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Alexey Khlebnikov

Middle East expert and Russian foreign policy analyst, MSc Global Public Policy, Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota. PhD candidate, RIAC expert.

Army is considered to be one of the most important state institutions which in many ways defines country’s political and socio-economic stability as well as rigidity of the entire state system and its ability to survive. This is especially true in the Middle East where the role of the military was and is still central. Since the second half of the 20 th century, armies in the Middle East and North Africa started to play greater role beyond its traditional military domain: they became increasingly involved in political life, economy and finance, social sector, etc.

The Arab Uprising confirmed the importance of the military in the countries of the region. The army played critical role in defining outcomes of the ‘revolutionary‘ moments in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Syria, thus, affecting political and economic development of the region for years to come.

In Syria, the military played crucial role in safeguarding the existing system, although its professionalism and overall participation in the conflict might be seen as controversial. Over the course of the seven-year old civil war, the Syrian military has changed significantly and currently it requires large-scale reconstruction. Today, one of the central questions for country’s stabilization and political reconciliation is how Syrian armed forces are going to be reformed and whether Damascus will choose the right direction in dealing with re-establishing its military.

This article analyzes the evolution of the Syrian Arab Army during the Syrian civil war, reasons behind it, main issues it faces, and alternative development.

Before the Syrian civil war broke out in 2011, the total number of the SAA was estimated at about 325,000 men, of which 220,000 were ground forces. The army consists of three main forces: Ground Forces, Air Forces (100,000 men including 40,000 in air forces and 60,000 in air-defense) and Navy (4,000 men).

Apart from the military structures, Syria used to have gendarmerie forces (about 8,000 people) and the People’s army which served as a reserve component of the armed forces (militia army — up to 100,000 men).

Today Syrian armed forces lack discipline, centralization, technical and organizational modernization, prestige, and authority and could hardly be called a real army. With excessive number of pro-government non-state armed groups and without strong state army Syria will be unable to regain its full sovereignty and provide secure environment for the political transition and reforms. Hence, the reform of the military sector is inevitable and central.

One of Moscow’s main tasks in Syria is to rebuild country’s armed forces almost from scratch, which is going to be extremely difficult. First, the army must have control over entire country’s territory and to have monopoly on using force which is not the case now and is highly unlikely in the near future. Second, during the last seven years Iran has been creating extensive network of military structures in Syria, which are loyal to Tehran and are unlikely to either disband themselves and leave, or to become part of the state armed forces. This problem might become a major stumbling rock between Russia and Iran in the coming months and years. And third, Russia lacks sufficient resources to accomplish this task alone.

In such context, there is an opportunity to attract foreign sources to restore Syrian army and to reconstruct the country. The GCC and Israel should be very much interested in rebuilding Syria with lesser Iranian presence. By helping out Russia to accomplish this task regional players impose indirect limits on Iran’s presence in Syria. With no foreign assistance Tehran receives more room to grow its influence in the country further. This might well help Moscow to make sure the new Syrian army is free from Iranian influence or is at least not dominated. The stronger the army and the central government — the lesser it needs foreign partner to rely on. Moreover, in the MENA region armies also play a role of state-building element — which makes successful military reform crucial for a country’s restoration. Otherwise, Iran has quite good prospects of increasing its influence in Syria and stimulating further rise of sectarianism in the country.

Army is considered to be one of the most important state institutions which in many ways defines country’s political and socio-economic stability as well as rigidity of the entire state system and its ability to survive. This is especially true in the Middle East where the role of the military (see the research of V. Kudelev, M. Sapronova) was and is still central. Since the second half of the 20th century, armies in the Middle East and North Africa started to play greater role beyond its traditional military domain: they became increasingly involved in political life, economy and finance, social sector, etc.

The Arab Uprising confirmed the importance of the military in the countries of the region. The army played critical role in defining outcomes of the ‘revolutionary‘ moments in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Syria, thus, affecting political and economic development of the region for years to come.

In Syria, the military played crucial role in safeguarding the existing system, although its professionalism and overall participation in the conflict might be seen as controversial. Over the course of the seven-year old civil war, the Syrian military has changed significantly and currently it requires large-scale reconstruction. Today, one of the central questions for country’s stabilization and political reconciliation is how Syrian armed forces are going to be reformed and whether Damascus will choose the right direction in dealing with re-establishing its military.

This article analyzes the evolution of the Syrian Arab Army during the Syrian civil war, reasons behind it, main issues it faces, and alternative development.

Before the Syrian civil war broke out in 2011, the total number of the SAA was estimated at about 325,000 men, of which 220,000 were ground forces. The army consists of three main forces: Ground Forces, Air Forces (100,000 men including 40,000 in air forces and 60,000 in air-defense) and Navy (4,000 men).

Apart from the military structures, Syria used to have gendarmerie forces (about 8,000 people) and the People’s army which served as a reserve component of the armed forces (militia army — up to 100,000 men).

Main changes and issues

In the course of the civil war, the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) has changed quite significantly. The Syrian Arab army started to change almost from the very beginning of the civil war due to ethnical, political, and geographical peculiarities of the Syrian state. From the first months it has become clear that the state and its armed forces were not ready and were not capable of managing domestic rebellion effectively.

Sectarian army

Prior to the uprising the SAA predominantly consisted of conscripts who served 2.5 years. During peacetime up to 125,000 of 19-40 year-old men were conscripted into the army annually. It also had 354,000 reservists.

Sunnis are the majority in Syria accounting for about 60-70 percent of the population. This is why using conscript service, the SAA was predominantly Sunni, especially on the level of ordinary soldiers and junior officers. Alawites represent up to 12 percent of the country’s population, however, representatives of this group — the Assad family — have been holding the power for the last 50 years. In addition to that, the remaining 18-28 percent of Syrian population are Kurds (10-15 percent), Christians (3-5 percent), Druze (2-4 percent), Shia and Turkmen (1 percent each). As a result, Syria’s majority Arab Sunni population has been long underrepresented in the country’s decision-making institutions as well as in the military. Hence, the misbalanced character of the country’s ethnic-religious-political structure predefined difficulties the country faced during the protests. Even though sectarianism cannot be named one of the main reasons for the civil war in Syria, it definitely helps to understand some aspects of it, including in the army.

Usually, young men from rural low-income class (predominantly Arab Sunnis) go to the military service to use it as a social lift. Since 2000s and thanks to Bashar al-Assad policies, the religious balance in the army has been improved. Assad’s decision allowed a lot of mid-career officers who were predominantly Sunnis to receive promotion thus securing their loyalty to the system.

According to some estimates, in 1980-1990s, 60 percent of senior officers were Alawites, and at least 14 out of 24 most prominent military officers were Alawites. Bashar’s attempt to change religious balance in the army brought some successful results: by 2010 the share of Sunnis among second-tier commanders (commanders of the divisions and brigades’ headquarters, heads of some intel services) was 55 percent. Up to 65percent of battalion commanders were Sunnis. Those changes were aimed at creating a system that would more or less reflect confessional balance in the country and contribute to developing a more stable ruling elite.

Eventually, because of its technological and organizational obsolescence, ineffective command and control system, and its sectarian nature the SAA became quite dysfunctional as it could neither utilize its forces fully nor adapt quickly to the new reality of the civil war.

At the same time, key military positions were still dominated by Alawites and other religious minorities that were considered a backbone of the system’s survival.

As a result, when the uprising started in 2011, Assad felt quite reluctant to use Sunni-dominated military units against the rebels who were predominantly Sunnis as well. Instead, Damascus concentrated on utilizing the most loyal groups and military formations which were often dominated and/or headed by religious minority groups — Alawites, Christians, Druses, etc. This sent a clear signal that the state is felt suspicious about its own Sunni population and was afraid of losing control.

Eventually, because of its technological and organizational obsolescence, ineffective command and control system, and its sectarian nature the SAA became quite dysfunctional as it could neither utilize its forces fully nor adapt quickly to the new reality of the civil war. That contributed greatly to the erosion of the robustness, effectiveness and authority of the army.

In addition to that, Damascus also resorted to using foreign Shiite militia sponsored primarily by Iran: Lebanese Hezbollah, Iraqi Liwa al-Zulfikar and Abu Fadl al-Abbas, Iranian IGRC’s al-Quds and later Iranian army forces, Afghani Shiite Liwa Fatimiyoun and Pakistani Liwa Zeinabiyoun. As a result, it also created over-reliance on Iran and allowed Tehran to establish rigid military presence in Syria (in more details further in the text).

Fragmentation of the central military command

Since the beginning of the war, the state and its armed forces have been heavily relying on the support of non-state pro-government armed groups which contribute to the erosion of the country’s central military command. Such situation did lead to further fragmentation of the Syrian Arab Army and the state losing its monopoly on using the force.

As a matter of fact, from the very beginning, the Syrian state started to willingly dismantle its monopoly on using force when it realized that it cannot handle the rebellion on its own. So-called Popular Committees either appeared spontaneously or were recruited by intelligence services and pro-government businessmen all over the country in an attempt to counter-balance mobilization of anti-government demonstrators and their forces. These forces were also known as “Shabbiha” — a notion that mistakenly described all pro-Assad Alawite or Shiite irregular units which consisted of up to 40,000 fighters. In reality, the people called “Shabbiha” belonged to a big variety of different organizations and communities far from all being Alawites.

Their main task was to help out the SAA, reduce its fighting burden and demonstrate more internal coherence. Such paramilitary units resulted from a genuine popular mobilization of a significant minority of Syria’s population which wanted to support the existing system and was formed partly—but by no means exclusively—on a sectarian basis.

According to the estimates made by International Institute for Strategic Studies, in mid-2013 the nominal pre-war strength of the Syrian army troops was reduced by half to 110,000 as the result of a combination of defections, desertions and casualties. This figure might be arguable and lack precision but it indicates a clear trend — the SAA ranks have been decreasing as a result of ongoing civil war. As a result of continued shrinking of the army, by 2018 the state’s reliance on the non-state pro-government armed groups only increased. According to some estimates, in 2018 the SAA controls only 20-25 thousand soldiers and officers, while the number of various pro-government militias operating in Syria is up to 150-200,000. The ratio of state to non-state armed actors is about 1 to 10. Therefore, non-state armed groups clearly dominate the battleground which complicates the question of their accountability and control.

The ratio of state to non-state armed actors is about 1 to 10. Therefore, non-state armed groups clearly dominate the battleground which complicates the question of their accountability and control.

Although these paramilitary groups were quite effective, the government did not fully control them which also indicated weakening of the state-centralized structure. In 2012, Damascus began organizing numerous irregular units (over 100,000 men) into a unified structure — National Defense Forces (NDF) — which meant to be placed under central state command and control. The NDF was formed using the model of Iran’s paramilitary “Basij” militia and those in charge of creating NDF were trained in Iran.

However, Damascus did not succeed in putting NDF under its full control. In many cases NDF commanders evolved into local warlords who did not want to lose their military-economic power and influence, and share it with the central authorities. In many cases SAA and NDF competed for zones of influence inside the country. As a result, it contributed to further erosion of the Syrian Army authority and command structure.

Apart from NDF, there are a variety of other non-state armed groups: the Baath Battalions organized as an armed wing of Syria’s ruling party, the Jerusalem Brigade, the Desert Falcons, Al-Bostan Committee for Charity Work with its security branch, etc.

As a result, this issue remains one of the major obstacles for the Syrian political process and eventual conflict resolution. Reforming the intelligence services and the army is prerequisite for the future national reconciliation. In order to make that happen, the state needs to either disarm every non-state actor or put all guns and warlords in the country under its control, or incorporate them into new military structures which is a rather challenging task that requires a lot of compromise.

During almost eight years of the civil war, non-state armed groups fighting on the side of the Syrian government have grown in size, numbers and influence which naturally poses a threat to the state sovereignty and integrity. This is why, in the long run, Damascus will be forced to come up with a formula which will incorporate militia commanders and their interests into the new military system.

In this context, Iran’s heavy involvement in creation and sponsoring pro-government militia in Syria exacerbates the complexity of the issue even further.

Excessive Iranian presence

In addition, some of the most efficient pro-government militia groups enjoy sponsorship from abroad, particularly from Iran. It creates quite big risk of becoming over-reliant on the foreign patron that pursues its own interests which might not always coincide with those of the client.

Since the first days of the Syrian civil war, Iran has been the major backer of the Syrian government. Tehran’s economic, humanitarian and military assistance hugely contributed to the survival of the Syrian state. According to different estimates, Iran has spent on Syria between $5 and $20 billion annually since the civil war broke out in 2011. That includes payments made to Hezbollah and other Shiite pro-Iranian militia (together over 40,000) acting in Syria including foreign fighters from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, deliveries of military equipment and materiel, shipments of oil and petroleum products, funds for paying civil servants and the military/security personnel and maintaining its own troops (up to 20,000) in Syria.

On August 26, 2018 Damascus and Tehran signed a military cooperation agreement which envisages Iran’s help to rebuild Syrian military industry and infrastructure. In fact, such deal potentially cements Iran’s presence in Syria and makes Damascus even more dependent on Tehran. If the Syrian army and military industry are rebuilt by Iran, further Iranian influence over Damascus is to be expected.

At the same time, it creates a number of quite big obstacles for moving forward with the political process and reforms in Syria. Excessive Iranian presence in Syria irritates Israel, the US, Turkey, Russia, and even Damascus itself. Being weak and with no foreign alternative to rely on regarding the funds for reconstruction, Syrian government is pushed closer to Iran. As a result, progress in political process, reconstruction, and return of the refugees seems highly

impossible, as all of it requires broad international involvement. Who will sponsor restoration of the Syrian military?

One of the most pressing issues of the post-war Syria restoration process is the funds: Who is going to pay for the reconstruction?

Excessive Iranian presence in Syria irritates Israel, the US, Turkey, Russia, and even Damascus itself. Being weak and with no foreign alternative to rely on regarding the funds for reconstruction, Syrian government is pushed closer to Iran.

Today, neither Syrian government, nor its allies together — Russia and Iran — are able to pay for the country’s reconstruction. It seems especially problematic due to the economic problems Moscow and Tehran experience themselves.

Restoration and reforming the military it becomes even more challenging.

First, in the last seven years Iran has heavily invested in Syria creating sophisticated multi-layered presence and it is extremely unlikely that Tehran will leave the country without return on its investments. It has already struck a deal with Damascus which grants Tehran exclusive right to assist in rebuilding Syrian military industry and infrastructure. The situation creates additional risks for the Syrian state. Excessive Iranian presence in Syria will be the major irritant for Israel and the US that almost certainly excludes any lift of Syria sanctions which are necessary for the successful reconstruction and economic restoration of the country.

Second, Iran’s presence irritates Moscow which has its own military infrastructure in Syria. Excessive Iranian presence in the country is counter-productive for Russia’s long-term Syria policy which eventually envisages political transition, reforms and reconciliation with the regional powers and the West. From the very beginning, deployment of the Russian military was a double-edge sword.

On the one hand, Kremlin’s decision to deploy its air and special forces to Syria in fall of 2015 was a result of an agreement with Damascus and Tehran aiming at preventing Syria from collapse. Russia’s air cover without Iranian forces on the ground would be meaningless, so it was mutually beneficial division of labor which worked out quite successfully for its purposes.

On the other hand, Russia’s military deployment to Syria sent a signal to Israel and the West that Iran would not be left unchecked. Moscow is seen as a force which is able to keep Iranian presence in the country in check to a certain degree. The recent deal on south Syria between Russia, Israel and the US, which envisaged Iranian forces pull out from the Syria-Israeli border, is a good evidence.

Damascus understands that and might use this issue as a bargaining chip in its talks with the West and GCC states to eventually attract their money into Syria.

Third, in the course of its involvement in Syria Russia planned to reorganize the Syrian army in order to enhance its command and control functions and to make it more professional and autonomous. Since 2015 Moscow has been trying to minimize the influence of various non-state armed groups and militias fighting for the government, as quite often their own interests did dominate over that of the country. Only under strong and effective state central command armed forces can effectively fulfil their tasks which is now not the case in Syria.

In 2015, Moscow initiated formation of the 4 th corps which consisted of different militia and armed groups operating in Latakia and was under direct command of the SAA. Later in 2016, Russia created and trained 5th Corps which unites different NDF groups and former Syrian army defectors who decided to realign. In 2015, Russian military helped to restructure Tiger Forces and since then has been providing weapons, advisors and air support. This was an important step to break the trend promoted by Iran — creating and developing parallel non-state military structures which have no direct subordination to the Syrian state (e.g. Iran took part in formation and training of NDF) and more loyal to Tehran than to Damascus.

However, the task is still unfulfilled and it remains unclear if Moscow manages to reform and restore Syrian army structure. At the same time, Russia applied quite innovative approach in reforming disintegrated military creating 4th and later 5 th corps of the SAA. This move, in fact, made other military groups willing to re-engage with the Syrian army to become a part of those new corps. This is to say, Moscow launched the process which could possibly become a pattern for the highly-fragmented military “reconstruction.” Although it remains to be seen whether Moscow eventually succeeds in this task, it already showed an example which could be used elsewhere in the region to initiate army reforms (in Libya, Iraq, Yemen, etc.).

In conclusion

Today Syrian armed forces lack discipline, centralization, technical and organizational modernization, prestige, and authority and could hardly be called a real army. With excessive number of pro-government non-state armed groups and without strong state army Syria will be unable to regain its full sovereignty and provide secure environment for the political transition and reforms. Hence, the reform of the military sector is inevitable and central.

One of Moscow’s main tasks in Syria is to rebuild country’s armed forces almost from scratch, which is going to be extremely difficult. First, the army must have control over entire country’s territory and to have monopoly on using force which is not the case now and is highly unlikely in the near future. Second, during the last seven years Iran has been creating extensive network of military structures in Syria, which are loyal to Tehran and are unlikely to either disband themselves and leave, or to become part of the state armed forces. This problem might become a major stumbling rock between Russia and Iran in the coming months and years. And third, Russia lacks sufficient resources to accomplish this task alone.

In such context, there is an opportunity to attract foreign sources to restore Syrian army and to reconstruct the country. The GCC and Israel should be very much interested in rebuilding Syria with lesser Iranian presence. By helping out Russia to accomplish this task regional players impose indirect limits on Iran’s presence in Syria. With no foreign assistance Tehran receives more room to grow its influence in the country further. This might well help Moscow to make sure the new Syrian army is free from Iranian influence or is at least not dominated. The stronger the army and the central government — the lesser it needs foreign partner to rely on. Moreover, in the MENA region armies also play a role of state-building element — which makes successful military reform crucial for a country’s restoration. Otherwise, Iran has quite good prospects of increasing its influence in Syria and stimulating further rise of sectarianism in the country.

Thus, Russia should exploit this opportunity to counter balance Iranian influence in Syria’s military with the help of the foreign donors whose funds will assist in restoring and reforming country’s military and central command system. Although this task sounds very ambitious it remains achievable: Russia has already proved its ability to strike deals with regional actors, including cash-rich GCC states, despite many differences and disagreements. Such approach will help not only to find a compromise on Syria but also to restore cross-regional economic ties ruined during the war.

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