By Patrick BAHZAD
Time and again since 2011, there have been reports about the erosion of the Syrian Arab Army (SAA), with some observers even arguing that there is not much left of it. The influx of pro-regime foreign fighters in particular has been a point of contention among experts. However, while statements regarding the alleged state of disarray of the SAA are exaggerated, there is no doubt that today's force only vaguely resembles what it used to be seven years ago.
When making comparisons over time, it is important to remember where the starting point was, before assessing the nature and quality of the changes that occured. As far as the SAA is concerned, this means taking into account the fact that it used to be largely a conscript army, based on the Soviet model, but with a Middle-Eastern background. In 2011, the SAA officially featured a total strength in excess of 200 000 men in full battle order, but it would probably be fair to say that its combat readiness at that time did not amount to much.
There were very few professional regiment or brigade sized units and those that existed were more of a praetorian guard protecting the regime against enemies from within, rather than a proper field army that could have sustained combat against battle hardened adversaries. Therefore, it was no surprise that news of mass desertions, in particular in the first year of the war, prompted many experts into thinking that the SAA would dissolve pretty quickly, thereby taking down the regime with it.
Structural changes induced by high casualty rates
Nothing of the sort has happened however, for various reasons, and the SAA is currently the largest – and possibly the only – multi-confessional armed force in the region. That is not to say that large segments of the Sunni population have not gone over to the opposition, but the narrative of a totally sectarian SAA does not reflect reality. If it did, the war would not have lasted this long anyway ! Through the various phases of the war, the SAA underwent significant changes however, linked first of all to the casualties it suffered.
Estimates may vary, but it is clear that government forces (whether SAA as such, or pro-regime militias) have been seriously diminished by the fighting. This attrition has forced Assad and his allies to restructure his force. It is probably safe to assume that 150 000 regime troops have been KIA so far, possibly more. This is a very high casualty rate, considering the limited demographic pool that Assad can count on (around 10 million people in total). Such a figure would be roughly equal to some 450 000 KIA in the case of the US. Needless to say, no army survives casualties that high without undergoing serious change.
In this regard, two elements need to be mentioned: first of all, until 2015, efforts at reorganizing the SAA followed Iranian principles of decentralizing defences and recruiting local militias that were loosely placed under the authority of the "National Defence Forces" (NDF). Ever since the Russian intervention in 2015 however, at a time of great peril for the regime, the restructuring has focused on reinforcing the SAA as such, with a "train and equip" program of Russian making, as well as the implementation of new centralized "command and control" structures for increased efficiency on the battlefield.
Based on various estimates available and the type of restructuring that occurred, the current battle strength of the SAA is likely to be around 60 000 men (air force and air defences included). It needs to be added that this is not the total strength of the regime's forces, as a number of local and national militias, as well as the much talked about foreign fighters are not included in those numbers. The total manpower of the regime is therefore somewhere in the range of 120 000 (or 125 000 if you add the Russian expeditionary force). This is a small force if you look at the territory it operates in, and there are obviously a number of contingencies that this situation implies.
Although many doubted the feasibility and possible success of the Russian operation, it is very clear today that Russian help (training, equipment and support on the ground) brought about a strategic change in the war, meaning Assad cannot be defeated militarily anymore. Starting with the end to the siege of regime held Aleppo, followed by the retaking of rebel areas in the East of the city (a prowess many of the so-called experts did not consider possible), then the negotiated end to significant parts of the rebellion in the South and West, and finally the big push towards ISIS in the East, the SAA and its allies achieved significant military successes in the two and a half years since late 2015.
Today, the only sizeable areas that are not under regime control are the Kurdish held areas in the North and East, as well as Idlib province, where ongoing operations will end with another regime advance in large parts of that region, with some areas possibly entering into a Turkish sponsored "de-escalation deal". There are also smaller areas to the South and West of Damascus under rebel control, but the local dynamics there are totally different due to this area's strategic importance both to Lebanese Hezbollah (and its Iranian sponsors) and to Israel.
Before looking at the operational history of the SAA, and what it says about its capabilities, let us first deal with the one issue that seems to have captivated everybody's attention, in particular among those who predicted the SAA's downfall. Yes, pro-regime foreign fighters have been present on the ground ever since late 2012, when Hezbollah first entered the fray. However, statements – such as those made by the National Security Advisor – suggesting that "up to 80 % of Assad's fighters are foreigners" are largely baseless. This 80 % ratio may apply to specific battlefields, but it is way off the mark as far as the global picture is concerned.
Pro-regime foreign fighters
The SAA has serious manpower issues, but it is not a foreign mercenary army fighting for Assad. And although the number of pro-regime foreign militias (Lebanese or Iraqi Hezbollah, Afghan Hazaras, Pakistanis, Palestinians and even Iranian IRGC "advisors") is significant, analysis of the casualties suffered by these groups strongly suggests that their share of the regime's total fighting force is somewhere between 15 % and 20 %.
In early January 2018, IDF Chief of Staff General Eisenkot put the number of pro-regime foreign fighters at roughly 20 000, among them some 8 000 Lebanese Hezbollah, 2 000 Iranian "advisors" and various other foreign groups. Eisenkot can hardly be suspected of any sympathy towards the regime, but his assessment is much in line with global casualty estimates. Those numbers are very far from fictional estimates about tens of thousands of foreigners fighting Assad's war.
The truth is, the regime's forces remain largely Syrian, and so do the casualties. That notwithstanding, there are obvious differences in the operational quality the foreign militias bring to the battlefield: while Lebanese Hezbollah could be regarded as a component of the regime's special forces units, Afghan "Fatemiyoun" soldiers look much more like the cannon fodder of the old days.
As a trend, it is clear that the influx of pro-regime foreign fighters has increased over the years, which bears testimony to the attrition rate and recruitment issues of the regime. For the time being however, and considering the current intensity of combat operations, everything indicates that the SAA will be able to sustain its war efforts without resorting to more foreign recruitment. Therefore, the argument according to which the vast majority of the regime forces are foreign has to be dismissed. Areas of real concern lay elsewhere.
Looking back at the recent performance of the SAA, a few observations need to be made. First of all, Russian support is absolutely vital to the durability of the SAA and its prevailing on the battlefield. Iranian sponsored groups may be providing extra manpower, but the necessary firepower and logistics is mostly dependent on Russian involvement. This is a fact any assessment of the SAA's current operational capabilities needs to recognize: without the Russians' deliveries of equipment, without their training and without their involvement on the ground (mostly with CAS and indirect artillery fire), there would be no SAA left today.
A similar logic applies to other armies of the region, because neither Iraqi security forces nor Kurdish YPG/SDF forces would have prevailed against IS without the massive air support of the Coalition and the US in particular. In the case of the SAA, this dependence upon the RuAF is a serious shortcoming that is cause for concern not just for the regime, but also for the Russians, who do not want to get bogged down into another "forever war" and need to find a way to further bolster and improve the SAA's own air force and air defence capabilities. It is not an easy undertaking, nor is it going to be cheap. Time will tell…
Additionally, the timeline of SAA operations shows that it is only capable of one large offensive operation at a time. The SAA may be able to take on ISIS in Eastern Syria (with Russian CAS and with help from foreign militias), but if there is a large scale counter attack in Idlib at the same time, they need to put operations on the back burner until things have calmed down. This constitutes another serious flaw, particularly at a time when the SAA might have to engage various opponents simultaneously, although on a smaller scale.
A small battle-hardened, armoured force
That being said, there have been qualitative improvements both in structure and operational conduct over the years. On the one hand, the Russians identified and remedied equipment and structural shortcomings that had been very clear for quite a while: by creating, equipping and training two new army corps (the 4th and 5th), the Russians built the base for the current advances on the ground. In truth, these corps are new in part only: most of their manpower is derived from the reconditioning of existing units, which underwent additional training and were equipped with modern weapons systems, in particular armour and artillery, including state-of-the-art multiple rocket launchers. This restructuring into larger armour units, and the additional firepower provided by artillery systems, were crucial. Not only did the SAA need new gear to deal with the rebels' ATGMs in open field engagements, but first and foremost, it needed to be able to perform combined arms, even at a basic level. Enemy contact in the fall of 2015 indicated that the Russians were all but thrilled with the abilities displayed by the Syrians. Today, the SAA looks a different force in that regard.
It has displayed abilities that its Iraqi counterpart clearly does not possess for example, and it has a few "high speed" armour units that rank among the most proficient in the region (Turkey included, with Israel being a different story). The "Tiger Force" features most prominently among those and has a proven track record as a unit with good all-round offensive capabilities. There are a few others as well though, which are not mentioned as often: mostly"Republican Guard" sub-units, which have a wider array of know-how but are spread over several areas of Syrian territory, and the "4th Mechanized Division". It is these units, that were part of the regime's most trusted ones at the beginning of the war, that spearhead many of its operations today. They are the ones who probably saved the day when things looked very bleak for Assad, early in 2015. Today, they provide the backbone of the SAA, they are battle-hardened, determined and ideologically reliable.
However, the small number and limited manpower of those units is also the reason why simultaneous offensive operations are a difficult task: the SAA has only so many larger units capable of engaging an enemy in combination with air support and artillery fire, and manoeuvring on open terrain as well as in urban environments. But that is already a big achievement. Looking at the mess the Iraqis made of Mosul, with a numerical advantage of 20 to 1 and Coalition aircraft ruling the skies, it is important to underline the SAA's improvement in these areas. Its operational success is even more impressive, givent that it was achieved at moderate financial cost, compared to the hundreds of billions of dollars that were poured into the Iraqi army.
Leadership and Experience
More globally, today's SAA is certainly a much smaller and compact force, but it has gained lots of experience from the battlefields it has mastered. The way the "Tiger Force" managed to break through rebel defences in Aleppo, before advancing inside the defensive perimeter with armour and air support, needs to be acknowledged. These "assault" and "intrusion" capabilities are a distinct feature of the experience gained by the SAA. In Aleppo in late 2016 and in Deir-ez-Zor last year, these units proved that the SAA had learned it lessons and was now capable to conduct complex operations, shaping the urban terrain, including with covert and psychological operations, in a way that is new to Middle-Eastern armed forces, again keeping in mind the counter-example of the Iraqi led operation on Mosul or the joint SDF-Coalition assault on Raqqa.
The experience that was gained with those operations is of particular importance to the SAA's leadership, and I'm not just talking about Generals like Suheil al-Hassan. Leaders at platoon and company level, i.e. the COs who are on the frontlines of the war, will benefit from the successful operations they have conducted. There is no better teacher than war itself – provided your survive it – and from that point of view, the SAA is certainly much better off with a smaller, combat proven force, rather than a 200 000 conscripts' army that has never seen a fight.
There is however an important downside to the emergence of a new military leadership boosting self-confidence and an impeccable track-record: when the dust settles over the battlefield and the time has come to decide about the spoils of war, competition is usually pretty hard – especially after a civil war. Like neighbouring Lebanon in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Syria is likely to be confronted with a political fragmentation even on the regime side, with generals and militia leaders trying to carve out a fiefdom of their own, or maybe even aiming for a higher reward. Such a turn of events does not always end well for those involved …
Which way ahead ?
Overall, the picture is complex. The SAA is not a spent force, that much is clear. But it is much smaller than before the war. It is not an empty shell either, filled up with foreign mercenaries. But it still needs Russian support and Iranian sponsored manpower. It also suffers from a large technological gap with more advanced powers, especially as far as its air force is concerned. On the other hand, it is now combat proven and has the ability to conduct modern combined arms, including in urban environments. Compared to most armed forces of the region, these features do stand out as important qualities. They will definitely be enough to get the better of the Al Qaeda "light" groups that still roam freely in Idlib.
Whether this would be sufficient against Coalition supported YPG/SDF in Northern Syria is doubtful. But that is probably not the aim anyway. Other actors come into play into that equation and secret meetings or negotiations will probably play a more important role than operations on the battlefield. The situation in Syria's North and East strongly depends on tribal dynamics. This is what the regime will be focusing on, more than on military offensives. Iran though may want to play another card, and so may Turkey. Therefore, the potential for armed conflict and escalation definitely exists, but the prospect of large scale engagements involving SAA troops seems rather unlikely.
Instead, we are likely to witness a mix of asymmetrical warfare and political compromise, where combat readiness, fighting power and air superiority might be nullified by a strategy that aims at controlling the population and undercutting the adversary's support among the locals. As far as the SAA is concerned, this is probably for the better, as it does not have the capability to confront American military might, nor the manpower to hold onto large areas against an enemy reversing back to insurgency mode. Syria's North can only fall into regime hands if Moscow, Damascus and Teheran manage to incentivise local (Arab) tribes into pledging their loyalty to the regime.
Overall, the most likely prospect for continued military engagement of the SAA will be in the small Southern areas that are still under Al Qaeda or ISIS control. A shift has already started towards directing resources and manpower into those areas. The SAA has acquired enough experience to deal with these groups, but in this part of the country too, other players – Hezbollah, Iran and Israel – have strategic interests that will shape the turn of events. The current war is nearing its end and the SAA has prevailed. It now remains to be seen what role the SAA will play, if at all, in the war that may just be about to start.