Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The Regime's Military Capabilities: Part 1

This analysis of the Syrian regime’s military capabilities is adapted from the ISW report “An Army in All Corners”: Assad’s Campaign Strategy in Syria by ISW Syria Analyst Christopher Kozak (April 2015). Today's excerpt looks at the Syrian Arab Army, paramilitary organizations, and the regime's“asymmetric” capabilities, such as its air force, missiles, and chemical weapons. 
The next installment in this series will focus on the Iranian proxies in Syria. Read the first installment on the regime's strategic objectives here.

May 26 Update: On May 24, the regime-appointed governor of Homs Province Talal Barazi claimed that regime forces are preparing for a counteroffensive targeting the strategic city of Palmyra after its fall to ISIS on May 20. However, clear indications of a military mobilization have yet to materialize and it remains unclear whether the Assad regime possesses sufficient combat reserves to significantly reverse ISIS’s recent gains. Regime forces are spread thin throughout the country, forcing Assad to rely upon a small number of trusted elite units and deployable paramilitary fighters – the same composition of forces allegedly participating in the operation to retake Palmyra - to react to emergent threats.

The Syrian Army, Paramilitaries, and Asymmetric Capabilities

The Assad regime suffers from several limitations which have had a severe impact upon its military strategy. Regime forces operated under shortages of quality manpower due to desertion, defection, and combat attrition. Consequently, the Assad regime relied upon a constellation of regular and irregular forces throughout 2014 in order to prosecute its offensive campaign and defend its core interests against the Syrian opposition and other threats, including ISIS. The network of pro-regime fighters lacked the capacity to deliver a clear victory over rebel forces due to deficits in manpower, morale, and battlefield acumen. However, Assad, with likely impetus from his Iranian advisors, used this time to restructure his forces in a manner designed to sustain their operations in conditions of protracted war. These developments ensure the survival of the regime at the cost of extended humanitarian suffering and deepening polarization. An examination of the ‘tools’ available to the regime is essential to understanding the conduct of the Syrian military campaign throughout 2014 and into 2015. The main components of the force coalition preserving Assad’s position in Syria include the Syrian Arab Army, pro-regime Syrian paramilitary organizations, Iranian foreign proxy fighters, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and the regime’s own asymmetric military arsenal.

The Syrian Arab Army

The Syrian Arab Army (SAA) functioned as a mainstay of the Syrian regime throughout 2014 and into 2015. The Syrian Army as an institution retained its loyalty to President Bashar al-Assad despite the defection of sizeable numbers of SAA soldiers throughout 2011 and 2012. Syrian forces remaining on the battlefield are battle-tested and largely committed to the survival of the regime. However, over the past year the Syrian Arab Army continued to grapple with two chronic problems that constrained the regime’s ability to effectively deploy its conventional advantage against opposition forces. 
For one, the Syrian Arab Army continues to suffer severe manpower problems due to ongoing pressures of defection, desertion, and combat attrition in 2015 (read “The Assad Regime UnderStress: Conscription and Protest among Alawite and Minority Populations inSyria”). Three years of war have reduced the SAA by nearly half, from a pre-war high of approximately 300,000 troops to a 2014 estimate of 150,000-175,000 men. These sharp reductions stretched the SAA’s ability to hold terrain and forced the regime to prioritize the use of its limited offensive capability. Manpower shortages also prevent the SAA from decisively defeating the Syrian opposition on the battlefield. Military analyst David Kilcullen estimated in March 2014 that pro-regime forces maintained at maximum only a 2.5-to-1 soldier-to-insurgent force ratio against the Syrian opposition at that time,27 a condition which has likely deteriorated further one year later. Kilcullen also noted that the Assad regime possessed less than half of the troop-to- population ratio traditionally assessed as necessary for a successful counterinsurgency campaign.

The Syrian Arab Army also remained handicapped by regime suspicions regarding the loyalty and reliability of mainline SAA combat units. Analysis of the Syrian Army’s 2011-2012 military campaign suggested that the regime could only reliably deploy 65,000 to 75,000 of its troops in offensive operations, mainly elite units such as the Republican Guard, the Special Forces, and the 4th Armored Division commanded by President Assad’s brother Maher al-Assad. Meanwhile, regular army units – mainly comprised of rank-and-file conscripted Sunnis deemed ‘untrustworthy’ by the regime – were confined to defensive positions or limited offensives in close proximity to their bases. In the words of one Damascus based SAA commander in April 2013, “Most of the soldiers in my unit are Sunnis. They don’t trust me, and I don’t trust them.” Two years later, the vast majority of regular SAA units remained bound to their assigned home stations, largely concentrated in Dera’a and Damascus Provinces as an artifact of a pre-2011 military doctrine designed to provide defense in depth against an Israeli offensive towards Damascus.

The Syrian regime continued to rely upon its trusted elite SAA units throughout 2014 as a mobile offensive force often dispatched to augment regular SAA forces along critical battlefronts. Throughout 2014 and early 2015, the Republican Guard and 4th Armored Division, units specifically designated to protect the regime, conducted most of their operations in the vicinity of Damascus targeting major pockets of opposition forces occupying the Eastern and Western Ghouta suburbs of the city. Detachments from these units have also been deployed throughout the country in order to reinforce priority fronts. A detachment of the 104th Republican Guard Brigade under the command of Brigadier General Issam Zahreddine deployed to Deir ez-Zour Military Airbase in early 2014 to bolster its beleaguered defenders and preserve the regime presence in Deir ez-Zour city. Elements from the 106th Republican Guard Brigade and the 4th Armored Division also participated in repelling a rebel offensive against the Hama Military Airport in late 2014. The Republican Guard sent multiple waves of reinforcements to Aleppo city throughout 2014 to assist the regime encirclement campaign of the city, while the 4th Armored Division provided at least forty tanks to support a joint regime-Hezbollah offensive in Dera’a Province launched in February 2015 meant to reverse significant rebel gains.

Special Forces regiments of the SAA in particular are employed as quick-reaction forces across Syria. In an interview with the BBC in November 2014, one Special Forces commander recited his deployments: a year-and-a-half in Idlib Province, seven months in Aleppo city, and sixteen months in the Damascus suburbs. The Suqour al-Sahara [Desert Hawks] Brigade of the Special Forces spent most of late 2014 and early 2015 combatting ISIS militants in eastern Homs Province with future reassignments planned to either Aleppo or Dera’a Province. The 47th Special Forces Regiment, typically based out of Homs and Hama Provinces, deployed to northeastern Syria in late 2014 to confront ISIS in Hasaka Province. 
This rapid cycling of combat tours provides a clear indication of the regime’s reliance on a small but loyal core of elite forces and suggests limited availability of elite troops, causing Assad to continually redirect these forces against emergent threats in a reactive manner.

The repeated deployments of a small number of military units also fuels increasing decentralization within the Syrian Arab Army. Elite SAA units such as the Republican Guards have been consistently deployed across the country in small-scale contingents as both independent detachments and as embedded reinforcements to regular SAA units over the past several years. These observations suggest that the SAA has restructured in favor of smaller military formations directed by command-and-control elements located in the field rather than in rear headquarters. This is likely an adaptation reflecting the demand for forward leadership in remote locations, possibly due to low conscript morale. This trend towards decentralization within the formal Syrian Arab Army represents a complementary process to the increasing regime reliance on paramilitary militia organizations.

Paramilitary Organizations

The Assad regime has increasingly come to rely upon the mobilization of loyalist paramilitary and militia organizations in 2014-2015 as a solution to the endemic problem of manpower in the Syrian Arab Army. Regime supporters mobilized community-level patronage networks in the early months of the Syrian Revolution in order to mobilize hundreds of disparate ‘shabiha’ criminal gangs and ‘Popular Committee’ neighborhood defense groups. The Syrian regime incorporated the shabiha into an organization called the National Defense Forces (NDF) in early 2013. Members of the NDF received licensing, armaments, and salaries directly from the Syrian regime according to August 2013 reporting. Syrian security officials admitted shortly thereafter that assistance from Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah played a key role in the formalization of the NDF along the model of the Iranian ‘Basij’ militia. NDF recruits received training in urban guerilla warfare from Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Hezbollah instructors at facilities inside Syria, Lebanon, and Iran. There are no indications that the nature of this partnership has changed as of April 2015.

The National Defense Forces functionally became a branch of the regime military by early 2014. The new organization soared in membership, with estimates ranging from 60,000 to 100,000 fighters available to hold territory, guard key supply routes, and otherwise augment SAA forces in the field by March 2014. Two Western correspondents reported in February 2015 that every checkpoint along a long and winding 1,200 kilometer journey from Aleppo city to Damascus had been manned by NDF militiamen instead of regular SAA soldiers. The Assad regime sought to leverage the growing strength of volunteers in the National Defense Forces throughout 2014 as an alternative to the conscripted forces of the regular SAA. Many enlistees preferred the NDF due to the organization’s emphasis on hometown service, making it an attractive alternative to service in the SAA. The regime in response turned to incentive structures and pay scales in order to encourage frontline duty. Regime commanders, according to a November 2014 report, retained the authority to relocate NDF units to active conflict zones if circumstances warranted.
Increasing regime reliance on the NDF has opened the regime to the inherent risks of providing state-sanctioned power to decentralized paramilitary organizations. The National Defense Forces, the Carter Center notes, are “still, at their core, community-based militias whose local interests may at times be at odds with national-level government strategies.” Local NDF commanders often engage in war profiteering through protection rackets, looting, and organized crime. NDF members have been implicated in waves of murders, robberies, thefts, kidnappings, and extortions throughout regime-held parts of Syria since the formation of the organization in 2013. This tradeoff between security and lawlessness generated by the devolution of further power to local militia formations ultimately poses a threat to Assad’s ability to maintain agency over his military campaign.

Units of the National Defense Forces have also come into increasing conflict with official representatives of the Assad regime. The growing excesses of the NDF forced Assad to undertake efforts to rein its irregular forces back under state control. Reports emerged in November 2014 indicating that the Assad regime intended to announce several initiatives to restructure the NDF into “National Security Committees” in order to establish greater control.64 Members of the National Security Committees would hold two to ten year contracts and answer directly to the Syrian Ministry of Defense. Several sources also indicated that the Committees would incorporate former rebel fighters and other “dissident troops” as part of a process of “national reconciliation.” Assad may have calculated that integrating former opposition members and NDF militiamen under one umbrella could entice further rebel defections with a clear demonstration of amnesty. The integration of former rebel fighters into the “National Security Committees” would also build an internal tension into the organization which would keep its constituent factions in check. However, besides isolated complaints in late 2014 that the regime had ceased paying NDF salaries on time, no further indications of this reconciliation program have emerged as of April 2015.

The fragmentation of authority presented by the National Defense Forces is compounded by the presence of dozens of smaller, local pro-regime paramilitary forces operating outside the bounds of the NDF structure. These actors maintain a wide variety of affiliations and dispositions, such as those detailed in the corresponding chart, and all remain active in 2015. Dozens of other locally-focused paramilitary groups continue to exert influence in their immediate community outside the structures of the NDF. The widespread dissemination of these paramilitary organizations serves the immediate military interests of the Assad regime but ultimately constrains state power in a manner which threatens to promote the spread of further disorder.

Asymmetric Capabilities

The intricate pro-regime coalition of regular, irregular, and Iranian proxy forces fighting on behalf of Assad in Syria remains insufficient to exert the regime’s influence across all of Syria. The Assad regime has thus made heavy use of the asymmetric capabilities at its disposal to gain advantages over rebel forces on the battlefield with minimal military risk. These strategic weapons systems, including a sizeable air force, a ballistic missile arsenal, and a chemical weapons program, partly compensate for the limitations of pro-regime ground forces. These weapons are ultimately insufficient to overcome opposition forces despite serving a key function in the survival of the Assad regime. Instead, they depopulate and demoralize opposition-controlled areas. The indiscriminate nature of regime airstrikes and chemical weapons attacks results in continued humanitarian disaster on a massive scale and fuels the narrative of jihadist factions which accuse the regime of conducting a systematic sectarian campaign to destroy Syria’s Sunni population. 
The air assets provided by the Syrian Air Force have been one of the primary advantages the Assad regime holds over rebel forces. Separate analyses of regime airstrike patterns in 2012 and 2014 concluded that the Syrian Air Force only possesses between 200 and 300 combat-capable aircraft due to maintenance requirements, poor optimization for ground attack roles, and wartime attrition. Despite losses, the Syrian Air Force has maintained an impressive cycle of operations. Analysts drawing from opposition sources estimated that the Syrian regime continued to conduct approximately fifty combat sorties per day throughout the country as of December 2014. The sustained nature of this air campaign requires a resilient resupply and logistical system. The Syrian Air Force receives heavy assistance in this task from Russia, which continues to provide pilot training, shipments of spare parts, weapons deliveries, and aircraft upgrade packages for the Syrian Air Force despite the ongoing conflict. This dependence further underscores the precarious challenges facing the Syrian Armed Forces which leave Assad unable to overwhelm the opposition despite his military advantages.

The Syrian Air Force possesses limited close air support technical capabilities and thus the majority of fixed wing strikes in Syria are “collective punishment” attacks against opposition-held areas in an attempt to deter and depopulate. Activists on the ground have reported numerous precision airstrikes against markets, schools, hospitals, bakeries, refugee camps, and other distinctively civilian targets. Meanwhile, Syrian Air Force helicopters continue to bombard residential neighborhoods indiscriminately throughout the country with ‘barrel bombs’ dropped from high altitudes in order to avoid anti-aircraft fire. Data from the Violations Documentation Center in Syria indicated that the combination of these aerial attacks accounted for thirty-nine percent of civilian fatalities between August and October 2014. 

The fixed wing aircraft of the Syrian Air Force also demonstrate reasonable effectiveness in a close air support (CAS) role despite their limitations. Concentrated airstrikes have been used to both support regime offensive operations and blunt opposition advances throughout the country in 2014.124 However, relatively frequent friendly fire incidents have underscored the limits of Syrian Air Force CAS capabilities.125 Regime aircraft also conduct numerous strikes against government positions captured by opposition forces in an attempt to destroy captured military equipment. For example, the Syrian Air Force bombarded Storage Base 559 northeast of Damascus after opposition fighters captured the position in March 2014, destroying 70 out of the 105 tanks stored on site. Similarly, warplanes targeted the Wadi al- Deif military base in Idlib Province with at least forty-two strikes after its capture by rebel forces in December 2014. 

The regime also capitalized upon its previous barrel bomb tactic to maximize its destructive power against rebel strongholds in 2014. Regime specialists retooled barrel bomb designs in the first half of 2014 to feature stabilizing fins and impact fuses which greatly improved the chances of an effective blast. Later, the regime also incorporated chlorine gas cylinders into their improvised aerial weapons. The alleged injury of an ‘Iranian officer’ during a blast at a barrel bomb factory on November 28, 2014 in the Hama Military Airport suggests that this redesign may have been aided by Iranian technical advisors.130 Previously confining them to Idlib and Aleppo Provinces, the regime expanded the use of barrel bombs throughout Syria in 2014, including Hama, Latakia, Damascus, and Dera’a Provinces. Barrel bombs have even been utilized in the remote northeastern province of Hasaka in early 2015. 

The Syrian regime reprioritized its air assets following ISIS’s assault on Mosul in June 2014 to attack ISIS positions in the remote eastern provinces of ar-Raqqa, Hasaka, and Deir ez-Zour. Numerous analysts noted that the strikes constituted a gesture through which the Assad regime signaled its desire to partner with the international community against terrorism. Assad’s airstrikes produce high civilian casualties, however, which U.S.-led coalition airstrikes have sought to minimize. The Syrian Air Force launched another wave of indiscriminate airstrikes against ISIS-controlled ar- Raqqa city in November 2014 following a lull in U.S.-led coalition airstrikes, killing nearly one hundred civilians.135 In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, one resident of ar- Raqqa summarized Assad’s intent: “It’s as though the regime wanted to say to its constituency and support base: We’re still here, and Raqqa is still within the reach of our firepower.” 

However, the Assad regime primarily took advantage of coalition airstrikes in eastern Syria to redirect additional air assets against opposition forces throughout the western half of the country. One anonymous U.S. official commented that “It would be silly for them not to take advantage of the U.S. doing airstrikes…essentially, we’ve allowed them to perform an economy of force.” Analysis of regime airstrikes reported by SOHR between August and October 2014 confirms a dramatic shift of Syrian Air Force combat sorties from ar- Raqqa and Deir ez-Zour Provinces in favor of the opposition strongholds of Idlib, Dera’a, and Hama Provinces. These strikes have hindered rebel operations against the regime and exacted a vast human toll on civilian populations behind the frontlines, sparking further resentment and radicalization which may eventually pose a threat to Western nations perceived as turning a blind eye to regime excesses. 

Meanwhile, the Assad regime has also continued to utilize chemical weapons against rebel forces despite an ongoing disarmament deal. The Syrian regime agreed to the total destruction of its chemical weapons stockpiles and production facilities on September 14, 2013 and on June 23, 2014, the last shipment of declared chemical weapons departed from Latakia port for disposal. The demolition of twelve declared chemical weapons facilities is ongoing and scheduled for completion by the end of June 2015.145 The Assad regime, however, quickly turned to the use of chlorine, ammonia, and other dual-use industrial chemicals in order to maintain its asymmetric capabilities against the Syrian opposition. Human rights organizations and Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) investigation teams have found “compelling evidence” that regime forces have deployed chlorine gas “systematically and repeatedly” throughout Syria. 

An examination of alleged chlorine attacks in late August 2014 found that regime forces employ these chemical weapons in order to set the conditions for ground offensives against opposition strongholds or prevent opposition advances in areas where the regime cannot deploy large amounts of ground forces. On March 6, 2015, the UN Security Council adopted UNSC Resolution 2209 directly condemning the use of chlorine gas as a weapon in Syria and threatening that parties using these chemicals will be held accountable by the United Nations. However, international enforcement measures against such violations remain unclear and three days later regime forces reportedly used chlorine gas against the rebel-held town of Muzayrib in Dera’a Province. The persistent regime use of chemical weapons in flagrant violation of international norms only serves to generate additional civilian casualties and increase the appeal of extremist groups which portray the Syrian Civil War as an existential struggle against the regime.

Next installment: The Regime's Military Capabilities: Part 2--Iranian Proxies