The Fragmented Forces Behind Assad

Jerusalem Post, 27/9

The conflict in Syria tends to be seen as one between a disparate, fragmented rebellion and a centralized dictatorial regime. That characterization of the rebellion is correct. The view of the Assad regime as a centralized, monolithic unit, however, is no longer accurate.

The ‘regime’ side in Syria, too, has become an alliance of various forces. These forces are all committed to keeping Bashar Assad in his seat as ‘President of Syria’, whatever that means today. But the evidence suggests that he does not control or command all of them, and indeed may not be setting the strategy for the war against the rebels.

How did this situation arise? The Assad regime was throughout its existence a quintessentially centralized affair – an East Germany on the Mediterranean. To be sure, myriad networks of patronage existed within its structures, but the structures themselves were solid.

The problem for the Bashar Assad regime in its long fight with the insurgency is manpower. The dictator vastly outclasses the forces arrayed against him in terms of hardware. What he lacks is men willing to engage on his behalf. This is because of the sectarian nature of his regime, and its consequent narrow base of support.

On paper, of course, Bashar commands a vast force. The Syrian Arab Army notionally consists of 220,000 troops in 12 divisions plus an additional 280,000 reserves. But in practice, the majority of this force consists of Sunni conscripts and is therefore unusable by the regime.

This chronic shortage of manpower has defined regime strategy throughout the war. Assad ceded around 60% of the country to the rebels and the Kurds in mid-2012 because he lacked sufficient available forces to control it.

Necessity forced him to reduce the area under to his control to a size which he was able to manage with the manpower available to him.

Iran is committed to Bashar’s survival. He is Teheran’s main Arab ally, and a vital land link between Shia Iraq and Hizballah-controlled Lebanon.

Iran is largely, though not solely responsible for the mobilization of external and internal forces on behalf of the Assad regime, which is intended to solve the shortage of available fighting men.

The fighters have been found from a variety of places.

Firstly, the Iranians have committed men of their own.

The IRGC (Revolutionary Guards) maintains an operational base in Damascus. Qods Force commander Qassem Suleimani visits the country regularly to command and coordinate operations.

In June, the British Independent on Sunday newspaper reported that 4000 IRGC personnel were on their way to Syria.

A former Lebanese intelligence officer speaking to this reporter in August said that he estimated that around 5,000 Iranian personnel are currently on Syrian soil.

A Syrian rebel officer, Lieutenant Bilal Khabir, speaking with this reporter, said that Iranian personnel were present with his unit in the earliest days of the uprising, when they were sent to quell demonstrations in Dera’a province.

Secondly, Hizballah fighters are involved. They led the regime’s re-taking of the strategically vital town of al-Qusayr in August of this year.

Today, Hezbollah remains in control of the town. Lebanese media sources estimate that up to 10000 Hizballah fighters are present in Syria at any given time. They are deployed not only in Qusayr and Homs, areas of combat close to the Lebanese border. Rather, evidence has also emerged of movement fighters in Damascus, and in the Aleppo area.

In addition, Iran has sought to improve the combat capabilities of the 50-60,000 mainly Alawi irregular fighters who have fought on Bashar’s behalf since the conflict began.

These ‘Shabiha’ (ghost) forces have been offered training by the IRGC and Hizballah and have been organized under the banner of the ‘National Defense Forces’. They are now playing a vital auxiliary role in a number of areas.

Iraqi Shia militias such as the Ahl al-Haq and Ktaeb Hizballah organizations have also deployed fighters in Syria, mainly in the Damascus area.

Lastly, independent pro-government paramilitary brigades are still operating. These include both Syrian Shia Islamist units, such as the Abu al-Fadl al Abbas Brigades, and non Islamist units operating under a variety of ethnic or ideological labels, or no label at all.

These can include some frankly bizarre elements. Aymenn al-Tamimi, a researcher of paramilitary groupings on both sides in Syria, for example published this week a profile of an organization calling itself the ‘Syrian Resistance,’ led by a superannuated Turkish Alawi leftist by the name of Mihrac Ural.

This group, which operates in the Latakia area, makes use of antique Marxist symbolism, mixed with Alawi sectarianism.

Elements among the ‘Shabiha’ in the regime enclave on the western coast of Syria are also now engaged not only in warfare, but also in significant economic activity of their own, independent of official channels.

Of course, the presence of this array of paramilitary groups should not obscure the extent to which Bashar may still call on formidable forces of his own. The 4th Armored Division, his Special Forces and the Republican Guard all remain available to him, as well as parts of the army, the intelligence services and the air force.

But a large and disparate gathering of forces have been brought in to plug the gap in manpower that is the main strategic threat facing the dictator. Assad desperately needs these forces, he did not establish them and he is not paying for them. So it may be cautiously deduced that he is unlikely to be controlling them.

There remains a major difference between the regional Shia effort to back Assad, and the Sunni help afforded the rebels. The latter is a tangled web of different and often hostile interests – Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, private Gulf funders, the Muslim Brotherhood.

The former, however, is coordinated by a single external force, namely Iran.

This does not mean that all the elements involved are merely puppets of the Iranians.

But it almost certainly does mean that they are not taking orders from Bashar Assad. He has become merely one element in a combined effort of Iran-aligned paramilitary forces to maintain their area of control within Syria.

About jonathanspyer

Jonathan Spyer is a Middle East analyst, author and journalist specializing in the areas of Israel, Syria and broader issues of regional strategy. He is the director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and analysis (MECRA), a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for strategy and Security (JISS) and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
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