On February 8, 2020, forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad recaptured the strategic city of Saraqeb in northwest Syria, bringing the area of rebel-held Idlib Province back under government control to 25 percent. But it took the Syrian army and loyalist militias over a year to achieve these gains. The Assad regime wanted to avoid triggering a strong military response by Turkey, who, along with Russia, sponsors the Idlib de-escalation zone. But the military shortcomings of loyalist forces were at least as detrimental to the regime offensive.

Yezid Sayigh
Yezid Sayigh is a senior fellow at the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, where he leads the program on Civil-Military Relations in Arab States (CMRAS). His work focuses on the comparative political and economic roles of Arab armed forces, the impact of war on states and societies, the politics of postconflict reconstruction and security sector transformation in Arab transitions, and authoritarian resurgence.
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The Syrian Arab Army (SAA) has yet to overcome numerous chronic weaknesses, despite the surge in Russian military assistance since 2012 and Russia’s direct military intervention in Syria starting in September 2015. Russia has worked to improve SAA command and control and enhance combat effectiveness, but the politics of the Assad regime hobble the effort. This poses a conundrum for Russian decisionmakers, who are unable to engineer the transformation of the SAA into a more effective and autonomous fighting force on a scale that would allow Russia to wind down its involvement and pull out its expeditionary force.

Russia has an unbroken history of providing military assistance to Syria since 1954. It has had a major impact on SAA combat equipment, training, and doctrine, reinforced by a legacy of cultural and social contacts with Syrian officers. The Russian Ministry of Defense, which has served as the primary channel for the relationship with Syria during the Syrian civil war, knows the capabilities and weaknesses of the SAA better than any other external actor. It bolstered the SAA by replacing weapon losses, transferring new equipment, and providing specialized training from mid-2012 onward, and then boosted morale and battlefield performance with its direct military intervention starting in September 2015. By the end of 2017, according to then chief of staff General Valery Gerasimov, Russian military advisers—intelligence, artillery, engineering, and others—were embedded in “nearly all” SAA units from division down to battalion level, helping to “plan combat operations and assist in commanding those units while they fulfilled their combat tasks.”

The Russian Ministry of Defense has undertaken additional, short-term measures intended to consolidate the military and territorial gains made since 2015, absorb loyalist militias to anchor the regime, and enable Russia to wind down its direct role in the war. These measures have included the creation of the 4th and 5th Army Corps in 2015 and 2016 (a sixth corps may be under formation since 2019) and command-level training in Russia (according to Syrian opposition media, 650 officers attended courses in the in the first half 2019 alone). According to Gerasimov, the entirety of Russian assistance—which also includes extensive training at all levels, an effort to inculcate compliance with internal rules and regulations, and holding officers accountable for behavior—derives from “a single strategy, a single plan, guided from the [Russian expeditionary force’s] command center in Hmeymim.”

Syria’s Perilous Combat Weakness

Despite Russian efforts, the SAA remains in a parlous state. Morale and motivation among over 24,000 junior officers inducted in the past several years are reportedly mixed at best. The regime has increased dependence on Alawi recruits and on militarizing the Alawi community, but initiative is low and battlefield performance remains poor overall. Throughout the war, SAA units have rarely fought as whole units, broken down instead into small detachments to stiffen loyalist militias with heavy weapons and professional expertise; what is more, SAA units have rarely conducted major offensive operations.

The battle for al-Ghab Plain in northern Hama Province in October 2015 revealed the SAA’s inability to conduct combined force operations or coordinate close air and artillery support without the direct involvement of Russian advisers and controllers. The same deficiencies were apparent in the regime’s failure to retake or retain the desert city of Palmyra from fighters of the so-called Islamic State in 2017 and in the Russian-led offensive in Hama province in May 2019. The SAA has been unable to make up for severe manpower and equipment losses. It lacks operational control over loyalist militias fighting on behalf of the Assad regime, especially those formed, managed, and funded by Iran—and, for that matter, by Russia—even though these are supposedly integrated into SAA formations.

The SAA has held the line nonetheless. Ironically, its cohesion comes from the regime’s informal networks that permeate it from top to bottom, sidestepping the formal chain of command with which Russian officers work. This explains why the regime appears to be resisting Russian attempts to look beyond the immediate goal of helping the SAA win the civil war to rehabilitating it in the aftermath, which the regime fears could turn the SAA into a lever against it. There is some evidence that the Russian Ministry of Defense has thought about postwar military needs (as the accompanying essays by Alexei Khlebnikov, Kirill Semenov, and Anton Lavrov indicate). The creation of a new Office of Human Resources in the SAA in early 2019 (merging the previous Office of Officer Affairs with the Office of Human Security) suggests an effort to create a new locus of control within the army that is autonomous from the presidency, for example.

The Russian approach to modernizing and restructuring the SAA may also be informed by military reforms introduced in the Russian Armed Forces since 2008, especially on Gerasimov’s watch since late 2011. These include upgrades to equipment, tactics, and organization; increased induction of professional career personnel and reduced reliance on conscripts; extensive integration of unmanned aerial vehicles and other automated platforms for reconnaissance and strike missions; and improved command and control and combat management at the tactical, operational, and strategic levels—thanks both to network-centric information sharing and advanced communications between all branches of the armed forces and to greater officer initiative. Russian expeditionary forces have trialed some of these and other aspects of Gerasimov’s “new generation warfare” doctrine in Syria, using it as an incubator for learning, training, and innovation.

The SAA shows little aptitude to follow Gerasimov’s doctrine, not least because the Assad regime does not share a fundamental premise in Russian thinking. Russians assume that the SAA needs to be highly institutionalized and depoliticized in order to become a more effective fighting force. This almost necessarily requires it to be desectarianized as well. From the regime’s perspective, the biggest potential challenge to its survival is internal, so one of its more visible measures has been to tighten Assad’s personal grip on the command and control structure. The head of Military Intelligence and the SAA chief of staff were replaced in March and April 2019, as were the famed heads of Air Force Intelligence and the so-called Tiger Forces in June and August 2019. The newly formed Office of Human Resources, meanwhile, placed numerous officers in retirement or reshuffled them between commands, reportedly detaining some. Assad also used former SAA officers to assert his grip over the ubiquitous security and intelligence agencies, appointing a close associate as minister of interior in late 2018, who swiftly transferred dozens of senior officers. Assad replaced the heads of the National Security Office, Criminal Security Branch, Political Security Branch, and General Intelligence in June. By July, the regime had reshuffled another 400 internal security officers, many of them originally drawn from the SAA.

The Conundrum of Political Control

It is unclear to what degree such moves reflect an attempt by Assad to counter Russian influence within the SAA, collaborate with it to improve military performance, or contain Iranian influence to a few units, such as the 4th Armoured Division commanded by the president’s brother, Maher al-Assad. The same question arises with regard to reported efforts to restore severely depleted units or to the creation of new units such as the Republican Guard’s 30th Division, in addition to the new army corps mentioned above, and rebranding of ad hoc units such as the so-called “Tiger Force,” which became the 25th Special Tasks Division. Rebuilding the SAA and increasing its capabilities and competence would seem to make sense, but, ironically, the fact that Russia and Iran remain ready to shore it up allows the regime to prioritize political control instead.

Force majeure dictates much to Assad and his regime, which continues to cede control over loyalist militias to its Russian and Iranian allies; accepts their leverage over the direction, location, and tempo of combat operations; and repeatedly occupies second stage to Russian command of SAA campaigns. Sometimes these concessions are highly visible, as with the sidelining of Assad first during Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to the Russian military headquarters at Hmeymim in December 2017 and again during a second visit in January 2020, during which Putin led a military briefing in Assad’s presence and the Syrian Minister of Defense was visibly marginalized.

In spite of this treatment, the regime has done little to correct blatant flaws in the SAA that are within its power, including tackling corruption and abuses of personnel by officers, reducing pay inequalities and animosity between SAA soldiers and loyalist militiamen, and encouraging the rise of competent commanders as a means of motivating and rehabilitating battle-weary units. Without these and other measures, the regime has even less hope of bringing militias—whether loyalist or opposition (including the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces), each of which equals or outweighs the SAA numerically—under the effective control and regulatory framework of the Ministry of Defense and SAA general staff. It also may not be able to demobilize them without precipitating even greater armed lawlessness and predation.

These challenges go to the heart of Russia’s conundrum in Syria. Modernizing and restructuring the SAA is less about reequipping or retraining than about transforming the software through which the regime maintains control. This software constitutes the nuts and bolts of cohesion and effectiveness in any army, including the conduct of enlistment, assignments, and promotions; the knowledge among officers that informal relationships and patronage are what counts for career advancement, not military education; partisan manipulation of the military justice system; inadequate pay and pensions, prompting favoritism and corruption; underappreciation of noncommissioned officers; and the use of conscription as a means of social control, coercion, and punishment.

Russia lacks the leverage to bring about these kinds of changes, and it is additionally handicapped by its limited writ in southern and eastern Syria, where Iranian-backed loyalist forces resist it. Indeed, when at an impasse, Russia appears ready to become part of regime compromises, as evidenced by its acquiescence to the business activities of Maher al-Assad’s 4th Armoured Division, which were run through the Russian-monitored ports of Tartus and Latakia with the support of the presidential palace. As other great powers have found when seeking to restructure and reform client armed forces, including the United States in Iraq, Russia understands what these conditions mean. Attaining critical momentum for reform requires a level of investment of political and material capital that Russia did not expect when it intervened in 2015. As a result, its approach will likely be as pragmatic and opportunistic as it has been in the diplomatic realm: proposing what it deems sensible and cost-effective but making do with much less whenever its preferences and proposals are trumped by the Assad regime’s politics.