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Russia Is Seriously Rebuilding The Syrian Arab Army

September 18, 2018

Via Wikimedia Commons.

As the Syrian Civil War ebbs the risk of a bigger conflict between Damascus and its neighbors increases. One reason for this upsetting trend is Moscow’s unfailing assistance to its client no matter what. For Pesach Malovany, a researcher specializing in Arab armies, there’s enough evidence proving Russia is keen on reviving each branch of the Syrian military.

Malovany’s essay The Syrian Phoenix Is Arising was published in Israel Defense on September 17. It examines how subtle leadership changes and reorganizations imposed on depleted ground units are part of a serious effort to get Assad’s war machine back on its feet.

Although Malovany doesn’t name specific Russian officials or institutions shaping events in Syria today, he does enumerate shifts in the Syrian army’s structure. According to Malovany a directorate in charge of manpower is now headed by a loyalist, Major General Bassem Warda, tasked with fixing the army’s broken conscription and training. His predecessor, Malovany notes, was transferred from an administrative role to a crucial post overseeing the Golan Heights.

But Malovany’s coup is a detailed breakdown of the Syrian army’s First Mechanized Infantry Division, which used to be the First Armored Division. Malovany explains how its three brigades are now composed of a tank battalion with 41 tanks (either T-62’s or T-72’s) and three mechanized infantry battalions equipped with “BMPs.” He didn’t specified whether these are BMP-1’s that are the backbone of the Syrian army or BMP-2’s whose quantities have been depleted by attrition. There’s no discussion of the weaponry transferred to Syria from Russian stocks in Malovany’s essay so the reader must assume the First Mechanized is equipped with whatever armored vehicles are still functioning.

Once the First Mechanized Infantry Division’s force structure is complete, Malovany claims the same will be applied to the Third Armored Division and the rest of the army until the Russians deem the “rehabilitation” complete. Malovany doesn’t attempt to illustrate the outcome of this process, however. Will the Syrian army be a conventional force once again or is it going to have a leaner “asymmetric” composition?

Malovany is less forthcoming when he focuses on the Syrian air force, which is a shadow of its former self. As veteran commanders are assigned new roles, Malovany doesn’t offer anything on Russia’s plans for the branch. Is it receiving new aircraft or not? What Malovany does instead is dwell on the shortage of pilots and the reliance on barrel bombs for bombarding civilians and rebels alike in combat. It actually makes sense if there are no plans to resurrect the air force. If it were up to Russia, delivering export-ready MiG-35’s or Su-30SME’s are unfeasible unless Moscow extends a generous line of credit.

Besides, the Syrian military is supported by a handful of allies. In August a new agreement was signed with Iran for unspecified military cooperation. What this means on the ground is the constant presence of Revolutionary Guard advisers and supplies to replenish the Syrian army’s material losses. Belarus, China, Cuba, and North Korea are all suspected of having indirect roles in the Syrian Civil War. If the regime does emerge victorious by next year, its reconstruction efforts might have a stronger emphasis on a military buildup with the help of its “friends.” It bears repeating Damascus possesses an arsenal of chemical weapons, short-range ballistic missiles, and a sophisticated air defense network.

If Malovany’s essay offers a rare glimpse into Syria’s medium-term plans, this is awful timing because Israel has decided to wage war with Iran on its own accord. The territories carved out by resurgent Kurds in the northeast and the Turkish army with their proxies in the west pose their own troublesome escalation risks.

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