For english readers of my blog : at your request, i'm giving the original version of the Tom's Cooper interview about Syrian civil war and military operations in 2013. Enjoy it !
Since spring 2013, the Syrian Army seems to gain upper hand. Is the victory in al-Qusayr campaign (some sources underscore an operational level with strategic results for this campaign) a turning point ?
Al-Qusayr was no 'turning point' in this war. Al-Qusayr was important because it represented the first significant involvement of Hezbollah on regime's side, and because it represented the first important win (for regime) in this war. But, it was no 'turning point'.
Several other, much more important developments took place in 2013, which have caused a significant shift in balance of forces on the battlefields of the Syrian Civil War, but there is no ‘turning point’ – yet.
Even now, when the forces fighting on the side of Syrian regime are back to about 100,000 troops, all the forces combined – the Republican Guards division (RGD), the 4th Armoured Division (4th AD), the National Defence Force (NDF), the Ba'ath Party Militia (BPM), special forces and regular units of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC, from the Islamic Republic of Iran), two brigades of Hezbollah from Lebanon, and about a dozen of various Shi’a militias (so-called ‘Hezbollahis’; primarily from Iraq, but also from Azerbaijan), recruited, organized, armed and supplied by Iran – still cannot bring the situation under control. At best, some of units in question proved capable of undertaking effective offensive operations limited in scope, which is different to all the earlier operations run by regime’s Syrian units.
In fact, from tracking their operations through this year it is obvious these ‘new’ regime’s forces are playing the role of a ‘fire-brigade’.
- After al-Qusayr, the regime attempted to secure all of Homs. Deploying Hezbollah there, they managed to clear one of major insurgent-held districts but at the price of time and losses.
- Meanwhile, the situation in Eastern Ghouta became critical, with insurgents threatening the Damascus International Airport (IAP). So, the regime insisted on a new offensive in this area. The Iranians rushed Hezbollahi units into this area, but these were too few to manage much more but cut off most of insurgent supply routes (furthermore, some of Hezbollahi units are at least as often at odds with each other, as they are fighting Syrian insurgents).
- The insurgents meanwhile launched their offensive into Lattakia Province. With its ‘home base’ under threat, the regime once again insisted on rushing reinforcements in that direction. Like before, Iranians were not the least happy (actually, debate between them and Damascus lasted for nearly a week), but they gave in: all other offensive operations were stopped and reinforcements rushed to stabilize situation in Lattakia, while operations in Eastern Ghouta and Homs were left unfinished.
- Finally, the situation in Aleppo became critical because the garrison there – including one of RGD’s brigades – was cut off by rebel advances and became critically short on supplies. That’s why the regime – that is: IRGC special forces, two Hezbollahi units and elements of the 4th AD – launched its latest offensive in that direction, via Khan Nasser: to open a corridor through which it could re-supply that garrison. That’s little else but ‘stabilizing the situation’, no ‘turning point’ in this war.
The Syrian Air Force has entered in the battle since summer 2012. It is very common to say the Air Force is a big asset for the regime. Moreover, the losses inflicted by armed opponents seems less frequent since the beginning of 2013. Why is the Air Force so important and what is his real effectiveness today ?
The Syrian Arab Air Force (SyAAF) actually entered the war at latest in March 2012. Initially though use of helicopters, primarily deployed to re-supply dozens of besieged garrisons. Light fighter-bombers entered the fray in late June 2012, in response to rebel advances on Aleppo and Dayr az-Zawr. By November, the SyAAF was flying up to 250 sorties a day. This tempo decreased only due to bad weather, in early 2013, when the regime began deploying surface-to-surface missiles instead.
Generally, before Iranian-Hezbollah intervention, the SyAAF was regime's 'last ditch attempt' in dozens of cases: most often, the air force was all that remained between specific regime's garrisons and a clear-cut defeat.
SyAAF’s losses decreased since March/April 2013 for several reasons. One is that intensity of operations decreased by more than 50%, partially because of combat- and other sorts of attrition, and partially because of weather. The SyAAF did not lose many fighter-bombers (so far, the SyAAF lost only about 15 MiG-21s, MiG-23BNs, Su-22s and Su-24s), but it did lose more than 50% of its Mi-8s and Mi-17s by March this year. The Air Force Academy had to be shut down, partially because of mutinies and defections, partially because its main bases came under a siege (or were even overrun by insurgents). Out of its formerly four squadrons only two remain operational; number of helicopter units was more than halved, even some fighter-bomber units had to be closed.
Furthermore, the SyAAF flew so intensively during the second half of 2012 and through early 2013, that most of its MiG-23BN- and Su-22-fleets run out of their resources. These aircraft can be flown intensively for about 600 hours. After that period, they require a complete, yet lengthy (and expensive) overhaul, in the course of which they are practically rebuilt. The main SyAAF overhaul facility, 'The Works' at Nayrab Air Base (AB), on the military side of Aleppo IAP, was under siege until a week ago, while workshops on other air bases could only undertake limited amount of work. Therefore, large segments of the SyAAF’s fighter-bomber fleet simply could not be overhauled, or if, then only partially. That is why they ‘disappeared’ from the battlefield, although not suffering particularly heavy losses.
Can the rebels prevent the domination of the skies by the Syrian Air Force ? They can take the air bases to destroy or capture the aircrafts on the ground... but can they really reverse the air control from the regime ?
Presently, I do not see any of Syrian insurgent organizations becoming 'that good', significantly improving their fire-power, or at least improving their cooperation with other organizations as to undertake such operations. Major Syrian insurgent organizations are far from ‘defeated’; actually, except for the so-called ‘Free Syrian Army’ – much of which recently collapsed, partially even defected (primarily because of lack of supplies and money) – most of them are in very good condition, literally untouched by recent regime’s operations. However, because the West stopped providing assistance, there is presently a large-scale re-organization of insurgent network in Syria, a kind of ‘clearing sale’: while many of moderates have either already left in disappointment or are about to do so, parties – primarily specific political groups supported from Arab states of the Persian Gulf – that are offering more are literally buying various of armed groups. For the time being, this results in plenty of disunity, even in-fighting.
Genuine Syrian insurgents are also facing a major threat in their back, coming from such extremist organizations like the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/ISIS), which have hit them in the back and took over sizeable portions of liberated areas in northern Syria.
This results in a situation where even the largest insurgent groups are rather preoccupied with internal reorganization, fighting the ISIL/ISIS, and else, than with launching large-scale offensive operations – whether against any of SyAAF air bases, or other of regime’s garrisons.
On top of this, and primarily because of US pressure, proliferation of man-portable air defence systems (MANPADs), like SA-7s, by various of Syrian insurgent groups is nowadays more limited than ever before.
Finally, SyAAF pilots have also learned their lessons. The regime is not insisting on helicopters dropping supplies over besieged garrisons: this is now primarily done by transport aircraft, which remain outside the range of most of insurgent weapons (had the SyAAF not stopped earlier practice, it would have lost its entire Mi-8/17 fleet by about now). Fighter pilots have also learned a lot; they adapted their tactics to better suit local circumstances, they are using precision guided ammunition much more than before. This means they became better at avoiding ground fire.
Recently, the losses in tanks/AFV are decreasing. Is it due to a change of tactics, or allies advising and training (Iran...), or both?
This is primarily related to following factors:
- a) Until spring 2013, original – or should I say ‘genuine’ – regime units tended to drive their armour and mechanized forces into urban areas, with unavoidable results (heavy losses in tanks and other armoured fighting vehicles); the insurgents would easily surround the forces in question, isolate them from infantry, and then annihilate them. This is nothing new at least since German experiences in Poland, in 1939.
- b) Meanwhile, it is not only so that the regime lost services of practically all of former Syrian Arab Army (SyAA) armoured and mechanized formations (these either defected or were destroyed in combat), but is also suffering a latent lack of fuel. For example, the RGD is practically immobilized since weeks, because the fuel is needed for offensive operations undertaken by the 4th AD and mechanized elements of the NDF north of Damascus, and in Aleppo area.
- c) Finally, primary tools of regime’s forces nowadays are Iranian, Hezbollah and Hezbollahi formations. Although the IRGC is operating own armoured formations, at home in Iran, and although some of IRGC units deployed in Syria do serve as 'mechanized infantry' with the RGD, generally, the Iranians, Hezbollah and various of Hezbollahi formations are a mix of special forces (even SWAT-type of assets), light infantry, and militias. Lately, they are undertaking most of their attacks by night - even in urban areas. They rely on armour only for crossing open areas. By day, they are operating with support from a very effective combination of air power and artillery, which are successful in suppressing insurgent anti-tank teams.
Because of this combination of factors, the insurgents are simply getting fewer opportunities to shoot at any armoured fighting vehicles (AFVs).
For the end, what is the situation of the Syrian Army? Are regular formations depleted? Is the survival of the regime dependent of the use or incorporation from militias (NDF, Iraqi Shiites) and the support or direct intervention of the allies (Hezbollah, Iran etc.)?
To the best of my knowledge, the SyAA does not exist as such any more. Of course, it is mentioned a lot in nearly all of regime's releases for the media, and by nearly all of the foreign media. However, while regime’s media has little choice but to follow instructions about what to report, foreign media neither has insight, nor understanding about the composition of regime’s forces (average journalists also do not care), or is kept well away from the battlefield. Whatever is the case, fact is that there is practically nothing left of the SyAA. It suffered so much from mutinies, defections (entire divisions have collapsed in late 2011 and through 2012), losses, and refusals to get mobilized, that it is practically no factor in this conflict.
No doubt, the regime appears to be operating a number of 'SyAA' units, such like:
- The RGD: this division was actually no part of the SyAA, but under direct control of various members of the top regime circle. This ‘crack’ unit, responsible for the defence of Damascus, is meanwhile down to two, perhaps three operational brigades (compared to six at the start of the war). The IRGC had to deploy an entire brigade of own infantry to beef-up this formation (apparently a 2,000-man mechanized infantry brigade from the 8th Division IRGC), and one of Hezbollahi units is manning even some of its T-72s (many of which are meanwhile badly worn out).
- The 4th AD; 'officially' a part of the SyAA, but actually also under direct control of the regime and thus outside the SyAA’s command structure, at earlier times; meanwhile, this formation is also down to two operational units, that is, two brigade-sized task forces. Their morale is so shaky, that they tend to flee the battlefield under anything but most favourable conditions (like about a week ago, when they broke under insurgent attack and left a company of Hezbollah to get overrun). Like the RGD, remaining manoeuvring elements of the 4th AD are beefed-up by IRGC troops and, more importantly, one Hezbollah brigade.
- Of all the other former SyAA units, there are something like 2-3 'manoeuvring' task forces, roughly resembling mechanized brigades in composition, mobility and firepower. Each of these consists of core-cadres of various former 'elite' units of the SyAA. Usually, these are Alawite officers and loyal Sunnis that used to command various divisions, brigades, regiments etc., that fell apart. Most of such formations have meanwhile been re-organized as parts of the NDF and the BPM. For example, remnants of the former 1st Armoured Division 'melted' into what was subsequently designated the 76th Brigade. By the time this was re-deployed to Lattakia Province, in August this year, this 'brigade' suffered such losses that it was down to two operational battalions and had to be reinforced by several NDF battalions from Tartous area. Thus came into being the notorious 'Death Brigade'. There are similar examples for elements of the former 3rd Armoured Divisions, and several of special forces regiments of the former 14th and 15th Divisions.
The rest of what was left of the SyAA are essentially 'garrison forces': loyalists locked into their barracks and isolated by insurgent advances already since months (in some cases nearly two years). Most of 'formations' in question consist of exhausted officers and other ranks, armed with worn out equipment and are unable of conducting anything else but limited defensive operations.
But, as such, none of the above mentioned former SyAA units is existent any more. Therefore, yes, the Iranian- and Hezbollah-interventions were crucial for regime's survival.
This might need some additional discussion. Surely, this above-mentioned situation 'emerged/developed' during 2013. But, that is why this answer of mine is related to your question about al-Qusayr. At the time the Hezbollah launched its attack on al-Qusayr, what was left of the regime's forces was on the brink of collapse. Without Iranian-Hezbollah intervention launched in period February-June 2013, the regime wouldn't have survived this summer. What happened was that the Iranians began hauling in Hezbollahi 'volunteers/mercenaries' from Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Azerbaijan and elsewhere, and then entire IRGC units to Syria, plus managed to prompt Hezbollah to get most of its armed forces involved in Syria too. Tehran also intensified its financial support for Damascus (this is meanwhile assessed at about US$1 billion in cash and 500 million in fuel – provided every month). Together with latent disunity and supply problems of insurgents, this stabilized regime's position; bought it time to reorganize SyAA-remnants, build-up the NDF, expand the Ba'ath Party militia, recover thousands of wounded officers and other ranks etc.
However, this intervention and the battle of al-Qusayr were no 'turning point', because not only the Hezbollah but also the IRGC have suffered quite some losses early during their involvement in Syria. Offensive COIN operations in urban areas – one of most complex forms of land warfare – were something entirely new for them. They had to learn their lessons (rumour has it the IRGC has 'spent' nearly a battalion of its troops learning just the ‘basics’). The Iranians, but also Hezbollah, needed time to prompt – sometimes outright ‘force’ – various regime's commanders to accept not only their advice, but also leadership on the battlefield, to accept specific necessities and realities; they had to force the regime's military to start operating in entirely different fashion than before, and they needed time to re-train significant parts of the NDF and the Ba'ath Party Militia with new armament acquired from Russia.
Meanwhile, the regime launched that attack with chemical weapons in Eastern Ghouta, in late August 2013 - with repercussions it could never dream about. Surely, for the next month or so, there was plenty of debate about USA and/or NATO launching a military intervention against the regime. But, what happened instead? With help from Moscow – which is happily cashing for provision of military aid – the regime then negotiated its CW-disarmament, in turn buying free hand for large-scale offensive operations against insurgents.
Arguably, regime is launching ‘one offensive after the other’ ever since. However, and as described above, these operations remain limited in scope and success. The latest operation saw a combination of IRGC special forces, two battalion-sized formations of Hezbollahis, and one brigade from the 4th AD, ‘punching through’ the insurgent siege of Aleppo garrison, taking Khan Nasser and then advancing on Aleppo IAP and into the Old City. No doubt, planning and logistics for this operation were brilliant.
Actually: the Iranians correctly concluded that Jabahat an-Nusra (JAN) forces in al-Safira and ISIL/ISIS forces in their back are rather preoccupied by destroying the Free Syrian Army and other insurgent groups and taking over, than preparing themselves for serious combat operations. Thus, the ‘regime forces’ hit at the right moment and place. However, even this is no ‘turning point’, because the regime is still lacking in troop strength, supplies and even operational skills: as soon as the main body of this force was busy fighting in Aleppo, the JAN found it relatively easy to counterattack ‘behind the flank’ of the regime and – time and again – close that corridor in Khan Nasser area again. We are yet to see whether the regime has enough resources to secure this area.
For the end, I would like to come back to regime’s attack with Chemical weapons (CW) on East Ghouta, in August this year. I find that this was an even more important moment in this war than the battle of al-Qusayr. Reason for this is that the regime established another ‘precedent case’ – and came away better than before, like so many times already. This is a pattern in this conflict that can be traced back to its very beginning.
The regime provoked this war because it could neither ignore nor suppress widespread – and entirely peaceful – mass protests all over the country. It had to instigate a civil war as this was the only way out of a scenario the end of which was obvious, and thus began deploying fake – regime-controlled – ‘Islamist extremist terrorist’ groups behind peaceful protesters, so they would open fire at ‘security forces’ that were ‘monitoring’ protests. Not only that thousands of peacefully protesting Syrians were murdered in this fashion, but when there was no Western reaction to this practice (like in the case of Libya), the regime intensified not only such operations, but also suppression of protesting beyond what we in the West might consider as ‘imaginable’. The brutality of regime operations eventually reached such proportions that it directly caused countless mutinies and eventual collapse of the Syrian Arab Army, and in turn prompted an armed uprising. As next, the regime began recruiting and deploying members of one ethnic group to attack other ethnic groups and thus provoke an inter-ethnic and inter-religious war. It left the core of the group that established the ISIL/ISIS to bribe its own, regime’s commanders and enter Syria – for no other reason but to get the kind of enemy it claimed to be fighting from the start of protesting. When there was no reaction from the West, the regime intensified the war even further, and began deploying air power. Initially, only helicopters were used against early insurgent groups. When aerial ‘punishment attacks’ on civilian population within areas liberated by insurgents grew in numbers and intensity, insurgents launched their major attacks on air bases in Idlib Province, and offensives into Aleppo and Damascus, and secured a large area between central Homs and ar-Rastan, in summer 2012. The regime then began deploying light fighter-bombers, primarily Aero L-39 Albatross and MiG-21s. When there was no Western reaction to this, the regime began deploying heavier fighter-bombers, like Su-24s, and then MiG-23BNs and Su-22s. When there was no Western reaction to this, the regime deployed the SyAAF in full force, in October 2012, and then began deploying chemical weapons, etc.
Obviously, the regime every time launched a ‘test attempt’ and then waited to see Western reaction. When Western reaction remained limited to ‘diplomacy’, the regime had its precedent and continued the practice, further intensifying the conflict.
The CW-attack on Eastern Ghouta was a sort of ‘pike’ in this pattern. Indirectly, it resulted in regime’s agreement to destroy its stockpile of CWs. However, in turn, the West – which missed countless opportunities to get involved on the side of insurgents (supposedly because they were disunited, could not establish ‘even a government in exile’, and because they included ‘extremist Islamists’), as hoped for by so many Syrians – has ever since practically ceased its support for insurgency. It has left the Syrian revolutionaries at the mercy of domestic warlords, various Islamists from Arab countries in the Persian Gulf, and especially to host of Islamist extremists groups. This is outright tragic, then when the latter began calling for ‘Jihad in Syria’, back in summer 2011, they were ridiculed even by Syrian Salafists. With other words, and in what is certainly absurd, through failing to support the Syrian uprising against the Assadist regime, the regime and the West have happily opened Syrian population (60% of which is younger than 20) to extremist influence. That is, de-facto, creating another Yemen or Afghanistan – and all of this for supposedly gaining ‘improved security for Israel’?
Frankly, I find this very short-sighted, and can neither imagine this improving security of Israel, or Europe and the USA in the future.