Strength in weakness: The Syrian army’s accidental resilience

Kheder Khaddour writes: The Syrian army was not combat ready when the country’s current conflict erupted in spring 2011. Decades of corruption had stripped the Syrian Arab Army of its combat and operational professionalism. And yet five years on, it has withstood a mass public revolt, a multifront war, and tens of thousands of defections.

The army’s ability to hold territory vital to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is the result of an unexpected paradox: the factors that had eviscerated its fighting ability in peacetime have become its main strength during the war. In particular, the army’s networks of patronage and nepotism, which predate the war, have morphed into a parallel chain of command that strengthens the regime. By withdrawing the army from select front lines, the regime has managed to bolster its social, political, and local community base after outsourcing its infantry needs to ad hoc militias. The parallel chain of command has enabled the regime to adapt its strategy to reflect the conflict’s quickly changing dynamics, secure its authority over loyalist paramilitary forces, and entrench itself in key territories.

The army is not simply an instrument of the regime’s strategy; the two operate as distinct but interdependent agencies that need each other to survive. The army divisions’ entrenchment across wide swaths of Syrian territory has helped the regime maintain control over key population centers. The army also serves as the logistical backbone for regime-sponsored militias and as a crucial aid channel for the regime’s backers, Russia and Iran. While the militias have supplied much of the regime’s infantry needs, the army has maintained control over the air force and the use of heavy weapons. As a result, the number of casualties and defections has dropped, with the Assad regime’s image as a symbol of national unity bolstered. The Syrian army’s evolution and resilience since 2011 has thus far allowed the regime to withstand the conflict and position itself as an integral part of any negotiated political settlement that may be reached. [Continue reading…]

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