Since the beginning of the civil war, the Bashar al-Assad government has taken measures to adapt loyal armed formations to the conditions of internal conflict for which they turned out to be absolutely unprepared. This article is intended to track the dynamics in the evolution of the structure of the armed forces and paramilitary formations which have supported Damascus throughout the conflict.
The Syrian Arab Army
The Syrian Arab Army (SAA) was dominated by armored and mechanized divisions. There were 11 such divisions, plus two divisions of “special forces”, the 14th and the 15th which was created just before the outbreak of the war. They had a surplus of tanks and other AFVs, but were lacking in mobile, well-trained units. They also had a cumbersome organizational structure and could not pursue missions in the context of an internal conflict.
The mass desertions put paid on their battleworthiness, except for the 4th Mechanized, 14th and 15th Special Forces, and the Republican Guard. The other divisions, whose HQs simultaneously served as military district HQs, combined their battleworthy components under one of the division’s four brigade HQs. Thus, for example, the 1st Tank Division used the 76th Brigade, and the 10th Division the 56th Brigade. Divisional HQs also served as the basis for establishing territorial command structures, most of which are still active today (other than the divisional HQ in Raqqa). They served as the basis for territorial or static defense forces.
The majority of divisions and brigades existed as such only on paper and in news reports. In actuality, they represent no combat value. They instead resemble the divisions and brigades of the Russian Army from the First Chechen Campaign. This situation still persists today, and the second fall of Palmyra in December 2016 plainly demonstrated it. Military units in nearby Homs Province were unable to send significant reinforcements to the Tadmor garrison, even though on paper these forces looked fearsome enough. As a result, in the first phase of the war the main challenges facing the Syrian government were providing personnel for SAA units, and dealing with the shortage of mobile units and light infantry capable of quickly closing breaches and parrying threats on various sectors of the front, or of conducting operations in urban environment or in close terrain.
The four infantry brigades formed after 1982 for operations in the mountains of Lebanon quickly lost their combat worth as their personnel was drawn from Syrians who were not loyal to the regime. Assad’s government could therefore count only on the 14th and 15th Divisions to provide mobile light infantry. Their units operated all over the country and were sent to various sectors of the front. Similar work was performed by the separate special operations regiments. They were “special operations” only in a relative sense, and they were used exclusively as light infantry and assault units. But one should recognize that in terms of their combat training, they were superior to other Syrian forces.
In terms of mobile armored and mechanized units used all over Syria, the most threatened sectors saw the deployment of the brigades and battalions of the 4th Mechanized Division reinforced by units from other “heavy” divisions. Tank and mechanized battalion battlegroups were often used as armor support for units of the 14th and 15th Divisions. Later on, Lebanese Hezbollah detachments were used as the infantry component of the 4th Division, for example during the battle for Aleppo.
Nevertheless, the battleworthly components of the SAA, including the Republican Guard units which preserved their combat worth but were mainly intended to defend the government quarters of Damascus, though one brigade was deployed to defend Latakia, were insufficient not only for offensive operations, but even for the defense of the so-called “Useful Syria.” Even today, the personnel strength of the SAA is hardly greater than 70-80 thousand troops.
Shabikha and the National Defense Forces (NDF)
Damascus was unable to fully reconstitute the SAA due to the mass evasion of military service. It was therefore forced to emulate its opponents by allowing loyal groups, parties, and popular movements, to create own armed formations without oversight by Damascus.
The formation of a large number of paramilitary groups of various provenance, undertaken by local Ba’ath party cells, major businessmen connected to the Assad regime, or even local organized crime, solved the problem of armed forces personnel shortage in 2012. These paramilitary groups were transformed into infantry units, under the general name of Shabikha, that were used to reinforce existing SAA units. Beginning in 2012, Shabikha appeared all over those parts of Syria still under government control. At the time, they were 40 thousand strong. Since then, their strength had only grown.
Some Shabikha units operated only in specific areas, such as the city or town where they were formed. Others, for example those formed by influential magnates, could be used all over Syria. These units also greatly varied in terms of their equipment, training, and discipline. Some were simply local forces, others had a complex hierarchy that led all the way to Damascus. In any event, Shabikha had saved the army from being attrited away, and in some instances they proved to be more effective and resilient in urban warfare or defense of towns than regular SAA forces.
Many of these formations had acquired an evil reputation due to committing crimes against the civilian population, reflected in UN documents. In spite of the commonly held view, far from all of the Shabikha groups were Alawite. Some were formed from among the Sunni. For example, in Aleppo the role of Shabikha was filled by the Barri Sunni gangster clan, infamous for its cruelty; a similar reputation was on by a Christian crime clan which used to control smuggling and which became Shabikha in the area of El-Quseira.
The next stage of the armed conflict saw the reformation of the heterogeneous irregular formations in order to bring them into a common structure and give them more or less unified organization. Starting in 2013, Syrian government created the National Defense Forces (NDF) subordinated to the “People’s Committees.” NDF’s formation took place with the participation of Iranian military advisors who proposed Iran’s Baseej paramilitary militia’s structure and training program.
Foreign Shia Groups
Given that the SAA was unable to turn the tide of war even with NDF help, “Shia Jihadists”, or foreign militants from various Shia organizations in different countries, began to appear and became an inalienable component of Syria’s armed forces. The best known among them were the Lebanese Hezbollah and numerous Iraqi groups such as the Liva al-Zulfiqar and Liva Asadullah al-Ghalib, established from the “pioneers” of the Shia jihad in Syria, Liva Abu Fadl al-Abbas, and a conglomerate of Shia groups linked to the Asaib Ahl al-Hakk.
Formations under direct control of the Iranian Al-Quds command are also operating in Syria. They include the Fatimion recruited from among the Afghan Shia (their overall strength in camps in Iran is about 18 thousand, with 3-5 thousand being in Syria at any one time on rotation basis) and the Pakistani Zeinabion.
The “Syrian Hezbollah”–Syrian Shia Groups
Many of these foreign Shia groups have begun forming their “affiliates” in Syria, with either direct organizational links or with financing from Shia sources. They are the so-called “Syrian Hezbollah” which includes the forces of the “Syrian National Ideological Resistance” are the local affiliates of the Lebanese Hezbollah, and the Syrian Islamic Resistance which includes local Syrian factions of Iraqi Shia organizations. These forces consist of Syrian citizens, both Shia and “Khomeini-ized” Sunnis and Alawites. Thus, for example, the Iraqi Qataib Sayid ash-Shukhada formed its local affiliate out of Syrians named the Liva Sayida Rukaya. The Liva imam Zeyn al-Abidin which operates in the besieged Deir-ez-Zor is one of the many affiliates of the Lebanese Hezbollah in Syria. The majority of these groups have not become part of the NDF and are enjoying independence. Others, on the other hand, have even become actual SAA units. For example, the 4th Division has a Shia regiment of the local (Syrian) Hezbollah, the Liva Seyf al-Mahdi. The overall strength of these Iran-linked formations is estimated at 130 thousand troops, including 30 thousand foreign Shia fighters and 100 thousand Syrian Shia groups and NDF formations consisting of Sunnis and Alawites, but under the command of Iranian military advisors and being partly or fully financed by Iran.
Tiger Forces, Desert Falcons, and private military factions
One should note the clear “division of labor” between the SAA and the NDF, in which the army plays the role of tank and mechanized units, and the NDF of infantry units sometimes mounted on APCs belonging to the army. Nevertheless, the army command is making an effort to create its own infantry assault component to supplement the 14th and 15th Divisions. As part of that effort, Tiger Forces appeared in the fall of 2013, deployed as a division of the same name. Their formation reflects the general picture of decay among the regular SAA units, its decentralization and chaos.
Initially intended to become yet another “elite army formation”, these forces found serious sponsors linked to the Air Force Intelligence and pursuing own goals. As a result, Tiger Forces not so much reinforce the 14th and 15th Divisions, but rather weaken them but skimming their best soldiers. They also weakened the still-battleworthy SAA units, such as the 4th Mechanized and 4th Tank divisions from which they took the best officer cadres into Tiger Forces Division units and its brigades–Panther Forces and Cheetah Forces. Moreover, they are only formally subordinated to the SAA HQ, as they are tied to the Air Force Intelligence. However, so far Tiger Forces have not become a fully autonomous “faction” of the Syrian pro-government forces, and have their own tank units (equipped with the latest Russian T-90s) and other supporting units which give them a high level of autonomy.
The appearance of Desert Falcons, which are a genuine Private Military Corporation, though an SAA-affiliated one, also weakens the 14th and 15th Divisions. These divisions are now rarely appearing in news reports, unlike Tiger forces and Desert Falcons.
In this way, the SAA and the NDF were joined by yet another component of armed forces supporting Damscus, namely private military formations. In addition to the above-named ones, one may also include Qataib al-Jabalui and the Leopards of Homs (as well as others) formed by Rami Maklouf and his al-Bustan Association.
The Russian Trail: Volunteer Assault Corps
Finally, with the participation of Russian military advisors, the 4th Volunteer Assault Corps began its formation in the Latakia Province. It used as its model the Coast Shield Brigade, formed in Latakia from local Alawite volunteers, with Republican Guard support.
The 4th Corps differs from the NDF in that it is not an alternative form of service to the SAA. The Corps was to be formed out of veterans who underwent their basic term of service, or those who had their military service waived. But in actuality, and as in many other cases, the corps was formed by wooing troops from other, often competing, formations, such as army divisions and the NDF. When joining the Corps, the volunteers retain their civilian salaries and receive additional payments on top, which suggests a serious source of funding.
By the fall of 20115, the 4th Volunteer Assault Corps was deployed out of the 6 assembled local volunteer brigades (some of which were probably reformed NDF brigades), the 103rd Republican Guard brigade which served as the HQ and a pool of heavy equipment, and several other units. It was able to score certain successes during the offensive operations in Latakia in late 2015 and early 2016. The name “assault” was an indicator of a new trend. Instead of defensive formations like the NDF and the spontaneously formed “shield” brigades, regime forces were planning offensive operations.
After the 4th Corps was formed, a similar formation, the 5th Volunteer Assault Corps, appeared, but this time it was not a local, Latakia-based, force, but one intended to operate all over Syria. It was to be manned using the so-called “hidden reserves.” Its brigades are staffed by, among others, amnestied rebels and deserters, as well as those who evaded military service. In addition, service in the Corps is accompanied by a number of significant material incentives, such as the preservation of pre-war salaries and military bonuses.
If the 4th Corps was deployed only in Latakia and was an experiment of sorts, the 5th Corps is being formed all over Syria, and its service terms are different from those in the 4th Corps. It is possible that the 5th Corps will closely collaborate with units from bases where they are being formed (i.e., the 5th Tank, 15th Special Forces divisions). It is also likely these forces will provide the necessary infantry component to assist the “heavy” SAA forces, and take the place of Iran-dependent NDF. This gives the Russian military command a broad autonomy to conduct military operations without having to involve pro-Iranian formations and having to change the course of the operation in order to satisfy their priorities. This has caused certain concern in Tehran. According to some reports, Iran insists on a more active role in creating the 5th Corps.
Moreover, yet another new trend was the strengthening of the Republican Guard, which in the end will absorb all the more capable SAA units. As an example, one can cite the 30th Republican Guard Division, a new Aleppo-based formation which will comprise all the SAA units operating in the vicinity of the city.
At every stage of reforming and improving battleworthiness of loyal forces, the Assad regime has established a variety of new structures, with varying level of dependence on or independence from Damascus. Each of them rests on this or that foreign or internal sponsor, acting as its de-facto “proxy.”
In and of itself, the existence of such a heterogeneous mass of formations that are not fully controlled by Damascus means a time bomb is being placed under Syria (and not just under its government), makes it more difficult to implement ceasefires and demands clear policies to be adopted regarding the future of these formations.