The Syrian Arab Army (SAA) has been key to regime survival over eight years of civil war. Undoubtedly, the SAA has changed significantly, adapting and changing to keep the regime and the state from total collapse. The Syrian army will continue playing a central role in the country, especially since the war is nearing completion and the two major backers of Damascus, Russia and Iran, need the SAA to keep the regime afloat.

Alexey Khlebnikov
Alexey Khlebnikov is a consultant and Middle East expert at the Russian International Affairs Council.

Yet, in the course of the war the army’s fighting capabilities have declined significantly, compounded by questions over its role as the institution cementing the country’s unity. Today, one of the most important questions for the country’s stabilization and political reconciliation is how the SAA is going to be transformed and whether the central government will be able to implement military reforms to simultaneously reestablish the army’s authority and catalyze intra-Syrian reconciliation. The fact that Moscow and Tehran have different approaches to military reform complicates this question.

One of the aims of Russia’s military campaign in Syria to showcase a successful alternative to the Western approach to the conflicts in the region (for example, in Iraq, Libya, and Yemen). For Moscow this Western approach has failed completely. In order to showcase this success Russia has to address one of the biggest challenges, to successfully reform the SAA, which envisages its reformatting, focusing on military education and training, and monitoring the military transformation and reconciliation process, while ensuring stability throughout.

This article will discuss the reasons behind Russia’s plan to reform the Syrian military, factors that drove Moscow to take this road, what Russia has already done and is doing on this path, and what the limitations and challenges are.

Russian Impetus for SAA Reform

Russia has been involved militarily in the Syrian conflict since September 30, 2015. Initially, Moscow planned the military operation to take several months rather than several years. Nonetheless, calculations proved to be wrong and Russia had to adjust to a new reality that was a highly fragmented and ineffective Syrian military.

In the first instance, Moscow decided to intervene because it seemed like the regime was just several months, if not weeks, from collapse. It was clear to the Russians that the SAA was ineffective at stabilizing the conflict and maintaining state sovereignty, so reform of the SAA became central to Russia’s involvement. Historically, Russia has viewed the military as the central institution of a state’s apparatus and as the most effective backbone of stability in the region, because it can provide certain guarantees. This is why Russia has a vested interest in reforming the Syrian army. It needs to create an effective military institution that has tight control over the country, can maintain its stability, and can be a trusted partner who can guarantee Russian interests in Syria. The Kremlin hoped that successful disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) of rebel forces, as well as postconflict stabilization and reconstruction in which Russia plays the leading role, would increase its reputation on the world stage as a leading conflict mediator.

The strong diplomatic history of Syrian-Russian relations has dealt Russia a solid hand in assisting the reform and restructuring of the SAA. During the Soviet era, from 1955 onward, the Soviet Union was a political and military partner of Syria and provided it with arms and modern equipment, instructed and educated the Syrian military on the model of the Soviet Red Army, and helped to create military infrastructure. All this created a solid basis for Russia to initiate the reform of the fragmented and weak Syrian army in September 2015. As Russian involvement expanded, however, two challenges in reforming the SAA presented themselves: reestablishing the Syrian state’s monopoly on the use of force and counterbalancing Iran’s presence on the ground.

Reestablishing Syria’s Monopoly on the Use of Force

From the beginning of the Syrian conflict, it became clear that to fortify its power the regime could not rely on the SAA alone and began to dismantle the army’s monopoly on the use of force. The regime organized local progovernment militias to counterbalance the mobilization of antigovernment forces. Nevertheless, eight years of civil war in Syria have meant that progovernment militias have themselves begun to pose a threat to state sovereignty, as they have grown in size, numbers, and influence.

Moscow clearly understands that, in the short to medium term, tens of thousands of uncontrolled progovernment militiamen could challenge the regime’s supremacy and control. Some militia commanders have operated as local warlords, but rivalries have emerged between the SAA and militias as militia leaders have grown hostile to sharing power with Damascus.

This rivalry contributed to further erosion of SAA authority and command structure. According to some estimates, in 2018 the Syrian central command fully controlled only 20,000–25,000 soldiers and officers, while the number of various progovernment militiamen operating in Syria was up to 150,000–200,000. Although SAA manpower has increased since 2018, nonstate armed groups have dominated the battlefield, which complicates the question of their accountability and control, creating additional risks for the central government in Syria. This is why, in the long run, the regime will be forced to come up with a formula to incorporate militia commanders and their interests into the new military system. This is exactly what Moscow aims to do.

Counterbalancing Iran’s Presence on the Ground

In this context, Iran’s increased presence in Syria, with its creation and funding of progovernment militias, exacerbates the complexity of the issue even further. During the conflict, the Syrian regime has resorted to using foreign Shia militias, sponsored primarily by Iran: Lebanese Hezbollah, the Iraqi al-Zulfikar and Abu Fadl al-Abbas Brigades, the Iranian Quds Force and later Iranian army forces, the Afghan Shia Fatimiyoun Brigade, and the Pakistani Zeinabiyoun Brigade. These progovernment militias helped the regime to survive, but simultaneously created an overreliance on Iran and allowed Tehran to establish a rigid military presence in Syria.

For Russia such a situation was a double-edged sword. On one hand, Russia needed Iranian forces on the ground and agreed to deploy its air forces to Syria on the condition that Iran would provide more manpower to make Moscow’s aerial involvement more effective. On the other hand, it led to overreliance of Damascus on pro-Iranian militias, which now is one of the major roadblocks to reforming the army and launching an effective DDR process.

While Iran-controlled militias are deeply entrenched in Syria and its military, Damascus will strive to create a strong, autonomous, and self-sufficient army, and will be able to become less dependent on Iran. Moscow clearly understands this.

Stronger Military Brings Less Reliance on External Actors

Another important rationale behind Moscow’s push for Syrian military reform is a stronger and more independent Damascus. Russia’s military presence in Syria and its facilitation of Syrian military reform can also be seen as a tool to limit Tehran’s regional power—a positive signal to competing regional and global actors.

Currently, Syrian reliance on Iran prevents many regional and global powers from participating in reconciliatory talks with Damascus. As a consequence, sanctions relief and reconstruction have been off the agenda. Such a situation does not correspond with Russia’s interests, as it understands that it will not be able to rebuild the country alone. This is why Moscow is invested in making Damascus stronger. A more independent Damascus will enjoy more opportunities to create a diverse network of regional supporters and donors, which will open the door for reconciliation. For instance, UAE companies have already started to scout business opportunities in Syria in a bid to secure their share of the economic presence in the country.

Showcasing a Success Story

The entire Russian military campaign in Syria and overall support for the Syrian central government might also be seen as an attempt to showcase an alternative to the Western approach to the conflicts in Iraq, Libya, Yemen, and elsewhere in the Middle East. In the eyes of the Kremlin, this Western approach has failed completely. Moscow wants to demonstrate that its approach to such conflicts is much more constructive and rational, and it hopes that eventually Syria will be a success story that will help Russia to market itself as an effective mediator. To achieve this success, a part of its diplomatic engagements and military involvement Russia should focus on SAA reform through developing Syrian military education and training, and monitoring the political reform and reconciliation process, which will help to ensure that Syria is a success story.

The Russian Goal: A Highly Mobile, Professional SAA

Russia plans to support the SAA to become a reliable partner in maintaining Syria’s stability and preventing any future uprisings to secure its territorial interests, such as the two new Russian military bases in Latakia and Tartus. If the Syrian coast is cut off from Aleppo and the country’s northeast and east, these military bases will lose their strategic value. Restoration of control over all Syrian territory, and the ability to maintain this control, is essential to restoring economic and trade activity in the country, which ultimately will benefit Russia.

Moscow wants the new Syrian army to be highly institutionalized, depoliticized, nonideological, and nonsectarian. During the war, the sectarian and the often-politicized nature of the military prevented it from conducting professional duties. Existing Russian attempts to restructure the Syrian army, including the 5th and 6th Corps and the Tiger Forces, look like Moscow prioritizes creating highly mobile units. Recreating the prewar army in its conventional form is hardly reasonable today. Moreover, since Russia obtained two military bases in Syria and is there to stay, there is no need for Russia to invest in the restoration of the prewar level of the Syrian army. The focus is likely to be on creating effective and highly mobile border-control forces able to be deployed quickly to multiple fronts, internal forces to maintain stability, and air forces/air defense forces.

Russian-Supported Reforms to Date

Given this goal, Russia has sought to create more centralized, state-controlled military structures, while simultaneously limiting Iran’s influence on the Syrian military. To this end, Russia backed several units within the armed forces.

In late 2015, Moscow created the 4th Corps, in its first attempt to restructure the Syrian army and to integrate auxiliary militias. The 4th Corps consisted of different army and affiliated forces, together with local militias operating near Latakia, including the Iran-dominated National Defense Forces (NDF) and the Baath Brigades. However, this first experiment failed, as the Iran-dominated forces, like the NDF, did not allow the establishment of rigid central command and control. Tehran’s traditional strategy is to create and develop parallel nonstate military structures that have no direct subordination to the Syrian state and are more loyal to Iran than to the Syrian central command. In the same manner, Tehran took part in forming and training the NDF, which often did not subordinate to Damascus.

In 2015, the Russian military also helped to reorganize, equip, and train the Tiger Forces, which remain under Russian supervision today. In fact, the Tiger Forces have become the first Syrian armed group to be under direct dual Syrian and Russian control, an important step to break the trend of Iranian domination over Syrian military structures.

Later, between 2016 and 2018, Russia created the 5th and 6th Corps, which recruited different progovernment armed groups, amnestied rebels, and army defectors. They then integrated them into a strong military infrastructure under tight central government (and Russian) control. This was intended to diminish Iranian influence on progovernment militias and the Syrian military while strengthening the Syrian military as a critical state institution.

In contrast to the Iranian approach, Russia has relied on working with state actors. Since the beginning of its involvement in the conflict, Moscow aimed to strengthen what state institutions remained in the crippled regime—including its military, security, social services, and judicial institutions. Moreover, Russia is trying to tighten its grip on the Syrian Defense Ministry and Military Staff. It is attempting to create a network of pro-Russian Syrian officers and commanders and place them in important and sensitive military and security positions, which will further limit Iranian infiltration and influence on the Syrian military.

As a result, Moscow has created a precedent that demonstrates a new trend of strengthening the Syrian army as an institution and making other armed groups and militias willing to reengage with it and to become a part of those new structures.

Main Challenges

Over the last eight years of the Syrian conflict, Iran has significantly increased its presence in the country. Tehran has invested heavily in Syria, creating a sophisticated, multilayered presence, creating horizontal networks of nonstate actors that function in parallel to and challenge state institutions, whereas Moscow seeks to restore and strengthen state institutions as the most reliable partners and guarantors of state stability. This difference of approaches could lead to more friction between Russia and Iran, which would naturally hinder any constructive change in Syria.

Excessive Iranian influence is also counterproductive for Russia’s long-term Syria policy, which eventually envisages political transition, reform, and reconciliation with regional powers and the West. For example, in August 2018 Tehran and Damascus struck a military cooperation agreement that gave Iran exclusive rights to assist in rebuilding the Syrian military industry and infrastructure. This agreement complicated Russia’s attempts to reform the Syrian military and faced discontent from regional actors, such as Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan. If Damascus remains weak and overly dependent on Iran, there will be no foreign alternative to rely on, no prospect for political progress, and no multilateral reconstruction effort.

Rival groups within Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s inner circle might also challenge Russian-led military reform. There are at least two major groups: hawks, who are more pro-Iranian and less prone to negotiation and compromise, and doves, who are more pro-Russia and more ready to compromise.

The extensive presence of uncontrolled armed groups and militias that pursue their own interests against those of Damascus is also a major roadblock in the process of military reform and the restoration of full control to central authorities. Nonetheless, they benefit Damascus by providing security and stability where the SAA is absent. Given its weakness, Damascus will likely rely on these groups until it can resume full control, which is why reintegrating existing militias into newly formed state military structures is going to be a major challenge.

Given this, the DDR process in Syria is likely to start small and slow. The number of irregular militiamen is at least double what remains from the SAA, creating an obvious problem of implementation and compliance. Neither Damascus nor Russia have sufficient tools to address this issue effectively, which means the process will take years. Moscow does not plan to deploy its ground troops to ensure a smooth DDR process in Syria, while Damascus lacks the capability to enforce this process.

Moreover, reintegration of former militiamen en masse into SAA structures might create imbalances in the army’s authority, which could lead to a new round of tension. This is why creating a strong core in the new Syrian military is essential to any further steps.

What Russia Can Offer

Russia took the road of military reform in Syria to create this strong core in Syria’s new military. Moscow has created a precedent, a new trend of strengthening the Syrian army as an institution that will make other armed groups and militias more likely to reengage with it and to become a part of these new structures.

In terms of practical implementation, Russia possesses relevant expertise to share and to oversee Syrian military reform. Moscow can help to establish new military schools, with two major purposes. The first is to prepare and educate new military members and security personnel, as well as future elite. The second is to reeducate the old elite. Making sure that new military educational institutions are nonideological, depoliticized, and nonsectarian will give Syria the opportunity to create a new elite that will not repeat the mistakes of their predecessors.

Russia already has extensive experience in training the Syrian military, so this is among the major inputs it can give. Organizing training centers in Syria and sending young officers for education and training in Russia will enable them to operate modern arms and equipment. Partial reconstruction and rebuilding of the military-industrial complex (in particular tank and armored vehicle repair/overhaul facilities) will allow Syria to supply and maintain the proper number of mobile armed forces in the army.

In addition, Russia can provide security and monitoring during the transition and reconciliation period, which Damascus views as very sensitive and complex. For example, the Russian military police deployment in Syria is considered a very successful move and it is going to be expanded. Predominantly consisting of Russian Sunni Muslims, the military police units are perceived by the majority of local population as reliable and trustworthy.

Conclusion

When Russia undertook the very complicated task of reforming the Syrian military, it tied itself even more to the country, which effectively means that Moscow must push and eventually demonstrate a success story. In other words, it cannot fail, because otherwise it will showcase its inability to control and manage its own proxy partners. Also, this has put Russia in quite a tricky position, as it creates additional risks for Moscow-Tehran cooperation on Syria because the two parties have different approaches to dealing with formal military structures.

Genuine Syrian military reform requires implementation in a way that will help the country’s population to reconcile. However, Assad’s inflexible stance on reconciliation makes it even harder for Russia to implement its plans, suggesting that Moscow will have to commit to developing military education, training, and monitoring in Syria for a very long time.

That said, military reform needs to be implemented, as without it no meaningful reconciliation in Syria is possible. In that sense, Russia had extensive experience working with Arab countries during Soviet times, building their militaries almost from scratch. This foundation gives Moscow a good opportunity to at least initiate the process of reform and navigate it in a constructive way.