co-ordinate with the militias, and there are areas that are totally forbidden to them," he said.

The Syrian army has been beset by defections and the evasion of mandatory military service, he said, noting that in addition to these problems, a growing number of young men are opting to join militias instead of the national army.

The conscription of former opposition fighters has contributed to instability in the military, while at the same time, the regime has failed to make the regular forces an attractive option for militiamen whom it seeks to bring back into the fold.

The capabilities of the Syrian army have declined greatly over the past years, with the number of soldiers, officers and recruits dropping to 140,000 from 600,000 in 2011, said Damascus activist Mohammed al-Beik.

"If we take into account the number of soldiers who must be deployed along the borders and on the internal fronts, we find that the number is totally insufficient," he said. "Add to that the decline in capabilities and lack of a general strategic plan."

Morale has plummeted, he said, as the regime is able to pay soldiers only meagre monthly salaries that are "barely enough to live on for a few days".

Militiamen bring in close to double the salary of regular forces, and many have been able to supplement their income through their control of checkpoints.

As regime soldiers eke out a living, he said, "they are fully aware that Iran- and Russia-affiliated militias pay their elements lucrative salaries compared to theirs".

They know the advantage "is held by the militias who fight alongside them, and not them or their officers, which leaves them on unstable footing", he added.

Russia, Iran seek to gain

In a report last September titled, "Reliable no more? The current state of the Syrian armed forces", the Atlantic Council pointed to the high price the Syrian regime has paid for external help.

"While Moscow and Tehran improved the Syrian army's battlefield effectiveness and reversed its territorial losses, such victory came at a high price as the al-Assad regime's sole monopoly over the military decreased," the report said.

"Both foreign powers are increasingly involved in even the appointment of senior officers, unit commanders, and the leadership of intelligence commands," the report said.

"They also worked—sometimes competitively—towards institutionalising and integrating the many militias into the Syrian army's command structure."

"Decision-making with regards to operational strategies is almost completely controlled by Russia and, to a lesser extent, Iran," it added. "Syrian army units associated with either foreign power increasingly take part in battles planned and conducted by their foreign ally’s troops or advisors."

As a result, the report said, "It can be assumed that Moscow also has influence over the allocation of resources within the military."

"Russia chose to work with the regular army, leaving irregulars to Iranian influence," the Carnegie Middle East Centre notes in a March 2020 report, "The efficiency of the Syrian Armed Forces: an analysis of Russian assistance".

"Russian plans to unite forces under a single command are in direct conflict with the interests of Iran, which Syria relies on for an extensive network of loyal yet irregular formations," it said.

"These units are financed by Iran and are therefore more faithful to Tehran than Damascus. The final word on the composition of the regular army will still be with Russia, and it is unlikely that Russia is ready to yield to Iran in this matter."

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