Military Conclusions from The Syrian Conflict

Sub Title : Salient deductions of the devastating war

Issues Details : Vol 14 Issue 2 May – Jun 2020

Author : Lt Gen Sanjiv Langer, PVSM, AVSM

Page No. : 24

Category : Geostrategy

: May 31, 2020

In the spring of 2011, the anti-government agitation in Syria became a conflagration. This afforded an opportunity to the Islamic State of Iraq, which had been cornered in Iraq, to spread its wings. What has followed is years of devastating conflict between elastic groupings driven by mutable self-interests. The article delineates salient military conclusions

The conflict defies definition. It is a challenging enterprise, to draw purely military conclusions from a deeply entwined politico-military conflict. A war, that at times, has bridged several genres and has mutated to resemble recognisable conflictual paradigms. With roots in an out of area war, and an internal uprising, its contours need to be outlined at the outset.

The war in Iraq, across the Syrian border raged, between the US-Iraq led coalitions and the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI). By 2010, the ISI and other insurgents, had been pushed to remote corners of Iraq. ISI had already provided an umbrella, to the Al Qaida and other insurgent factions. In a joint US-Iraqi raid in April 2010, approximately 150 Al Qaida and ISI operatives were killed. Consequently, Ibrahim Awad al Badri proclaimed himself as Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, and appeared as the leader of ISI. The winter of 2010, however, saw him and his cohorts on the run. Fortuitously for him, in the spring of 2011, the anti-government agitation in Syria became a conflagration. A cornered Baghdadi, astutely moved in, supporting the fighters against the Alawite (Shia), Government of President Assad. As a prelude, Baghdadi, sent in the Al Nusra fighters, and so the Syrian War commenced.

This conflict stretched over a decade and occasioned in vast territories continuously and ruinously exchange masters. It has resulted in approximately 400,000 deaths, creation of 5.6 million refugees, and 6.2 million internally displaced persons. A conflict characterised by, brutality, disregard for international conventions, humanitarian misery and bewildering complexity. It has easily snatched away, four decades of development. A comprehensive view is beyond the scope of this article, so we will steer close to the military implications.

At the outset, we need to look at the meteoric success of the ISI, ISIS or more appropriately, Daish. Between the spring of 2011 till the proclamation of the Caliphate in Raqqa, with Baghdadi becoming the Caliph (June 2014), the ISIS had captured large swathes of central, northern and north eastern Syria. This was facilitated militarily, by the inability of the Syrian Armed Forces (SAF), to operate, due to the rebellion of its citizens. Equally significant is the fact that Daish, had at its military core the disenchanted officers and cadres of the old Iraqi Army. These Baath party adherents provided a solid military backbone to Baghdadi. At its stretch Daish, in its Caliphate occupied huge Syrian and Iraqi territory.

The SAF, lost the ability to operate and manifest on land, due to hostility of its own populace. Where they tried to make a stand, in the early stages, they were outclassed in momentum, and manifestation of conflict. Combination of irregular and regular tactics, by Daish, supported by spectacular terrorism, was unstoppable. Syrian air power in isolation could not hold or deny ground. It did, however, cause enormous humanitarian agony, and deny Daish the ability to take over urban areas intact.

Among the other principal players, it is common to look at this conflict as occurring between coalitions. These groupings however were elastic and were driven by mutable self-interests. The US, had by 2011 thinned out of Iraq, and were not single-minded, when Daish entered the Syrian arena. When refocussed, their primary effort was the destruction of Daish and the Caliphate. They primarily operated with the Iraqi Armed Forces, Kurdish Militias, and were also in support of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a collection of anti-Assad militias. US with its considerable NATO and Arab allies, was also keen on a front through Turkey, but this proceeded haltingly, due to Turkish priorities. Turkey was comfortable with the dismemberment of Syria, but could not tolerate a Kurdish presence and consolidation, along its southern frontier. It also housed 3.4 million Syrian Refugees. Their resettlement in contiguous Syrian areas also gave them opportunity for demographic engineering. Turkey grouped with several Sunni militias, FSA and intermittently, the US and Russia Forces.

Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, were the dedicated supporters of Assad and the SAF. Their immediate objectives were, elimination of Daish, and the establishment of control of the Syrian State over its territory. With their own Shia militias and the expanded role of the (Iranian) Al Quds, this coalition had a large land fighting role. The Air forces effective in the area were US, Russia, Turkish as well as some NATO elements.

Clear and well-defined C2 (distant and in theatre) fired the US and Russian dominance in this conflict, albeit with distinctly different objectives. Their C4ISR is what drove the conflict outcomes. The US and Russia used dominant air power, drones, and of course effective intervention of Special Forces. They had very significant leadership, mentorship, and negotiation roles, down to tactical levels. Turkey in addition to its Air Force, used ground forces, significantly Armour and Mechanised Infantry. SAF, and Iraqi Armed Forces were committed, and fought several of the hard ground battles.

The conflict spawned other groups like the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) led by the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a mostly Kurdish militia. Founded in October 2015, the primary opponents of the SDF are the ISIS, FSA, Al-Qaeda affiliates, Turkey and their allies. Another grouping that was formed was Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) an active Sunni Islamist militant group. It was formed on 28 January 2017 and has now become one of the strongest militant groups in northern Syria. It largely controls Idlib province, including the provincial capital and the border crossing with Turkey at Bab al-Hawa.

A special mention must be made of the Kurdish Militias[which includes women fighters], whether Peshmerga or PYK. They must be credited with fighting some of the toughest land battles. They, together with the Yazidis [some of whom practice Hinduism], led the spirited campaign against Daish both in Iraq and Northern Syria, with historic elan. Some Deductions

  • A broken country’s instability seldom stays within its borders.
  • Violent and ideology driven entities, can rarely be restricted by national boundaries.
  • When Nations ‘invite’ out of area entities, in conflictts, their Sovereignty and priorities get ‘reinterpreted’.
  • Entities such as Daish, that manifest irregular, regular and terrorist threats, simultaneously present complex challenges to Regular Armed Forces.
  • Sovereign Armed Forces can only function unhindered, with the trust and support of their own citizenry.
  • Defence of National borders apart from the Military, is made possible by the human security, and national commitment of the populace.
  • To lead/support out of area operations, pre-eminence in Space, Sky and the electronic spectrum is essential.
  • Power projection for such lead roles, demands not only capability, but also staying power, and persuasive influence.
  • Control of territory in conflict, is deeply linked to operational dominance and effective control by land forces.

Precipitated by the so called ‘Arab Spring’ protests, in Deraa (Syria ), in Mar 2011, Syria was reduced to a patchwork of adversarial holdings by 2015. Consequent to Daish having captured substantial territory by June 14, the terrible Air War commenced. The US led coalition and Russia, initiated air strikes stretching from Aleppo to Bagdad in Sep 2014. Ground attacks had commenced both by the Shia militias, and the Iraqi Golden Division (backed by the US), in 2014,-15. The overarching Operation ‘Inherent Resolve’, led by the US, was however launched in October 2016. Russia meanwhile had been working hard with the SAF on ground offensives to recapture lost territories, as well as eliminate opposition to Assad.

The out of area players chose a minimum contact model. Russia had a very well defined C2 structure, functioning directly under the National Defence Command Centre, Moscow. They also had detailed linkages and advisors, mirroring the SAF command structure, down to tactical levels. An innovative and effective, Coordination Centre for Reconciliation of Opposing Sides, CCROS, was established by the Russians at the Syrian Humaymin Air Base. Elaborate ELINT and EW capabilities were established in theatre.US retained the structure of C2 through the functional commanders reporting to CENTCOM. It must be appreciated that the US through the Afghan and Iraq wars had refined their C4ISR, and military method.

To highlight the varied ground forces used in the land war, the US led attack on Mosul, of Oct 2016, is instructive

They comprised Iraqi Army; Auxiliary forces; Federal Police; Kurdish Peshmerga; Popular Mobilisation Front; Sunni Volunteers and Shia Militias. The Campaign lasted 9 months for the capture of Mosul. On the other end, when Turkey commenced its offensives from the North, (three main Offensives, 2016,2017 and 2018), the elements they used were, Turkish Armour, transported infantry, special forces; Free Syrian Army; Syrian Turkish Brigades; Al Sham Legion; Affiliates of Muslim Brotherhood of Syria; sprinklings of Chechens, and Uighurs. To draw meaningful conclusions, the combat patterns, of the opposing sides needs an overview.

Daish, in the initial stages, had the overpowering advantage, of operating in areas where the Assad regime had largely lost control. They were assisted and guided on by local anti-Assad militias. Their provision of muscle to this uprising had disproportionate advantages. The battle hardened backbone of Baghdadi’s fighters, led by the high order leadership of the old Iraqi army cadres, swallowed large areas of Syria. When challenged in combat, their combination of terror and regular tactics, enhanced by their fluidity, prevailed. The ubiquitous ’Technical’ developed in Somalia in the early 90’s, were an excellent form of mobile fire power. Based on a Toyota light truck, these AA twin mounted entities, used concentrated, were lethal and pervasive. In the defence and denial of captured areas, Daish excelled. Inheriting largely damaged built up areas, these rubble filled, and ghost-building dominated spaces, were ideal for protracted defence. Reminiscent of the capture of bombed out cities in WWII, assaults into these were a nightmare for regular forces. Daish resorted to extensive minelaying, as well as prolific booby trapping. Their individual marksmanship, sniping, and fieldcraft were of a high order. This to some degree explains the complexity of recapture.

For the coalitions, there was no match for the kind of space and sky supremacy that the US (with its allies), and Russia had. There was also complete asymmetric superiority in C4ISR. Due to the nature of each coalition’s objectives, intelligence was segmented and seldom converged. It was in the HUMINT, and ground battlefield spectrums, that the coalitions struggled. Their combat methodology depended on immense air and long range artillery delivered destruction. A spectrum Daish was no match to. The ground offensives all across were Armour led. Lead Armour was closely grouped with regular and irregular infantry. Armour was used as aggressively as possible and was snaked into built-up areas. It was in complex and painful close-in fighting, where dismounted elements came up against the ingenuity and tenacity of Daish. Special Forces of the coalitions, darted in and out of these battle cauldrons, eliminating specific targets, threats, and securing critical points. Drones took out leadership, and hard points.

The role played by Air need some emphasis. The Syrian response to loss of territory, was to use punitive air power. Relentless bombing of its own countryside led to an unprecedented humanitarian disaster and contributed to destruction of infrastructure. The populace that could not move out as refugees, was exploited. This manifested as hostages; insurance against conflict; bait for humanitarian and medical aid; slavery. The brutal aerial destruction, largely by the Syrian coalition, on its own population, is unprecedented. When the coalition offensives against Daish took off, similarly air power was used with little regard to the consequences on citizenry. Interestingly, in built-up areas, the bombing largely contributed to the prolonged ground battles.

Media coverage of the entire conflict though prolific, was partisan, and denied a comprehensive assessment. Despite several valiant efforts by independent journalist and reporters, the world remained largely oblivious of the existentialist struggle of citizens. So is true of the numerous excesses of this war. While Daish was unequalled in its brutality and barbarism, chlorine gas and other chemical agents were used from the air. Daish, benefitted from an illegal oil and conflict economy, ably supported by the transnational traders and blackmarket. The UN was rendered ineffective. International community efforts could achieve little. It was the humanitarian agencies and the NGOs, who struggled against overpowering odds to serve the beleaguered population. While the US appetite for long distance interventions is well known, it is Russia that emerged as a dominant player, in the expeditionary domain. By seizing the initiative in a complex situation, Russia enhanced its global standing. It was successfully able to pull Turkey away, from NATO priorities. Due to its success, Russia has emerged self-assured.

Salient Conclusions

Since an overall strategic review, would not be the focus here, let us return to the salient consequences and conclusions of this unique conflict.

  • In wars, where permanent members of the Security Council are competitively involved, the UN, will remain marginal, and International Conventions largely defunct.
  • Humanitarian Aid is driven by international politics, succour for beleaguered citizens will come from some agencies, but principally NGOs.
  • Sovereign forces must fully appreciate asymmetric conflict. Daish was asymmetric from vision and motivation, to combat and logistics.


  • All the space, sky and C4ISR dominance of the coalitions, could not prevent the Caliphate from creating an independent State. Destruction of Daish was only possible by land forces, in tactical combat.


  • Unequivocally it is the combat manoeuvre arms that will give decision on land, Armour and Infantry, (be it mechanised, transported or dropped).


  • Special Forces well targeted will deliver disproportionate advantages, over a wide spectrum.


  • Capture of urban complexes is a nightmare, with heavy casualties, need for disproportionate combat ratios, and large time windows.


  • Joint operations of regular and irregular forces require intricate coordination, and harmonisation.


  • Holding civilians captive in combat zones, by irregular entities, being attractive, Sovereign forces will have to do some hard thinking on their combat methodology.


  • In ground assaults, Air, Artillery, Attack Helicopters, form a fire support continuum. The intimate communications, and IFF, to enable this must be in place and replicated.


  • Armour and Infantry are seamless in assault, communications down to sub section level must serve this synergy.

The irony is that the conflict in pockets still persists. Dash as ISIS etc has mutated and spread, to other regions. The chase and game are far from over. The war in Syria has resulted in an irrelevance of National borders for Syria. A swathe of territory in the North extending to 35 miles (approx.), is with Turkey. The border with Iraq remains porous. Several out-of-area entities remain in the region.

Apart from the coalitions, the international community was rendered powerless. More significant, they were unable to develop any momentum, due to the phenomenon of media overload and orchestrated misinformation. This information age manifestation denies informed opinion formulation. Citizens, Armed Forces and Governments have to ‘re-engineer’ to the reality, that we are no longer graduating to a new generation of War/Conflict. The emerging frontiers point to the simultaneous presence and manifestation of several generations and genres in War and Conflict.