Assad’s foreign mercenaries cover regime losses
The fact that foreign fighters are heavily involved in the Syrian civil war is certainly no secret. Both Bashar al-Assad’s regime forces and opposition groups have recruited a number of foreign fighters and mercenaries from all over the world.
Fighters from regional countries including Iraqis, Iranians, Lebanese and Palestinians are believed to be the main foreign fighter groups involved, but some fighters are believed to have come from as far as North America, Europe, Russia and even North Korea.
Regime leader Bashar al-Assad’s appeal to allied Shiite regimes and groups has been the main source of his back-up. Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon and Iraqi Shiite fighters have provided his main foreign support base. It could be argued that this is the reason why he is refusing to resign at the Geneva II peace talks, even though international representatives insist that he has lost control of the state and has too much blood on his hands to play any role in Syria’s future.
The Washington Institute for Near-East policy claims that Assad has been forced to call in reinforcements from foreign allies and local militias to make up for losses in the Syrian army. The size of the army has reduced from about 300,000 to 100,000 in just two years. While most of these losses are a result of defection, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) claims that around 37,000 regime soldiers are among the 140,000 people estimated to have been killed in the three-year-old civil war.
However, by recruiting pro-regime Shabbiha gangs and other allied groups, Assad has been able to raise a 50,000-strong ‘umbrella force’, which he aims to increase to 150,000. Iran’s proxy in Lebanon – Hezbollah – is estimated to have contributed up to 10,000 men to Assad’s cause, keeping around 4,000 fighters in Syria at a time. Around 300 Hezbollah fighters, if not more, have given their lives for this mission. They have been fighting and training alongside Iraqi Shiite fighters who also support Bashar al-Assad. Together with Assad’s umbrella force, they have been key in maintaining the regime’s bases in Homs, Aleppo and Damascus.
A small number of Yemeni Houthis, Turkish Alevis and Shiites from Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as mercenaries from Russia, are also believed to comprise a total of 10,000 foreigners fighting for the regime, according to Israeli estimates.
Assad’s local support-base is primarily made up of Alawites, otherwise known as Nusayris, who are believed to make up 11-16% of Syria’s 23 million population and are mainly located along the Mediterranean coast. He also enjoys minimal support from some other minority groups who may trust him more than they trust the opposition.
Nonetheless, it is clear that Bashar al-Assad no longer represents the entire Syrian people, and although he refuses to quit and insists on waiting for the elections, which is due to take place this year, one may wonder what kind of future role he will play in Syria after the Geneva II meetings are over. If indeed Syria is able to hold free and fair elections this year under the current circumstances, which is highly doubtful, it is very unlikely that Assad would survive the polls. However, the system he inherited from his late father and former president Hafiz al-Assad will most probably survive even if Assad is ousted in this manner.
For this reason, the opposition is staunchly against Assad playing any role in Syrian politics in the future, whether that is as president or as a political voice. Should he miraculously survive the elections – and should this happen the legitimacy of such elections would be highly disputable – he will not be able to enforce his authority on the majority of the Syrian people, if such thing as Syria remains in existence. Rather, he will be the leader of a dispersed minority group in Syria, sitting on a throne rented from foreign allies.