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The Syrian Civil War Did Wipe Out The Syrian Arab Army

July 25, 2019

Via Wikimedia Commons.

A remarkable analysis of the battered Syrian Arab Army (SAA) was published last week by the Middle East Institute, a think tank specializing in the region’s current events. The researcher Gregory Waters spent months trawling social media and compiling sources for The Lion and the Eagle: The Syrian Arab Army’s Death and Rebirth. To balance his data Waters corresponded with an unnamed Syrian he described as having “extensive contacts throughout the military.”

The result is a useful pocket history of the institution that tried hardest to preserve Syria’s dictatorial regime and almost failed if not for the well-timed intervention by Russia.

Waters divides his present work into 12 parts that each serve as brief chapters. For his introduction he makes it clear the SAA inherited by Bashar Al-Assad was a large conventional army with three main corps-sized formations facing Israel. In terms of manpower it ranked among the largest in the region, having up to 250,000 personnel, and boasted 5,000 tanks; but less than a fifth of these were T-72M’s and thousands of obsolescent T-55’s were kept in storage. Unmentioned by Waters is the immense stocks of artillery and ordnance kept by the SAA, a lot of which ended up with the rebels as the civil war progressed. No matter the state of its economy, Damascus’ shoestring defense budget maintained a large air force and sophisticated air defenses as well.

In the third chapter titled “Collapse” the beginning of the civil war in mid-2011 saw the breakdown of the SAA’s organization. But rather than dwell on the impact of mass desertions Waters focuses instead on the Assad regime’s preference for dismantling army divisions so that “loyal” units are the ones sent to deal with the unrest. This saw loyalist troops, such as those belonging to the Republican Guard or 4th Armored Division, serving alongside “regular” troops in ad hoc battalions who still suffered appalling losses. It’s not surprising the SAA’s once inflexible command structure began to fray as a result.

By 2012, with an estimated half of its available troops having deserted, the SAA was struggling to check the rebellion’s spread while fighting intense urban battles. From 2013 until 2014 the SAA was reduced to myriad outposts and garrisons holding pockets against rebel groups. Waters doesn’t elaborate on how effective the opposition was at this point thanks to supplies of anti-tank weapons and artillery from their sponsors. The rise of ISIS parallels the SAA’s crumbling organization whose strategy from 2013 onward was holding on to infrastructure and military bases. The long siege of Deir Ezzor is a superb example of this.

As the SAA’s power ebbed, the only viable alternative were local death squads and militias. The latter were every bit as colorful as the opposition groups struggling to depose Assad. It was often cronies with strong financial ties to the regime who paid for their own goons but, as Waters explains in the next chapter on militias, the arrival of Shia “volunteer” fighters was a literal godsend. Thanks to Iran’s persistent support between 12,000-14,000 Afghans organized by the Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) protected Damascus and fought on every front. Even Hezbollah’s entry in the civil war was meant to defend the capital and its surroundings.

With Russia having attained a measure of success in Syria, Moscow’s generals are now trying to revive the SAA. But this could take many years and Waters deduced that the institution itself is no longer effective. By 2017 he estimates just 25,000 Republican Guard soldiers and remnants of the 4th Armored Division were all that was left to defend Assad. In the end, he concludes the SAA is only “rebuilt on paper” and recent fighting in rebel-held Hama and Idlib has shown it can’t win decisively. Waters’ The Lion and the Eagle can be read in its entirety here.

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