Bashar Assad is restructuring his heavily depleted armed forces around a fast-growing Shiite-Alawite core of 120,000 fighters, to augment his 300,000-strong army.
Despite their preponderance over the Sunni-led rebel force of 70,000, government forces are overstretched – especially after some 45,000 Sunni officers and men defected.
In an interview Wednesday, Aug. 29, Assad admitted that the end is not yet near.
To replenish dwindling military ranks, the Syrian ruler first called up young members of his own 2.5 million-strong Alawite community, which makes up 12.5 percent of the total Syrian population. (“Followers of Ali, cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammed, Alawites are treated as heretics by Sunni Muslims.)
They were not drafted into the regular army, but reserved for the loyal militias, primarily the Shabiha force, notorious for its brutal abuse of civilians.
Those militias are each attached to a Syrian military unit, free to draw on its weapons stores and logistical infrastructure, but never merged into the unit or its command.
A Syrian division seeking Alawite militia reinforcements submits a request to the General Staff in Damascus. It is then studied at one of the daily meetings conducted by the top command managing Assad’s the war on the Syrian revolt. (It was at one of those meetings in General Staff conference room that a bomb went off on July 18, killing half the officials present.)
Militias support military units – but stay apart
Government strategists are careful to keep the Syrian army separate from the Shiite militias for four reasons:
a) They intend the Syrian army to be dependent on the Shiite militias – not vice versa;
b) The militias are more flexible and mobile than the ponderous military. They dart between points at high speed, arriving at flashpoints way before the military;
c) It is easier for loyalist officers to keep an eye on military commanders operating in separate frameworks. And when desertions happen, they are quickly detected and gaps filled.
This week, for example, Maj.-Gen Mohammed Musa Harayat, commander of the 7th Mechanized Division, became the highest ranking Sunni military defector when he abandoned his command and fled to Jordan.
Shabiha militia officers attached to his Horan division headquarters thereupon stepped in and took command before the general’s defection could cause upheaval.
d) Keeping the Alawite militias separate and intact makes them quickly detachable from the army units for other contingency duties. Last week, for instance, many were rushed to the Alawite Mountains and each allotted a sector for defending villages and towns against a rebel offensive.
(See DEBKA-Net-Weekly 554 of Aug. 24: Saudi Prince Bandar Tells Syrian Rebels to Regroup and Conquer the Alawite Mountains.)
Enter foreign Shiite volunteers
But recent weeks have seen a quiet and radical change overtaking the makeup of the forces defending the Assad regime. DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military experts report that soldiers, who have taken a heavy toll in eighteen months of fighting, are being replaced gradually with more and more Shiite fighters who are coming in to fight alongside the Alawite militias.
In an interview Wednesday, Aug. 29 with pro-government al-Dunya TV, the Syrian ruler said of the conflict: "It definitely needs time to bring it to a decisive end. But I can sum it up in one sentence: we're heading forward. The situation on the ground is better now, but the conclusion is not there yet. That needs some time."
What he came to realize was that the Syrian army was big and strong enough to regain control of Syrian cities where rebels had established a foothold – as happened this week in Damascus and Aleppo – but not enough to win the war. Clearly something more was needed to tip the scales
Assad did not refer directly to the stream of Sunni soldiers of Allah heading for Syria on the warpath against his regime, or the Western-Arab role behind the revolt (see the previous item in this issue). He only said in a deceptively understated comment that the Syrian government is "fighting a battle both regionally and internationally."
Iran pumps Shiite volunteers and IRGC officers into Syria
Neither did he let on to the task engaging his attention at this time: the remaking of his armed forces to meet the challenge of the international Sunni army building up against him on the side of the rebels. With the help of Iran and the Lebanese Shiite Hizballah, Assad is fashioning another international army of Shiite volunteers composed of three elements:
1. Intake from Iran: While appealing for volunteers to fight in Syria, Iran is also pumping Revolutionary Guard Crops commanders and hundred of soldiers, some of them members of fanatical Basij militia, into Assad’s army.
"Today we are involved in fighting every aspect of a war, a military one in Syria," Gen. Salar Abnoush, commander of the IRGC's Saheb al-Amr unit, told a group of volunteers Tuesday, Aug. 29, the first commander to own up to Iran’s military involvement in the Syrian conflict.
Last Thursday, Iranian Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi said that if Syria fails to put down the uprising, Iran would send military help based on a mutual defense agreement between the two countries.
(See DEBKA-Net-Weekly 552: Tehran invokes 2008 Mutual Defense Pact with Damascus.)
Tehran is keeping the promise its National Security Adviser Saeed Jalili made to Assad when he visited Damascus on August 7. They agreed then to establish a volunteer Shiite army and send Damascus Iranian battle strategists and intelligence experts.
A religious war between Shiites and Sunnis hangs over Syria
2. Hizballah, for its part, is calling up Lebanese Shiite fighters mostly from its own ranks to fight in Syria.
3. Iran and Hizballah are running a joint recruitment campaign in Persian Gulf Shiite centers, especially in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain and Yemen. They are also out raising volunteers in East Africa and Iraq.
The first Shiite recruits from the Persian Gulf started arriving in Syria last week, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence and counterterrorism sources report.
Most fly in on commercial flights from the Gulf to Beirut, where they are met by Hizballah manpower officers. Their next stop is at Hizballah training camps near Baalbek in the Lebanese rift valley. After a short training period of a few days, they cross into Syria and hook up with one of the pro-Assad Shiite militias.
Western-Arab intelligence sources estimate that 2,500 foreign Shiite fighters have entered Syria so far and more are on the way.
Two armies from two bitterly and historically divergent branches of Islam are about to be pitted against each other in Syria. This portends the transition of the Syrian conflict into a religious war between fierce zealots from both camps which may well outlast Assad’s eventual ouster and survive as a contest between Shiite and Sunni over the body of Syria. There is no knowing whether the soldiers of Allah, once they are on the march, will say within the bounds of one Muslim country.