The conflict in Syria tends to be seen as one between a disparate, fragmented
rebellion and a centralized dictatorial regime.
This characterization of
the rebellion is correct. The view of the Assad regime as a centralized,
monolithic unit, however, is no longer accurate.
The “regime side” in
Syria, too, has become an alliance of various forces.
These forces are
all committed to keeping Bashar Assad in his seat as president of Syria –
whatever that means today. But the evidence suggests that he does not control or
command all of them, and indeed may not be setting the strategy for the war
against the rebels.
How did this situation arise? The Assad regime was,
throughout its existence, a quintessentially centralized affair – an East
Germany on the Mediterranean. To be sure, myriad networks of patronage existed
within its structures, but the structures themselves were solid.
problem for the Assad government in its long fight with the insurgency is
The dictator vastly outclasses the forces arrayed against him
in terms of hardware; what he lacks is men willing to engage on his behalf. This
is because of the sectarian nature of his regime, and its consequent narrow base
On paper, of course, Assad commands a vast force. The Syrian
Arab Army notionally consists of 220,000 troops in 12 divisions, plus an
additional 280,000 reserves. But in practice, the majority of this force
consists of Sunni conscripts, and is therefore unusable.
shortage of manpower has defined regime strategy throughout the war. Assad ceded
around 60 percent of the country to the rebels and the Kurds in mid- 2012,
because he lacked sufficient available forces to control it.
forced him to reduce the area under to his control to a size that he was able to
manage with the manpower available to him.
Iran is committed to Assad’s
He is Tehran’s main Arab ally, and a vital land link between
Shi’ite Iraq and Hezbollah-controlled Lebanon.
Iran is largely – though
not solely – responsible for the mobilization of external and internal forces on
behalf of Assad, which is intended to solve the shortage of available fighting
The fighters were brought in from a variety of
Firstly, the Iranians have committed men of their own. The
Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps maintains an operational base in
Qods Force commander Qassem Suleimani visits the country
regularly to command and coordinate operations.
In June, the British
Independent on Sunday newspaper reported that 4,000 IRGC personnel were on their
way to Syria.
A former Lebanese intelligence officer, speaking to this
reporter in August, said he estimated that around 5,000 Iranian personnel are on
A Syrian rebel officer, Lt. Bilal Khabir, speaking with this
reporter, said Iranian personnel were present among his unit in the earliest
days of the uprising, when they were sent to quell demonstrations in Deraa
Secondly, Hezbollah fighters are involved. They led the
regime’s retaking of the strategically vital town of Qusair in August of this
year. Today, the terrorist militia remains in control of the town. Lebanese
media sources estimate that up to 10,000 Hezbollah fighters are present in Syria
at any given time.
They are deployed not only in Qusair and Homs, areas
of combat close to the Lebanese border; rather, evidence has also emerged of
movement fighters in Damascus and the Aleppo area.
In addition, Iran has
sought to improve the combat capabilities of the 50,000-60,000 mainly Alawite
irregular fighters who have fought on Assad’s behalf since the conflict
These Shabiha (“ghost”) forces have been offered training by the
IRGC and Hezbollah and have been organized under the banner of the “National
Defense Forces.” They are now playing a vital auxiliary role in a number of
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Iraqi Shi’ite militias such as the Ahl al-Haq and Kata’ib
Hezbollah organizations have also deployed fighters in Syria, mainly in the
Lastly, independent pro-government paramilitary brigades
are still operating. These include both Syrian Shi’ite Islamist units, such as
the Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas Brigades, and non-Islamist units operating under a
variety of ethnic or ideological labels, or no label at all.
include some frankly bizarre elements. For example, Aymenn al-Tamimi, a
researcher of Syrian paramilitary groupings on both sides, this week published a
profile of an organization calling itself the Syrian Resistance, led by a
superannuated Turkish Alawite leftist by the name of Mihrac Ural.
group, which operates in the Latakia area, makes use of antique Marxist
symbolism, mixed with Alawite sectarianism.
Moreover, elements among
Assad’s Shabiha militia in the regime enclave on Syria’s western coast are now
engaged not only in warfare, but also in significant economic activity of their
own, independent of official channels.
Of course, the presence of this
array of paramilitary groups should not obscure the extent to which Assad may
still call on formidable forces of his own. The Fourth Armored Division, his
Special Forces and the Republican Guard all remain available to him, as well as
parts of the army, the intelligence services and the air force.
large and disparate gathering of forces have been brought in to plug the gap in
manpower that is the main strategic threat facing the dictator.
desperately needs these forces, though he did not establish them and he is not
paying for them.
So it may be cautiously deduced that he is unlikely to
be controlling them.
There remains a major difference between the
regional Shi’ite effort to back Assad, and the Sunni help afforded the rebels.
The latter is a tangled web of differing and often hostile interests – Saudi
Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, private Gulf funders, the Muslim Brotherhood.
former, however, is coordinated by a single external force – namely
This does not mean that all the elements involved are merely
puppets of the Iranians. But it almost certainly does mean that they are not
taking orders from the Syrian despot.
In this way, the Assad regime has
become merely one element in a combined effort of Iran-aligned paramilitary
forces to maintain their area of control within Syria.