The Syrian regime's reliance on foreign forces (Russia, Iran and its Shia militia proxies) to turn the tide in its favor since 2015 has cast doubt on its ability to regain long-term sovereignty. Hybridity of security governance includes not only those foreign forces, but also the absorption of pro-government Syrian militias and even former rebel groups which have returned to the fold. While victory by the regime's definition will be achieved once it regains the one-third of the country now under Turkish or US control, the real challenge will be to restore state sovereignty and security sector control despite Russian and Iranian influence.

Abdulla M. Erfan
Abdulla M. Erfan is Doctoral Fellow at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP).

The integration of foreign and informal forces, and their influence over security sector decision-making, makes success in restoring pre-2011 unified security sector governance improbable. The regime's lack of funds, and its narrow sectarian base, will bolster its dependence on foreign forces. Reunifying the security sector will be affected by differing Russian, Iranian and Syrian views on such issues as the political system, foreign policy and the role of the army, impacting army governance in terms of centralization, command and control and professionalism.

Elements and scope of hybridity in security sector governance

By the time the Russians intervened in 2015, security sector hybridity and proliferation were already advanced. The regime's key problem was dearth of military manpower, since the Syrian army is believed to have lost about one-third of its 200,000 regular troops in battle or by defection by 2015. This led to the adoption of an array of loyalist irregulars, supplemented by the arrival of Iranian-backed militias from Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan.

After 2017, with the tide turned and many opposition strongholds recaptured, the Syrian military regained around half its manpower losses with the integration of former defectors and opposition militias, and recruitment in the retaken areas. But that did little to lessen the hybridity of the security sector and its dependence on foreign forces, not least because of discrepant standards of training and discipline, and considerable loyalist mistrust of the newly-integrated elements. This shallow integration may be an improvement on fragmentation, but inculcating regime loyalty and reliability is a big experiment.

Pro-Iranian forces came to the regime’s help before the Russians, but the latter have contributed more to the military dynamics and to the direction of governance. Since 2016, Russia has attempted to collect many armed groups under Russian-controlled unified umbrellas. The Fourth Corps was created to provide professional protection to the Russian installations in Latakia, while the Fifth Corps was directed to help fight ISIS in the east. The deployment of some 1500 Russian Military Police, an elite force by local standards, in various spots in Syria, adds another element of hybridity and hard-to-contest authority barely within the orbit of Damascus.

The Russian element in the current hybridity will be further enhanced by the newly-installed S300 air-defense network, which will come with a unified air-defense management system controlling the whole Syrian airspace and will be jointly run by Russians and Syrians. This will ensure a significant Russian involvement in decision making regarding any future confrontations, with Israel or otherwise. This permanent integration at a high level of the command and control of the Syrian army, in addition to the Russian advisory presence in many strategic junctures, challenge the efforts of the hard-line Syrian elite to restore the kind of unrestricted command over the army they enjoyed before the war.

Iran's engagement in the prevailing hybridity is less overt and formal, based mainly on its sponsorship of the Lebanese Hezbollah and Iraqi and other Shia militias in considerable numbers 80-65,000 which have played a significant role on the ground, and a more limited number of Iranian Revolutionary Guards and other military advisers.1 All this undoubtedly gives Iran a strong influence on military decision-making.

Iran's role is clearly more controversial than Russia's one, at least as far as the US and Israel are concerned. Feeling the heat from those quarters, the Iranians are reported to be trying since 2017 to unify some of their proliferate forces within the Syrian army's official structure, to provide formal cover.2

In both the Russian and Iranian cases, consolidating national and foreign forces in the army may reduce hyper-fragmentation, but does nothing to cut the elements of hybridity.

That hybridity extends to the intelligence and police domains as well as the military. Increasing Russian and Iranian influence over the Syrian intelligence branches is breaking the regime monopoly over information and limiting its command and control of the army and its units.3

Russia is deemed to have a strong hand within the General Intelligence, with Iran more influential within Military Intelligence, although the Russians are believed recently to have strengthened their position with the military intelligence branches in Latakia, Aleppo and Homs. Tensions surfaced in 2017 when there were recriminations over the death of Russian Gen. Valery Asapov, commander of the 5th Corps, in an ISIS attack at Deir Ezzor amidst Russian suspicions of betrayal by the regime or the Iranians.4

Russia and Iran Divergences Over Army Governance

Hard-liners within the Syrian regime may imagine that the post-2015 victories will allow them to restore the status quo prevailing before 2011: unified territories, a unified military and a sovereign country. While that narrative may serve as a strategy to maintain elite coherence, avoid concessions and attempt to set the outlines for a post-war social contract, it collides with realities which will oblige the regime to enter into more complicated modes of alliance management between the military and the state. The outcome in terms of security sector governance will be determined by the complex interplay of interests and competition between the three powers in the alliance.

The postures of the two outside powers are quite different, and that is bound to impact on security sector governance.

Russia’s conception of the end of the conflict includes professionalizing and strengthening the Syrian army to make it less dependent on them—and on Iran; and unifying the command structure to avoid uncoordinated attacks on Syria’s neighbors. Such conditions are in line with Moscow's low-cost strategy in Syria, its good relationship with both Turkey and Israel, and possible future engagement with the West in reconstructing Syria. Beyond the military, the Russians consider that intelligence reform, or control, is key to their troops' security and for their longer-term competition with Iran in Syria.

By contrast, a centralized structuring of the Syrian army might not fit Iran’s vision of its forces' function in Syria in general, and specifically inside the army, and therefore it may resist Russian efforts in that direction. Iran will be likely interested in unifying its own forces inside or outside the army and increasing their combat readiness, rather than engaging in professionalizing them in line with modern standards.

Obviously much will depend on the intensity of pressure mounted against the Iranian presence by Israel, the Americans and their Saudi-led regional allies, and the reaction to it. If Iran were induced to withdraw its actual or proxy forces, perhaps leaving a proportion embedded in the Syrian military structure, that would clearly impact Tehran's ability to influence security sector decision-making. Its presence is much more vulnerable and also less institutionalized than Russia's one. The integration of the local Defense Forces (LDF) into the Republican Guard and the Fourth Division will leave around 25000 pro-Iran fighters legally part of the army body, while the remaining 55-40,000 might leave or stay longer depending on the pressures.5

Such a development would clearly change the balance of power between the forces vying to influence security-sector decision making. But for the foreseeable future, whatever the balance, the presence of foreigners or pro-foreigners in the higher ranks, at decision making levels, and in the intelligence agencies, will continue to tie the Syrians' hands with regard to their security sector.

Regime’s Hybridity Management

In the absence of radical solutions, a management approach to hybridity is likely to dominate the regime reaction to the continuing presence of informal and foreign forces inside the security forces structure. Standardizing and improving training and performance was never a priority for the Syrian army; despite its under-performance in the war, the regime is surviving. But balancing the ratio of nationals to foreigners is important for its security. Here, however, it runs up against the same manpower problems that obliged it to seek outside intervention in order to stave off defeat.

For the foreigners, a complicated web of politics within the triple alliance is expected to dominate the post-war dynamics, with implications for security sector governance. The regime will be keen to work with Russia to centralize the Army structure and to prevent Iran from hijacking Syrian foreign policy on Lebanon, Iraq and Israel. However, more Russian influence in key positions in Syria to prevent any relapses will be balanced by Iranian forces within the Republican Guard and the elite Fourth Division in Damascus protecting the regime’s core.

Is there any realistic medium, long-term prospect for Syria to work its way out of security sector hybridity and dependence on the very forces to which it owes its survival?

Ultimately, it will depend on how the conflict comes to an end, and whether it is followed by another one aimed at dislodging Iran from Syria. In times of upheaval, the details may change, but the syndrome of dependence on co-opted militias and foreign forces and the resulting hybridity will remain the same.

But if, against the odds, an entente between the interested and influential outside powers led to a long period of stability and of real nation rebuilding, the picture could change. The militias could either become properly-integrated professional military or police or disperse back into civilian life and find profitable employment in reconstruction. If such an entente prevailed, Turkish-backed rebel groups and US-supported Kurdish forces in the north could also be drawn in under some kind of devolution scenario. If Russia and Iran's basic interests were assured - as they were before the war began - both might be quietly relieved to draw down a military effort that has cost them both dearly.

For the moment though, such a vision must remain pie in the sky. Survival thanks to outsiders comes at a price, and that price involves inroads into sovereignty, dilution of central state control, and acceptance of security hybridity as part of the sustaining system.

This article was originally published on the Italian Institute for International Political Studies website.


1 For the higher number refer to Judah Ari Gross, “Israel at UN: Iran has more than 80,000 fighters in Syria”, The Times of Israel, April 26; Seth J. Frantzman, “Who are Iran’s Shi’ite Fighters in Syria?”, Jerusalem Post, April 28, 2018; for the lower number, author's interview with an Istanbul-based expert realized on September 26, 2018.

2 Refer to Yonah Jeremy Bob, “Intel Center: Hezbollah, Iran’s Shi’ite Militias Hidden in Syrian Army”, Jerusalem Post, July 13, 2018; Terrorism Info, “Hezbollah and Iran-handled Shi’ite militias are integrated into the Syrian army in its campaign to take control of south Syria”, July 11, 2018; and that was corroborated by the author’s interviews with Russian and Iranian experts in September 2018.

3 Author’s interviews with Russian and Iranian experts in September 2018.

4 Author’s interviews with Russian and Iranian experts in September 2018.

5 Numbers vary depending on the methodology of estimation and time, for lower estimates that range from 5000-8000 reported in April 2018 see Seth J. Frantzman, “Who are Iran’s Shi’ite Fighters in Syria?”, Jerusalem Post, April 28, 2018; and for the higher 25000 estimates, it was obtained from an Istanbul-based expert that was interviewed by the author in September 2018. The 55-40,000 range is the result of deducting 25,000 from the higher estimation of 80,000 pro-Iranian forces, and the lower of 65,000.