One of the big questions about Russia's involvement in Syria is how it intends to turn its geopolitical and strategic victory – edging out the United States as the key international actor in the conflict and helping the Assad regime's forces recapture Aleppo – into something that doesn't turn into a quagmire. Even if the Assad regime is able to retain control of the main cities of "useful Syria" (and look how it yet again lost control of Palmyra), the Syrian civil war is likely to continue for years in the countryside. So as the Astana negotiations begin (and will probably produce few results) and Russia struts its diplomatic clout, it is stuck having to manage a weak ally in the regime and an unreliable one that is potentially a rival in Iran, the regime's other major outside backer.
For several weeks, there have been reports that the Assad regime is trying to raise a new force that would effectively be under Russian command. Its purpose is unclear, and it might simply be to counter increase its influence over Assad (whose forces are likely exhausted and more concerned with internal regime politics) and provide a counter-veiling force to Iran's more effective presence on the ground troops in Syria. That, at least, is what much of the (Assad-hostile) Arab press is speculating. The dramatic moves to recruit this "Fifth Corps", as the new formation is called, spell more suffering for ordinary Syrians (see details below). The idea is that the regime will corral reluctant men (including deserters, civilians, former rebels etc.) into the Fifth Corps – which hardly seems likely to be an effective force to counter a highly-motivated and well-trained pro-Iran Syrian and foreign militias.
The piece below, by al-Hayat's longtime Syria correspondent Ibrahim al-Hamidi (who was jailed by the regime in the early 2000s) draws a parallel between the Fifth Corps and France's Army of the Levant, which consolidated its hold on the country after the First World War.
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The Fifth Corps: Russia’s “Army of the Levant” to Suppress Comrades-in-Arms and Impose Peace
Ibrahim Hamidi, al-Hayat, 9 January 2017
The Russian army continues to pressure its allies in Damascus to move quickly to form a “Fifth Attack Troop Corps” as a military pillar of Russian penetration into Syria, which would largely resemble the Army of the Levant founded by France during the Syrian Mandate at the start of the past century. It is possible that this new formation would be aimed at confronting the increasing influence of the National Defense Forces and militias supported by Iran and keep the peace after the remaining pockets of resistance are suppressed.
At the end of 2012, with the retreat of many regime forces due to defections and the evasion of compulsory enlistment by up to 100,000 individuals, Tehran succeeded in convincing Damascus to organize the Popular Committees into “national defense forces” supervised, trained, and funded by the Basij. They were eventually deployed to most regime-held areas and front lines, their number reaching about 70,000 Syrians and non-Syrians, including Afghans, Pakistanis, and Iraqis, under the direct supervision of officers of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, which contributed to halting the progress of opposition factions in several regions.
Following the direct Russian military intervention at the end of September 2015, the Chief of Staff of the Syrian Army, Gen. Ali Ayyoub, announced in October from the Russian military base at Khmeimim the intention to form a “Fourth Attack Troop Corps” with the aim of “liberating all towns and villages.” However, Moscow’s attempts to incorporate some 18 detachments supported by Iran into the Fourth Corps did not succeed, and military coordination remained at the bottom of differing priorities.
In November, in pace with the infiltration of the Russian army’s officers into the civilian and military governmental institutions in Damascus and the cities of “useful Syria,” a statement was distributed announcing formation of a “Fifth Corps” with “financing and training from Russia.” It will include roughly 45,000 individuals deployed as infantry, engineering, mechanized, and assault forces, “after training in guerrilla warfare in areas protected by Russia,” according to an official examining the project.
The high command of the army and armed forces then announced the “formation of a new unit of volunteer combatants, under the name ‘Fifth Attack Troop Corps,’ with the goal of eliminating terrorism.” The high command called for “all citizens wishing to join the corps to consult the recruitment centers in the provinces, which are located at the headquarters of the southern region, the headquarters site in Damascus, the headquarters of the Tenth Division in Qatana, the headquarters of the central region in Homs, the headquarters site in Hama, the College of Administrative Affairs in Masyaf, the headquarters of the northern region in Aleppo, the headquarters site at Tartus, the headquarters of the coastal region in Latakia, the headquarters of the Fifth Division in Daraa, and the headquarters of the Fifteenth Division in as-Suwayda,” without including areas under the control of the Syrian opposition or ISIS. The call included “those not obliged to serve under conscription, deserters, those who are over 18 years of age, those wishing to join who have completed their national service – from all ranks, commissioned officers, noncommissioned officers, and enlisted men – as well as state employees wishing to join under a one-year contract, which can be renewed subject to the agreement of the employing agency.”
Alongside the issuance of presidential decrees pardoning army “deserters” and those who have not enlisted for military service, tightening leave procedures for young men, and dispatching street patrols to drag youths off to the front without full training, instructions have been issued to the Ministry of Islamic Endowments, government institutions, the army, mobile-phone companies, and the media to urge enlistment in the new force. In a memorandum, the Ministry of Islamic Endowments has called on the imams of mosques to “speak from the pulpits and urge citizens to enlist in the Fifth Corps, and highlight the advantages of doing so.” Among these are “regularizing the status of those who are absent from reserve service and of deserters and state employees absent from work, while a person can earn 100,000 lira per month.” (The U.S. dollar is worth 500 lira). Another memorandum from the dean of the Higher Institute for Fine Arts, Giana Eid, calls on employees to “register their names with the Director of Administrative and Legal Affairs.”
The governor of Latakia urged government institutions in the province to compel their employees, and especially displaced persons (seven million are displaced within the country) to “join the Ba‘ath Vanguards camp in al-Raml al-Janubi,” including people from 18 to 50 years “In the event of non-enrollment, employees’ assignments will be terminated,” he added. The Directorate of Education requested that teachers under the age of 42 be “encouraged” to enlist in the Fifth Corps and stated that there is a “need for displaced teachers to be forced into the corps within 48 hours,” noting that estimates indicate there are 1.5 million displaced coming from Aleppo, Idlib, and Homs now present in Tartus and Latakia. News has also circulated of a trial plan to repatriate refugees from countries neighboring Syria (some five million people) on condition that they agree to fight in this corps.
Moreover, general managers in Damascus have gathered their employees to explain the advantages of enlisting in this force, including “keeping half of one’s monthly salary while earning another monthly salary of up to 300 dollars.” Syrians have received text messages on their mobile phones such as “Be one of the shapers of victory,” “Sign up for the Fifth Attack Troop Corps,” and “We invite you to join the Fifth Attack Troop Corps and share in shaping the victory,” while new businessman have been informed of the necessity of financing this force as a condition for their being granted new financial benefits
In addition to some pieces of news from the tribes in the country’s east, Moscow – engaged through officers at the Khmeimim base in “reconciliation talks” – is wagering on the incorporation of opposition fighters whose “status has been regularized” into the new force, where “they will fight their former comrades-in-arms, especially Jabhat al-Nusra cadres and ISIS.” It has been noted that among the elements of the draft agreement proposed to settle the status of three towns south of Damascus is the formation of a force to fight al-Nusra and ISIS, something which has happened before in other areas such as al-Tall, northeast of the capital. Given that thousands of those who have not signed such “settlements” have moved with their families to Idlib province, the coming period may see direct clashes between “former comrades-in-arms” – battles between members of the Fifth Corps and those who refuse “settlements,” especially on the fronts of Idlib, which Damascus wants to retake “at any cost.”
Army of the Levant
Experts have linked the latest changes in the Syrian army to the new formation’s prominent forthcoming role and to Moscow’s eagerness to expand and transform the Tartus base into something resembling the one at Khmeimim. Experts in Western institutes and specialist publications, including Stratfor, have noted that one of the reasons for the creation of the Fifth Corps is to counterbalance the influence of Iran, especially since Moscow, having reached agreements with Ankara after the ceasefire in some parts of Syria, will provide most of the support. This will include arms, training, and a monthly salary amounting to $750 for members of “its corps.”
Syrian historians liken this force to the Army of the Levant formed by France after its assumption of the Mandate over Syria in 1920. As one said, “After the idea of dividing Syria into statelets, France recruited the minorities of Syria and some fighters from colonized countries like Senegal to form the Army of the Levant in order to crush Syrian nationalist movements, including that of 1925-1927. The leaders of this army were Frenchmen, while its members were the poor and marginalized of Syria.”
He added: “The reception of the Army of the Levant was more successful on the Syrian coast where the people had been historically marginalized, and where the Army of the Levant offered authority and influence. This was the basis for the beginning of the military ideology among the oppressed sons of the coast, a matter which became evident later in Syrian history” with the taking of power in Damascus. After independence in April 1946, the Army of the Levant became the nucleus of the Syrian army amidst efforts by the “Damascus elite” to sideline it, which was one of the reasons for the nakba of 1948. Some members of the army, such as Husni al-Za‘im and Adib Shishakli, were behind military coups, and Abdel Hamid al-Sarraj, along with President Gamal Abdel Nasser, was behind the foundation of the “security state.”
The number of individuals in the Army of the Levant rose from 13,000 in 1920 to more than 100,000 in order to suppress the Great Syrian Revolt of 1927. Those are also the goals Russia seeks in forming the Fifth Corps one year after its direct military intervention via the eastern Syrian coast, along with the organization of an army outside the “authority of the state,” according to a Syrian historian. He wonders: “Does Moscow’s recognition of Islamist factions and acceptance of them as partners in the ceasefire and political solution reflect Russia’s intention to rely on the majority in cooperation with Turkey?”