It is difficult to determine what the thinking is behind the operations of the Syrian Army in the present conflict. The Syrian Army has considerable size, strength, and capabilities, enhanced on the ground by the presence of allies such as the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Iranian special forces or Quds Force, Hezbollah, the National Defense Forces militia, and Iraqi Shi’a militant brigades. The Syrian Army has far greater combat power available relative to its opponent, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the fighting force of the Syrian oppostion’s military wing, the Syrian Military Council (SMC). It is further enhanced by tons of arms and sophisticated weapon systems from Russia, and additional aid from Iran, and China. Clearly, the Syrian Army is doing very little, with a lot at hand. Just playing it cool! Yet, factors influencing the Syrian Army’s actions, or lack of action, are more likely political than military and perhaps in line with the organization’s culture.
The Syrian Army
While official statistics say the Syrian Army had a strength of 220,000 troops when the war began, the International Institute for Strategic Studies believes that number has fallen to 50,000 loyal forces mainly among Allawite Special Forces, the Republican Guard, and the 3rd and 4th Divisions. However, other analysts have also estimated that when the ranks of the security forces are counted as a whole, including the Mukhabarat or Intelligence organizations, the police, and Shabeeha or paramilitaries/street gangs, the number again rises near 200, 000. The commander in chief of the Syrian Armed Forces is President Bashar al-Assad (the title also includes the rank of field marshal). Day-to-day operations are controlled by Minister of Defense and deputy commander in chief, General Fahd Jassem al-Freij, and chief of general staff of the Army and the Armed Forces, Lieutenant General Ali Abdullah Ayyoub. Lieutenant General Ayyoub took direct control of the defense of Aleppo and Damascus. Qusayr was the army’s most robust operation since. However, the operation and its success was followed on all fronts by unimaginative and moderate activity. This has helped to create a confusing picture of Syrian Army commanders’ capabilities.
Qusayr: Not A New Start
In Qusayr, the Syrian Army had specific objectives and initially acted decisively. Qusayr, was Syrian equivalent to Sinjar in Iraq. Qusayr was an entry point for foreign fighters into Syria. (Sinjar was a location determined by the US Joint Special Operations Command to be the entry point for numerous terrorist groups coming into Iraq. US operations in Sinjar had a crippling effect on al-Qaida in Iraq.) The attack on Qusayr was to have a tremedous impact on al-Qaida in Syria. Yet, in addition, by capturing Qusayr, the Syrian Army would cut off Qatari and Saudi Arabian weapons shipments to the FSA coming in covertly from Lebanon It would re-link Damascus to the coast. Further, its capture would mean the beginning of the end for FSA control of Homs province. Weeks before the attack, villages surrounding the town were captured by the army, and units from Hezbollah and the National Defense Forces militia. The town was struck by artillery fire and air sorties the morning before the assault on the town began. Being reported at the same time were Syrian Army advances on other fronts specifically on Halifaya, a town occupied by the terrorist group, the al-Nusra Front and in Damascus, in the Barzeh district. In the following three days, Syrian Army operations lost momentum. The reduction of Qusayr was then taken over by Hezbollah.
In spite of the plethora of analyses that claimed Qusayr was the start of something new for the Syrian Army. Yet, Qusayr was not part of an effort to win the war. It was an effort to eliminate a “uncomfortable advantage” the FSA had. As US Secretary of State John Kerry explained two days after the assault on Qusayr began, the battlefield advances were “very temporary.” Since then, firefights have occurred in Latakia, Aleppo, Homs, Damascus Rural, Damascus, Aqunaitirah, Deir az Zawr, Dar ‘aa, Homs, and Hama. Daily attacks on the FSA mostly take the form of artillery, rocket, and mortar fire missions against FSA strongholds and suspected bases. There have been also occasional raids and arrests, but no general movement. Rather than the start of something new, Qusayr was not the beginning of anything.
Time and Attrition
President Assad may recognize that the FSA lacks the manpower and weaponry to attack and effectively hold enough territory in Syria to claim control over the state. FSA forces, alone, would never be able to threaten what Assad cares for most, his presidency and his regime. It might be viewed that Assad is fighting the war the Syrian opposition’s political wing, the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) and FSA wants. They desire time to establish a working government in the “Free Syrian Territory.” However, Assad may also feel time is on his side. He may very likely believe that allowing enough time, disunity with the SNC, disunity between the SNC and the FSA, a loss of revolutionary zeal, and a loss of motivation and morale within FSA ranks, the opposition will lose its energy. While plausible, at the moment, that does not appear likely to occur.
“The Gentler Syrian Army”
There is the possibility that the Syrian Army has avoided mass attacks and phased operations against FSA held territory because its commanders want to take a visibly less-aggressive approach in the conflict. The Syrian Army full power and capabilities have not been brought to bare on the FSA. This has given many in the international community the sense that there is no worry that the FSA would be overwhelmed, and there really is no need for emergency action, including the use of force by the US and the EU against Syria. True, the Syrian Army’s activities have been moderate, even though the death toll in Syria is high and grows steadily. (Recent Institute for International Strategic Studies estimates of civilian deaths are around 94,000.) Although the Syrian Army has recklessly fired artillery into towns and villages and Syrian Air Force has bombed civilian targets, recordings of FSA members committing crimes against humanity that were video recorded and viewed worldwide. Supporting this “gentler look” of the Syrian Army, are arguments made by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that portray Syria as the victim of European leaders “fuelling the fires of war.”
Foreign Proxies for Syria?
Rather than serve as a party to a proxy war, perhaps Syrian Army commanders hope their foreign benefactors would instead fight for Syria. The French Foreign Minister estimated that 3000 to 4000 Hezbollah fighters were in Syria. Israeli analysts estimate that 4000 Iranian officers and men from the IRGC and Quds Force were on the ground. The Russian military presence has not been specified, but in 2012, the Guardian concluded it was considerable. It is doubtful that the Russians will contribute ground forces for the fight. However, Russian advisers would unlikely move too far from S-300 or any other advance missile systems it may provide the Syrians. Reports exist of a planned Russian sale of MiG-29 fighters to Syria soon. Perhaps Russian pilots will train the Syrians in Syria and fly with them. (It is hard to see how the Syrian Air Force would absorb the weapons fast enough to ensure their use in the near term. Taking two examples from history, Russian pilots flew MiGs and drove tanks in Korea in 1950 covertly and manned anti-aircraft and intermediate range ballistic missiles in Cuba in 1962.) The Iranians would certainly be willing to fight alongside the Syrian Army much as they fought alongside the Bosnian and Herzegovina Armija from 1994 to 1995. Hezbollah is already in the fight, particularly within the Syrian provinces bordering Lebanon. As mentioned earlier, Hezbollah has been given the task to mop up FSA resistance in Qusayr. Iraqi Shi’a militia have been steadily arriving in Syria. They have come to fight. However, having its allies fight for Syria might create sovereignty issues for Assad afterward. Some allies might seek to remain in Syria and retain control of territory they might gain. Since those allies are generally more powerful than the Syrians, that could pose a real problem for Assad’s regime if it is not agreeable to such plans.
The Syrian Army’s “Business Culture”
Another factor in Syrian Army commanders’ planning of operations could be Assad’s actions to date. Assad has clearly gone too far. The commanders must realize that once peace is achieved, with the defeat of the FSA or a settlement, the international community will very likely hold those responsible for war crimes accountable. That was the case in Bosnia, where political and military officials, unable to evade justice, found themselves on trial in The Hague. Planning for life after the war, and after their military careers, is foremost in the minds of senior Syrian Army leaders. In Syria, officers receive reasonable pensions, but salaries are supplemented by entrepreneurial exploits. Many officers own hotels and resorts, defense and high-tech firms, agro-businesses and wood product firms, construction and transportation companies, as well as other industries. They form a portion of the business community. (This situation is not unusual among government bureaucrats, diplomats, and military leaders of other states in the region.) The Assad regime’s survival will enable the senior officers to retain their interests and allow them have a place to stay without fear of capture. For them, it is not best to have an all of nothing fight to the finish. They want the war to end with Syria in reasonable shape. They may even be able to retain their ranks and positions in a transitional government. However, they would unlikely have the same degree of protection from international, as well as Syrian, justice. Assad, knowing this, is likely very careful not to push his commanders too hard for big moves and more action.
It seems the presence and influence of allies and Syrian Army’s “business culture” are factors as important in planning operations in war as men and materiel in the field. Under current conditions, it is unlikely the Syrian Army will lose. Whether it would seek to destroy the FSA is unclear. As long as it is not asked to do so, it will not. Due to foreign influences on the Assad regime and a possible “openness” toward a peaceful resolution among senior Syrian Army leaders, US Secretary of State John Kerry’s approach to Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov to create peace, may be far more important to the outcome of the war in Syrian than a meeting in Geneva between the parties in conflict. However, since Syria’s journey toward the future must travelled by the Syrians, they must be present at the start of that journey.