After a decade of civil war, Syria continues to reform and reshape what is left of its armed forces. The latest move disbands most of the remaining reserve forces, especially reserve officers, including medical personnel, that were kept on the payroll even though they were on duty part time. Since 2018 Syria has been dismantling the conscription system that long served to provide most of the military manpower, including officers. This eventually included dropping enforcement of punishment for those who had evaded conscription since 2011. The latest moves were announced weeks before the May 26 presidential election, the first since 2007. There was a presidential election in 2014, but only in a few areas the Assads still controlled. Under the Assads the voting is largely rigged, with Assad getting over 90 percent of the votes when running for reelection as president-for-life. Regional and local elections allow some choice in selecting local officials and members of the national legislature. Holding these elections legitimizes the return of Assad rule to most of the country. This has caused problems because fewer security personnel and lingering violence means “control” isn’t what it used to be.
After only four years of civil war the pre-2011 security forces (military and police) were gone, replaced by a few remnants and a lot of improvisations. The Assad family has ruled Syria since the 1960s using a large well-equipped security force. In 2011 there were over 500,000 security personnel consisting of 50,000 secret police, 300,000 army, air force and navy troops and 100,000 national police plus 200,000 military reserves. By 2015 most of this force was gone. Over 70,000 have been killed or badly wounded, over 200,000 deserted, and nearly 100,000 troops were in units the government was reluctant to send into combat because of loyalty or morale issues. Since 2011 over 200,000 armed men have joined the Assads, mostly as local militia. There’s another 100,000 that were, in effect, garrisons in places like the west, near the coast, Damascus and towns and cities in central Syria that were largely defensive, but will not, or the government will not order them to, move elsewhere. Most of the local police forces had deserted or joined the rebels. Most Syrian police are recruited locally to maintain order in peacetime. Only about a fifth of the population was loyal to the Assads and that meant the several secret police organizations plus local police in Damascus and provinces on the Mediterranean coast remained intact, as did many border guard units that were reinforced by troops. A fifth of the population fled the country, often because of deliberate air, poison gas and artillery attacks on residential areas followed by an offer of safe passage to the Lebanese or Turkish border. The Assads could not maintain the pre-war forces with only about a third of the population loyal or reliable.
There were attempts to rebuild the military after Russian forces entered the country in 2015. The Russians were there to provide airstrikes and artillery fire and rebuild or repair the Russian combat vehicles, artillery and the aircraft Syria had been using since the 1970s. Some military trainers and advisors were sent as well as some special operations troops. Most Russians came in for short periods, no more than a year at a time. By 2021 nearly 70,000 Russians had served in Syria, some more than once. At the very least this Russian intervention stabilized the remaining Assad forces and provided weapons and equipment upgrades.
By late 2020 the Assads realized there were not enough army and police forces to maintain order throughout the 80 percent of pre-war Syria technically back under Assad rule. The situation was particularly chaotic in southern and eastern Syria. It was difficult to restore and maintain pre-war conditions anywhere. This was because of a shortage of loyal recruits for the army and police as well as war weariness among Assad supporters. Even with all the military and financial help from Iran and Russia, most Syrians are very war weary and war wary. The Assad clan was never very popular and for decades ruled through fear and corruption. Nine years of war and an apparent victory has not made recruiting easier. Conscription no longer works because even the most loyal Assad supporters are reluctant to send more of their sons to fight. The Assads had to back off on enforcing conscription because doing so was sending more loyalist families into exile. A growing number of those exiles were actively calling for the Assads to be replaced by a kinder and gentler dictator who would look out for the interests of the religious minorities that were always the core of Assad support. Some former Assad supporters, even in Damascus, were openly protesting. The Assads depend on loyalist local militias to maintain order in many areas and that is often inadequate.
For example, in eastern Syria ISIL violence was common, with 10-20 attacks a month. In the northeast the Kurds, now on good terms with the Assads, don’t have the manpower or authority to handle the ISIL situation throughout eastern Syria with only their own forces. The Americans provide frequent airstrikes on ISIL targets but only a few hundred troops in eastern Syria. The Kurd militias were dealing with the Turks while also keeping the northeastern Syria homeland safe from ISIL violence. There were not enough armed Kurds to police large areas of eastern Syria where the Assad forces were unable to keep ISIL down or out. American forces protected a few key areas in the northeast and assisted the Kurds. Syria lets the tribes and local militias do what they can to deal with Islamic terrorists and other outlaws in their midst, which is not enough to restore any kind of pre-war order.
It has always been the case that civilians in Assad controlled areas would sometimes anonymously carry out attacks on Syrian soldiers and police. These attacks are a form of protest to let the government know that there is still dissatisfaction with Assad rule. The Assads put pressure on local leaders to make arrests, or simply kidnap and kill suspects. The Assads long assumed that things would eventually calm down. The Assads have been suppressing occasional uprisings effectively since the 1970s and ignored international criticism because the Assads believe that is how you survive in what is a rough neighborhood. This approach lost its effectiveness as the 2011 war went on. After a few years of the post-2011 violence it was clear that the old solutions no longer worked. And after the war hit the ten-year mark further reforms and methods were needed.
The Assads have been spending more of their military budget to hire tribal militiamen to augment or replace the army. These new forces were largely unemployed young men attracted by low, but dependable monthly pay. The army often supplies some weapons and army combat uniforms, which are worn without the usual insignias of rank and unit. Many of these militiamen are from Sunni tribes trying to win back the support of the Assads, and that is taken into account when the intelligence operatives determine if a tribe is loyal and reliable enough for the government payroll.
The latest pre-election military reforms were popular but inevitable if the Assads want to remain in power. Israel no longer considers the Syrian military a threat, although Iranian efforts to establish anti-Israel terror organizations near the Israeli border are a concern. The war is far from over with the Iranians and Turks still in a fighting mood and the Israeli able to strike back hard at anyone causing problems on or near the Israeli border. Thousands of Islamic terrorists are running loose in the east and northwest and foreign investors or aid donors are staying away until Syria becomes a less dangerous place to work or invest.