Sunday, April 21, 2013

Assad's Evolving Ground Forces

Syria's ground forces are evolving into a technical branch regular army and a separate trigger-puller militia force.

Syria's regular army is less effective than its pre-war numbers reflect. Many have been killed in battle, many have defected or deserted, and many Sunni enlisted personnel are not trusted to do anything but stay on their bases under watch by more loyal (Alawite or friendly minorities) forces.

And since losses will be mostly in the combat arms--especially the infantry--without new recruits the army would become an army of headquarters, artillery, and logistics units. Syria's grip on territory is slipping, but they are fighting on, so they have to be getting new troops somewhere. With Iran heavily involved in assisting the Assad government, it makes sense that the Iranians are helping set up a separate more loyal light infantry force, what have often been called "shabbiha":

"After the events began, our leadership started to lose faith in the army and its effectiveness on the ground in a war like this. The Syrian army is an aging one. There is a lot of routine. A lot of soldiers fled. Some joined armed gangs (the opposition)," said a 35-year old military commander by telephone from Damascus. He withheld his name for safety reasons.

"So we got the idea to make the National Defence Forces. They started out as popular committees patrolling their neighborhoods. Then they became armed groups. And in late 2012, they were legitimized under the name National Defence Forces (NDF)." ...

These once shadowy groups are being reorganized, trained and transformed. They have branded themselves as a volunteer reserve army. NDF fighters say the military even pays their salary.

Iran has two separate ground forces: the army and the Pasdaran (or Revolutionary Guards) with the Basij as wartime cannon fodder militia and peacetime street thugs. The Pasdaran have evolved since the Iran-Iraq War into a separate force with some technical skills, but the army is still the force with most traditional army skills and capabilities (armor, artillery, logistics, etc.). This is what the Syrians are doing now. The NDF is light infantry whose main advantage is loyalty, while the army provides firepower (artillery, armor, some mechanized infantry) and combat support and combat service support functions:

An officer in Homs, who asked not to be identified, said the army was increasingly playing a logistical and directive role, while NDF fighters act as combatants on the ground.

"We direct artillery and air strikes ... Usually NDF fighters stay in their own areas, but if we have a shortage of manpower, sometimes we do send the guys to other provinces if their own areas are calm," the Homs officer said, speaking by phone.

Although as militias they will be relatively static, the article says that sometimes they are moved from quiet locations to other points--I assume by regular army transportation.

Another interesting aspect of the fighting is that the NDF is somewhat privatized:

For many, like 38-year-old Ali, an Alawite, joining the NDF was a necessity. ...

"I had no idea how to use a gun anymore; it had been two years since I did my compulsory army service. But my cousin was the head of an armed group," he said, referring to the shabbiha.

"He told me I should make a group, too, and he'd arm us ... Six months later, we organized ourselves into a unit of the NDF. Now we get a fixed salary with receipts for expenses. It's very organized."

Not only do the troops get a share in the spoils of war--like privateer crews--but the units themselves can be set up by individuals who can organize them. This is old school. And new school, now, I think.

The NDF are not well trained and disciplined, of course. So they aren't a substitute for the now-gone infantry that the army used to use. If Assad has any hopes of retaking ground (which is unlikely given I don't think he has the numbers to hold even western Syria, including Damascus--he needs actual trained infantry that will advance into fire against the enemy.

But as a wise man once said, you fight with the army (or armies) you have, and not the army you wish you had.

As an aside, this was a pretty good "Insight" article by Reuters. It's worth a full read. Out of fairness, I should mention that since I mocked an earlier one I read that had no insight to offer, at all.