Assad’s allies – what are they after?

This is the second part of an article on the possible outcomes of the peace negotiations on Syria planned to start in January. The first part can be found at this link and argues that none of the forces that will be involved in the peace talks will press for democracy and an end to the religious sectarianism on both sides. This part looks at the forces behind Assad and how they will continue in a Syria that is either divided through partition or remains at war. 

The final part on the nature of the oppositional force to Assad will be posted within the next couple of days

After the weekends events (Jan 1st-3rd) in Saudi Arabia, the peace talks look increasingly unlikely to take place never mind yield any results. But Syria is already effectively partitioned – so much of the speculation in this posting is equally relevant if the peace talks break down. 

What will happen to the remains of the Syrian government dominated areas?

Assad’s forces

Civil War civilian casualties - 2015

Civil War civilian casualties – 2015

Assad’s military resources – the Syrian Arab Army was reported to have been between 220-280,000 strong at the outbreak of the civil war. The Syrian Army, along with the other military forces with whom they have been allied, have been responsible for the vast majority of the over 250,000 civilian deaths.

On their side they are thought to have lost over 50,000 troops. However huge numbers have also defected or deserted. Something like 40-50,000 have defected to the Free Syrian Army, primarily Sunni Muslims refusing to take part in attacks on civilian Sunni communities.

The current strength of the army was estimated to have halved by April 2015 to about 110,000. By July of that year Assad was acknowledging for the first time that his forces could no longer retake all of Syria. This admission led to increased military support from both Iran and Russia.

In an attempt to stiffen the armies resolve, Iranian and Hezbollah forces have increasingly carried out operations alongside them and are often put in charge of them. But even now with Russia air support, the regimes overall military successes have been minimal.

Like many fascist and authoritarian governments Assad and his father, Hafez al-Assad always had civilian sectarian movements/ militias that could be brought in to quell dissent, Not surprisingly they have been mobilised and pulled into the civil war.

Most notorious of these are shabiha – organisations of thugs set up by Bashar Assad’s uncle, Rifaat al-Assad in the 70s or 80s to do the exceptional dirty work of the regime. It was shabiha, pumped up on steroids, that in 2011 carried out brutal attacks on the initial protest movement and attacked Sunni communities trying, and succeeding, to provoke a sectarian reaction. They are reported to still exist and have been enlarged but remain a specialised force with the role in building wider militias and carrying out the more horrific terror atrocities.

Jaysh al-Sha’bi, another volunteer Allawite force had existed for decades but was reorganised in 2011 as a political reserve force. Although reportedly 100,000 strong they do not have seem to have had any effect as a military force.

Commemoration to Hossein Hamadani after he was assassinated in Syria in October

Commemoration in Tehran to General Hossein Hamadani after he was assassinated in Syria in October

After the Iranians moved in Jaysh al-Sha’bi were effectively replaced by the National Defence Force (NDF). The NDF were openly built under the direction of the Iranian Major General Hossein Hamadani, and modelled on the Iranian Basij – the civilian religious sectarian force that is brought onto the streets to oppose dissent in Iran.

The NDF was more explicitly recruited as a religious anti-Sunni sectarian force. In addition members of the NDF were paid for their services. In a collapsing economy, with huge employment, whole villages of Allawite men were seen being recruited to the NDF.

Iran probably calculate that the NDF will, like Hezbollah, have an ideological loyalty to the Iranian theocrats should Assad be removed and the loyalty of the Syrian Arab Army become even more questionable. So the NDF is not a body intended to help rebuild the Syrian Army. It is in many ways its replacement and weakens Assad’s hands considerably against his foreign backers, Russia, Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah.

Iran, Russia and the Lebanese Hezbollah

Iran, Russia and the Lebanese Hezbollah all want different things out of their defence of the Assad regime. They are uneasy allies. Of course Hezbollah is not a state but it is a significant movement that has been mobilised behind Assad.

None of the above will agree to Assad’s immediate removal, primarily because such action could precipitate splits and fragmentation of government forces. At this point that would weaken their joint interest.

None of them have the reserves of money, arms and armies that Saudi Arabia and the its western allies have. However unlike the western capitalist democracies, none are as vulnerable to internal democratic opposition.


Of the three, Russia has been most influential over the Assad regime and over many decades.

To a considerable extent Putin saved the day for Assad when he began his aerial bombardment of Assad’s opponents in September 2015. Russia is a recognised world power with a position on the UN Security Council which has been useful to Assad. However Russia has avoided sending troops – other than ‘specialists’ to reinforce Assad. It is concerned about repeating its own imperialist fiasco in Afghanistan during the 80s that a heavier troop commitment might lead to.

So like the US and UK, Russia wants a primarily ‘arms-length’ intervention leaving most of the work to its ally Iran – both in terms of ground warfare and politically rebuilding anything in Syria. There is little likelihood now that a dictatorial Baathist state can be rebuilt similar to Saddam Hussain’s in Iraq or like pre-2011 Syria. A bureaucratic lid however brutal cannot now be slammed down on the sectarian forces that have been unleashed. Russia may remain an ally for strategic anti-NATO and business purposes but it won’t reshape anything politically in Syria.


Iran had troops operating on Assad’s side officially from in 2013 although they had been active there for at least a year before that (Aug 2012). Over the last four years they have granted Syria billions of dollars of military aid.

Iran’s casualties have been comparatively low but have been increasing – well over a hundred casualties in the last few months of 2015. But casualties aren’t a huge concern for a regime that sent off a million young men and boys to their deaths in the Iran/ Iraq war in the mid 80s and ruthlessly crushes any internal dissent.

Given the substantial collapse of Assad’s Syrian Arab Army, any continuation of the Syrian regime, with or without Assad, will continue to be hugely dependent on Iranian ground forces. This will be true regardless of whether the civil war continues or if any ceasefire or partition is agreed and a ‘cold’ civil war begins.

There has been tension with Russia since it started its aerial bombing campaign in support of Assad. In October Iranian President Hassan Rouhan denied rumours that Russia would be able to muscle in on – and likely transform – the Axis of Resistance that has united Assad’s Shia allies.

The Axis is a rather informal international military alliance. For a long time since it was first mentioned in 2006 it was not much more than a declaration of a shared anti-Israel, anti-US position. But it has evolved into an international political Shia Islamist movement started by Iran along with Syria and Hezbollah – a counterpoint to Saudi Arabia’s international Sunni coalition.

Before 2012 Hamas had been a part of it despite being also part of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood. Hamas shared the Axis’s anti-Israeli objective but an alliance with Iran also provided them with money and support. The withdrawal was primarily a consequence of them being expected to take Assad’s side in the Syria civil war by their Sunni allies.


Lebanese Hezbollah is very much the twin to the movement that took control after the Islamic Revolution in Iran. After 1979 it became dependent on Assad for both their training facilities and for military equipment sent to them from Iran.

Lebanese supporters of Shiite Hezbollah movement gather in the southern town of Bint Jbeil, to watch a televised address by Hassan Nasrallah, the movement's chief, (Photo credit MAHMOUD ZAYYAT/AFP/Getty Images)

Lebanese supporters of Shiite Hezbollah movement gather in the southern town of Bint Jbeil, to watch a televised address by Hassan Nasrallah, the movement’s chief, (Photo credit MAHMOUD ZAYYAT/AFP/Getty Images)

Despite Hezbollah (Army of God) being a militia based in Lebanon it has undoubtedly been very useful to both Assad and Iran.

For Assad after their wars with Israel they provided an experienced armed force – especially in small scale guerilla-type warfare. The Syrian Army had been primarily a force trained in large scale, heavy artillery engagements.

Two years ago it was estimated that Hezbollah numbered only about 5,000 regulars and 15,000 reservists- out of that number about 5,000 were committed at any one time to Assad’s war. Not a large number in comparison with other militias but important not only because of their military experience, but also of their commitment and because they are also a key element in drawing in Shia foreign fighters to come and fight for Assad.

This has been on a far smaller scale than Daesh’s foreign recruitment and often focussed on defending Shia shrines. But without the political volunteer force of Hezbollah such militias as the Abu Fadl al-Abbas Brigade (AFAB) of primarily Iraqi Shia volunteers may not have formed.

Being an Arabic force and speaking Arabic, Hezbollah unlike the Iranians, are able to reduce any impression of foreign occupiers being dominant in the country. They have been widely distributed amongst Syrian and Iranian forces, often as commanding officers.

Hezbollah are largely located in the areas around Lebanon and may be more interested in consolidating their hold there. Twelve months ago Daesh leaders Baghdadi threatened to extend his Islamic State with a “Lebanese incursion”. A spreading of the sectarian conflagration from Iraq, Syria into finally Lebanon, by his calculation would cause a pullback of Hezbollah from elsewhere in Syria into and back into their Lebanese base. Attacks were threatened at that time on the Lebanese Christian communities but they did not materialise.

However when Daesh acted on their threats to Shia with the Beirut bombing atrocity in August 2015, it did not trigger wider communal disorder nor has it been repeated. It doesn’t look as though Daesh have the reach to threaten Hezbollah’s continuing involvement in Lebanon.

But there are recent reports of demoralisation and withdrawals of Hezbollah forces after doing Assad’s dirty work over 3 years with nothing but a stalemate produced.

What will Assad’s allies want to get out of the ‘peace talks’?

The mass executions of Jan 1st in Saudi Arabia in which Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr Al-Nimr was executed will strengthen Iran and Assad’s hand considerably. Saudi Arabia has taken the role of coordinating the “moderate opposition”to Assad in the peace talks with US and UN agreement. Their execution of the leading Saudi Shia reformist cleric makes it easy for Assad to mobilise international support in resisting any concessions to the forces they sponsor in Saudi Arabia.

Iran may even pull out of the peace talks.

Iran’s primary concern is to expand their influence and power throughout the region. They have been very dependent on Russia. Assad’s Syria has been one of the most important of a very few number of allies. They will not easily forsake Assad.

But Assad’s Ba’athist regime was a relic from another era – one of right-wing authoritarian but comparatively secular Arab nationalism. It has mutated considerably during the civil war as it increasingly relied on brutal religious sectarianism to consolidate its rule and accommodate to Iranian influence.

Iran will want to consolidate that change. It has already significantly restructured the forces of repression in conducting the civil war. It will now want to impose its own political model on whatever territory is held in Syria, whether it be a satellite state, some alliance with Shia-run Iraqi forces or absorption into Iran.

Already Iran has mobilised the more regular troops of their Iranian Revolutionary Guards in addition to its Quds fighters. They probably are intended to stay for a long time.

Russia may have a relationship with former Ba’athists in the regime who are nervous both of Iranian domination and their religious methods of domination. But they will be too weak to stop Iran’s project for Syria and Russia will likely to accept it.

Whilst the territory and resources, not least the oil fields, of North Eastern Syria would be of interest to Iran and Russia. The more important thing to them would be a contiguous territory from Iran through to Lebanon. They might be content to forsake a united Syria, rebuilding what is essential to their business under Iranian control.

Whilst it might be good to see an end to the brutal dictatorship of Bashar Al-Assad, a rebuilt regime modelled on Iran, the world’s worst human rights abuser, would not be good news.

In the final (third) posting in this series I will look at the nature of the opposition to Assad – expected to be posted Weds, 6th Jan


One thought on “Assad’s allies – what are they after?

  1. Pingback: Syrian peace negotiations – what might they achieve? | Observations from a Third Camp perspective

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