For all the furore about last week’s missile strikes on Syria, they were were strikingly limited in scope. Far from the “big price” boasted about by Donald Trump, the attacks focused very narrowly on three sites linked to the Assad regime’s chemical weapons programme.
Targets were chosen both to avoid collateral damage and, more importantly, Russian retaliation. But this fear, and the idea that broader set of strikes would be pointless because Assad has won the civil war, are without foundation.
In fact, reports from the Russians themselves suggests even a modest attack could do serious damage to a deeply frail Assad regime, while, for all its threats, Moscow is in no position to hinder the West.
Both Western and Russian security analysts have long documented the utter decrepitude and disintegration of Assad’s forces. Tobias Schneider, an analyst who follows internal regime dynamics very closely, wrote in August 2016 that “the government’s fighting force today consists of a dizzying array of hyper-local militias aligned with various factions, domestic and foreign sponsors, and local warlords. Among these groups, only a handful are still capable of anything close to offensive action”.
About a week later, former Soviet commander Mikhail Khodarenok wrote that: “It would be simplest to entirely disband the Syrian army and assemble a new one…the main problem is there’s just nowhere in contemporary Syria to find new recruits of any worth…To win the war with such an ally as Assad’s army is impossible.”
Thanks to recent interviews with Russian regular and special forces as well as commanders and fighters from the more opaque Wagner mercenary group, we know that these assessments broadly reflect the reality on the ground. A recent Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty interview with three Wagner commanders gives an insight into just what the Russians think of their comrades-in-arms.
“The Syrians can’t fight,” said one commander. “I’ve seen it many times. At the drop of a hat they’ll abandon their positions and flee. ‘Go, go, Russia, go!’ they’ll yell. Where are you going, god damn it, let’s defend the position! But no. When there’s an assault, for instance, we’ll take the high ground, hand it over to the Syrians in the evening, come morning, no Syrians.”
The Russians regard the poor fighting capacity of the regime forces as connected to what they see as moral failings. “It’s a grotesque country,” said the commander to RFE/RL. “Faggotry flourishes there. They’ve all got it to a man.”
The depletion of fighting-age men in regime areas has been a massive problem, and apparently drives the unwillingness to fight: “I ask one of the translators: ‘Why do your boys not want to fight?’ ‘Oh’, he says, ‘many of our boys have been killed in the war. We need some to stay alive to fuck some girls so there will be children’. ‘Look, let us fuck your girls’, I say, ‘and you guys go fight. It’s your country’. ‘No’, he says, ‘we need to preserve our blood’. What blood? Your gay blood?”
In another interview by the Estonian public broadcaster’s Russian-language channel, a Wagner fighter named Oleg also discusses how it was impossible to get the Syrians to fight – even when the Russians would shoot at their feet. The Russians had to undertake all assaults under Syrian friendly fire and lost staggering amounts of men thanks to regime incompetence. “God forbid one should have such allies,” he said, “because they always fuck up every task. Always.”
An Izvestia interview in October with a Russian special forces officer in October paints a similar picture. “We have to instruct them to let us return from the battlefield and not open fire and kill us … Sometimes you’ll say ‘run!’ while they’re getting shot at and they can’t move—their legs have turned to rubber. Sometimes they start crying.”
The Russian role is publicly minimised to bolster the propaganda image of the Assad regime. “The [Syrian Army] arrived as the [Akerbat] battle was finishing up [in September 2017], so as to be filmed by the news stations,” a fighter named Sergei told Echo Moscow. “We even hid in order not to appear in the frame while the Syrians posed heroically.”
“The skill level of the Syrian army is less than nonexistent, one could say,” says another fighter. “The Russians give tanks to the Syrians, the Syrians give the tanks to ISIS, the Russians come and take the tanks back from ISIS … give them back to the Syrians again … and the cycle restarts.”
Similar reports have come from Assad’s Iranian allies. Journalist Sulome Anderson quotes some Iranian-backed Hezbollah sources calling Assad’s forces “garbage people” and “sons of bitches.” One Hezbollah captain told her: “If you have 600 Syrians before a battle, when the battle starts you’ll have six.”
This all serves to underscore, contrary to today’s popular wisdom, just how fragile the regime is and how easily reversible its gains are, despite overwhelming military advantages. Assad was reliant from the start on Russia to provide air defence systems and electronic surveillance of rebel communications.
Russia was forced to dial up its intervention, jointly with Iran, shortly after Assad admitted publicly in July 2015 that his forces, in the face of successful insurgent offensives, were suffering mortal manpower shortages. But Moscow has only been able to plug this gap with Wagner’s unskilled meatshields. Even in their heyday in early 2016, when the Russian Defence Ministry was more closely involved, Wagner tactics were described as follows: “It’s right out of the Second World War, all that’s missing are bayonets on the AKs … men were booted out of their vehicles in a field … And forward, just like meat…they only manage to learn the basics of how to shoot so as not to die immediately.”
Aside from the Wagner mercenaries, the Kremlin has also been trying to buttress regime manpower by funding, training, and supporting pro-regime militias such as Suhayl al-Hassan’s Tiger Forces, with whom they coordinate closely, as well as with projects like the 4th and 5th corps. According to Schneider, “Tiger loyalists today still hail from a vast web of militias, criminals, and smugglers. … Hassan loyalist warlords are widely known to smuggle guns, people, and oil to ISIL and opposition territory, directly undermining the regime’s war effort.”
It is unlikely Russia has a coordinated vision for these projects in Syria, any more than it did in Ukraine, where multiple officials and oligarchs were reportedly running their own, often competing, projects in the east of the country.
There is little indication that any of these endeavours are of military value absent the Russian air force, which is the sole factor allowing for any regime gains. Despite the opposition being cut off by international backers and emasculated by infighting, no amount of men or bombs the Iranians or Russians pump into Syria seems to grant Assad a consistent advantage.