Suddenly the Syrian government no longer has a military manpower crises. The government recently issued another amnesty for those who had failed to show up when conscripted and thousands of “draft dodgers” have changed their minds about avoiding military service. After the rebellion began in 2011, a lot of Syrian 18 year olds were not looking forward to getting a conscription notice. Normally, most potential conscripts could get out of serving and those who did found the experience uncomfortable but not life-threatening.
That was largely because the armed forces only needed about 150,000 conscripts a year and some 500,000 Syrian 18 year olds became eligible for conscription annually. The government wanted most men to get some military experience, so they kept reducing the length of time men served in the military. In the decade before 2011, that had gone from 30 months to 18. But even at 18 months the military could not take everyone. In fact only a third of eligible young men normally served. The government used this as an opportunity to keep a lot of Sunni young men out of the military. This eliminates about 60 percent of potential conscripts, so, in theory, the military could conscript young men from groups more loyal to the Assad dictatorship (Alawites, Christians, Palestinians, and Druze). But in 2011 even the “loyal” Syrians evaded conscription. Now with Iran supplying a large number of mercenaries, and helping to organize self-defense militias among pro-Assad Syrians, the rebels have been fought to a standstill and military service no longer looks like a suicide mission. With the economy a mess the government is using massive economic aid from Iran to reward its supporters. Families that have a son who has not shown up when conscripted is not considered friendly or worthy of economic assistance. So suddenly showing up for your conscript service is seen as a shrewd move.
Another big plus has been Russian diplomats who managed to keep Western airpower away from the demoralized Assad forces with a deal to eliminate (temporarily) Syrian chemical weapons. And then there is that growing force of mercenaries Iran has been sending in from Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, and many other nations with Shia populations and young men willing to die for their beliefs. For most of 2013 these Iranian supplied fighters have made all the difference for the Assad forces. Iran has been recruiting Shia gunmen in Iraq, Lebanon, and elsewhere since late 2012 and providing transportation to Syria, weapons when they arrive, and regular pay. The Iranians also encourage Shia men from around the world to come join the fight against Sunni radicalism (which often results in terror attacks on Shia civilians). More than 10,000 of these Iranian mercenaries had been in action by July and more since then.
This has given the Assad forces armed fanatics to match the Islamic radicals among the rebels who have often been a key element on the battlefield. Iranian cash also props up the ragged economy in parts of the country the Assad government still controls. The reinforced and reinvigorated Assad forces have recently made gains in the cities of Damascus, Homs, and Aleppo. Rebel victory is no longer imminent.
The Iranian mercenaries are not under any centralized control, although Iran tries to exercise some control via threats to hold back on payments and supplies for groups that appear to be going rogue or simply not cooperating. The civil war, like most civil wars, has resulted in a lot of armed groups going freelance and operating like bandits and organized looters. Even the Syrian Army has allowed its troops to loot in pro-rebel villages and neighborhoods. It’s good for morale.
The high desertion rate in the Syrian military forced the government to rely a lot on militias formed from their core supporters. Iran was key in making this happen, as they had trainers (from the Quds Force) with experience in organizing these types of militias (especially in Iraq). Iran also provided cash to pay many of the militiamen. It’s only a part-time job (guarding their neighborhoods as well as checkpoints and military bases in the area) but the economy is a mess and a little cash means a lot. Service in the militia also gives your family access to whatever food or fuel the government could supply.
By early 2013, most of the original security forces had been killed, captured, switched sides, or deserted. In early 2011, the Syrian security forces had 450,000 personnel (50,000 secret police, 300,000 troops, and 100,000 police). About half this force was gone by early 2013. Over 30,000 had been killed or badly wounded. Over 100,000 had deserted and nearly 100,000 troops were in units that the government is reluctant to send into combat because of loyalty issues. During 2012 about 100,000 armed men joined the Assads, mostly as local militia. But the Assads had fewer than 100,000 troops they could move around to fight the rebels. There’s another 100,000 that are, in effect, garrisons in places like the east (near the coast), Damascus, and towns and cities in central Syria that will fight defensively but will not (or the government will not order them to) move elsewhere. The government was having difficulty finding replacements for army and police losses, especially the secret police who are the most loyal and effective armed men the government has. Several thousand of the security forces are being killed or wounded each month. Add in over a thousand desertions and you have a situation where the Assad forces keep getting weaker while the rebels grew stronger. But the introduction of the Iranian supplied mercenaries changed everything. The growing internal disputes among the rebels helped as well, along with the Syrian Kurds refusing to cooperate much at all and fighting mostly with Islamic terrorist rebels. Those changes made it easier for Syrian men to show up to do their military service, and that gives the government another reason for optimism.