The Syrian military has suffered a number of major setbacks in recent months. The regime’s much-trumpeted February offensive, aimed at completing the encirclement and siege of Aleppo, was beaten back with heavy losses. President Assad suffered his biggest loss since the fall of Raqqa two years ago when the provincial capital of Idlib was overrun in mere days in late March. Efforts to reclaim rebel gains in the south have also stalled.
While many, including Assad himself, expected that the regime’s momentum from last year would allow it to make major strides this year, unexpected events have halted its progress towards crucial military objectives. The debate around the war has thus changed from discussion of an inevitable regime victory to the possibility of something less preordained.
What could have caused such a turn?
Numerous factors are at play, but the specifics of these regime setbacks reflect long-standing problems with Arab militaries more generally. Several years ago, military scholar and former CIA analyst Kenneth Pollack drafted a seminal study on the underlying issues behind poor Arab military performance in conventional warfare in the latter half of the 20th century. In doing so, he found two key issues that hampered Arab militaries almost universally: the incompetence of junior officers, and the constant and willful distortion of battlefield information. The former meant that Arab unit commanders were wholly inflexible in adapting to changing tactical or strategic situations, unable to respond adequately, or improvise. The latter made effective strategic planning, both offensive and defensive, nearly impossible as attacking enemy forces were often hugely exaggerated, and major successes often falsely reported by Arab units even when they were suffering defeats. By applying Pollack’s findings to the Syrian regime’s failed operations we can see how both factors may have hampered regime efforts in the last few months.
In Idlib a mixture of complacency, inadequate or inaccurate transmission of information between local and national command structures, and an inability to respond effectively to a developing situation spelled the regime’s demise.
Consider Idlib’s position: a major city at the end of an exposed tendril of government-controlled territory snaking from Latakia province on the coast into the heartland of rebel territory (see image below). Its existence as a regime bastion had been tenuous since it was reconquered by the army three years prior; given the obvious target it constituted and the ample time government forces had to fortify it, it should have been a Maginot-esque fortress by the time it was eventually attacked.
It is uncertain how many regime troops were present in the city. There may have been as few as 3,000 pro-regime fighters, and there were rumours that the regime had already moved its provincial governance offices to the less-exposed city of Jisr al-Shugur two weeks before the offensive. Nevertheless, the clear political consequences of losing a provincial capital and the damage such a loss would incur to the state narrative of impending victory were surely apparent. The regime did not lack for motivation to hold the city.
The absence of an effective response to a developing situation in Idlib, such as when the city fell, was obvious. There was such complete chaos when faced with the rebel assault that no sector of the city was able to organize a successful defense or counterattack, with the possible exception of some localized counterattacks on the first night of the assault. Videos of Syrian troops fighting in the cities show haphazard, ad-hoc defensive positions that could hardly have offered sustained resistance. Predictably, the city soon fell.
The debacle at Tal Harrah in Daraa last fall appeared to demonstrate flaws in tactical leadership similar to those exhibited in Idlib. Tal Harrah holds a commanding position in southern Syria (see below), situated on the highest point in the Daraa countryside and offering fire control over a large area. It also hosted a crucial SIGINT facility, jointly run by Russian operators and used to intercept both Israeli and rebel communications. It has since emerged that the General in charge of the facility’s defense was feeding intelligence to rebel forces and had even intentionally deployed his troops ineffectively on the hillside.
While this hindered the defenders, adequate response measures amongst the junior officers there, combined with the defensible terrain and superior firepower held by regime troops, should have been more than enough to reorient towards and stymie any rebel assault. In the event, the base was overrun in hours, with government forces being routed less than a day after the offensive’s start. Again, a plethora of advantages did not prevent tactical incompetence from squandering the Syrian military’s strategic position and upper hand in the region.
The tactical and strategic shortcomings displayed by regime forces are compounded by ongoing problems with accurate information transmission. We know that the Syrian military has had access to integral intelligence regarding rebel forces via its infiltration of opposition command structures. The quality of the intelligence has been confirmed in such operations as the Syrian air force’s spectacular decapitation strike on Ahrar al-Sham’s entire leadership during a meeting in September 2014. This operation could only have been made possible with the possession of very sensitive intel from the highest levels of rebel coordination. In May 2013 when regime forces successfully stormed the strategically crucial village of Khirbet Ghazaleh, sitting astride the last military supply route from Damascus to the southern provincial capital of Daraa, it was also the result of gleaned rebel intel.
Theoretically, a military with such an intelligence advantage (on top of its firepower dominance) should be able to achieve numerous and decisive victories.
In practice, this is not the case. In line with Pollack’s findings, inability to accurately portray battlefield conditions has led to several recent army blunders. A distortion of the facts by ground forces appears to have contributed to the disastrous SAA attempt to link up with the besieged villages of Nubbol and Zahra north of Aleppo in February of this year. Despite poor weather conditions that prevented the employment of air support, the Syrian military’s foremost advantage over rebel forces, regime commanders decided to launch an assault anyways, expending valuable men and war material to attack in a direction which was tangential to the SAA’s primary goal of completing the siege of Aleppo. It is entirely possible, if not likely, that the apparent mistake was the result of the misreporting of battlefield conditions, enemy force dispositions, the progress of the assault, and/or intelligence regarding potential enemy counterattacks once the offensive was underway. The hasty operation resulted in the regime squandering much of its manpower in the area with nearly two hundred dead, while a rebel counterattack pushed army troops back further from completing the siege (see below). Since those battles in early March, there have been no significant regime gains in the area.
Going back further in the war’s history, the Tabqa airbase incident would seem to display more such discrepancies between reality and Damascus’s perception of its military position. While the base had been besieged by rebel and later ISIS forces for many months, the general consensus among outside observers, based in part on the image of impregnability the regime attempted to portray, was that the base was in no danger of falling. An August 23, 2014 SANA broadcast from inside the base showed numerous troops, aircraft, and military vehicles stationed there the day before the incident. It seems entirely plausible that the Syrian high command in Damascus had a similarly inaccurate view of the base as secure. The sprawling facility fell to an ISIS blitzkrieg the next day. Hundreds of SAA conscripts were captured and summarily executed, a PR disaster of epic proportions for the regime.
Ultimately, such explanations require a certain amount of speculation: we’ll likely never know the full truth behind the decisions in the events described. A tell-all biography from Maher al-Assad is probably not forthcoming. It is always difficult to discuss such topics where the temptation exists to simply to point to the vast, indefinable field of ‘culture’ as the reason for deficiencies. Neither the author nor Kenneth Pollack are making assumptions as to why the described problems are so pervasive among Arab militaries. Nevertheless, given the universal presence of issues with junior command abilities and communication accuracy across regular Arab armies, as explained by Pollack, it is likely these same factors are impeding the Syrian army’s abilities. They can help explain the seemingly shocking regime military failures in recent months.
It appears that four years of war have not augmented the Syrian army’s capabilities through combat experience, but have rather eroded them by diluting central command effectiveness through the proliferation of militias that Damascus is now forced to rely on. As the war grinds on, the conflict’s observers should wonder not if, but when and where the next army debacle will occur.
Edited by Connor Seely
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Neil Hauer is a Master of Arts candidate in the Institute of European, Russian and Eurasian Studies (EURUS) at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. His primary research interests lie in the Syrian Civil War, Russian-Middle East relations, the Caucasus, and ethnic and sectarian conflict. He currently resides in St Petersburg, Russia as he pursues fluency in the Russian language.
Featured Photo from Wikipedia.