Christoph Reuter writes: Assad’s official army is now just one of many fighting forces on the side of the regime — and is also suffering from poor morale and a lack of soldiers. For many young Syrians from areas under government control, forced conscription has become the most significant motivator for embarking on the refugee trail to Europe.
This is also one reason why Russia’s initial strategy for Syria is not finding success. Moscow had been hoping that massive air strikes would force rebel fighters in opposition-held areas to abandon the fight. That would then pave the way for Assad’s ground forces to advance and take back those regions. But in October, when Assad’s tank units rolled into those areas that Russian jets had previously bombed, they didn’t get very far. Instead of fleeing, rebels there had dug in instead.
Using TOW anti-tank missiles supplied by the US, in addition to Russian anti-tank weapons that had been captured or acquired from corrupt officers, the rebels struck some 20 tanks before the others turned back. The army’s ground offensive south of Aleppo likewise quickly ground to a halt. Meanwhile, rebels near Hama were able to finally take control of a long-contested city.
Assad’s army isn’t just vulnerable, it also isn’t strictly a Syrian force anymore. For the last two years, the forces on his side have increasingly been made up of foreigners, including Revolutionary Guards from Iran, members of Iraqi militias and Hezbollah units from Lebanon. They are joined at the front by Shiite Afghans from the Hazara people, up to 2 million of whom live in Iran, mostly as illegal immigrants. They are forcibly conscripted in Iranian prisons and sent to Syria — according to internal Iranian estimates, there are between 10,000 and 20,000 of them fighting in the country. The situation leads to absurd scenes: In the southern Syrian town of Daraa, rebels began desperately searching for Persian interpreters after an offensive of 2,500 Afghans suddenly began approaching.
It is the first international Shiite jihad in history, one which has been compensating for the demographic inferiority of Assad’s troops since 2012. The alliance has prevented Assad’s defeat, but it hasn’t been enough for victory either. Furthermore, the orders are no longer coming exclusively from the Syrian officer corps. Iranian officers control their own troops in addition to the Afghan units, and they plan offensives that also involve Syrian soldiers. Hezbollah commanders coordinate small elite units under their control. Iraqis give orders to Iraqi and Pakistani militia groups. And the Russians don’t let anyone tell them what to do. [Continue reading…]