Most of the Russian ground troops sent to Syria since 2015 were special operations forces and counter-terrorism experts. The Russian troops were there not just to help keep the Assads in power but also to provide realistic training and command experience for Russian officers. This was seen as an opportunity to give many of its most promising officers a chance to demonstrate their abilities. Not all succeeded (and were usually quietly replaced and sidelined back home). Those who did well went back to Russia and were promoted while being given key commands, usually in areas where they could influence training and development of new methods for dealing with internal unrest. Many Russian leaders see the Syrian rebellion and civil war as something new and likely to break out elsewhere, perhaps even in some heavily Moslem parts of Russia.
This new training and promotion policy isn’t just about Syria. Earlier in 2017 twelve senior officials (most of them generals) of the Russian Interior Ministry were fired. This was another side effect of the creation of a “National Guard” in 2016. This paramilitary organization of some 400,000 soldiers and police is officially a “rapid reaction” force for dealing with terrorism or any other threat to Russia that requires quick and decisive action.
This is creating problems for the Russian government. The leadership changes in the Interior Ministry was believed related to the growing resistance in parliament to efforts to pass new laws that allow the National Guard to fire on Russian citizens whenever the government wants to without warning. In addition National Guard leaders are to be immune to any prosecution for anything they are ordered to do. This reminds too many people of the kind of power the Soviet era KGB (secret police) had.
The new National Guard is suspected of being the new KGB army. As organized the new National Guard is taking nearly all of the best trained and most effective units from the Interior Ministry. That is seen as weakening an existing force that could prevent a new KGB from misbehaving. Vladimir Putin has dominated the government since 1999 and it was never a secret that he was a former KGB officer who hired a lot of other former KGB officers to run the government. But now Putin wants to make the National Guard immune to FSB (the post-Soviet KGB) oversight. Another interesting aspect of the National Guard is that the many para-military groups formed by the pro-Putin government of Chechnya are now considered part of the National Guard. A growing number of Russians are calling the
National Guard “Putin’s Private Army.” By late 2017 Putin was assigning Federal government security (bodyguards) to the state governors. The post-Soviet government in the 1990s allowed these governors to be elected but Putin put an end to that as an anti-corruption measure and a way to expand his own power. Now he is providing these appointed governors with security guards who answer to Putin, not those they are guarding.
This sort of force is an ancient practice. It is what the Assad clan did to remain in power since the 1970s. It doesn’t always work. In pre-2003 Iraq Saddam Hussein had his Republican Guard, a force that was filled with the best paid, best armed men in the armed forces who were, above all, loyal to Saddam. It worked for decades but failed in the end. Putin wants to avoid failure.
All other successful dictatorships have similar forces. In Soviet Russia the secret police (KGB) employed over a million domestic spies and informers backed by several divisions of troops trained and equipped to deal with rebellions by the population, or the armed forces. It worked for over 60 years until it didn’t. Iran has a similar force, the Revolutionary Guard that serves a similar role as the old KGB. The Saudi monarchy has its National Guard and surviving monarchies usually have a least a ceremonial remnant of the once powerful “guards.” Even the pope still has a Swiss Guard. In 2016 ISIL formed a 4,000 man “Shield of Islam” force which is composed of the most skilled and resourceful ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) fighters, including many foreigners (especially hundreds of the much feared Chechens). During World War II, Adolf Hitler had the SS, Gestapo and his private army, the Waffen SS, all of which kept Germany fighting until the very end. The new Putin version of the KGB army is being created by taking most of the armed personnel available to the Interior Ministry (the national police and various riot control, SWAT and special operations forces) as well as investigators and intelligence experts and assigning them to the new National Guard which swears to protect the president of Russia (currently Putin), not the Russian people.