The Syrian army: An Arab force backed by Russia and Iran

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Syrian Army soldiers

I recently mentioned to some colleagues that I was writing an in-depth analysis of the factors behind the success of Bashar al-Assad’s army in Syria. One of them replied candidly, “There is little to analyze. It’s Russia.” Orthodox Russia, Shiite Iran and Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite “Party of God”, are decisively the three pillars upon which Assad’s army has achieved victories against rebels and terrorists and upon which he will establish his future role in Syria.

According to PowerIndex, which is published annually by Global Firepower - a website that is specialized in military affairs -, Assad’s army ranks 44th in a list of 133 armies worldwide in terms of capabilities. At the regional level, the Syrian army is ranked 6th. This sharply contradicts analysis that depicts the Syrian army as a divided organization with very limited power. In fact, when considered as a national army, it could very well be considered the best in the region as over the last six years it has succeeded in keeping the regime on its feet, defeating rebel and terrorist organizations and regaining control of large swaths of Syrian territory. These results, however, could not have been achieved without the fundamental military support of Russia, Iran and Hezbollah. This is a strategic aspect in understanding the role Assad’s army will play in the future of the “new” Syria. 

Since their foundation in 1946, the Syrian Armed Forces have played a prominent role in the Syrian political scene culminating in 1970 when then-Minister of Defense and Air Force Commander Hafez al-Assad staged a coup. It was through this army that the “Lion of Damascus” held the reins and reinforced his regime. He remained the President of Syria until 2000 when his son Bashar, the current President, succeeded him. The army that Bashar inherited was divided between officers that had gained tremendous power during Hafez’s reign and soldiers who were militarily ill-prepared. When the 2011 revolution erupted, the army’s lack of professionalism impeded the regime’s ability to handle the situation. Consequently, the regime’s internal crisis became evident with the defection of thousands of officers, most of whom were Sunni, because they opposed the violent repression of the revolution. Without the intervention of Iran and Hezbollah, and later Russia, this army could not have achieved victory, and the regime would have inevitably collapsed.

To some extent, it is indeed correct to view Assad’s army as the main player on the scene, the one that is about to liberate Deir ez-Zor and Raqqa from the grip of Daesh. The reality, however, is that such victories are made possible by Iran and Hezbollah’s militias and by Moscow’s air force.

This military support is not only the backbone of the Syrian army, but it has also enabled the Assad regime to remain on its feet as opposed to other regimes that have fallen in North Africa since 2011. Many Syrian soldiers who have defected confirm the continuing Iranian and Russian influence. These two forces will use Syria as a bishop and not as a simple pawn because they will claim that Syria continues to exist solely due to their direct intervention.

Before the 2011 revolts in Syria, the Syrian army, that of Assad senior, was rightfully considered one of the strongest armies in the Arab world. It was well-equipped and numerically strong. Despite being ill-prepared for a revolt like that of 2011, the army of Damascus single-handedly managed the massive popular uprising in the beginning while fighting several battles on different fronts. However, many military experts assert that without foreign support, the Syrian army would have never achieved its recent victories or resisted after losing ground and equipment during the first years of this war.

Former Syrian Colonel Ahmad Hamada, a defector, recently told the Arab press that before the 2011 revolution, the Syrian army counted a half a million servicemen including officers, non-commissioned officers and soldiers (most of whom were conscripts). It had more than 6,000 armored vehicles and more than 600 helicopters and aircrafts. Hamada highlighted that most of the weapons came from Russia and a consolidated military cooperation had already been established with Iran and China. With the start of the revolt, the Syrian army used all of its human and military resources, and its combat efficiency dropped to 18%. Military experts estimate that only 25% of the pre-revolution Syrian army currently stands. Another Syrian defector, former General Ibrahim al-Jabawi, affirmed to the Arab Newspaper Al-Arab that the Syrian army is no longer solid, except for the Republican Guard and the 4th Regiment. Al-Jabawi said that more than 6,500 Syrian officers, or one third, had defected by 2013. For his part, the defector former General Mustafa al-Shaykh, noted that the army’s lack of preparedness was among the main reasons behind its collapse and its need for external support. In this regard, in 2011, the officers of the army of Damascus were not prepared to play an active role on the ground and were unable to handle a popular uprising of such proportions.

“If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change,” wrote Giuseppe Tomasi of Lampedusa in his novel, Il Gattopardo. With Hafez al-Assad, the army was the main pillar of the regime, and despite the regional upheavals, it must remain a pillar to ensure the continuity of Bashar’s regime. One discrepancy stands out, however, and that is the fact that the future Syrian army and the regime it protects will have more Iranian and Russian traits than ever before.

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