For Syria’s Army, Politics Drives Strategy
It's why soldiers defend far-flung bases that have little military importance
According to many analysts, Syrian president Bashar Al Assad seeks only to protect his capital, the country’s heartland and the supply chains linking them. In other words, as this argument goes, Assad is fighting only for survival, as without these three territories his regime would collapse.
But in fact, he wants much more.
For one, let’s look at where Assad keeps his troops. Right now, regime soldiers are present in 10 of the country’s 13 capitals — one national and nine provincial. The army maintains defensible military bases in Deir Ezzor governorate, where the Islamic State controls the countryside, and Hasakah Governorate, where the Islamic State and Kurdish fighters have split the countryside.
These far-flung eastern regions, long neglected by the news media, are not military assets of any importance. The regime’s bases there are too remote to support an offensive against the Islamic State or the Syrian opposition, and too small to threaten any of the regime’s many enemies. In particular, the bases in Deir Ezzor burden the military because of how much it strains the air force’s helicopters to resupply them.
In other words, their maintenance has become political. With limited authority in such remote cities, the Syrian government can at least pretend to rule its supposed democratic, republican nation-state rather than the dictatorial, sectarian rump state that it now represents.
This idealism proved apparent in July and August 2014. In a three-sided attack, Islamic State overran much of the Syrian army’s Division 17 north of Raqqa. The Syrian government refused to evacuate the surrounded troops even after the militants overran the rest of the governorate and severed supply chains to Hama and Homs.
The Islamic State massacred the soldiers. But the army’s garrison at Deir Ezzor Airport, encircled by the militants, remains.
The Syrian government’s largest military liability is Aleppo, which possesses obvious political importance as the country’s largest city. The opposition patrols the east of the city and the western countryside, the Islamic State controls the eastern countryside, and both are pressuring the regime’s only supply chain to the city.
The opposition and its international allies, namely Turkey, have managed to turn the balance of power against the regime in Aleppo and the countryside. Syrian soldiers operate far from their headquarters in Damascus and Latakia, yet much of a recent Iranian and Russian-backed offensive has focused on repulsing rebel fighters from military bases west of Aleppo.
What military objective such an offensive will achieve seems questionable, but edging toward Syria’s largest city with even minor victories could earn the Syrian government the political credibility that it has lacked for so long.
Kweiris Airbase, which the Syrian government just managed to secure with Iranian and Russian support, provides an example of the relationship between Assad’s military and political goals.
Earlier in November, at least 100 combatants died as Syrian troops battled to end a two-year encirclement by the Islamic State. Most of the dead were Islamic State militants, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The victory at Kweiris, located east of Aleppo, could offer the Syrian government support in further offensives against the Islamic State. What such expeditions would achieve for a struggling military, however, only Assad can answer.
“Assad has long claimed that he is an indispensable ally for any state seeking to contain international terrorism,” expert Aron Lund wrote for the blog Syria in Crisis at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “The growth of Sunni-sectarian radicalism within the Syrian opposition and the Islamic State’s near-destruction of the Iraqi state in 2014 have been of great help to him.”
The Syrian government is trying to rejoin the world after Arab countries led by Saudi Arabia — and Western countries led by America — succeeded in expelling it from the international community. What the Syrian military lost at Kweiris the Syrian government, namely Assad, more than regained in domestic and international legitimacy.
“After four years of continuous conflict, a torrent of defections, and epidemic draft dodging, the [Syrian Arab Army] suffers from a debilitating lack of manpower,” Lund continued. “He must show every potential recruit that they are not mere cannon fodder, that he cares about his troops, and that he will expend every effort to bust them out if they become trapped. Only in that way can he encourage his forces to stay put and fight rather than try to strike a deal for their survival with hostile forces.”
Though fighting a civil war, the Syrian government values its status as a state — in particular compared to the Syrian opposition and the Islamic State — and will attempt to protect the ideals of territorial integrity and sovereignty at all costs, including dubious campaigns and the deaths of soldiers at remote bases.
Contrary to analysts’ opinions, the Syrian government will sacrifice much for little.