In November 2016, the Command of the Syrian Army announced the creation of a new military force, the Fifth Assault Corps. Since the Russian Aerospace Forces began their military operation in Syria in the fall of 2015, this is the second attempt to strengthen, qualitatively and quantitatively, the Syrian regular army which has been involved in an armed conflict for many years. Earlier, with Russia’s and Iran’s active support, the Fourth Corps was formed in addition to the earlier established First, Second and Third Corps. The emergence of the new military force has aroused great interest both in Syria and beyond. Observers representing different parties to the conflict are interested not only in factors that were behind the formation of the Fifth Corps but also in its mission. Given the lack of reliable information and the abundance of rumors surrounding the new force, we can only say that its emergence reflects several complex and ambiguous tendencies characterizing the development of the armed forces and the military-political situation in Syria and the transformation of regional approaches to the organization and control of military power in the Middle East as a whole.
For almost six years of the military-political confrontation in Syria, the Syrian Arab Army was considered one of the main pillars of Bashar al-Assad’s political regime and an embodiment of its perseverance and determination. As if unaware that dozens of generals and senior officers had left the service at the beginning of the “Syrian uprising,” the larger part of the institutions of the regular armed forces continued functioning, despite experts’ pessimistic forecasts, to protect the country and the ruling regime from external and internal threats. Crippled by sabotage, defections of soldiers, and the death, emigration or collaboration of members of the High Command, the army, as a political institution, did not become an organized opponent of the regime, even though it “presented” hundreds of first-class military specialists to the opposition.
The political absenteeism and passivity of the army corporation, cultivated by the Ba’ath Party over decades, played into the hands of the ruling elite, which retained overall control over the army and simultaneously organized an efficacious punitive and police apparatus based on loyal social groups and political organizations. This is why the brunt of military operations conducted by pro-government forces was borne by special elite units and irregular paramilitary groups, subordinate directly to the country’s top political and economic elites. The latter, seeking to preserve the “old” pre-war order, organized and funded an extensive network of semi-regular forces.
As a result, at the initial stage of the conflict, army units were not involved in operations in towns and large settlements and remained in barracks. Even the appearance of the Free Syrian Army, an opposition military group joined by many defectors from the Syrian Arab Army, did not lead to a complete collapse of the military organization, despite the split in the army.
Whether this was due to the predominance of Alawites in the officer corps (the president, his family and his inner circle are also Alawites) or to a complex set of factors, the fact remains that the regular army largely maintained its loyalty to al-Assad and the government, which, among other things, allowed the country’s political elite to retain its legitimacy even in conditions of an almost complete foreign-policy isolation and active opposition from a broad front of opposition groups.
DIFFERENT WAR, DIFFERENT RULES, DIFFERENT ARMY
The reliance only on elite special forces and loyal paramilitary groups has not given the Syrian regime a decisive advantage in the face of the protracted conflict. In addition to the fact that these already small units have dwindled in endless battles on a dozen fronts, army barracks have fewer and fewer soldiers: during the conflict, the strength of the Syrian Arab Army has decreased 2.5 times, according to some estimates, while its offensive capabilities have been exhausted. Of those who remained faithful to the oath and did not leave the army in 2012-2013, the best commanders and specialists joined elite and volunteer units in 2014-2015 in search of a better pay and better service conditions. Despite higher risks, these units were more attractive at the time as they were controlled not by the faceless and inactive state machinery but concrete individuals and associations that offered good salaries and welfare. According to some expert estimates, the army under the command of the Syrian General Staff had only 20,000 to 25,000 soldiers capable of conducting offensive operations. Of the once 300,000-strong army, there remained only one-third, of which 75 percent served in garrisons (including the border with Israel) and were not capable of combat due to shortages of fuel, ammunition and weapons.
Its forces almost depleted, Damascus had to rely on help from its foreign allies—Iran and Russia. Unable to save the regime otherwise, its downfall not being in their geopolitical interests, the two countries put emphasis on strengthening Syria’s remaining military capabilities. Having supplied advanced weapons to pro-government forces and provided instructors and technical advisers for personnel training, Tehran and Moscow had to admit that in the face of numerous enemies the Syrian government would simply not have enough human resources to fight all opposition groups. The army, which was unable to defeat extremists without paramilitary and special forces, became just one of the many recipients of foreign aid. Nevertheless, the realization that there was no alternative to a political solution to the conflict did not stop Russia and Iran from trying to save the incumbent regime and its institutions, including security and military ones, as the basis for a future viable and legitimate political system.
In 2015-2016, the allies provided direct support to government forces on the ground (Iran) and in the air (Russia) and thus prevented the fall of Damascus and its defeat in the civil war, which seemed inevitable in the summer of 2015. Having achieved some breakthroughs in the regime’s military confrontation with the opposition in several strategic areas, the allies showed their interest in restoring the legitimacy of institutions on which they could rely in addressing the Syrian crisis in the future. In this regard, independent or semi-independent religious and ethnic groups, which serve as a replacement for regular troops, cannot be an adequate substitute for a standing army of a viable state.
Indeed, forces fighting on the side of Damascus often have no definite place in a single hierarchy, which actually does not exist, and are largely independent of each other. Their relationships can hardly be described as subordination; rather, it is cooperation. They are led by charismatic leaders, many of whom are both military and political leaders and/or wealthy businessmen, the heads of noble families or even communities. Their alliance was brought to life by a real and immediate threat to the order that suited them all at the moment, but in the future there may be less common ground and more disagreement between them. A security system based on such elements can hardly be called reliable.
Taking this factor into account and realizing the importance of restoring the prestige and real functionality of the regular army as a controlled and regulated system with a legitimate right to use violence, Damascus’ allies insist on restoration of the regular army and on inclusion of the most combat-capable paramilitary units in it.
The top leadership in Syria wants to retain its control over the army; therefore, the army and paramilitary groups may merge on a parity basis in order not to upset the balance of power and influence. On the one hand, this process will make it possible to legalize and institutionalize pro-government combatants, and on the other hand, keep them under Damascus’ control and, at the same time, restore the strength of the regular army controlled by the present elite.
Indicative in this regard is the experience of neighboring Iraq where at the end of 2016 the Popular Mobilization Forces, composed of Shiite and Sunni irregular armed groups, were legalized and incorporated in the regular army, with both parts of the now single system being financed and supplied by the government. The Bashar al-Assad regime and, above all, Russia are not interested in creating an independent center of power and violence, not controlled by the government, such as the National Defense Forces. Accordingly, the Syrian scenario contemplates a different course of development than that of Iraq.
The creation of the Fourth Corps in the fall of 2015 was the first attempt to restructure the existing forces. On the one hand, army recruits were united with experienced fighters of the Ba’ath Party and the Syrian Social Nationalist Party; on the other hand, a new system of command and control was built and tested at the level of a mixed corps. Although the plan to incorporate 17 Iran-supported militias in the Fourth Corps was not a success, it largely fulfilled its main task, and the next move, the creation of the Fifth Corps, is expected to be more successful, as the previous mistakes will hopefully not be repeated.
THE SPECIAL ROLE OF THE FIFTH CORPS
An official statement of the Syrian government said that the Fifth Corps was created to conduct not so much defensive as offensive operations to liberate territories occupied by the enemy and “restore security and stability throughout Syria.” Although it is not known where the corps will be deployed, it recruits people from across the country, including Latakia and other government-controlled areas. The statement emphasized that the corps is also open to volunteers from the country’s eastern provinces, including Raqqa occupied by the Islamic State (ISIS). No conscription has been announced in Syria for the Fifth Corps, which is an important political decision of the government aimed at retaining support of the civilian population. The corps invites volunteers older than 18 years old who are fit for military service and who are not conscripts and/or draft dodgers.
The corps is formed on a multi-sectarian and multi-ethnic basis; therefore, its recruits represent various groups of the Syrian population. The government has carried out a large-scale information campaign in areas it controls to recruit volunteers into the corps. In addition to the traditional campaign among civil servants and displaced persons in Latakia and near Damascus, the areas that are more loyal to the regime, all registered users of mobile communication devices aged between 18 and 50 have received SMS messages with an invitation to take part in “the final stage of the victory over terrorism.” Opponents of the regime say that security agencies, in particular the powerful Air Force Intelligence Directorate, forcibly recruit people into the Fifth Corps in Sunni areas which have only recently achieved reconciliation with the regime. According to some reports, one of the Fifth Corps’ units will be formed of volunteers trained in Hezbollah camps on the Syrian-Lebanese border.
Recruits are a significant but not the main part of the Fifth Corps. They are its future; so, their military training and their study of the specific experience of this and other modern wars in the Middle East is of paramount importance. That is why Russian advisers train officers to think strategically, while soldiers are trained by Hezbollah instructors, whose experience in this sphere has no analogues. According to unconfirmed reports, there are plans to recruit commanders also from among retired but authoritative Hezbollah officers.
Nevertheless, in the winter of 2016-2017, even before the training of recruits was completed, the Fifth Corps took a limited part in its first combat operation. Experienced army units and irregular pro-government groups, attached to the corps, played the main role in the mission.
The Lebanese newspaper As-Safir wrote that the formation of the Fifth Corps would not take much time, as most of its fighters already have combat experience. The newspaper must have meant pro-Assad paramilitary groups, primarily militias, such as the Alawite Shabiha. According to an Al-Mudun news agency report, quoting a source in the Syrian army, one of the goals of the formation of the Fifth Corps is to resolve problems that paramilitary groups and the Shabiha pose for the regime. These groups are scattered across the country and are out of control, which often leads to their marginalization and merging with local criminal communities. The existing pro-government groups will be dissolved and their personnel will be included in the Fifth Corps. Unlike the situation when different goals and inconsistency of actions became the main reasons for failures of pro-government groups on the front lines, incorporating them in one corps will increase coordination and cohesion of its units, improve the training and equipment of soldiers and, as a result, multiply their efficiency on the front lines and behind the lines.
As-Safir described the creation of the Fifth Corps as an example of close coordination between Russia, Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah. According to the newspaper, the main attack force of the Fifth Corps will include the best trained units of the Syrian army and pro-government paramilitary groups, such as Liwa Suqur al-Sahara (Desert Falcons) and Liwa al-Quds. Both groups have extensive experience in combat operations and are not part of the Syrian Arab Army. Suqur al-Sahara, composed of mercenaries—veterans, soldiers, and officers of Syrian special forces—was formed in 2013 to protect the business of retired general Mohammad Jaber. Over time, Suqur al-Sahara began to participate in combat operations against opponents of the regime and gained fame, like the famous Tiger Forces led by Colonel Suheil al-Hassan. Liwa al-Quds, composed mostly of Syrian Sunni Palestinians, supported the Syrian Army in its effort to regain control over the eastern part of Aleppo. Both groups have already coordinated their actions with Russian advisers who, judging by numerous photos from the front lines featuring them, directly coordinate actions of these and other groups. It is believed that the Fifth Corps will also include groups financed by Rami Makhlouf, the maternal cousin of President al-Assad and nephew of his mother Anisa Makhlouf. According to some reports, militias dissolved by the government for incorporation in the Fifth Corps include Dara’ Qalamoun (Qalamoun Shield), which is part of the National Defense Forces. Dara’ Qalamoun was formed of volunteers, later joined by some of amnestied opposition fighters. As there are conflicting reports on the composition of the Fifth Corps, at the time of writing this text it is impossible to draw a complete list of pro-government groups and militias that will be included in it.
WHERE WILL THE FIFTH CORPS GO?
After Damascus’ allies had supplied the Fifth Corps with weapons, covered part of the personnel expenditure and helped create a better legal framework for servicemen, and after the Syrian government had used all its mobilization capabilities, units of the corps in January 2017 took a limited part in hostilities in the Homs Governorate. Where will the resources incorporated in the corps be sent is not known for certain. Yet we can name three major hypothetical destinations.
One possible destination may be the Homs Governorate, from which the corps may move father east. The loss of Palmyra in December 2016 dealt a heavy blow to the reputation of the foreign allies. The Fifth Corps may be tasked to retake the city, consolidate its positions there and develop the offensive father in the direction of al-Sukhnah. The main goal after retaking Palmyra and gas fields may be to break the siege of Deir ez-Zor. In January 2017, Islamic State militants attacked the city and a nearby airbase, but Republican Guards led by Issam Zahreddine and supporting forces held their positions. If the Fifth Corps proves to be a combat-capable unit and if it retakes the Palmyra-Deir ez-Zor highway from ISIS militants, the Syrians will have to work hard to build a reliable defense there against potential ISIS counterattacks. Damascus will have to begin to cooperate with tribes inhabiting the desert territories between Palmyra and Deir ez-Zor—and better do it before the offensive. These territories are important to ISIS because they open the way to oil fields in the Deir ez-Zor Governorate and the Euphrates River. ISIS may deliver a strong rebuff to any possible offensive in this area, but if Damascus succeeds, it will gain access to gas and oil fields in the Homs and Deir ez-Zor Governorates. This will solve the problem of fuel shortages in the Syrian army, reduce the cost of its further advance, and open the way to the border with Iraq. If Baghdad and Damascus coordinate their actions, they may establish direct communication between the two countries and pool their resources to fight ISIS on the ground. The importance of this area for the Syrians and the possibility that Damascus will choose it as the main destination for the Fifth Corps’ offensive are confirmed by the recruitment of volunteers for the corps from the country’s eastern regions.
Raqqa, east of Aleppo, may be another destination for the Fifth Corps. Units of the Syrian Arab Army, including the Tiger Forces, already in January 2017 began to advance towards Al-Bab. The Syrians approached the city from the south, and if they manage to bypass the ISIS defense and avoid an encounter with opposition forces and Turkish troops, stuck north of the city, they will finally remove the issue of Syria’s partition from the agenda (there will be no buffer zone for Turkey then), and the road to Raqqa will be open for the SAA.
The third target of the Fifth Corps may be the Idlib Governorate, populated mainly by Sunnis and turned into a ghetto for opponents of the regime. The calculation here may be that the loss of Aleppo may trigger a large-scale confrontation between opposition groups, which is already happening today. However, at the initial stage of the advance towards Idlib, the SAA may be interested not in the entire governorate but the highway connecting Hama and Aleppo. Even if the SAA succeeds and opens direct communication between Aleppo and Damascus, regaining and maintaining control over this route will involve much risk due to a high concentration of opposition forces in the area.
Other targets may be central and southern regions of the country. These regions are out of Damascus’ control and therefore pose a threat to the capital city. However, more and more local villages are involved in the reconciliation process under the aegis of Russian mediators. Besieged by militants and seeing no way out but to come to agreement with the government, they enter into negotiations through the mediation of specialists from the Russian center at Khmeimim, which makes the use of military force in the area unnecessary. This means that the forces deployed in central regions of the country are enough to complete this process. Therefore, there is no need to deploy the new corps there. The same partly applies to southern territories adjacent to the borders with Israel and Jordan. The government is actively using diplomacy there, moving along the path of political reconciliation with individual villages and regaining control over them. So, unlike other areas, the southern front is fairly stable and does not require concentrating large forces there.
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The creation of the Fifth Assault Corps is an important step in reforming the security system in Syria, which has both functional and symbolic significance in the medium term. It is expected that the corps will include loyal groups: elite army units, Syrian and non-Syrian mercenaries, militias of ethnic and religious minorities, and volunteers from across the country. By dissolving irregular militia units and incorporating them in the Fifth Corps, the Syrian government seeks to create a single centralized system for control over the armed forces under the SAA aegis, which will replace a web of disunited military groups controlled only through personal contacts.
Meanwhile, paramilitary groups, too, are interested in being included in the Fifth Corps, which will legalize their status and institutionalize their activities on the eve of an official political settlement process. The consolidation of loyal regular and irregular armed groups in one institution—the Syrian army—makes Russia, not Iran, the main beneficiary if the Fifth Corps succeeds in its mission. So, Russia can become the main architect of the security system in Syria in the medium term.
The experience of other Arab countries is also worth studying. One such country is Iraq, where the Popular Mobilization Forces have retained their autonomy and continue to be an independent (that is, uncontrolled and unpredictable) actor in military-political relations even after they were incorporated in the same command and supply system that also controls regular troops and Interior Ministry forces. Another country is Libya where an attempt to integrate revolutionary brigades into the newly created Libyan National Army in 2012 led to the loss of the government’s control over the armed forces and to a new round of armed confrontation, which began in 2014 and continues to this day.
In this regard, the Syrian experience, implemented with Russia’s participation, may prove to be a model for a new approach to the organization of such an institution as army. In the Middle East, this institution continues to play not only a military but also a political role as a state-forming element of the political system.