Syrian Army Vitally Needs Reforms

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The text below is based on an article appeared in the Russian daily “Vzglyad” (source) and provides a critical look at the Syrian military. SouthFront (SF) does not support approaches used to estimate capabilities of the Syrian army in this analysis and believes that it includes some mistakes. 

Vzglyad’s article reflects views of a part of the Russian establishmen at the Syrian army and the Syrian conflict. Vzglyad newspaper is owned by the Russian Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies and traditionally adheres to pro-Kremlin positions.

Syrian Army Vitally Needs Reforms

Deputy Commander-in-Chief of the Syrian Army and Armed Forces, Defense Minister Fahd Jassem al-Freij (R) during a field visit to military units and checkpoints at an unknown location in the south of Syria, January 22, 2015 (Photo: AFP)

SF editor: Vzglyad’s article appeared after the fall of Palmyra, so it is necessary to add a few words about it. The liberation of Palmyra from ISIS in March, 2016, had the main purpose of promotion of the success of Russian military assistance to the Syrian Army. All PR moves, following the operation and involving Russian officials and military staff, clearly demonstrated this.

In military terms, the seizure and control of the Palmyra salient made good sense in case of further offensive operations in the direction of Deir Ezzor. From a defensive perspective of western Homs region, the control of the Palmyra salient was not a significant need for the Syrian Army. Furthermore, this drew additional forces and facilities from other high priority areas to secure a 60 km supply line (the road between the Tyas Airbase and Palmyra) and defense heights around the Palmira salient.

The liberation of Palmyra was planned and managed mostly by the Russian military advisers and was pursued mostly for propaganda purposes. So, Russia has to bear a great part of responsibility for the situation in this area.

Earlier this month, SF provided a detailed analysis of mistakes that led to the defeat in Palmyra. These mistakes were made both by the Syrian army, Russian military advisers and intelligence.

It’s clear that Vzglyad’s article is aimed at a Russian internal audience, to explain retreating from Palmyra and to take the responsibility off the Russian Military. Meanwhile, the article provides an interesting and up-to-date analysis of the Syrian Army’s capabilities. SF believes that a critical look and an understanding of current issues facing the Syrian Army is very important.

During the one week, the Syrian government forces have demonstrated the brilliant operation in Aleppo and the unexpected retreat from Palmyra. The country’s army is heterogeneous and poorly controllable that is one of its main problems alongside with the weakness and corruption of the command, and very soon this problem can prove fatal.

Before the war, the Syrian Army was considered the strongest one in the Arab region, although the last time it stood up against an equivalent opponent only in 1984 in Lebanon. At the same time, the semicentennial confrontation with Israel has determined imbalances in its structure, organization and weaponry. An exaggerated attention to the air defense, a big amount of anti-tank weapons (they were supplied to Syria mainly from Russia until the transition of the civil war to the acute phase), formation of large tank elements – all this is a consequence of the local arms race, an echo of Lebanon and the Golan Heights. At the same time, the growing social tension and local revolts in 80-90s generated many paramilitary groups, which have transformed into the most combat-capable and motivated units.

The infantry forces are not longer the queen

After the transition of the civil disorder to the war, the Syrian Army has begun to disintegrate. Desertion from the combat units was accompanied by theft of property and military hardware. Some part of officers (mostly Sunnites, but also Turkmens, Kurds and Turkomans ) eventually formed the Free Officers Movement and the Free Syrian Army (FSA).  The latter is considered the main opponent of the government from the so-called ‘moderate’ opposition, and at the early stage of its formation the FSA was supported by the CIA and a number of European countries.

Initially, the Free Officers Movement was headed by Colonel of engineering troops Hussein Harmush, who defected from the army in the summer of 2011. He fled to Turkey, where started to create the first ‘secular-minded’ armed group from deserters, who practiced terrorist methods. A few months later, he was kidnapped from the territory of Turkey by the Syrian secret services, and, in January 2012, Harmush was shot dead due to the treason, desertion and terrorism.

The collapse of the army led to the fact that now it is impossible to talk about real units, assigned to the Defense Ministry. It is also almost impossible to determine its technical potential – during the war some pieces of military hardware passed from hand to hand several times. The amount of foreign supplies also cannot be counted. But not the number and troop list are important for the government forces now. At least, the psychological state and quality of combat training of the personnel are much more important.

SF editor: The mainstream media prefers to promote the falsehood that the Syrian Arab Army de-facto does not exist and only various foreign-backed paramilitary groups fight for Assad. While there are no doubts that the Syrian government receives a great deal of foreign support in the war, the thesis that there is no Syrian Army is a kind of delusion/propaganda effort that all sides spread for their own reasons. Meanwhile, the Russian military has been officially training and equipping the Syrian army (link) for almost 2 years.  In November 2016, 4,000 Syrian army soldiers completed officer training school at the Homs Military Academy (link).

The last year and a half, we could see the ‘fire fighting’ usage of several large divisions with loud names, which moved across all the country, plugging holes in the defense or taking part (sometimes alone) in key offensive operations. And despite the fact that formally the majority of them were assigned to the Defense Ministry, in fact these divisions were semi-voluntary or even ‘private’ units. The ‘old’ divisions and brigades remained only on paper or are in very reduced and demoralized state. Even the mass of the infantry forces, which does the most part of the rough military work, is currently formed from the division, which is not formally associated with the Defense Ministry, the Republican Guard. In addition to it, there are just several old ‘numbered’ divisions, which have kept its fighting capacity and the number, or even improved their technical training. In fact, they consist of veterans of the civil war and highly motivated volunteers, among whom ethnic and religious minorities dominate.

Sunni units almost totally united in volunteer units, which also are highly motivated, but enjoy some autonomy. Meanwhile, the most part of the draft-based army is not motivated at all, extremely poorly trained, has no idea about modern battlefield tactics and is prone to panic. Usage of it even in rear garrisons leads to disastrous results, such as the recent events in Palmyra.

The Republican Guard and the 4th Armored Division

The Republican Guard was formed by Hafez al-Assad in the mid 70s in order to fight Palestinian groupings and protection of the ruling family. Only relatives of the ruling family or persons, proved their dedication to the government, could take officer positions. According to various data, for its loyalty, the Republican Guard gets some part of the profit from oil production in the province of Deir ez-Zor.

The structure of the Republican Guard resembles a regular three-brigade motor rifle division, complemented by the Special Forces and the ‘Lioness of the Desert’ tank battalion. In 2016, through the efforts of Russian military advisors, a naval infantry regiment was created in its composition, which actively participated in the fighting in the province of Latakia. The main difference of the Republican Guard from other units is its deep allegiance to the government and an advantage in obtaining of new military hardware and weapons. As you might guess, Russian military advisers closely work with the Republican Guard, along with the Tiger Forces and the 4th Armored Division.

Russian military had to train the Syrian ‘elite’ units practically from the ground up, simultaneously adapting them to the land environment. For example, Syrian soldiers had no idea about assault groups. All their tactical training stopped at the time of the Arab-Israeli wars with their ‘waves’ of foot troops, necessarily supported by tanks. At the same time, the interaction even between neighboring units on narrow sectors of the front was weakened by the fragmented Command and local ambitions. Perhaps, the lack of knowledge of modern weapons is the smallest trouble in this row.

The second largest and most trained division of the Syrian Army is the 4th Armored Division, also grown out of the paramilitary Defense Companies (the Saraya al-Difa). It is headed by Maher al-Assad, the younger brother of the president. Up to 90% of the brigade’s soldiers, which number is from 12,000 to 25,000 people (according to various estimates), are professionals, and 80% of the troop list are Alawites. Like the Republican Guard, structurally it resembles a usual three-brigade armored division, complemented by artillery and units of the Special Forces. In the most dangerous periods of the civil war, some officers of the 4th Armored Division were appointed in Sunni units in order to stop their dissociation and desertion. During the war, the division had visited almost all the major fronts, but some its units are serving in Damascus on a regular basis, acting as the ‘praetorian guard’.

The Tiger Forces and the Desert Hawks

The Tiger Forces and the Desert Hawks are semi-private, semi-voluntary units of the high readiness, motivation and training, specializing on offensive operations.

The Desert Hawks is a typical private military company, which transformed into a division of the regular army due to circumstances. It was formed of former servicemen and veterans of all sorts of conflicts in 2013 by retired army general Mohammed Jaber, who received concessions for oil development through connections in the government, for protection of Homs province. In this way, initially, the Desert Hawks just guarded oil facilities, belonging to the General, including installations, located deep in the desert, on the border with Jordan. When militants started to seriously threaten his business, Jaber and his ‘hawks’ joined the government army. This private military company proved to be a very successful unit and showed its capabilities in storming of several key inhabited localities and mountain tops in Latakia province, as well as in the liberation of Armenian Kessab and al-Karyateyn. They were in the front line during the liberation of Palmyra. But then the Desert Hawks began unprepared attack on Raqqa and left the front that almost resulted in catastrophic consequences.

The main problem of usage of private military companies as a churn is the fact that nobody can say which motivation their real owner has at the certain point of time. Yes, veterans’ units are well trained, but, in terms of the tactic, it would be nice if they continued to train on the go. In general, the Hawks have proved themselves to be not bad, but their officers did not show a tendency to adopt new tactical schemes.

The well-known Tiger Forces, headed by General Suhail al-Hassan, are a bit another story. The Tigers consist of three ‘teams’ – ‘cheetahs’. The team №6 consists of veterans, who participated in the lifting of a blockade from the Kveyris military airport, located near Aleppo. Only al-Hassan knows the reason why he refuses to increase the number of the brigade, which has never included more than 1,000 fighters. According to some reports, during the battles for eastern Aleppo, the unit needed ammunition equipment for 800 people, so, in fact, the Tigers are a battalion of the Special Forces with a beautiful oriental name. At the same time, the Tiger Forces perceive losses very painful and this leads to the fact that they can take part in offensive operations of the very limited scale and only with the support of foot troops of the Republican Guard or allied Palestinians, the Hezbollah or Iranians.

On the other hand, the Tigers are involved with artillery preparation – due to their number they just do not have another choice, except of providing of a cover for themselves in an offensive. They also showed a disposition to quickly learn various tactical innovations, which they enough skillfully use, depending on the terrain and nature of fighting. So, in the province of Homs, they ‘broke through’ with assault groups to the front line of the enemy, burned it, and then quickly retreated without any losses. Terrorizing the enemy in such a way, the Tigers not only brought down his offensive impulses, but also made jihadists to liberate previously appointed position by themselves.

Al-Hassan quickly found a common language with Russian military advisers, but retains a high degree of autonomy from the General Staff in Damascus. Primarily, it is determined by the independence of supply, and it is a common problem of the Syrian Army. Some really large and combat-ready units live, ‘receiving bribes’, or are financed by local communities and individuals. It is sadly, but the common system of military supplies is very corrupted that became one of the reasons of mass desertion at the beginning of the civil war. It is a real ticking bomb under the entire system of the Syrian Defense Ministry.

Another bomb is a principle of the completing. Some units are completed by a local basis, and it is very hard to convince the personnel to move from their native province to another sector of the front. The most part of small inhabited localities in the front-line areas are defended by local militia, which is not motivated to go outside the village. The same is about units, formed on the mono-ethnic or religious basis. The most famous example is Kurds, who even during the battles for Aleppo did not come out beyond their neighborhood that greatly irritated. The Alawites is an opposite example. For them, the result of the civil war is a matter of physical survival. For this reason they are ready to move across the country, plugging holes.

Weakness of the Command

The increase of combat capability of the Syrian Army for the past 1.5 years was achieved solely due to the above-mentioned units. Some of other ‘list-based’ units even with their good organization sometimes show incredible tactical weakness and are prone to demoralization. The events in Palmyra are a direct proof of this. The 11th Armored Division just collapsed. The lack of intelligence and tactical proficiency was aggravated by the banal cowardice and weakness of the Command. The defense against jihad-vehicles just was not arranged, while the offensive tactic of terrorists is always uniform and banal. The fear of suicide murderers completed the rout.

By the way, there is some data, according to which the escape from Palmyra was led by some generals of the General Staff. Direct cases of betrayal, as it was in 2011-2014, are not observed during last time, and reasons of ridiculous defeats lie in the poor discipline, both tactical and household. In principle, the High Command has proved to be one of the weakest branches of the government troops.

Firstly, it is too late for these people to be retrained for new tactical schemes and strategic planning – in this respect brigade and divisional commanders have proved to be much more flexible. But they also needed about a year to learn new tactics in the offensive.

Secondly, after the terrorist attack in July 2012, which killed many Syrian senior generals, including Defense Minister Dawoud Abdallah Rajiha, the vacant posts were taken by less trained and experienced officers that quickly impacted on the level of command and planning. The same is about the security services and intelligence.

Thirdly, until recently, the planning of operations was carried out very slowly, and the choice of strategic targets depended not so much on the military necessity, but on the political situation. The unsuccessful and unprepared offensive on Raqqa was the result of the political solution, and constant throwing on the front in search of a strategic direction directly protracted the fighting for several months. The Russian Aerospace Forces were used to maintain offensive activity on secondary directions or as a strengthening of defense for a long time. The chronic imbalance in weaponry also impacted – the army did not have enough number of modern self-propelled artillery platforms and multiple rocket launcher systems that slowed the transfer of artillery not only for breaking through, but also for strengthening of the defense.

Fourthly, the existence of several groups of influence does not allow the General Staff to create a single long-term plan for the country’s liberation.

The hope for a reform

As it is seen, the most part of weaknesses of the Syrian Army is subjective. Though, it is the same about its allies. Their straightforwardness, especially of the Hezbollah and Iranians, has already led to the failure of some tactical operations. It was not like they made mistakes – they could just get lost in time, have a lunch or pray, not appear in the pre-agreed time at the agreed place. At first, the Hezbollah played a very important role on several fronts, but with the increase in the number of losses, their motivation fell – except for the regions, where they came into contact with a friendly Shiite population. However, recently, the emphasis on the religious component became to affect actions of the Shiite units rather negatively. And curses against Shiites in the jihadist propaganda have long ago taken not religious and dogmatic, but racist character.

SF editor: Shia para-militaries Hezbollah and Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, have shown a high motivation and played an important role during the recent battle for Aleppo, showing that the racial and religious component cannot be described as a curcial problem for these entities. The mainstream sources prefer to ingore Liwa al-Quds, a Sunni Palestinian pro-government group, that played an even more important role, leading the offensive in northeastern Aleppo – the main reason for the collapse of Jihadist defenses. The Syrian Social Nationalist Party’s military wing also participated in the Aleppo battle. Its role was ingored by mainstream media outlets, because Syrian nationalists are not the force that can be described as a “pro-Iranian Shia paramilitary”.

Other units of the union are also limited in their participation, for example, the Palestinian militias, regardless of their religious affiliation. Liwa al-Quds was well motivated until it secured their own places of living against jihadists. Now the Palestinians have the only one principled enemy – Nour al-Din al-Zenki, and they begin to lose interest in fighting. The multiethnicity and diversity of units are, in principle, a difficult management problem, which still is not solved.

On the other hand, the carving of several major formations as a support, a backbone of the army can be attributed to the positive trends. Of course, there are not enough such units for all the fronts, and it makes difficult to conduct planned combat operations, but against this background the forming of completely new ‘numbered’ units for the compulsory service has already begun. Amid of the undoubted military success, they are sufficiently organized and re-motivated.

There are reasons to believe that in the near future, a reform of the army ‘in action’ may be started, as a result of which the order of battle will be optimized. As it is impossible to quickly equalize all the regular units and militiamen in arming and training, most likely, a certain gradation of units, according to their training and ‘elitism’, will be determined in the active army. Already now it is possible to achieve numerical superiority over jihadists on some parts of the front, but the fight for Idlib will require a very different challenge.

There is some data, according to which working out of possible plans of actions on the north direction with the participation of Russian, and Iranian officers, has been started that has never been before. The General Staff in Damascus is ready to learn and listen to advices that can already be considered as a great achievement. Another thing is how the forces, freed after the liberation of Aleppo, will be distributed, and how long the preparation for new operations will be conducted. Nevertheless, the problem of control still remains fundamental to the Syrian Army.

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