The past three years of the Syrian Civil war have been concentrated on surrounding, besieging and capturing cities, towns, and villages of various sizes and strategic importance. The main forces to conduct these activities have been the forces loyal to President Bashar al Assad. They have executed a number of protracted sieges across the country – from the battle for Aleppo in late 2016 to the capture of Khan Sheikhoun in 2019. While the tactical and strategic circumstances in between these battles changed dramatically, the government forces have been building upon their experience and have gradually developed a predictable modus operandi, which has been applied throughout the series of operations against rebel/Islamist strongholds. The pattern of siege-craft, demonstrated by the Pro-Assad forces can be traced and systematized in a few basic points, presented below.
Who are the pro-Assad forces?
The Assad Regime began the Civil war with what seemed to be one of the most substantial forces in the Middle East, possessing a great number of armored vehicles and tanks, a substantial air force and a considerable number of troops. In a matter of two years, the Syrian Arab Army disintegrated into a fading shadow of its former self. A considerable number of troops deserted joined the so-called Free Syrian Army or left the country to avoid combat. Many tanks and vesicles were destroyed and the SyAF was the only element that was left more or less intact, According to Russian officials, prior to Russia’s involvement in the Civil War, starting 1st September 2015, the SAA was on the brink of collapse. Since then, Russia has put a lot of effort into reorganizing, re-arming and re-training the government forces. From the existing 4 army corpses, three were basically dissolved and the Kremlin urged the creation of a new Fifth Corps, maned by recruits, drafted en mass, often unwillingly from the depleted local manpower base.
In the meantime, the main burden of the fighting had to be carried out by self-established or foreign-backed militias, most of which directly funded by Iran. Tehran also provided training and armament for these groups via its Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). Over 130 different militias have been counted in the Assad camp in a study conducted by Ruslan Trad for his book „A Murder of a Revolution“. After 2014, the Assad government sought to reign in these militias by grouping them in the so-called National Defense Forces (NDF) under the overall seniority of the Syrian Arab Army. Even so, most of the NDF militias continued to act as virtually independent units, often combining military duties with governing and extorting captured territories. Between 2012 and 2016, a specific mercenary milieu formed in Syria, which much resembled the Age of Contractors that dominated European warfare in the XVII century. Local militias were governing settlements, their larger brigade-like overlords dominated areas, and brigade groupings formed private armies, ruling over many regions. The warlords, nominally serving under Assad became virtual masters of their regions of command, much like the old divisional commanders during the reign of Hafez al Assad.
Under Russia’s guidance, the SAA began to slowly regain influence and leverage over the warlords and some of the militias were disbanded, while others were more strictly incorporated into the NDF under a series of new laws and regulations. Still, the foreign brigades and private armies like Hezbollah, Fatemiyoun brigade and the „Tigers“ continued to act under the only nominal control of Damascus’ behalf. The process of reforging and reintegrating the armed forces has continued in 2019. The „Tigers“ have been re-branded as the 25 Special Operations division. Still, new militias may develop from dissatisfied fighters, who refuse to leave their well-paid brigades in order to subject themselves to the regulations of the Syrian military which have now increasingly moved under the command of Russian officers in both the higher and the middle ranks.
Apart from the number of military units and militias, the forces loyal to Assad have been supported by several Private Military Companies (PMC), provided by Russia. The most popular is „Wagner„, but it is certainly not the only one. E.N.O.T. forces and the so-called „ISIS hunters“ have also bolstered front-line operations against the rebel forces and the jihadist units under the black flags of the IS. There are talks of other Russian mercenary units in Syria as well, with boots on the ground present since the establishment of the so-called Slavonic corps in 2013. Apart from these private units, which might number some 5 000 men, the Kremlin has deployed over 7 000 troops and military police units on the ground. In addition, recent reports claim Russian spec-ops might have participated in the latest offensive against Khan Sheikhoun. The main form of Russian support, however, remains the RuAF which has proven to be the most decisive factor in the turning of the tide in the Civil war. Since its deployment in 2015, the RuAF has been a major game-changer that has both accelerated the expansion of the Assad-controlled area and has deterred the growth of rebel-held territories. The relentless and merciless campaign by the RuAF and the SyAF has decimated the civilian population but has achieved the necessary military superiority, which has brought roughly 2/3 of Syria back under Assad’s rule.
All in all, pro-Assad field armies, conducting offensives and sieges are a rag-tag of different army units, militias, foreign mercenaries, and allied forces, that form a multi-layered substance, which is held together by the Russian and Iranian military leadership. The usage of air forces and big-caliber artillery has greatly decreased the burden on the rank and file, a trend which has been paid by the increased number of civilian casualties.
Under its military intervention, Russia began to develop an overall strategy in order to save, secure and resurrect the Assad regime. The implementation of this strategy began in 2015 but has its roots in 2012-13 when Russia first began to deliver military aid to the Assad Regime. The strategy has been closely coordinated with the Iranian forces, supervised by gen. Qasem Suleimani. Certain elements in the field tactics also bear resemblance to the operation against the Chechen during the Second Chechen war. It’s worth noting that people responsible for taking Grozny were the same who planned the sieges of Aleppo and East Ghoutah.
The first phase of the strategic plan aimed at stabilizing and securing the large cities and industrial centers under the control of the Regime – Damascus, Hamma, Aleppo, and Homs. But first, Russia took care too secure its own strategic assets in Tartus and Latakia.
Once the main cities have been saved from immediate danger, the Regime and its advisers took care to capture as much from the main roads and highways as possible in order to consolidate control and strengthen the links between their main enclaves of influence.
Third came the securing of the major provincial capitals and the control over the key natural resources such as oil, gas and phosphate deposits.
Finally came the rounding up of rebel enclaves and picking them out one by one, starting with the ones closest to the main administrative and industrial centers.
Parallel to the Russo-Assad effort, Iran played its own game, aiming at establishing maximum control over the Syria-Iraq border. This was done to ensure the opening of the long-awaited „Iranian road“, linking Tehran with Beirut and allowing the IRGC to transfer military material to its main proxy – Hezbollah.
So far, the overall military effort has more or less led to the completion of the first three steps of the Russian plan and has also allowed Iran to open an uninterrupted route to Lebanon. The pace of the military operations was a clear compromise between Russia and Iran. For instance, while the Rebels and the Islamic State-held position a few kilometers from downtown Damascus, Russian forces and their Iranian allies were rushed to save Deir Ez Zor in order to secure the control over the Euphrates and counter the pro-US Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) from taking control of the entire Syria-Iraq border.
Working with an evolving military force of different units and under a variety of commanders, the pro-Assad military leaders began to form a distinctive pattern, which has been followed during the process of capturing enemy settlements.
Step One – Preparatory operations
Before beginning the actual siege, the forces loyal to Assad tend to conduct several preparatory steps, in order to secure their flanks and make sure no relief operations can be carried by the rebel/Islamist forces. The first step is to separate and put down any ongoing active engagements on secondary fronts along the operation zone. The idea is to achieve uninterrupted, maximum focus on the targeted settlement, without having to dispatch forces for additional combat tasks. This step was further developed in 2017/18 with the introduction of the so-called Deescalation zones. These safe areas have been fixated in a series of negotiations between Russia, Iran, and Turkey. Essentially, the remaining rebel enclaves were partitioned in several sectors, each assigned for pacification by one of the guaranteeing foreign powers. In order for the de-escalation zones to work, Russia mediated a series of cease-fire agreements with separate rebel factions across Syria. After the guns fell silent, the Russians began to rebuild and reorganize local government forces in order to buff them up for the upcoming offensives. The cease-fire gave Russia and its subjected Syrian forces the chance to attack rebels one at a time. For example.
While a ceasefire was in effect in Idlib, pro-Assad forces were fighting in Dara’a. Thus, the SAA and its allies could be certain that no other major campaigns are going to take place while the main forces were busy fighting a particular rebel/Islamist faction. With Turkey backing the agreements and the rest of former rebel supporters standing by, Russia cherry-picked its battles, giving it enough time to consolidate the rag-tag of government units and militias. The ceasefire also allowed for the Pro-Assad camp to transfer a specific set of elite units – the 4th armored division, the Tigers, Hezbollah, ‘Wagner’, IRGC, Fatemayoun, and a few other units and use them as a battering ram for each of the operations. The Russian military planners were well aware that even with the provided breathing space, most of the SAA and the NDF were more a liability rather than an asset in terms of combat effectiveness. In addition to planning and pacifying the secondary fronts, this stage also includes the first preparatory airstrikes, carried out by the RuAf and SyAF.
Step Two – Concentration of main forces
After the flanks have been secured and the other major front lines have been pacified by terms of agreements of a ceasefire, the Pro-Assad forces begin to concentrate on the upcoming siege. The main proportion of the operating army is composed of regular units of the SAA, usually from the Fifth Corps, as well as militias from the National Defense Forces. If necessary, apart from local militias, additional units are mobilized and transferred from other provinces in which no current operations are being carried out.
Apart from the rank and file militias and army units, the Regime also ‘brings in the cavalry’ by allocating its elite forces – the 4th division under Assad’s brother Maher, the Russian mercenaries from Wagner, the battle-hardened Hezbollah forces, the Afghan Fatemayoun brigade, as well as, when necessary, Iranian forces and Russian military units. The latter tend to get involved only in case the rebel/Islamist resistance remains too prolonged and stiff.
SAA and NDF units serve as the mass to cover the flanks and carry out reconnaissance attacks and later on to infiltrate and broaden the gaps in the enemy defenses. The elite forces are the ones carrying out the main part of the fighting. Their task is to break the enemy lines and strike as deep as possible in the adversaries’ positions.
Step Three – Initial offensive
Depending on the size and durability of rebel/Islamist defenses, the initial stage of action can vary. Sometimes, an SAA/NDF preparatory assault is carried out in order to test the enemy strength – both in the targeted settlement and its surroundings. Sometimes this assault is preceded by an initial bombarded via airstrikes and artillery in case of stronger enemy fortifications and positions. Weaker points can be subdued after the initial stage of operations. In some cases, rebels choose to abandon certain positions, in which case, the SAA/NDF forces quickly capture the empty settlements. This was mostly the case with the Pro-Assad offensive against ISIS in the Raqqah governorate in 2017. During the offensives in the last 12 months, Government forces tend to skip reconnaissance assaults and simply use air forces and artillery in order to minimize their casualties.
Once the defenders’ potential is assessed, the RuAF and SyAF come in place, carrying out a series of airstrikes, targeted not only against the settlement intended for capture, but also on any rebel/Islamist neighboring sites in order to prevent the sending of reinforcements and if possible to hide the actual target of the upcoming offensive. Since 2015 the air campaign has considerably intensified. In a recent interview, Russian MD gen. Sergey Shoygu has claimed, that 90% of the entire RuAF has gone on rotation in Syria and that certain pilots have gained up to 200 hours of combat flight experience. Given that Russia encounters no enemy air forces, these figures regard only the bombardment of rebel/Islamist positions. To give some idea of the number of bombs being dropped, Shoygu stated that in certain days, over 2 000 tons of cargo per day had to be sent to Syria in order to keep the army supplied. In addition to the air raids, the Government loyalist also used a variety of siege guns and mortars, their number growing with each following campaign.
Step Four – The main siege
Once the ground was prepared and the main enemy defenses were battered, the Pro_Assad forces commenced the main siege. It was carried out in several stages. First, the elite forces attacked the main enemy positions. In the meantime, SAA/NDF militias were used to capture surrounding strong points – checkpoints, hills, smaller villages, and hovels, etc. With regard to important rebel/Islamist strongholds, these offensive actions usually continue for days, after initial offensives get repulsed by entrenched enemy fighters, supplied with anti-tank rockets (TOW), artillery and snipers.
Assaults are repeated on a daily basis with more bombardment, more airstrikes on strong points and new waves of attacks. Basically, this vicious cycle continues for days and weeks, resulting in massive combat and civilian casualties. The harder the resistance, the stronger the raids and bombardment become. When certain settlements turn out to be hard to subdue, RuAF and SyAF began to target not only front-line fortifications, but also important civil centers – hospitals, schools, and markets, in order to destroy the morale of the population and break the will of the defenders.
In extreme cases, in which neither artillery nor troops and planes are able to achieve a break-through, the regimes bring in chemical weapons and incendiaries, in order to decimate the resisting enemy. Cases of chemical warfare in Syria are multiple, with several being proven by the UN, and others only acknowledged by media and researchers. Even though Assad officially has handed in his chemical weapons arsenal, new weapons are being produced with parts and materials, smuggled in by North Korea.
In the meantime, additional offensives are carried out on the flanks of the main siege. Their aim is to cut off the besieged rebel/Islamist stronghold from its allies and to limit or cut the supplies of munition, food, and medicine. This extreme form of full encirclement has been evident during the sieges of Aleppo and East Ghouta and resulted in massive civilian casualties over prolonged periods of time.
Step Five – Divide and conquer
Sooner or later, a breakthrough is achieved. This is done either by piercing through enemy lines or by arranging the surrender of a section of or the entire enemy enclave.
The battle of Aleppo and the siege of Ghouta and Doumma provide ample examples for both scenarios.
Initially, government forces cut off enemy positions into smaller enclaves and encircle all of them by using their superior manpower and the continuous air raids and artillery bombardments. These smaller sections are then subjected to the same pattern of assaults as described above until each of them breaks and surrenders or collapses.
In some cases, rebels tend to fight to the last man, in other cases some enclaves surrender, while others fight on. In most cases, government forces have tried to minimize their own casualties by allowing rebel units and their families to surrender and allocate from the captured settlement. Most of these displaced fighters and civilians were transferred to the Idlib de-escalation zone – the only one that has not been placed under Russian/Iranian supervision. As a result, over 2 000 000 internally displaced Syrians have now added up to the local population, putting additional pressure on Turkey to compromise with the policies of Tehran and Moscow.
Step Six – Pacification
Following the surrender of the last enemy elements, the captured settlement, or what’s left of it, is being proclaimed liberated and occupied by government forces. In order to save face, Russia has tried to prevent most pro_Assad militias in entering territories, for which it had reached an agreement with rebels. However, the lack of manpower and the need to secure certain areas has quickly overruled earlier commitments.
In many places, even though military victory has been achieved, the Regime is still facing popular unrest and insurgency. The inability of Damascus to rebuild the captured territories and its lack of flexibility regarding the local population has created a new set of problems, with which the Regime will have to handle sooner rather than later.