Syrian civil war: A military-strategic assessment

From the early stages of the conflict Assad has relied on his praetorian units.

firefight in syria 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
firefight in syria 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The overall geostrategic characteristic of the Syrian military picture is a robust armed struggle for supply routes, lines of communication, major highways and key choke points that is somewhat similar to the initial phase of the first Arab-Israeli War in 1947 – a battle for the roads.
As a component of the Battle for Aleppo in the north; the M4 highway, which connects the Latakia coast to Aleppo, and the M5 highway, which is the main connection between Damascus and Aleppo, are the two most important supply lines, and the fight has been unfolding through key choke points.
Milestones related to the Battle for Aleppo (i.e. seizure of the Taftanaz Base, seizure of the 46th Regiment’s base in Atareb, the Battle of Ma’arat al-Nu’man, the Battle of Saraqeb, the Wadi al-Deif Siege) took place in key positions that rest along the major highways or their surroundings that reinforcements and military assistance can pass through.
Above all, the political context of the Battle for Aleppo, and of the northern front in a greater sense, is about securing this commercial hub and its surrounding provinces in order to establish a viable opposition governance and geostrategic enclave. Thus, the struggle for control of the lines of communication which run along northern parts of the country is pivotal.
MORE SUPPLY lines controlled by the opposition would bring about more regime air dependence for supplies and reinforcements. In this context, additional MANPADS and other air-defense assets obtained by the opposition will restrict the Ba’athist regime’s air missions, especially Assad’s rotary-winged assets.
The city of Homs and the town of Qusayr are also important geostrategic variables, especially due to their locations as hubs between the capital and the Alawite-populated coastal areas, as well as being Assad’s and his Iranian allies’ gate to the Lebanese Hezbollah.
Moreover, in case Homs falls to the opposition, scenarios concerning possible emergence of a micro-Alawite state in a divided Syria might probably be altered.
Due to the pivotal role of Homs and its surrounding hub region, Assad has allocated a significant number of his troops to this area, including the active operational participation of units from the elite 4th Armored Division. This force concentration has left some large swaths open for the opposition takeover.
The situation in the south, particularly along the Jordanian border, more or less resembles the military trend in the north with respect to the major highways and supply lines. On the other hand, the main goal in the north is securing Aleppo as a liberated capital for the opposition rather than marching to Damascus; while in the south, it is essentially about isolating Assad in Damascus and opening a gateway to the capital.
Should the opposition continue to progress, the probable finale for the Syrian civil war would be a siege on Damascus.
ALONG WITH its geostrategic characteristics, the prolonged Syrian civil war possesses other significant characteristics: it began as a “low-intensity conflict,” and gradually evolved into the most recent example of what is known as hybrid warfare. Briefly, this means warfare in which meaningful operational integrity between regular and irregular capabilities is maintained.
The overall picture has gradually become complicated by the involvement of air force, MANPADS, armored units and paramilitary forces acting in coordination with regular military units. Assad’s forces have had to depart from their traditional, centralized, Soviet- type military doctrine and adopt more flexible tactics to counter both geostrategic and tactical diversification by the opposition elements.
From the early stages of the conflict Assad has relied on his praetorian units (the 4th Armored Division, Republican Guards, and special forces), all of which were designed for the dual missions of conventional warfare and regime security.
This strategy has prevented mass unit defections, defection of an armored division as a whole, for instance, but has also limited the Ba’athist dictatorship’s combat power by approximately one-third.
An additional factor is that Assad’s over-reliance on “politico-religious” trusted units has brought about the dissolution of the Syrian “nation,” to the extent that even should the opposition successfully topple Assad’s tyranny, it is unclear whether the new regime would be able to reunite the country.
Along with some other factors, the hybrid character of the conflict has prolonged it – this type of armed conflict is more a “war of attrition” than mechanized warfare-type “war of annihilation.”
In keeping with this, to make predictions regarding the outcome, one’s focus should be on the gamechanging stamina factor. In the context of modern warfare, one of the key components of “military stamina” is foreign arms supplies.
Videos have appeared online depicting opposition fighters carrying weapons that were never a part of the Syrian inventory. Among these are the RPG-22 and M79 Osa rocket launchers, M60 recoilless rifles, Milkor MGL/RBG- 6 grenade launchers and FN-6 MANPADs.
The regime, on the other hand, is fed materiel aid by Russia and Iran, and manpower with the influx of Hezbollah fighters and Iranian Quds forces. These forces continue to train the now more than 50,000-strong Shabiha militia.
The materiel and personnel are believed to enter the country via the Lebanese and Iraqi borders and through airlifts.
IN SUMMARY, in analyzing the possible trajectories the Syrian conflict may follow, four major factors should be tracked: 1) Drastic changes in the opposition’s air defense & MANPADS capabilities; 2) Attrition of Assad’s air assets and praetorian units, along with robustness and consistency of foreign assistance by the Ba’athist regime’s allies and friends; 3) Shifts in the prospects of a no-fly zone in Syria; and 4) Developments concerning the WMD issues.

This op-ed was adapted from the Istanbul- based think tank EDAM’s monograph: The Syrian Civil War, penned by Dr. Can Kasapoglu and Doruk Ergun, who are working for EDAM as research fellow and research assistant, respectively.