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Russia – Bashar and the Crumbling Army

By Adnan Khan   : –

The Russian invasion of Syria and subsequent military strikes continues to gar­ner significant media and Syria map global attention. The timing of the intervention raises many questions on what Russia’s real motives are and exactly what it is attempting to achieve in Syria. Russian officials continue to cite terrorism and ISIS as the cause for it intervening in the country, though terrorism, by this def­i­n­i­tion, has been present in Syria for over four years and Russia has only just now intervened. Since airstrikes began on 30th September, over 90% of Russian airstrikes have targeted rebel fighters who recently made sig­nif­i­cant gains in the Idlib province and very few airstrikes tar­geted ISIS. The Russ­ian esca­la­tion all took place after Bashar al-Assad pub­licly acknowl­edged that he could no longer hold onto all of Syria because he phys­i­cally no longer pos­sessed the nec­es­sary troop numbers.[1] Bashar al-Assad now faces sig­nif­i­cant struc­tural prob­lems with his army, which can be seen from a num­ber of angles.

Firstly, al-Assad’s mil­i­tary was his trump card in the con­flict. It allowed the regime to lay siege to towns, con­duct mas­sacres and con­duct air attacks. Syr­ian bombs and mis­siles not only killed tens of thou­sands of civil­ians, but also helped ground forces take most of dec­i­mated cities. As the war dragged on the Syr­ian mil­i­tary capa­bil­ity declined sig­nif­i­cantly due to deaths, defec­tions and mil­i­tary defeats. By some esti­mates the army has shrunk from over 300,000 per­son­nel to below 200,000 today.[2]

Bashar can only win in the long-term if he has enough reli­able sol­diers and local sup­port. The Syr­ian air force can retal­i­ate for losses of ter­ri­tory, as they have done with Idlib and Jisr al-Shughour with bar­rel bombs, chem­i­cal weapons and indis­crim­i­nate bomb­ing raids. How­ever, bomb­ings alone can­not reclaim ter­ri­tory. The Syr­ian mil­i­tary is hav­ing prob­lems putting enough men on the battlefield.

Sec­ondly, the struc­tural prob­lems al-Assad faces is replen­ish­ing his armed forces in this bat­tle of Bashar al-Assad’s sup­port base at most is 12% of the pop­u­la­tion, for every sol­dier that defects, dies and loses a limb and there­fore can­not fight needs to be replaced from his extremely small sup­port base. The longer the war goes on this sup­port base will only shrink at a faster rate. This prob­lem was orig­i­nally dealt with through the cre­ation of the National Defence Force (NDF) to fill in the cracks in the army, then al-Assad needed Hizbul­lah and then the Islamic Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Guard Corps (IRGC) from Iran. As the army lost more per­son­nel it resorted to Iraqi Shi’ah mili­tias and then Afghan Shi’ah mer­ce­nar­ies to sup­port him, mak­ing up for the short­fall. The com­mon issue through­out the whole con­flict and the future is Bashar will always need help to fill the cracks in his army, which is con­stantly shrink­ing. Today, al-Assad’s army is no longer capa­ble of large-scale ground oper­a­tions and is unable to win large areas of ter­ri­tory quickly. Bashar al-Assad has been left focus­ing on shoring up defence of the cap­i­tal city Dam­as­cus and a strip of ter­ri­tory along the Mediter­ranean coast. The strat­egy is to defend the Alawi heart­land. Beyond this area the regime has all but given up defend­ing the remain­der of the coun­try as it no longer has the forces to even make a chal­lenge for ter­ri­to­ries fur­ther from Damascus.

Bashar al-Assad’s sup­port base at most is 12% of the pop­u­la­tion, for every sol­dier that defects, dies and loses a limb and there­fore can­not fight needs to be replaced from his extremely small sup­port base. The longer the war goes on this sup­port base will only shrink at a faster rate.

Thirdly, Iran and Hizbul­lah from the begin­ning filled in the gaps in the Syr­ian mil­i­tary. Hizbullah’s inter­ven­tion sup­ported the recap­ture of territory near the Lebanese bor­der and the Qalam­oun region north of Dam­as­cus. Iranian-trained Syrian militia filled in the gaps of a weak­ened Army as the war turned from months to years. The “Starve or sur­ren­der” sieges near the cap­i­tal forced some oppo­si­tion forces to cease fire. But Hizbul­lah, like the Syr­ian regime, has suf­fered large losses and its inter­ven­tion in Syria has now become increas­ingly unpop­u­lar among Hizbul­lah mem­bers and even more unpop­u­lar with Lebanese in gen­eral. Hizbul­lah lead­ers have been warn­ing Iran that Hizbul­lah oper­a­tions in Syria were caus­ing seri­ous dam­age to the unity and effec­tive­ness of group in gen­eral. Hizbul­lah lead­ers have now ceased offen­sives in Syria and con­fined its par­tic­i­pa­tion to fight­ing Syr­ian rebel attempts to get into Lebanon.[3] Sim­i­larly Iran is now occu­pied and focused on main­tain­ing its posi­tion in Iraq since the fall of Nouri al-Malaki and the cap­ture of Mosul and other towns by ISIS.

The Iraqi government is unable to maintain basic security beyond Bagh­dad and this is tak­ing up more and more resources of Iran, includ­ing its focus.

Fourthly, the regime in Dam­as­cus has been reliant upon a small sup­port base within the coun­try from mainly the Alawi com­mu­nity as well as other minori­ties such as the Druze com­mu­nity. Bashar al-Assad and much of his regime are from the Alawi com­mu­nity, which has been his sup­port base in the war. But the Alawi com­mu­nity has lost nearly 30% of its young in the war and moth­ers are now refus­ing to send their sons to war.[4] Being the sup­port base of the regime the Alawi’s have suf­fered dis­pro­por­tion­ately and are exhausted as the regime turns to them to restock its army. The Druze com­mu­nity have also stepped away from the regime in recent months and are no longer will­ing to let their young men to leave their region in Syria – Suweida. The Druze have been defy­ing Assad’s gov­ern­ment. Many are refus­ing com­pul­sory mil­i­tary ser­vice. Increas­ingly, Druze spir­i­tual lead­ers are crit­i­ciz­ing the embat­tled pres­i­dent and urg­ing their com­mu­nity to adopt a neu­tral stance in the conflict.[5]

As far as Bashar al-Assad is con­cerned the inter­ven­tion by Rus­sia came in the nick of time as his army is strug­gling to main­tain an area the size of Bel­gium. Al-Assad’s forces are crum­bling and the Russ­ian inter­ven­tion will allow them to receive more weapons, equip­ment and jets which gives them a new lease to con­tinue the fight. The al-Assad regime has only sur­vived due to exter­nal sup­port, as long as the Dam­as­cus regime is seen as a neces­sity to pro­tect west­ern inter­ests this sup­ply line will con­tinue to prop al-Assad up.
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If Russia had not inter­vened a major bat­tle would now be tak­ing place in down­town Latakia. But this inter­ven­tion by Rus­sia doesn’t change the under­ly­ing real­ity, the Syr­ian regime doesn’t have enough to troops to sur­vive or to even com­ple­ment its air supe­ri­or­ity and take back ter­ri­tory. This is why it has always needed exter­nal sup­port, and will need this for the fore­see­able future to survive.

[1] http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2015/07/syria-assad-speech-150726091936884.html[2] http://www.wsj.com/articles/syria-armys-weakness-exacerbated-by-draft-dodgers-1433544837[3] https://warsclerotic.wordpress.com/2015/09/24/report-hezbollah-to-withdraw-from-syria-fighting/[4] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/syria/11518232/In-Syrias-war-Alawites-pay-heavy-price-for-loyalty-to-Bashar-al-Assad.html[5] https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/in-new-sign-of-assads-troubles-syrias-druze-turn-away-from-president/2015/07/17/eaf06874-18f7-11e5-bed8-1093ee58dad0_story.htm

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