Pro-Regime Forces in Syria Are Stretched Thin — And Fighting Among Themselves
Russia, Iran and the Assadists barely get along
by TOM COOPER
Five years into Syria’s apocalyptic civil war, there is no more Syrian Arab Army on the country’s battlefields. So who’s fighting for Syrian president Bashar Al Assad?
The answer is a shocking one. Today the forces fighting for the Syrian regime represent a hodgepodge of sectarian local militias, most of which do not fall under the regime’s direct control.
In other words, Al Assad is waging a war with virtually no troops of his own.
The exceptions to this rule are few — only around a dozen of company-sized formations that survived the collapse of the Syrian army’s Republican Guards Division and 4th Armored Division. And those companies were never within the normal army chain of command, instead personally answering to Al Assad.
The majority of the remaining “regime forces” —some 70,000 combatants — belong to the Syrian militias, all of which were established by either the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps or Hezbollah, and the majority of which now fall under Iranian control.
Around 25,000 nominally-Iranian troops supplement the militias. Many are Afghan Hazaras and various other Iranian proxies, including members of Hezbollah-Lebanon and also the Iraqi version of the Levant militant group.
Unsurprisingly considering the long history of major disagreements between Moscow and Tehran, there remain quite a few points of disagreement between the Russians, the Iranians and the regime in Syria.
There are even bigger differences between their respective military commanders. The Russians prefer to deal with state institutions. Damascus does, too — but utterly depends on the militias for its own survival.
On arrival in Syria in August 2015, Russian military commanders attempted to create some order from the hopeless military mess in Syria. The Russians organized some of the militias in Lattakia Governorate into the so-called “IV Assault Corps” and assigned Russian army units to babysit the corps.
Owing to the limits of Moscow’s objectives early on in its intervention, the Russian military presence in the Aleppo area remained minimal until the summer of 2016. Instead, various of IRGC, Hezbollah and loyalist militias operated independently — and chaotically — in the area.
In the first 10 months of 2016, the Aleppo-area militias launched one entirely unrelated offensive after another, suffered a number of costly failures and barely managed to repel two major counteroffensives launched by insurgents and jihadists.
For pro-regime forces, the consequences were deadly serious. Hezbollah and the loyalists squabbled in June 2016 while, over their heads, some 20 Russian and Syrian bombing raids went astray and struck regime forces. Several Russian military personnel deployed near Aleppo died in 2016.
Fed up with this mess, Moscow eventually forced Tehran and Damascus to establish a unified command. Thus on Nov. 22, the Russians stood up “V Corps.” Ever since the new corps headquarters assumed control of the battlefield, IRGC, Russian and loyalist assaults on besieged East Aleppo became much more effective.
The Syrian Arab Air Force re-stocked with improved Russian-made munitions and launched a devastating campaign of bombing raids on Aleppo. In the next phase of the assault, Russian army artillery — including BM-30 and TOS-1 rocket launchers — obliterated one rebel defensive position after another, knocking huge gaps in rebel lines that the loyalist and IRGC infantry quickly exploited.
This is what eventually ended the years-long stalemate in the battle for Syria’s biggest city. This is what destroyed rebel-held East Aleppo.
Incredibly, the Syrian regime’s recent successes have had little to do with … the Syrian regime. The Al Assad regime is “no longer central to the discussion,” Jett Goldsmith argued at Bellingcat.
Likewise, it’s not clear that Russia — for all its importance in organizing the current pre-regime offensive — is playing the central role, either. Consider the ceasefire that Russia and Turkey arranged for the purposes of evacuating civilians from Aleppo
The ceasefire fewer than 14 hours after it began on Dec. 13, after non-Russian pro-regime forces continued their assault on East Aleppo. The IRGC and regime field commanders insisted they has no knowledge of any ceasefire.
That’s most likely a lie, at least in the case of IRGC commanders. The rebels reportedly had to meet stringent IRGC demands — including the evacuation of the Shi’a-controlled enclaves of Fouah and Kefraya — before the Russians and Turks would agree to halt the fighting.
But it was in Palmyra that the schisms within pro-regime forces became most startlingly evideny. On Dec. 11, 2016, Islamic State militants recaptured parts of the ancient city in central Syria, some nine months after Russian-backed regime forces liberated the city.
ISIS exploited the shift of pro-regime forces toward Aleppo. Fewer than 1,000 loyalist militiamen remained in Palmyra — one Druze militia, another consisting of local Shteytat tribesmen plus some 200 Assadists of the Quwwat Shahin. The defenders abandoned their positions and fled in panic, leaving behind 21 operational tanks, six BMP-1 armored vehicles and a ZSU-23–4 anti-aircraft gun plus numerous other vehicles and immense stocks of ammunition and supplies.
The U.S.-led coalition promptly bombed the tanks. Russian gunship helicopters jabbed at the militants in their newly recaptured positions.
As Palmyra fell, the regime’s backers collapsed into infighting. Former Chief of Staff of the Russian Army Gen. Yuriy Baluyevsky described the defeat as as a “blow to our prestige.” But it’s worth noting that the Russians were the first to quit Palmyra, pulling out a small contingent two days before the ISIS assault.
A video from Islamic State’s Amaq News Agency documented the rushed retreat. Russian soldiers not only left behind plenty of small arms and ammunition, but even their food and credit cards.
The Russians and the Al Assad regime tried to blame the Americans for Palmyra’s loss. For its part, the U.S.-led coalition was reportedly very active during the lead-up to Islamic State’s attack on the ancient city. The coalition claimed to have destroyed 168 fuel tankers in central Syria between Dec. 9 and 10.
Preoccupied with developments in the Aleppo area, the Russian air force barely reacted to the ISIS onslaught. A dozen air strikes — including some flown by helicopters —targeted the Palmyra area between Dec. 9 and 12.
Even the SyAAF — which so far has proved more capable of quickly changing its air targeting — was busy evacuating all of its operational Su-22s and Su-24s from Tiyas air base as that facility, which lies just west of Palmyra, also came under attack by Islamic State.
Most observers expect that pro-regime force will redeploy to liberate Palmyra … again. Whether the three “allies” are going to establish a unified command for this operation remains to be seen.