The defeat of ISIS in Baghouz almost marks the end of the war in Syria. The Assad regime has been able to reoccupy most of the country, albeit with a huge loss of civilian lives. But Damascus could not have done it alone. In fact, its war effort was largely outsourced to Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah. Without doubt, their involvement changed the course of the war.
As opposed to Western powers, the pro-Assad bloc set political objectives that were compatible with the military means. Indeed, it has been a classic Clausewitzian limited war. Although each member of the axis has followed different military strategy, there is a single unified political goal, that is, the survival of President Assad and his regime. The convergence of interests led to the creation of some form of military division of labor in which Moscow offered air power and recruited mercenaries, Tehran sent Revolutionary Guards and sponsored Shia militias, and Hezbollah trained irregular forces and acted as light infantry operating in built-up areas.
Russian air power was a crucial determinant in the defeat of the Syrian armed opposition. The Kremlin has attempted to minimize casualties because Russian society is becoming increasingly casualty-averse. The traumatic experience of the Soviet-Afghan War has contributed to a general reluctance to use conventional forces against insurgents in a Muslim-majority country. Therefore, the Russian air force engaged in strategic bombing to destroy the enemy’s will to fight. The indiscriminate targeting of non-combatants is criminal, but it can be militarily effective in counterinsurgencies. In fact, the heavy air bombardment of Syrian opposition-held areas resembles the Russian bombing campaign of Grozny in late 1999. The destruction of cities disorganized the Syrian armed opposition, which could not launch major counteroffensives as a result. The subsequent flow of refugees allowed Syrian regime forces to isolate their enemy and seize most of the opposition-controlled territory.
Apart from the massive aerial attacks, the Russian jets also provided close air support to the Syrian army and militias during many operations (e.g. the Palmyra offensive, the battle of Deir ez-Zor). It should be noted that militias have been of significant military value for Moscow because they have successfully applied a clear-and-hold strategy in central and northern Syria. Not only do these irregular forces have good tactical knowledge of the terrain and the ability to engage in unconventional anti-insurgency tactics (e.g. mass deportations), they also have their own intelligence networks that enable them to act efficiently and quickly. Simultaneously, Russian private military companies (PMCs) have operated as a light force capable of providing operational and tactical support when needed. The most active PMC is the notorious Wagner, which, while equipped with tanks and artillery, maintains its own command and control system.
From the Iranian point of view, the Syrian Civil War has offered a rare opportunity to expand influence and test capabilities. The exact size of the Iranian expeditionary force remains open to speculation, but it is probably now in the low thousands. In March 2018, it was revealed that some 2,100 Iranians have been killed in Syria and Iraq. Iran’s celebrity general Qassem Soleimani and his elite force Quds Force have taken credit for some of the major victories the Syrian army has won over the insurgents. In October 2015, for instance, he managed to coordinate the Aleppo offensive that paved the way for the recapture of the city. Also, Iranian officers have provided advice and training to regime forces, especially regarding urban warfare tactics.
More importantly, the Iranian regime recruited Iraqi, Pakistani, and Afghan militiamen to fight a war of attrition in certain parts of Syria where resistance was well-organized and fortified. The sub-outsourcing of war to Shia militias has become a core pillar of the Iranian military strategy for three reasons. First, Tehran has attempted to minimize its own losses in order to maintain public support for the Iranian intervention in Syria. Second, Shia militiamen tend to be loyal and motivated to succeed. Third, they provided the manpower to execute and sustain prolonged military operations.
In addition to Iranian-sponsored militias, Hezbollah has operated in the country since 2012. Thousands of its fighters, possibly around 7,000, have participated in many battles alongside the Syrian army. The presence of the Lebanese group has been a crucial factor in the victory of the regime forces because it has deployed small units with high morale and previous battle experience in urban environments. In particular, the battle for the strategically-located town of Qusayr revealed the extent of Hezbollah’s capabilities. Wary of overextension and domestic rivals, the group has not committed all its fighters to the war. Instead, Hezbollah has provided crucial training to pro-government militias, like the “Popular Committees” (al-lijan al-sha’biyya), which have taken over paramilitary duties.
In conclusion, the Russian-Iranian-Hezbollah axis has fought a limited war with determination and flexibility. Each member has employed the necessary resources on the basis of political considerations and military comparative advantages. As a result, the Syrian war is close to an end with a clear winner. But this is probably not the end of this trilateral military cooperation, which could expand its presence elsewhere (e.g. Iraq) or even attract other non-state actors (e.g. the Kurds). The axis will continue to have the strategic initiative as long as Western powers prioritize idealism over realism when setting their political objectives.
Middle Eastern conflicts have their own dynamics and involve a wide range of actors, including great powers, regional governments, sectarian and militant groups, and tribal forces. Due to this high number of belligerents, conflict resolution is a long-term process that requires difficult decisions by all. Democratization does not always simply lead to stability—a useful lesson for those interested in a peaceful and united Libya, Iraq, and Yemen.
Emmanuel Karagiannis is an Associate Professor in King’s College London’s Department of Defence Studies and an Academic Visitor at Oxford University’s Middle East Centre. He is the author of The New Political Islam: Human Rights, Democracy and Justice (Philadelphia: The University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018).