The Syrian Army in the Civil War
It is difficult to assess the state of Syria's Army after more than two years of civil war. It is in the interests of the regime to depict themselves as confident and powerful, and in the interests of the rebels to depict a crumbling regime on the brink of collapse. This is an important question for a number of reasons, not least of which is understanding the origins of the 21 August 2013 poison gas attack.
By the end of 2017, US officials believed about 80 percent of troops fighting in the ranks of pro-government forces in Syria are foreigners, including the combatants from Iran, Iraq and Lebanon, citing the military operation to liberate the city of Al Bukamal from the internationally-condemned terrorist group Daesh (ISIS). Damascus would barely be able to effectively control the regions previously controlled by opposition movements or by the Kurdish troops even after their liberation, The Syrian Arab Army’s (SyAA) answer to Erwin Rommel was a man named Suheil al-Hassan. Nicknamed “The Tiger” (al-Nimr), al-Hassan has emerged as the SyAA’s best-known commander in the current Syrian War. Since 2012 he and his “Tiger Forces” have achieved a string of battlefield victories. His carefully cultivated media image has provided a boost to the Syrian military’s battered morale. Key to alHassan’s effectiveness as a commander is his ability to effectively combine SyAA infantry, artillery and airpower.[i] He has been willing to use all firepower available, making real the loyalist forces slogan “Assad or we will burn down the country.” In a military faced with manpower shortages and plagued by intrigues, corruption and administrative confusion, this was no small feat.
Al-Hassan’s men - the “Tiger Forces” - became a media item. The term was used vaguely, referring to either his commando forces, all men directly under his command, or all who fought in his campaigns. One media report estimated their numbers at 1,000; another guessed 15,000.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said on 31 August 2013 that allegations about the Syrian government using chemical weapons against civilians were a “provocation.” “I am sure this was no more than a provocation by those looking to drag other countries [into the conflict] and obtain support of powerful international player, particularly the United States,” Putin said about the chemical attack that reportedly killed hundreds. “Common sense speaks for itself – government troops are advancing, in some regions they surrounded the insurgents,” Putin said. “In such conditions, giving a trump card to those who have always been calling for a foreign military intervention is simply unimaginable nonsense.”
Bild am Sonntag reported 08 September 2013 that German intelligence sources suggest Forces loyal to President Assad had been asking him for four months to use chemical weapons against the rebels, but they still received no approval from the Syrian leader. Whatever else, this suggests that Syrian commanders believed the situation on the ground was deteriorating.
Christopher Swift, a professor of national security studies at Georgetown University, told Navy Times in August 2013 that while some Sunnis and Christians have defected, the Syrian military remains an Alawite force that is committed to maintaining the state’s control over other ethnic groups. “If you look at the Alawite officer corps, those are the people who are at the pinnacle of society in terms of status and in terms of their economic well being, they’re also a minority, so they’re not just fighting for their country and fighting for their unit, they’re fighting for their clan and tribe”.
According to former head of IDF military intelligence Amos Yadlin, "Syria, the country with the strongest armed forces among all of Israel’s enemies, is in the midst of a tiring civil war that is depleting its military’s strength, readiness, and morale." Maj. Gen. Mohammed Ezz al-Din Khalouf, a top Syrian general who defected from President Bashar al-Assad's government in March 2013, told an Arabic news station that morale among security forces in Syria was at a low. Khalouf, who had headed logistics and supply for the Syrian army, told Al Arabiya that many tied to Assad had lost faith, but continued to pledge their allegiance to the president. "It is only for appearance's sake to present an image to the international community showing that the regime is the one that pulls together all segments of Syrian society under."
General Mohammad Al-Zobi, who defected in May 2012, told the Guardian 27 July 2012 : The benzine is nearly finished. They are running out of rockets. There is scarcely any bread or water for the soldiers." According to Zobi, the embattled Syrian regime can last "one or two months at most". "After that Assad will leave Syria. He'll go to Russia or maybe Iran," Zobi predicted. But 18 months later, Assad remained in power.
As recently as mid-2012, President Bashar al-Assad’s army - then estimated at between 200,000 and 250,000 troops - was seen as a highly-capable military force by regional standards. "When you compare it to neighboring states such as Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt, it is one of the largest forces," said Aram Nerguizian, a Syria expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "It does have pockets of excellence." Nerguizian pointed out "You have units like the Republican Guard and units that Maher al-Assad [President Assad's brother] controls that are markedly more effective, and there are essentially elite units and very loyal to Assad, capable in urban fighting."
The IISS Military Balance for 2013 reported that "The nominal pre-war strength of the army has likely been reduced by half: the result of a combination of defections, desertions and casualties. The most capable and reliable of those remaining are the mainly Alawite Special Forces, the Republican Guard, and the elite 3rd and 4th divisions: perhaps 50,000 troops in total." Salem Zahran, an analyst and journalist who met regularly with leaders of the Assad government, said in May 2013 that "The army is 70 percent Sunni, and so the regime kept a lot of them in their barracks". Sunnis constitute about 74 percent of the population.
Jaysh al-Sha'bi and the Shabiha are pro-regime militias that had been instrumental in the Asad regime’s campaign of terror and violence against the citizens of Syria. Jaysh al-Sha’bi was created, and continues to be maintained, with support from Iran and Hizballah and is modeled after the Iranian Basij militia, which has proven itself effective at using violence and intimidation to suppress political dissent within Iran. In a disturbing and dangerous trend, mass killings allegedly perpetrated by Popular Committees have at times taken on sectarian overtones.
The Shiite Hezbollah are fighting alongside are fighting alongside regime troops in Syria. Much is at stake for the militant group: if Assad's regime fell, Hezbollah would be weakened in Lebanon. The number of Hezbollah fighters killed in Syria was not small. According to Syrian human rights activists, by May 2013 the Lebanese group lost more than 100 fighters since getting involved in the Syrian civil war; Hezbollah conceded 75 dead. It was not clear how deeply Hezbollah had become involved in Syria. There might be several several thousand fighters, and by one estimate Between 4,000 and 7,000 Hezbollah guerrillas were in Syria.
By September 2013 some analysts estimated Hezbollah had fielded up to 10,000 experienced fighters and given the Assad regime the edge in key encounters such as the capture in June 2013 of the strategic town of Qusair on the Syrian-Lebanese frontier that had been in rebel hands for a year. Iraqi Shiite volunteers have also bolstered Assad’s forces.
The commander in chief of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps confirmed 15 September 2012 that personnel from the Quds division were providing “intellectual and advisory help.” He added that Iran might get involved militarily if its ally Syria came under attack. General Mohammad Ali Jafari told a news conference: “Because of the special situation in Lebanon and Syria, a number of Quds forces have been in those countries. However, that does not mean we have a military presence there.” By mid=2013 there was said to be "thousands" of Iranian fighters in Syria.
As of 2013 open source estimates placed the total strength of the opposition forces at over 100,000 combatants. Syria's opposition fighters are varied, divided among several factions with differing agendas, though all share the goal of ousting the government of Bashar al-Assad. The Free Syrian Army, a self-declared non-sectarian group, is the largest and most established opposition faction, numbering about 50,000 people. The 37,000-strong Syrian Islamic Liberation Front [aka Syrian Liberation Front] and the Syrian Islamic Front - which includes some 13,000 Salafi combatants - are two other militant groups supported by Saudi Arabia. Qatar supports a separate Salafi group known as Ahfad al-Rasoul Brigade with around 15,000 combatants. The 6,000-strong extremist al-Nusra Front [Jabhat al-Nusra = Victory Front] is a jihadist group that has pledged allegiance to al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and to al-Qaida in Iraq.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights documented 110,371 casualties since the beginning of the uprisings in 18/3/2011, from the first casualty in Dera'a, up till 31/08/2013:
- Unidentified casualties (documented by pictures and footages): 2,726.
- Civilians: 40,146. Including 5,833 children and 3,905 women.
- Rebel fighters: 15,992.
- Rebel fighters (most of which are non-Syrian and others are unidentified): 3,730.
- Defected soldiers and officers: 2,128.
- Regular soldiers and officers: 27,654.
- Popular defense committees, National defense forces, Shabiha and pro-regime informers: 17,824.
- Fighters from the Lebanese Hezbollah: 171.
In The Human cost of the Syrian Civil War, a report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, published on 03 September 2013, Anthony H. Cordesman wrote "We also estimate the real number of casualties from regular forces and rebel fighters to be twice the number documented, because both sides are discreet about the human losses caused by clashes."
This would suggest that about 45,000 rebel fighters had been killed over the first two years of the war, with over 50,000 government troops killed in action over the same period. These numbers are a little difficult to understand. By mid-2013 all opposition groups combined were estimated to include about 120,000 fighters. It is plausible that these groups could have made up their losses through fresh recruitment. The IISS Military Balance for 2013 reported that "The nominal pre-war strength of the army has likely been reduced by half: the result of a combination of defections, desertions and casualties." The relatively small number of defected soldiers and officers killed would tend to suggest that the deserters [who abandoned the battlefield] vastly outnumber defectors [who switched sides]. By IISS estimates, the strength of Syrian army had fallen from 220,000 to 110,000. Accepting Cordesman's estimate of over 50,000 battle deaths implies about 25% of the Syrian army has been killed in action. Accepting a standard 3-to-1 ratio of wounded to killed would imply 150,000 wounded, given 50,000 killed. Taken together, these number suggest that most of the Syrian army present at the outbreak of hostilities had either been killed or wounded two years later.
During the Great War, Russia mobilized 12,000,000 troops, of whom 1,700,000 [14% of those mobilized] were killed before the Russian army collapsed. Germany mobilized 11,000,000 troops, of whom 1,800,000 [16% of those mobilized] were killed before the Russian army collapsed.
A presidential decree promulgated in March 2013 required all 18-year-olds to report for military duty, or face arrest. Boys appearing to be 18 were detained at checkpoints. At Al-Madakah checkpoint (Dara’a), soldiers routinely arrested and ill-treated young men on the pretext that they had not enlisted. On 11 March 2013 the Grand Mufti of the Syrian Arab Republic, Sheikh Ahmad Badr al-Din Hassoun, urged Syrians of all religions to join the army. “Syria is the last model of a civilised nation which converts diversity into richness instead of clashes and weakness,” he said. Syria's Grand Mufti said: "I urge the sons of Syria to join the army and fight for the unity of this great country." He called on parents to push their children "toward this duty, and do not worry, for they will not be killed, only rewarded by God." He said this was a duty for all Muslims. Out of a population of over 22 million, Sunnis constitute 74 percent of the population and are present throughout the country.
In an article on the NPR website dated March 12, 2013, written by "a Syrian citizen in Damascus who is not being further identified out of safety concerns" it was noted that "Hassoun's decree struck many Syrians as very strange because Assad's government has long dismissed the uprising as the work of jihadis. The regime has often claimed that extremists from abroad have been inciting violence within Syria. In addition, the Assad regime has long championed itself as secular. The Baath Party, to which Assad belongs, has ruled Syria for over 40 years, sometimes acting in ways that were hostile to religiosity."
By 2010 it was estimated that of the country's population of over 22.6 million, 5 million were males fit for military service. Each year around 250,000 reached age 19, which was when the 18-month conscription period [as of 2012] began. The Alawis, who number about 1,350,000, constitute Syria's largest religious minority, but only about 6 percent of the population. Thus it might be believed that there were somewhat over 300,000 Alawite males fit for military service, with a further 15,000 reaching military service age each year.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimated that as of June 2015 the army had declined to 200,000 soldiers and officers, half the size it was before the uprising. An assessment released in 2014 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies put Syria’s armed forces at 178,000, down from 325,000. They were aided by about 80,000 militia fighters.
In early 2015 the Syrian foreign minister is said to have asked Iran to send 100,000 fighters. The request was denied because Iran feared turning the conflict into an open sectarian war. Tehran said on 10 June 2015 it had not deployed troops in Syria to strengthen government forces. Foreign ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham described reports on “the military presence of countries friendly to Syria” as “unfounded.” The Syrian government and people “have the capacity to resist and will continue to do so,” AFP quoted Afkham as saying. Iran had always denied having troops on the ground in Syria’s four-year conflict.
But Russian business magazine Expert wrote 09 June 2015 that Tehran had promised to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to the very end. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's words were not an empty promise. According to western special services and a number of regional mass media sources, Iran had sent a 15,000-troop contingent to Damascus.
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