Why the Tide May Be Turning for Assad

By Max Powers

The civil war in Syria, like most other conflicts, has experienced normal ebbs and flows of conflict: As one side makes gains, the war seems to be heading in the favor of the opposition. As the other makes or reverses those gains, the war seems to be leading to a regime victory. This cycle has repeated since the early days of the conflict; however, with the ongoing regime advances in Aleppo, it could change. It is important to note, a regime victory in Aleppo would not mean the end of the conflict –quite the contrary, actually—but it may cement the tide in Assad’s favor. Save for Idlib city, the regime would control every major city in western Syria.

As The New York Times puts it, “that would leave the rebels fighting Mr. Assad with only the northern province of Idlib and a few isolated pockets of territory in Aleppo and Homs Provinces and around the capital, Damascus.[1]” That said, it is important to look at how Assad even reached this position. There are two main reasons: Russia and Iran.

While Russia nominally intervened in Syria in September 2015 to fight the Islamic State, most available data on Russian airstrikes in Syria paint a different picture. As the Institute for the Study of War pointed out in monthly reports, most Russian airstrikes have targeted more mainstream opposition groups (including some supported by the United States) and have been primarily concentrated in Aleppo[2]. These airstrikes, which target not only rebel positions but also civilian infrastructure, have been instrumental in weakening the rebel-held eastern portion of the city.

In addition to the airstrikes, Russia has been providing support to regime troops and its militia allies on the ground. For instance, an influential Palestinian militia that operates in Aleppo, Liwa al Quds, has received significant Russian support. Photos posted to social media by members of the group accidentally captured Russian troops in the background, and the group openly boasts about receiving Russian military medals for their operations in Aleppo[3]. It is unclear if Russian troops are actively engaging in combat with this militia and regime troops; that said, Russian officers and operatives have been shown embedded with the group, which, at the very least, signals some sort of advising role.

In regards to Iranian support, this is arguably the most important factor for the survival of the Assad regime. In 2009, the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) stood at around 325,000 troops, with another 100,000 troops in pro-government militias[4]. For the SAA, that number now stands at around 125,000 as of March 2016. No reliable numbers exist for the numbers for local pro-government militias, but it is widely suspected to be much higher than the pre-civil war numbers[5]. However, since 2012 (perhaps earlier according to some reports), Iran has been aiding the regime by sending in thousands of militia fighters and even actual Iranian troops.

This began with initial Lebanese Hezbollah deployments to Syria in 2011, and turned into a full-fledged “intervention” in 2012 at the behest of Iran[6]. No solid data exists for the total number of Hezbollah troops in Syria, but in 2015, it was reported that it has lost at least 1500 troops since 2012[7]. This suggests a much larger total number of troops in Syria. After the entrance of Hezbollah, Shia fighters from Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and even West Africa have been shipped to Syria by Iran to fight for the Assad regime[8]. Some of these groups are US-designated terrorist organizations, while leaders of others are US-designated terrorists for their roles in the US war in Iraq.

Additionally, Iranian troops have been deployed to Syria. These include members from the Basij forces, akin to a national guard; ground forces from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC); and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps-Quds Force (IRGC-QF), which is the special forces branch of the IRGC. Although the exact number of Iranian troops deployed in Syria is unknown, it is estimated to be in the thousands. Just recently, Iran, in a surprising move, announced that it has lost over 1000 troops fighting for the Assad regime[9], a number that would likely confirm the aforementioned estimate.

In addition, the Shia foreign fighters in the Iranian-backed militias are estimated to be numbered anywhere from 16,000 to 25,000 troops[10]. Without this Iranian support, the SAA would not be anywhere close to the position it is in today. In fact, Bellingcat, an investigative journalism website, reports that the SAA does not control any territory on its own[11]. Members of foreign militaries, militias, or local pro-government militias or tribes are always present alongside the SAA.

If the Assad regime is successful in recapturing the entirety of Aleppo city (or what is left of it), it will undoubtedly be a major turning point in the war. Whether or not this happens, it is worth remembering how the regime is even in this position. Heavy Russian airstrikes on opposition groups and the funneling of thousands of pro-Assad Shia fighters into Syria by Iran have played an instrumental part in this turning of the tide in favor of the Assad regime. This support is not likely to go away if and when Aleppo falls. In the event of a protracted insurgency in the face of a regime “victory”, Russia, Iran, and all the allied militias will still be needed by the Assad regime.

[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/28/world/middleeast/syria-civil-war-assad.html?_r=0

[2] http://www.understandingwar.org/sites/default/files/Russian%20Airstrikes%20Maps-30%20SEPT%202015-28%20JUN%202016%20Final_0.pdf

[3] http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2016/10/russian-influence-evident-in-palestinian-militia-in-syria.php

[4] http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Middle-East/2013/Aug-28/228953-syrias-diminished-security-forces.ashx#axzz31ko8ddGF

[5] https://www.bellingcat.com/news/mena/2016/11/30/assad-regime-militias-and-shiite-jihadis-in-the-syrian-civil-war/

[6] http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/the-shiite-jihad-in-syria-and-its-regional-effects

[7] http://www.economist.com/news/middle-east-and-africa/21661826-costly-valuable-lessons-guerrilla-army-once-fought

[8] http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/the-shiite-jihad-in-syria-and-its-regional-effects

[9] http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-iran-idUSKBN13H16J

[10] https://www.ft.com/content/bdaa1a18-b2ed-11e6-a37c-f4a01f1b0fa1

[11] https://www.bellingcat.com/news/mena/2016/11/30/assad-regime-militias-and-shiite-jihadis-in-the-syrian-civil-war/