The conflict in Syria is far from over, and Bashar al-Assad’s regime now faces the difficult task of organizing its forces to win the war and ensure the peace afterward. Further consolidation of Syrian sovereignty may cause a new wave of full-scale hostilities. Even if the regime fully controls Syrian territory, there will be a long period of internal instability with the risk of another uprising and regional separatism. Therefore, the development of the army remains a high priority for the Syrian government and its allies. The current poor state of the country’s armed forces is a result of hurried, ad-hoc steps during the war for survival, but a pause in hostilities makes it possible to streamline and reform the armed forces. The main issue remains choosing whether the Syrian armed forces (SAF) will focus more on conventional operations or internal security.
Russia can be a key player in the future of Syrian forces. The Russian command has already experimented with reforming the Syrian army, forming new large-scale, quasi-regular units and integrating various irregular and rebel groups into these units. It is difficult to expect the restoration of the prewar army, which was orientated to full-scale conventional war with external opponents.
The realities of the Syrian conflict make an internal security force a more likely option for reform. Outside threats are not a priority for Syria at this moment. Also, such a restoration would be too expensive for a war-ravaged country. Apart from the lack of money, the shortage of manpower has been a critical issue for several years already. The Russian experience in Syria demonstrates that the main challenges facing SAF postwar reform are unit organization and effectiveness, force structure, and the integration of former rebels.
Russian Impressions on the State of the Syrian Army
In 2015, when planning to intervene in the Syrian civil war, Russian political leaders expected a quick victory. They thought that with the support of the Russian Air Force, the Syrian army and auxiliary progovernment forces would quickly turn the tide on the ground and regain the country’s territory. The whole active operation was conceived to be only for three to four months. Therefore, initially, no plans for large-scale Syrian military modernization were made. This clearly demonstrates insufficient Russian familiarity with the situation on the ground, despite the fact that Russia supported the regime from the very beginning of the civil war.
Like other external powers involved in Syria, Russia quickly realized that air strikes alone were not enough for success on the ground. According to the first commander of Russian military forces in Syria, colonel general Alexander Dvornikov, “by the summer of 2015, the Syrian armed forces had completely exhausted themselves, the personnel were demoralized, the officer corps degraded, and the armed forces showed extremely low efficiency in command and control.”
Victory could only be achieved by seriously improving the SAF or by creating new friendly forces. Russia is experienced in forming small, friendly armed forces. Over the past thirty years, the Russians have participated in the creation of quasi-regular military formations in Transnistria, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia. In recent years, with the support of Russia, two bigger military forces were formed from scratch in separatist regions of Ukraine. These are heavy formations numbering tens of thousands of fighters equipped with hundreds of tanks, artillery pieces, anti-aircraft complexes, and drones. At the same time, modern Russia has little experience interacting with irregular formations. It is not surprising that in Syria, Russia chose to work with the regular army, leaving irregulars to Iranian influence.
The Russian military and political leadership have not officially announced plans for the future development of the Syrian army, but Russia began to participate in its improvement even before it entered the war in September 2015. After the official start of the intervention, these efforts grew significantly in scale. They suggest how Russia sees the future of the Syrian army.
First Attempt at Modernization: 4th Corps
The first Russian attempt to modernize Syrian forces was the creation of the 4th Assault Corps, which began shortly before the start of the Russian Air Force operation in September 2015. This modernization was mostly administrative. According to the Russian Ministry of Defense, a diverse mix from the 2nd Infantry Division, the 103rd Republican Guard Brigade, the 1st Assault Brigade, the 48th, the 53rd Special Purpose Regiment, and the Marines Battalion become part of the new formation under the control of a new headquarters in Latakia. New units created from National Defence Force irregulars and conscripts from Latakia were also included. Eventually, the 4th Corps contained more than twenty separate assault groups of about one hundred soldiers each. Thus, the entire “corps” barely exceeded 2,000 frontline fighters and did not reach the strength of a full-fledged division.
Russia also helped with the repair of 4th Corps’ heavy military equipment, including tanks and armored personnel carriers. Recruits also received quick and basic combat training from Russian military advisers. Nonetheless, there was no sizable Russian investment in this corps, particularly in small scale equipment. The main added value was supposed to be better command and control. Senior Russian officers were assigned as advisers to the corps and units headquarters, and helped manage operations and coordination with Russian air forces.
The first offensive operation of 4th Corps began on October 8, 2015, just a week after the start of the Russian intervention. Assault groups were sent to al-Ghab Plain and the mountainous region of Latakia to remove the threat to the province and the Russian air base there. Intense Russian air strikes and cruise missile attacks supported the corps offensive. The recapture of the mountainous region of the province of Latakia took six months, while Ghab Plain is yet to be controlled by Damascus.
Even though the Ghab/Latakia operation did not meet with complete success, some of the experience gained in Russia-Syria military interaction quickly spread to other parts of the country. Advisers from senior ranks of the Russian army were appointed to nearly every battalion, brigade, and division of the regular government army. The Russian military and state-hired private military contractors also worked with some quasi-regular formations, such as the elite Tiger Forces.
The Russian Ministry of Defense admits that sometimes Russian advisers played a more active role than it had planned. After the death of the commander of the 124th brigade of the Republican Guard in May 2017, the unit was effectively run by a Russian adviser for a week, until a Syrian replacement was sent. Russia thus assessed that reorganization based on existing units with minimal investments would be ineffective, and their combat value would be insufficient. Problems arose not only with the command and control structure but also with the motivation of the troops, their training, and combat effectiveness. Therefore, Russia decided to spend much more attention and resources on creating a new 5th Volunteer Assault Corps, also known in Syria as the 5th Legion.
A Model for the Future? 5th Corps
From November 2016, a much more ambitious attempt to create a new combat-ready unit of the Syrian army began. Even though the assault on East Aleppo had ended successfully by that time, it was obvious to the Russian command that the existing progovernment forces, regular and irregular alike, were still extremely ineffective.
The new 5th Corps was composed completely of volunteers, to avoid the typical conscript challenges with desertion and insufficient motivation. Fighters received 200–300 U.S. dollars per month, which is quite an attractive salary in war-ravaged Syria. It is not known where the funds for the financing of the corps came from, but apparently Russia is one of the primary sources of weapons, equipment, and combat vehicles for the corps. Personnel received basic training from Russian instructors, as well as more prolonged and extensive tactical training.
Due to the lack of human resources, the 5th Corps composition became mixed. It brought together units of very different origins and motivations, mostly former irregular units outside the military command structure, such as the National Defense Forces or loyal Baath Battalions. Additional units were formed by recruiting new volunteers and demobilized veterans. Dedicated recruitment centers for the 5th Corps were created all over Syria, including in Damascus, Homs, Hama, Aleppo, Tartus, Latakia, and Sweida. In 2018 former rebels from Daraa Province were also recruited into the 5th Corps.
Initially, the Russian military not only advised Syrian commanders but was in total command of the new corps at operational and tactical levels, which was necessary to break the problem of the rotten Syrian command and control structure. As Syrian personnel have gained more combat experience, the situation has shifted toward Russian advisers having less power in the 5th Corps.
An important difference from the typical Russian or Ukrainian separatist army corps was the almost complete absence of corps-level support units. In the regular army, the corps would have numerous artillery, missile, air defense brigades and regiments, and specialized support battalions, trained to fight together. The 5th Assault Corps remained organized as mostly independent infantry units, united by a joint command. Only a few select units received additional heavy weapons, but unlike for the 4th Corps these were not only outdated tanks. In addition to the old T-62M, these select 5th Corps units received upgraded T-72B3 tanks and T-90A tanks, which are purchased even today by the Russian army.
The newly created militia and irregular units, including those in the 5th Corps, are already being equipped with machine guns and pickup trucks mounted with automatic cannons. Attached artillery include multiple rocket launchers installed on the same automobile chassis. Such formations are seriously inferior in combat effectiveness to mechanized infantry, but because of their low price, they are the most affordable option for creating and re-forming future regular military units.
Despite this, challenges remain. The 5th Corps remains unstructured. While the total number of fighters in the corps is difficult to estimate, it probably exceeds 10,000 people. For Syria, the formation of such a large and relatively “heavy” military unit from scratch is a great achievement.The practice has shown that this corps project was more successful than with the 4th Corps. The 5th Corps was used to storm Palmyra, to establish control over the Syrian desert, to de-blockade Deir Ezzor and to capture the Euphrates valley and Daraa. In March 2019, the corps, almost in full composition, was sent to prepare for the attack on opposition-held Idlib Province.
The Russian military command highly praised the effectiveness of the 5th Corps. Especially noteworthy was the fact that the all-volunteer and relatively well-paid structure was sufficiently loyal to be used not just regionally, but all over the country. In terms of mobility, the 5th Corps has caught up with the most combat-ready Syrian units, such as the 4th Armored Division and elite Tiger Forces. Still, an important issue is whether this corps and its followers will remain relatively light in composition or later receive additional heavy military equipment and a more heavy structure? Today such a structure is compensated by the Russian air power, but self-sufficiency may require heavier native firepower.
Future Structure: Heavy or Light?
It is difficult to expect the restoration of the heavy prewar army, oriented for full-scale conventional war with external opponents. Outside threats are not a priority for Syria at this moment. Also, it would be too expensive for a war-ravaged country. There is no way for Syria to restore the previous number of tanks and armored vehicles, aircraft, and air defense systems available before the war. Their only source can be Russia. But so far no plans for large-scale procurements have been announced, and those that took place were limited. This is especially true for sophisticated modern weapons.
The only significant supply of S-300 air defense systems was a situational reaction by Russia to the loss of an IL-20 reconnaissance aircraft to the friendly fire of Syrian air defense weapons. There has been no full restoration or a serious buildup of the country’s air defense forces to a level capable of effectively protecting it from Israel and the United States. There have been no purchases and deliveries of new aircraft, either fixed or rotary wing. In the near future, Syria can expect only a small delivery of transport helicopters vital for supporting the mobility of the Syrian army.
The experience of supplying advanced tanks to Syrian forces was not very successful. The crews that lacked sufficient training used them with the same tactics as the ancient T-55 and T-72 models without much effect on the battlefield. Vital to the war effort was Russian assistance in the restoration of armored vehicles. More than 1,100 tons of spare parts for armored vehicles were transferred to Syria. Russia helped to set up the Homs tank repair/overhaul facility and smaller repair shops in Jabla and Latakia. In 2015–2017, they repaired 3,572 armored vehicles and another 1,244 in 2018. Such a high level of support allowed the country’s land forces to maintain some armored combat capability over the years, despite heavy losses.
Russia was also generous with the supply of heavy infantry weapons, such as 23mm ZU-23 antiaircraft guns, large-caliber machine guns, and Kornet anti-tank systems, which are also used as multipurpose support weapons. Anti-tank guided missiles played an increasing role in Syrian ground force action and gave the the SAF a necessary technical edge over rebel forces. Such infantry weapons are not only cheaper, but easier to master, and they are ideal for the tactics of small and quasi-regular units. Still, mass training and retaining high-quality officers and soldiers capable of operating sophisticated modern weapons is a challenging task for modern Syria. This is a severe limiting factor in the restoration of a heavy army.
The Problem of Integrating Former Rebels Units
The reinstatement of government control over vast swaths of territory in 2018 and numerous supposed reconciliation deals with former rebel regions have given the government an important source of personnel to rebuild Syrian regular forces. Nonetheless, there is no indication that the Syrian government has developed a unified approach to the reintegration of former rebels into national armed forces.
The regime prefers to pursue a policy of disarming surrendering rebel units, then dissolving them and recruiting individual fighters. Such an approach makes former rebels a dormant source of much-needed manpower. For many surrendering rebels, service in the army or auxiliary troops remains the only way to make a living and to avoid political persecution.
In addition to the apparent doubts about questionable loyalty of large ex-rebel contingents, their weapons and equipment are not in line with those of progovernment forces, which makes supply difficult. Fighters have mixed levels of training, and many do not have any. As a result, reconciled units, in general, do not represent a coherent and combat-worthy force useful for induction into the army and would require a complete overhaul anyway.
There are only a few examples of small rebel formations of company and battalion size that transferred to serve and fight in Syrian auxiliary units as a whole. Russia also showed flexibility in making local, temporary alliances with nongovernment forces like tribal militia units in the valley of the Euphrates River and YPG factions of Syrian Democratic Forces there. In the final stages of the defeat of the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Syria in December 2017, Russian officers and soldiers of Special Operations Forces were sent to these YPG factions as military advisers. The Russian Air Force provided close air support for the advancing Kurds. A joint headquarters was created to coordinate the actions of Russia and the militias of the Euphrates valley.
However, this was an exception to the rule, and there is no reason to expect that this approach will change concerning rebels forces in Idlib and At-Tanf. Here the government will likely prefer to disband local forces even if they manage to reach a peace agreement with them. Given the long history of armed hostility and the large number of radical Islamists in their ranks, the reliability and loyalty of such units will be always questionable.
The future of forces in the territories now under Turkish control will depend entirely on the conditions of a political settlement. But after Operation Peace Spring, it is clear that Turkey is not going to leave Syria. Of the former rebels there, Turkey formed a well-organized proxy, the Syrian National Army. It is difficult to imagine that these units, which are completely loyal and controlled by a hostile foreign state, can be somehow integrated into the Syrian armed forces, even in the long term.
The situation is different in the SDF-controlled region of the country. The Turkish operation Source of Peace in October 2019 pushed the Kurds toward reconciliation with the central government. The Syrian armed forces are now peacefully deployed on a substantial amount of SDF territories. The Syrian Ministry of Defense announced its readiness to integrate SDF troops into the regular army. The SDF General Command cautiously announced its readiness for such a step in the future, but not before a full political settlement between the Kurdish regions and the central government of the country. Such rapprochement is definitely possible, given the low level of hostility between the parties throughout the conflict.
Inevitably, the question of the fate of the SDF’s well-organized and battle-hardened forces will arise. Dissolving Kurdish units and subsequently conscripting individual fighters would be ineffective. The regime must find another way to integrate them into the military, while striking a delicate balance between the autonomy of SDF units and their subordination to central command.
One method to strike this balance could be through government-run headquarters of divisions or army corps. The existing SDF brigades and battalions could be subordinated to these headquarters, which would lead on operational control and planning, personnel, supply, and logistical management and financing.
Russia does not plan to recreate the Syrian army in its prewar form. Modern Syria is not able to pay for this, and other allies cannot sponsor it. The ultimate goal of Russia is to create a self-sufficient SAF that will be able to maintain the unity and internal stability of the country without direct military assistance. Such a goal well coincides with the interests of the Syrian regime and will provide an exit strategy for Russia.
Russian plans to unite forces under a single command are in direct conflict with the interests of Iran, which Syria relies on for an extensive network of loyal yet irregular formations. These units are financed by Iran and are therefore more faithful to Tehran than Damascus. The final word on the composition of the regular army will still be with Russia, and it is unlikely that Russia is ready to yield to Iran in this matter. A tightly integrated vertical command structure is a critical element of Russian military strategy.
In any case, the mobile armored fist of the few elite mechanized units will remain. Its presence is necessary not only for the rapid concentration and unity of forces but also for reasons of national pride. The model tested in the 5th Corps offers a cost-effective way of organizing a mix of many different small units into larger, better-managed military structures. Unifying the chain of command is necessary to transform irregular units into regular and quasi-regular status. Such a structure would allow, if necessary, the easy integration of opposition units, including the SDF because their organization, tactics, and weapons are not very different from those of the SAF.
A serious challenge for the Syrian regime will be the need to establish its own effective command and control structure after the departure of Russian advisers. Also, it will not be easy to find financing to motivate the whole army the same way as the 5th Corps. The armament of the Syrian armed forces will consist almost exclusively of outdated equipment for the foreseeable future. From pure necessity, the government must concentrate on resources already on the ground. Significant development of the Syrian air, air defense, and naval forces is not a priority.
The Syrian army should be sufficient to suppress local uprisings and maintain the integrity of the country. At the same time, in this context the SAF would not pose a serious threat to neighbors, including Israel and Turkey. Since Russia is trying to maintain good relations with regional powers, this is a crucial deciding factor.
The main problem for the regime remains the loyalty of the renewed army. At the beginning of the conflict, entire military units changed sides. In recent years, Assad has been able to stop such cases by combining better material rewards, building patriotism among the people, and using brutal repression. If a large number of former antagonists were to be included in the army, even these means might not be enough, so maintaining the loyalty and stability of the armed forces will always remain a headache.
In the more distant future, after establishing lasting peace in the country, the structure of the army may change again. Given the nation’s decades of history of employing heavy mechanized military units, the SAF will inevitably gravitate to a heavier regular structure. Still, such a prospect will require significant strengthening of the economy and the political stability of the regime and is not even on the horizon.