Over years of losses, attrition and defections, the Syrian regime’s forces are fragmented; with only a few fighting divisions outnumbered by the foreign armies and sectarian militias they rely on to survive.
The Syrian regime’s army was historically perceived as one of the largest fighting forces in the Middle East. Whether this holds true in the present or not, it is less obvious that the Syrian regime's armies and is a pale shadow of its past self.
In the Syrian civil war, Assad regime controlled-military units only account for a minority of soldiers on the battlefield.
Amid the fog of war, the reality of force disposition, posture, and chain of command is much more fragmented.
The Syrian Arab Army, and its subsequent National Defense Force are nearly extinct, replaced with a smaller entity that can only stand on its feet with extensive support from Russia, Iran and Lebanon.
In 2011, the Syrian Army comprised 220,000 personnel, nearly entirely conscripts. Today, they’re a fractured minority among a hodgepodge of foreign militias, private military groups, and Iranian and Russian conventional forces.
Eradicated units, broken equipment
How did the Syrian regime army become a shadow of itself? Massive casualties, the end of Sunni recruitment (by and large, the majority demographic in Syria), and significant weapons and equipment damage that have yet to be replaced until today.
Desertion was also a significant challenge, with some estimates putting the number as high as 190,000. With over 100,000 casualties, and a staggering number of injuries; what was left of the Syrian regime army was already close to being inoperative.
The Syrian Ministry of Defense itself states that nearly 185,000 military personnel and reservists (militia fighters) were left disabled due to the protracted conflict.
Militia in a vacuum
With a steadily deteriorating military situation, Syria organized local private-funded companies and militias to fill the gap. But this would only further fragment the regime’s military command, as most private militias operated quasi-independently.
In time, the Syrian regime’s ability to mount coordinated campaigns fell apart, with only piecemeal operations made possible only after alignment of political goals. The gap between military strategy and political aims couldn't be more stark.
While Russia exhibits the occasional willingness to enter into negotiations, even while maintaining Assad's irreplaceability, Iran equates Assad’s survival with its own national security.
Differing political objectives or strategic goals impact which units are prioritised for logistics and support, and how compliant units are with orders filtering out from a distorted chain of command.
Tanks up in flames
Over 90 per cent of the Syrian army’s military equipment originates from the former Soviet Union.
From 1956 to 1989, Syria received over 200 T-34/85 tanks, 850 T-54 tanks, 1375 T-55 tanks, 800 T-62 tanks (and an additional 200 from the Libyan Qaddafi regime), and 1500 T-72 tanks.
But well before the Syrian civil war it lost a significant number of tanks in wars, or gave them way.
It sent nearly 450 T-54/55 and 100 T-62s tanks to Lebanon in the 70–80s and to Iran during the war with Iraq. The Syrian regime also lost a significant amount of tanks to the 1967 war, 1973 Arab-Israeli conflict, Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, as well as its invasion of Jordan in 1970.
By the beginning of the civil war in 2011, it had hardly more than three thousand tanks, which was still a considerable amount. Interestingly enough, nearly half of the Syrian regime force tanks were of the T-72 variant, a more modern Russian tank relative to its previous aging fleets.
Between 2012 to 2018 however, they would suffer severe losses of over 2000 tanks in heavy fighting as rebel forces became increasingly adept at using anti-tank rockets.
Planes down in flames
Syria’s air force was a mismatch of old aircraft originating from the USSR, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, Libya and Egypt.
The civil war cost the Syrian Air Force at least four Su-24 bombers, 18 Su-22 attack aircraft, 22 MiG-23s, 23 MiG-21s, 22 L-39s, nine Mi-24/25 attack helicopters, two SA342, 30 Mi-8/17 and at least 15 other fighter jets shot down with unverified makes.
In general, opposition estimates indicate that upwards of 200 combat aircraft may have been shot down, with their crew killed, wounded or captured. The Syrian regime’s air attrition is deeply significant.
The remainder of the Syrian Air force is concentrated at five major air bases, each home to units usually operating fewer than a dozen fighter jets.
This was well before a Turkish combined arms operation shot down two Syrian fighter jets, and eight helicopters, while laying waste to 135 tanks and 77 armoured vehicles in a single day.
But even Russia didn’t fare much better with its aircraft in Syria. Between 2015 to 2018, the Russian Airforce lost at a minimum of 19 aircraft (11 helicopters and 8 airplanes), which culminated in the deaths of over 60 servicemen and passengers.
A story of disrepair
Even in the early civil war years, the Assad regime held a deep scepticism of the loyalty of its forces due to massive draft-avoidance and desertion. The net result? Never being able to fully mobilize.
Historically, not one of its 20 divisions have ever been able to field more than one-third of its actual strength. The divisions were in truth smaller brigades, numbering 2,000 to 4,000; and only further crippled by mass defections and combat deaths.
Jason Lyall, Professor of Political Science at Yale explains the psychology behind mass desertions. It’s related to a number of reasons, he writes: bad morale, technological imbalance, being outnumbered, whether soldiers agree with the military’s strategies and tactics, and the government’s legitimacy in the eyes of its troops.
By the summer of 2012, the Assad regime was already short of soldiers, but aware of the need to reorganize regime forces into something more effective. They quickly acceded to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard’s ‘Quds Force’ recommendation that units should be organized along religious and political lines, based on the performance of sectarian militias so far.
To realize this, they created the National Defense Forces, officially a part-time volunteer military reserve. In truth, Iran envisioned it along the lines of the IRGC’s Basiji Corps.
According to Iran, the NDF brought an additional 100,000 troops to the Syrian regime. In reality, they consisted of Syrian sectarian groups, private interests, Iranian militias and Hezbollah units.
It wasn’t long before the NDF would become an auction house for foreign sponsorship, each manoeuvring for regime favour and political capital that could be converted into tangible business deals in the moment, or hopes of post-war political concessions.
But that was only the beginning. The regime would go on to authorize Alawite businessmen to build their own militias which offered better pay and gear, while effectively targeting demographics looking for better alternatives to the traditional regime force.
Syria’s actual military would be reorganized again when Russia started its military intervention in 2015.
As part of Russia’s push for Latakia, it created the ‘4th Assault Corp’, drawing on the battered 3rd and 4th Syrian regime army, and at least six private Alawite military brigades led by the Syrian Republican Guard.
Lacking in firepower, they were supplemented by Russian artillery from the 8th and 20th artillery regiments, as well as the 120th and 439th artillery brigade. This also included the Russian 28th, 32nd, 34th motorized rifle brigades and the 810th marine brigade, assigned a back-up and logistics role.
This was followed by the rise of ‘special units’, including the “Tiger Force” and “Leopard Force”, both essentially private military companies financed by pro-Assad businessmen.
Equally significant are the IRGC’s multiple brigades supported by the Russian 27th Motor rifle brigade, and 7th assault division. Iran’s actual army is also present in the shape of the 65th airborne brigade.
Iraqi militias are even more plentiful. These include two Iraqi Popular Mobilization Units, nine brigades of the Iraqi Shi’a Badhr and Sadrist movements, seven Assaib Ahl al-Haq brigades, five Abu Fadhl al-Abbas brigades, and at least nine other Shi’a brigades of no clear political movement.
Aside from its supporting troops, Russia also has at least four Spetsnaz brigades (3rd, 16th, 22nd and 24th) based in three air bases around the country, bringing up their total troop presence to over 15,000 soldiers.
So where is the Syrian army?
In sharp contrast to the above, there’s very little left from the actual Syrian regime army, or the reformed NDF. In totality, Assad likely directly commands no more than 70,000 soldiers.
What’s left of the regime’s forces is drowned in a sea of jostling sectarian militias, foreign militaries and private military companies often operating outside the Syrian regime’s chain of command.
With decaying military infrastructure that was already near obsolete prior to the conflict, mass desertions and prohibitive attrition rates early on in the civil war; it’s safe to assume the Syrian regime would be nowhere without its allies or their vested interests.