Could Russia Lose the Syrian Arab Army to Iran or General Maher al-Assad?

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 18 Issue: 13


The security apparatus remains the key pillar of political power in the contemporary Arab state system. Whatever the post-war outlook of Syria will look like, its fabric will not change overnight. In one way or another, the Syrian military and intelligence community will remain the kingmaker in the aftermath of the war.

Russia will have to compete with Iran, as well as the ruling clan’s thuggish ‘shogun,’ General Maher al-Assad, to shape the Syrian Arab Armed Forces’ future, and thus, the country’s future.

Syria’s Military Bipolarity

The Syrian Arab Army (SAA), Hafez al-Assad’s carefully designed sectarian war machine, has been systematically exposed to two main military vectors over the last decade. First, there is the Iranian clout. While the Western strategic community focuses on Salafi-jihadist extremism in Syria, another type of jihadism has arisen. Brokered by the Iranian Quds Forces, Shia jihadism mounting in the Levant, attracting fighters from a broad landscape ranging from Lebanese Hezbollah and Iraqi militiamen to the Fatimiyoun and Zeinebioun brigades from Afghanistan and Pakistan (Al Arabiya, September 20, 2018. [1] The impact of Shia jihadism, coupled with the Iranian influence over Syria’s homegrown militias, turned the Baath regime’s paramilitary network, the National Defense Forces (NDF), into a shadow army. The NDF outweighs the SAA in available manpower and average wages. [2]

Second, there is the Russian school, which has dominated Syria for decades. After all, during the Cold War, out of the Egyptian, Iraqi, and Syrian militaries, it was the SAA which most closely resembled the Soviet doctrines and operational art. [3]

Nevertheless, some telltale indicators highlight the limits of the Kremlin’s control over today’s Syrian military. The SAA suffers from fragmentation and shortcomings in combat capabilities. The Russians, in a micro-managing fashion, invested in their favorite Syrian units, helping them digest advanced concepts of operations. Back in August 2017, for example, paratroopers from General Suheil al-Hassan’s then so-called Tiger Forces—at present the 25th Division—conducted an airborne operation about 120 kilometers west of Deir ez-Zor. The assault was planned by Russian military advisors and supported by Russian Ka-52 gunships (TASS, August 14, 2017). Although one can spot a number of advanced operational glimpses, like the Tiger Forces’ airborne blitz, Russia fell short of extending such capabilities to the entire Syrian Armed Forces. For example, unlike the Serbians in the 1990s, the Syrian air defense units could not grasp shoot-and-scoop concepts—the tactic of firing artillerary at a target and immediately moving to avoid counter-battery fire—and radar management for operating mobile Pantsir systems effectively. This shortcoming inevitably led to a large number of losses against Israeli and Turkish drone attacks (Al Masdar News, January 30; Yeni Şafak, March 4).

Besides, the militia formations established by the Lebanese Hezbollah and the Iranian Quds’ Forces act like an almost independent entity (Al-Monitor, April 22). To address the paramilitaries problem, some Russian experts proposed reviving the corps of the Syrian Arab Army and turning them into ‘territorial commands’ resembling military districts of the Russian principal to bring all fighters under unitary oversight (Russian International Affairs Council, March 13, 2018). Thus far, Moscow has not accomplished this aspirant change.

Lastly, absence of a ‘Syrian security belt’ around the Hmeimim base remains the most telling evidence showcasing the failure of Russian forces in building control over the whole Syrian defense apparatus. The base is surrounded by an exclusion zone around its perimeters supported with Russian check-points. Some writings have even claimed that pro-regime militias were attempting false flag attacks on the Russian contingent (Al-Monitor, April 22).

Russia Versus Maher al-Assad: Meet the Syrian 4th Armored Division

Maher al-Assad’s power within the SAA remains yet another setback that disrupts the Kremlin’s security sector reform plans. Maher, Bashar’s younger brother, commands the praetorian 4th Armored Division, a special unit predominantly manned by the Alawite sect from which the Assad clan hails. According to Russian assessments, Maher looms large as the only one in the Baath regime’s nomenklatura who can impose his views on Bashar. Back in 2016, sensationally, speculation emerged claiming that General Maher al-Assad was preparing for a Tehran-backed coup in Damascus. The referred Russian writings openly portray him as “one of the key conduits of the Iranian interests in the Syrian leadership” (Russian International Affairs Council, February 12, 2018).

At the time of writing, Maher al-Assad’s confrontations with the Russians surfaced tangibly in the lucrative ‘check-point business.’ According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Russia ordered all armed groups affiliated with the 4th Armored Division to withdraw from the checkpoints across Syria. Maher failed to comply with these demands and ordered his men to keep the checkpoints as usual (SOHR, June 13).

The 4th Armored Division and Maher al-Assad, both recently sanctioned under the recent Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, oversees a substantial portion of Syria’s war economy through smuggling networks, militias, checkpoints, and convoy security, as well as scrap trade through shady ‘businessman’ like Muhammed Hamsho (U.S. Department of State, June 17). The 4th Armored Division’s security bureau, headed by General Ghassan Bilal, controls affiliated political, business, and paramilitary circles. Although the unit has its garrison headquarters in the capital Damascus, the security bureau established branches in broader Syria, including the ones overseeing the Tartus and Latakia ports, as well as major population centers like Aleppo, Masyaf, and Homs. Ghassan Bilal has been comrade-in-arms with Maher al-Assad since their days in the military academy together back in the late 1980s. They were both trained by Hafez al-Assad’s favorite and eldest son, and once heir, Basel al-Assad, who passed away in 1994. While the Russians tried to discharge General Bilal Ghassan in 2019, Maher prevented it (Aldassouky, January 24).

Overall, the 4th Armored Division is more than a maneuver unit. Based on the Baath regime’s political-military characteristics, it is the organized manifestation of Maher al-Assad’s dominance across the country through military might. Moscow’s plans of building a centralized, regular doctrinal order of battle for the SAA and organizing a ‘normal’ armed force with no organic ties to tycoons and black-market businesses would be tantamount to curbing Maher’s privileged power position, something that he cannot settle for.

What Next?

Russia can secure its strategic interests in Syria only through ensuring Damascus’ monopoly of power in a Weberian sense. In the meantime, Iran’s favorable end-state revolves around the ‘Lebanization’ of the Syrian security apparatus. In this respect, the Quds Force calculates that the National Defense Forces will never be formally integrated into the SAA. Institutionalization of the already in-place fragmentation would lead to a permanent military dichotomy (see Terrorism Monitor, March 24, 2017). In brief, it is either Moscow or Tehran who will prevail in the Syrian bonanza after the war.

While Maher al-Assad is, for certain, not ideologically aligned with Iran’s theological dictatorship, he can definitely find more space for himself in Tehran’s ‘Lebanized’ Syria, rather than Moscow’s state capacity-building efforts to rejuvenate its Cold War client.

From now on, one can expect two major trajectories and a wildcard scenario to follow. First, during the reconstruction period, the West, Israel, Turkey, and the Saudi and Emirati bloc could side with Russia against Iranian dominance since the latter would bring a potential catastrophe to the Middle East, while the former may be tantamount to the lesser evil. Alternatively, the Iranian model could prevail amid the already avalanching chaos and power vacuum in the war-torn country. In such a scenario, Shia jihadism will establish its aggressive political order gradually. Finally, in the wildcard case, we could witness the brothers’ quarrel reemerge, resembling Rifaat al-Assad’s coup attempt against his brother Hafez in 1984. The wildcard scenario would depend on to what extent Maher would feel cornered by the Russians or by Bashar himself, and to what extent the Russians would tolerate him.


[1] See The Shiite Jihad in Syria and Its Regional Effects

[2] See Syria’s Transactional State: How the Conflict Changed the Syrian State’s Exercise of Power

[3] See Eisenstadt, Michael & Pollack, Kenneth. (2001). Armies of Snow and Armies of Sand: The Impact of Soviet Military Doctrine on Arab militaries 1. The Middle East Journal.