From the beginning of the Syrian uprising in May 2011 until the summer of 2015, Iranian militias, along with the Syrian army and local militias, failed to regain control over the country. These combined forces, while substantial in number and well organized, failed in fighting against a rather motley crew of rebels. Consequently, the anti-regime forces dominated large areas of Syria.
After nearly four years of fierce fighting between Syrian rebels along with their international and regional supporters on the one hand, and the regime and its allies on the other, Syria could have fallen into the hands of the rebels had it not been for the Russian military intervention in September 2015. Many accounts have confirmed the importance of Russia’s intervention and its role in saving the Syrian regime and its ally Iran. Among the most prominent accounts is one related to Qassem Soleimani — then the commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps - Quds Force — paying a visit in June 2015 to Moscow, where he persuaded Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu of the need to intervene in Syria.
The Russian military intervention, as expected, brought about a clear change in the balance of power in the military, political, and psychological spheres in Syria. The Russian military, especially its air force, dramatically tipped the scales in the conflict between the armed opposition, the regime, and the Iranian militias. Moreover, Russian forces utilized new military technologies on the battlefield, testing more than 200 types of weapons, according to official Russian statements.
The rebels’ morale was damaged, especially after the fall of eastern Aleppo at the end of 2016, with the entry of Russian military police into the city as part of Russia’s mission to maintain security.
The Russian intervention was accompanied by a project to regain control over the security and military situation in Syria. Seeking to reduce international objections, Russia claimed that its intervention would have a positive impact on curbing instability after four years of war.
Russia pursued two main tracks. The first was an initial tactical one, namely, to restore security control. Its focus was on the city of Aleppo, after the armed opposition was defeated at the end of 2016. Russian military police units were dispatched from the Chechen battalion, which has a reputation for being professional and disciplined and specializes in peace and conflict resolution skills, having been established in the year 2000. It was later merged with the Russian military police, which was established in 2011. In March 2016, before eastern Aleppo was captured by the Syrian army and its allies, Putin approved the basic system of the military police, assigning it its first mission in eastern Aleppo. For that mission, the Chechen battalion was specifically selected. Since its ranks are predominantly Sunni, it could provide reassurance to Sunni Syrians in Aleppo, assuaging their concerns about the dominance of an Iranian Shiite presence as they also participated in the battle of Aleppo. Russian’s objective was to restore security and stability to Syria by deploying the military police and the Chechen battalion in particular.
This tactical path has not succeeded in Syria. The regime, utilizing its security elements and with the tacit support of Iran, tried to hinder the work of the Russian military police. Civilian kidnappings continued to be carried out by the National Defense Forces (NDF), headed by Brig. Gen. Bassam al-Hassan, one of the most prominent associates of President Bashar al-Assad, in cooperation with Iranian militias. Consequently, the security situation in Aleppo did not stabilize. The main goal of the regime was to discourage Russia’s efforts to control the security services and the Syrian army, and thwart its ambition of restoring security in Syria. Facing Syrian and Iranian opposition to its project, Moscow did not want to clash with Iranian and regime militias. Rather it sought to end the mission of the military police in an attempt to avoid escalation. However, the conflict in Aleppo between the Russians and the Iranians did not end, especially over Aleppo International Airport, which was controlled by the Iranian militias as it was located outside the city. This allowed Iranian military forces as well as Iraqi militias and their leaders to travel directly to the airport without coordinating with the Russians.
Through its operatives in Aleppo, Iran instigated sporadic clashes with pro-Russia Syrian elements, as well as elements of the Russian army and the military police, keeping tensions in Aleppo on a boil until the Russian military police left.
Throughout 2017 and until mid-2018, there were clashes in the city between Russia on one side and the forces of Iran and the Syrian regime on the other. Consequently, Russia favored avoiding escalation, terminating the mission of the military police after experiencing ongoing difficulties over their ability to coexistent with Iranian and some Syrian militias. Remarkably, following the departure of the Russian military police from Aleppo, no further kidnappings or clashes whatsoever were recorded in the city. Through such means the regime and the Iranians were sending a message to Russia that it would not be able to restore security or change the security rules. Indeed, Iran and the regime’s security arms thwarted all Russian attempts to extend its security control over Aleppo.
Once Russia waded into the details of the military situation, it became clear that its understanding of the Syrian army was not at the level of a historical ally. Rather, the Russian role was limited to preventing the fall of the regime, but not rehabilitating it. The Syrian regime has been seeking to evade Russia’s hegemonic grip by any means. Sometimes it utilized Iranian militias to challenge Russian dominance. Yet Russia has calmly accepted the need to cooperate with the fractious Syrian regime along with its fragile security and loose militias, recognizing their necessity in some major battles at the regional and international levels from which Russia emerged as the biggest winner.
Parallel to the first tactical track, Russia developed a second, more important track, which focused on restructuring the Syrian army and establishing a new corps, the Fifth Corps, in addition to rehabilitating the remaining parts of the Syrian army. Indeed, Russia began earnestly reconstructing the Syrian army. Moscow’s objective was to empower the Syrian army to be self-reliant while maintaining a Russian presence as the overarching military authority. Through this approach, the Syrian army would be able to stand up against Iranian influence and curb the power of militias while also confronting the opposition factions. At the end of 2016, military force was the decisive factor in the Syrian conflict. These Russian efforts to build the Syrian army, however, were an almost impossible task due to the undisciplined nature of the army and other factors, such as continued corruption within its ranks and Iran’s attempts to sabotage Russian influence over the most important pillar of the Syrian regime. Consequently, Russian efforts clashed with the dynamics of the Syrian deep state rooted in the army and security forces.
In 2018, Russia appointed Brig. Gen. Asef al-Dikr to lead Branch 293, the unit responsible for monitoring the movements of army and security officers, and to head the anti-corruption committee. Al-Dikr is a dedicated officer who was not implicated in any crimes during the protests. He studied military science in Russia for five years and is known by the Russian Ministry of Defense to be a loyalist.
The appointment of al-Dikr as head of the anti-corruption committee was a strong and firm message from Russia to the Iranian militias, corrupt leaders in the Syrian army, and the security forces. In response, Iran turned to Maher al-Assad’s Fourth Division, which is the Syrian army’s strike force, to combat the Russian project. The Fourth Division was excluded from the restructuring operations, allowing it to serve Iranian interests and resist Russia’s efforts.
To make all Syrian officers accountable, Russia utilized al-Dikr in coordination with Russian Gen. Yorki, and together they oversaw the details of the restructuring. A massive campaign of arrests was carried out targeting nearly 190 officers from the army and the Ministry of Interior in sensitive positions on charges of corruption, most of whom are from the Alawite sect. It was a bold step by Russia, sending a message that it stands against attempts to impose sectarian or political favoritism on the army.
As Russian imposed accountability on officers and members of the Syrian army, the Syrian army started to punish some of its own members in Rif Dimashq (the Damascus Countryside) who looted civilian homes following the entry of the Syrian army and Russian military police into the area. The looting incidents, among dozens of similar episodes, strengthened Russia’s recognition of the extreme difficulty of reorganizing and rehabilitating the Syrian army. Throughout the war years, looting became common for the Syrian army due to the low salaries and the regime’s “strategy” of having soldiers obtain income from other sources, given its inability to pay army personnel.
In forging ahead with its restructuring project, Russia expelled Iran’s proxies, including Brig. Gen. Ghassan Bilal, director of the office of Maher al-Assad and the head of the Fourth Armored Division’s security office. In 2018, he was transferred to the Southern Region Command. Moreover, the director of the Electronic War College was dismissed, and Sami Mahla was appointed in the general recruitment department. Russia also worked on dismantling several Iranian militias to ease the marginalization of the Syrian army. Among these disbanded groups was the Abu al-Fadl militia, which was later handed over to the Fifth Corps. Similarly, Russia dismantled the Qalamoun Shield militia — which was led by Firas Jaza’ah, who in turn was funded by Iran and accused of crimes against civilians — and dissolved the Ba’ath Brigades led by Jihad Barakat, one of Iran’s operatives.
The 155th, 156th, and 157th brigades, which are missile brigades in al-Qutayfah and As-Suwayda, were put under direct Russian supervision. The Syrian army could no longer launch any missile without Russia’s knowledge. Russia also specifically armed the 88th Brigade in the area of Ghabaghib in the Daraa Governorate with weapons comparable to or even better than those of the Syrian Republican Guard, such as BMP-4 vehicles, while the Republican Guard only has BMP-1s.
As a result of Moscow’s reforms, an anti-Russian movement began. At this time, Russia faced immense challenges at all levels against its project to restructure the army, including incidents of rebellion from within the Syrian army against Russian orders, and a lack of discipline and non-compliance with Russian directives. Incidents of theft of Russian weapons occurred, giving the Russians second thoughts as they grew to better appreciate the difficulty of the task of restructuring the Syrian army.
One particularly significant incident that shifted Russia’s stance was when Brig. Gen. Muhammad Issa stole weapons from the Iqtiham (“Storming”) Brigade of the Fifth Corps on the Syrian coast and sold them to Hezbollah. This incident led to a great uproar in the Russian Ministry of Defense, resulting in widespread loss of confidence in Syrian army officers.
Such incidents of theft of Russian army weapons repeatedly occurred at more than one location, the most recent of which was committed by Syrian soldiers in coordination with Hezbollah. They stole weapons from the Russian headquarters in al-Bukamal, to be sold on the Syrian black market. In addition to thefts, there were various incidents of corruption within the ranks of the Syrian army as well.
In May 2018, a video clip sparked a scandal in Russia and Syria, as it showed the Russian army reprimanding Assad’s soldiers in the countryside near Damascus for their attempt to steal civilian property.
Later, the Russians began to clash with Iranian-backed Alawite militias, after realizing that the drones targeting their military base in Hmeimim came from the village of Basta in Latakia. The drones were launched from an old battery factory belonging to Jihad Barakat, an NDF figure wanted by the Russians for allegedly committing crimes and acts of corruption. Consequently, Russia moved to dissolve his militia and pursue him, forcing him to flee to Lebanon, where he lives under the protection of Hezbollah.
These conditions thwarted the second Russian track aimed at restructuring the Syrian army and controlling the security forces involved. The objections against and quarrels with Russia from within the Syrian military establishment, sometimes with Iranian instigation, thwarted the Russian goal of restructuring the army. Al-Dikr’s role was effectively over, as he no longer had any significant part to play, even according to Russian objectives. He remained the official in charge of Branch 293, but was no longer among the strongest figures in the Assad regime, especially in the army, despite Russia’s insistence on keeping him in the post.
Russia subsequently relied on its own forces, some Christian forces in the countryside near Hama, and those in north and east Syria. However, it never again attempted to improve the management of the army or build an affiliated force under its management that would supposedly be separate from the Syrian Ministry of Defense, yet nominally under the umbrella of the Syrian army.
Having lost confidence in the Syrian army and in recognition of its inadequate military performance, Russia sent more troops, fearing the regime’s military retreat and collapse. The number of Russian military personnel in Syria, according to some private estimates, has reached 13,000, including various brigades (such as the 16th Marines, the 336th Marines, the 810th Brigade affiliated with the Black Sea Fleet, the 45th Airborne Commando Brigade, a Plain Forces Brigade, the Military Police, the Technical Battalion of the Russian Air Base, and Strategic Missile Forces).
Russian military officials have acknowledged the incompetence of the Syrian army and their inability to rehabilitate it. Aleksandr Dvornikov, the commander of Russia’s Southern Military District forces, said as much while discussing Russian frustrations with the incompetence of the Syrian army’s leadership, which has been evident throughout the conflict.
Consequently, Russia increased its focus on building up and training another auxiliary force to operate under its supervision, establishing the 25th Storm Division under the command of Brig. Gen. Suhail al-Hassan. Russia provided generous support in the form of financial aid and military equipment to this division, which had a major role in the countryside near Hama, in the so-called hundred days battles, and in the battles in the Idlib countryside, as Russian reliance on the regular Syrian army declined significantly. Russia also formed the Sixth and Eighth Divisions with modern Russian military equipment and fighters under Russian supervision, to spread its forces in Hama and the surrounding countryside as well as around Idlib. It also established Brigade 116, led by Saleh al-Abdullah, one of the professional leaders who received Russian support, and relied on this force in military operations in the countryside around Hama and Idlib.
At the level of local militias, Russia focused on the Christian militias in the Hama countryside without going through the Syrian Ministry of Defense, as no officer from the Syrian army attends the Russian military meetings with the Orthodox Christian militias. These Christian forces follow the Russian leadership in Hmeimim, which has become the core of the country’s presence in Syria. Instead of relying on Syrian army officers, Russia has become dependent on Christian figures, including Nabeul al-Abdullah, Simon al-Wakeel, and George Haswani, and has established private security companies to protect Russian facilities, including the ISIS Hunters Company, affiliated with Elias Sarkis in Suqaylabiyah near Hama, the Sanad Company, and the East of Homs Slav Union Company. The Russian military presence was also strengthened after Moscow reached the conclusion that the Syrian army was virtually impervious to reform.
Among other challenges was the growing support for local militias at the expense of the Syrian army, especially those linked to Iran or the NDF (formerly Shabiha), a development that fragmented the strength and reduced the importance of the Syrian army.
Some estimates indicate that in 2018 the Syrian Central Command fully controlled 20,000-25,000 soldiers and officers, while the number of various pro-government militiamen operating in the country was between 150,000 and 200,000.
In fact, Russia did not achieve its interests through the Syrian army, rather the Syrian army achieved its interests by recapturing multiple areas that had been under opposition control. Even when Russia needed to use forces to maintain its oil and gas interests, it resorted to private Russian entities, such as the Wagner Group. There are an estimated 1,500-2,000 fighters deployed in the vicinity of oil and gas sites such as the Safiya and Hawata fields, the Amaya fields in Homs, Khneifis, and the Shaer field, as well as at the archaeological sites in Palmyra. Not only did this deployment in central Syria not involve the Syrian army, it was carried out without even the slightest approval from it, following Russia’s loss of confidence in its organization and structure.
The Syrian regime was concerned about the Russian project to restructure the army. It needed to build the Fifth Corps with the aid of the Russians, yet perceived this corps as a tool that could be utilized to increase Russian influence within the army. The regime therefore allowed only those aged 40 or older to join that corps, while selecting enthusiastic young fighters to join the NDF and some local militias linked to Iran that were fighting alongside the Fourth Division.
The spread of Russian military influence caused more concerns within the Syrian regime, which feared fluctuations in the mood of the Russian government and in the international balance, alongside the possibility of Russia contemplating a compromise on the regime, whether at the regional or international level. Therefore, last year the regime relied on consolidating Alawite influence by appointing 40 Alawite officers in command posts in the army and intelligence services, as it was troubled by growing Russian influence, and intent on preventing Russia from concluding any deal that would make significant changes in the army and security system.
As for Russia, it is no longer able to stay on top of its objectives, such as restructuring the army, curbing Iranian influence, or expanding the control of regime forces in order to obtain political gains, whether from the Turkish or American sides. So, after persistent failures, Russia gave up on the project to restructure the army, but it missed a golden opportunity to extend its long-term control over Syria at a deep strategic level. It turned out that the historical covenants of friendship with the Soviet Union at the military level were not as deeply rooted in the Syrian regime as sectarian favoritism and the interests of the ruling class.
Russia has no choice but to support Assad, despite all the difficulties and complications in its relationship with him, both politically and militarily, as he has become a card in the hands of both Russia and Iran. Therefore, Russia has no interest in challenging Assad’s military system in order to avoid forcing him to seek support from Iran, which is also trying to tighten its control over Syria’s military, security, and even political decisions. As a result, Russia project to restructure the Syrian army has now irreversibly died.
Abdullah Al-Ghadawi is a Syrian writer and journalist. The opinions expressed in this piece are his own.
Photo by ANDREI BORODULIN/AFP via Getty Images