Publication: The Military Balance 2015
18 February 2015
As 2014 progressed, regional attention was focused not only on the ongoing Syrian civil war, but also on the rise of the jihadi-takfiri movement, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). The severe threat posed to the region by ISIS triggered military engagement and political alignment by regional and international states that had not been seen for some time. The expansion of territory under its control – which effectively merged western Iraq and eastern and northeastern Syria – was followed, after the group’s seizure of Mosul in June 2014, by its announcement of a caliphate. This compelled behavioural and policy changes among all actors engaged on the Syrian and Iraqi battlefields.
The Syrian war
In 2014, the position of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime seemed stronger than at any point since 2012. The US decision to call off air-strikes in September 2013 in exchange for Damascus relinquishing its chemical arsenal, coupled with both continuing Western reluctance to back the armed rebellion and the rise of ISIS, offered the regime political and military space to engage in offensive operations, recover ground and frustrate the rebellion’s efforts. As a result, regime forces relieved rebel pressure on the capital, reconquered most of Homs and squeezed rebel-held areas in Aleppo. This secured most of the central corridor linking Damascus to Aleppo and to the coastal regions.
The regime continued to demonstrate adaptability and maintain military superiority over the rebels. The Syrian conventional armed forces, supplemented by allied militias, became more adept at urban warfare and counter-insurgency tactics. Large units were broken into smaller, more deployable ones; junior commanders were promoted in lieu of the old cadre. Elite forces, notably the Presidential Guard and the 4th Division, remained loyal and battle-ready, and a robust cycle of air operations was maintained. As it handed its declared chemical arsenal to a UN-led mission, Damascus intensified its barrel- and chlorine-bomb campaign across the country. Steady Iranian and Russian supplies of weaponry for the regime contrasted with sporadic deliveries to the rebels. To break the will of rebels and civilians, the regime imposed harsh sieges on rebel-held areas.
To make up for personnel shortages, amid falling numbers of conscripts arriving for the draft, the Assad regime increasingly relied on militias as auxiliary forces. At times, this meant a weaker chain of command, operational breakdowns and tensions between the conventional army, local paramilitaries and foreign militias. For example, the local commander of the National Defense Force (NDF) in Homs opposed a UN-brokered ceasefire and evacuation plan, which required the intervention of a senior regime official. In the south, Druze members of the NDF resisted orders to deploy to a nearby province. Operational and command rifts between Alawite militias and the army led to the momentary loss of the town of Kessab in the province of Latakia. Foreign Shia militias significantly bolstered the war effort: Hizbullah led the battle against rebels in the Qalamoun region, on the Lebanese border, while evidence of Shia militiamen recruited and trained by Iran mounted. Iranian personnel also reportedly oversaw the siege of Aleppo.
Damascus maintained a de facto trade-off with ISIS throughout the first half of 2014. The existence of ISIS served to validate Assad’s political narrative and forced the mainstream rebellion to fight on multiple fronts. However, this unspoken deal collapsed in the summer as ISIS sought to expand its territory and besieged military bases in Raqqa. Heavy losses there unsettled regime supporters, especially after well publicised massacres of Alawite ecruits by ISIS, and led to unprecedented demands for the resignation of the defence minister.