THE SYSTEM OF POWER IN SYRIA: THE ARMED FORCES
The Armed Forces are the second crucial pillar to the survival of Bashar al Assad's regime. An elephantine, efficient and motivated apparatus that, despite over two years of conflict and some setbacks, has remained compact and military capable.
Just like the intelligence agencies, the Armed Forces report directly to the President of the Republic who is also Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces.
The Minister of Defense and the Chief of Staffs play instead a marginal role in the management of the military and they are basically tasked with applying the President's decisions.
The current Minister of Defense is a Sunni, Fahd Jassem al Frej. He was appointed in July 2012 when his predecessor was killed in the Damascus attack the decimated the regime's security chiefs. A loyalist, Frej is the former Chief of Staffs. His activities during the civil war had come under scrutiny. But his appointment as a Minister signals a renewed trust in his capabilities. The zeal in his fight against the rebels has recently earned Fahd Jassem al Frej the U.S. black list for human rights violations. In Syria's military and political hierarchy the Minister of Defense is also Deputy Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces.
The current Chief of Staffs is Ali Abdullah Ayoub, who took over from Frej last year. He is one of the few military chiefs not to be black listed by the West.
Air Defense, Air Forces and all those units tasked with the protection of the regime's dignitaries, like the Republican Guard (the size of an armored division, 25.000 men lead by Gen. Shoaeb Suleiman) and the 4th Armored Division (25.000 men tasked with the defense of Damascus under the leadership of Bashar al Assad's brother, Maher), report directly to the President of the Republic. They are both based in Damascus and formed by elite corps. In truth, both Armed Divisions are lead by Mahed Assad.
Since 1952 Syria has imposed mandatory conscription for all men at the age of 18. The duration of the national service has been progressively reduced: it was 30 months in 1974, 24 months in 2005 and 18 months since 2011. Women can volunteer for the military.
Once the national service is over, personnel transits in the active reserve (until 45) and then into the territorial reserve (until 60). For selected individuals with specific know-how the call to arms can last for several weeks.
At this time, it is not possible to quantify the number of reservists since the civil war has increased the number of ethnic and religious defectors. In times of peace, the reserve amounted to 300-350.000 men. But the reliability and quality of reservists greatly varied. An estimated 15-20% of reservists are the human potential on which the regime has been able to rely on. This means loyalists have been able to count on no more than 70 to 80.000 men.
Overall, about 70% of career soldier are Alawite. The difficulties in drafting a fair amount of individuals was highlighted in March 2013 when the Syrian Great Mufti, Ahmad Badredeen al Hassoun, stated in his preaching that the call to arms was a national duty.
The reservists should have increased the number of military forces already in arms that amount to about 300.000 units: 200.000 in the Army, 4.000 in the Navy, 38.000 in the Air Forces and 58.000 in Air Defense.
As stated, Land Forces amount to about 200.000 men. They are structured into 3 Armed Corps, reduced to 2 following Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005. The two Armed Corps divided the territories they are responsible for: the 1st Armed Corps operates in the South (along the border with Jordan and Israel), the 3rd Armed Corps operates on the remaining portion of Syria. The civil war has modified this approach as both forces concentrate their military activities where needed.
Overall, Syrian Land Forces can count on 12 Divisions (7 of whom are armored) and 3 independent brigades (infantry and mechanized infantry). Each Division also includes 2 anti-tank brigades, 2 artillery brigades and 4 missile brigades. There are also a series of minor units (regiments and logistical support units) the operate within the Armed Corps.
The Syrian army is a powerful structure with a strong force of impact (4.600 tanks and as many armored vehicles) and fire power: over 5.300 artillery pieces, missile systems (SCUD B, SCUD C, FROG 7, SS-21) and anti-tank systems (over 4.000 units).
Despite the civil war having reversed battle orders and the location of military units on the ground, Syria had been divided into Military Regions under the responsibility of a Local Command reporting and acting on behalf of central military authorities. Just like the Soviet system, the operative discretion of local units was severely limited. But the ongoing conflict has granted greater autonomy to peripheral commands.
The 7 Military Regions are: Damascus (its HQ is in Qatana), coastal (Latakia), southern (Al Sawayda), northern (Aleppo), central (Homs), eastern (Deir al Zor) and south-western.
The Navy is structured into 3 Maritime Departments: Tartous, Latakia and Mina al Bayda (hosting the Naval Academy). Numerically it is irrelevant, just like its contribution in fighting the rebellion. The Syrian Navy has 3 submarines, 11 patrol boats (plus 16 missile boats), 2 frigates, 3 amphibious warfare vessels and 16 auxiliary units. The importance of the Syrian Navy lies in the fact that its bases on the coast are based in predominantly Alawite territories. This could represent the regime's last stand in case of a downturn of events. In fact, during the civil war these areas have been “cleared” of all remnants of Sunni communities.
Out of all Armed Forces, the Air Force is considered the most loyal to the regime. This is because Hafez al Assad, Bashar's father, was an aviation official and also because air supremacy has always been crucial to the regime's survival (and recent civil war developments confirm this belief).
The training cycle of military pilots is preceded by a rigid verification of the candidates' reliability and is particularly severe. Currently the Syrian Air Force can count on around 1.000-1.100 “ready combat” pilots.
The Air Force is structured along 5 independent Brigades and 2 Divisions (composed of 3 brigades and 5 brigades respectively) whose Commands are in Dumayr and Sharyat.
Even more important, Syria's Air Force can rely on over 500 combat airplanes (all produced in the Soviet Union or Russia: MIG-21, MIG-23, MIG-25, MIG-29 and SU-22, SU-24, SU-27), on around 40 transport airplanes (Soviet/Russian Tupolev, Ilyushin and Antonov planes now used to move troops to hot spots), on over 150 training airplanes (easily converted for combat missions) and on over 300 combat helicopters (Russian MIs and French Gazelle).
As stated, the overall strength of the Air Force is of 40.000 men, plus the 60.000 employed by Air Defense. The latter is based on the use of interceptors (the MIGs) and on missile and artillery anti-aircraft units (2 Divisions). Even though the missile batteries are pretty obsolete and hardly ever used, their efficiency is basically irrelevant given the rebel's lack of air capabilities. The scenario would be totally different if an international intervention were to impose a no-fly zone or arm the rebels. Overall, Air Defense has over 650 missiles and 3.800-4.000 piece of anti-aircraft artillery in its arsenal.
Another important aspect is the Air Force's control of Syrian air space through a system of automated spotters that transmit their data to two commands: one in Damascus, the other one in Homs. These commands also have offices in Banyas, Jebel Mane, Dumayr and Chenchar.
There are also other military forces currently on the ground. There is the Police, counting on 8 to 9 thousand men, and the so-called “Workers' Militia”, stemming from the active Baath Party militants. The latter are known with the name of “shabiha” (the ghosts), a term used to identify secret service agents and criminals (mainly smugglers) working for the regime and dedicated to the dirty work against rebels and dissidents. There are no reliable estimates on the size of these irregular groups, but some analysts have come up with a figure of 40 to 50 thousand men. Before the conflict over 100 thousand people were members of the Baath party.
Information and disinformation make an estimate of the loyalist and rebel forces on the ground extremely difficult. The sole indisputable fact is that, following a lengthy and bloody civil war, the armed forces supporting the regime have not collapsed. Furthermore, even though they lost some ground, their attacking capacity is basically unaffected.
Part of the answer lies in the presence on the battle field alongside the loyalists of the Lebanese Hezbollah (7 to 8 thousand men) and of the Iranian Basiji (a few thousand). Even arms supplies from Russia and Iran, that has signed a mutual defense agreement with Syria, have continued to flow.
After all, the Syrian regime has never skimped on military expenses. The 2012 budget was around 2.5 billion dollars. Over 90% of weapons are purchased from Russia, a detail partly explaining Moscow's stance in support of Bashar al Assad.
With regard to Weapons of Mass Destruction, Syria has officially signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (the September 2007 Israeli attack against the Al Kibar plant tells a different story), signed (but not ratified) the Convention on Biological Weapons and is not party to the Convention on Chemical Weapons (chemical and biological weapons stocks are hidden all over Syria).
The atrocities committed on both fronts of the civil war have definitely exacerbated the fighting, fueling both revenge and cruelty. But they have also consolidated loyalist forces that are now fighting for victory and, above all, for their survival since they know there will be no pity for the defeated.
To think that after such a bloodshed a negotiated solution between the parties is possible is mere utopia. And this is regardless of Russian and American mediation attempts.