Reduction of Fifth Corps: Pressure on Moscow reflected in Syria

Since September 2015, the Syrian regime has brought its Russian ally to Syria, in order to change the dynamics of the battle on the ground, which indicated the regime’s loss of vast geographical areas controlled by the opposition, before Moscow added its touch on the ground, changing the balances by using warplanes, leading to its dominance over certain areas through military formations it created to reduce the guns raised against the regime.

In southern Syria, specifically in Daraa, which witnessed the actual launch of the peaceful popular movement against the regime, Russia formed and supported the Fifth Corps. However, a change in the field dynamics on one side, and Moscow’s preoccupation with a new front it opened more than two years ago, prompted Moscow to change its military tactics in Syria, related to the direct presence of its forces or its support for other forces.

Recently raised in this regard, a leaked document obtained by the Alquds Alarabi newspaper, was the Russian desire to reduce the numbers of the Fifth Corps, one of the most important Syrian military formations affiliated with Russia, by half, due to cutting spending costs, and in accordance with an order from the Russian President, Vladimir Putin.

According to Alquds Alarabi, the text of the document indicated that, in April 2023, the commander of the Russian operational group, General Valery, addressed the commander of the Fifth Corps, Munzer Saad Ibrahim, and the head of the military and security committee in Idlib, affiliated to the Russian forces, that Russia is about to reduce the Fifth Corps and its affiliated groups by 50% starting from July 2023.

Sensitive timing

This occurs at a time when Russia is escalating its military operations in Ukraine, as part of its ongoing invasion of the neighboring country since February 24, 2022.

The Ukrainian forces do not rule out powerful Russian air attacks in the near future.

The spokesperson for the air force command said on Ukrainian television, “We do not rule out large-scale and powerful air attacks by the enemy, however, we are ready to repel and destroy the enemy’s aerial targets.”

The Ukrainian military official, on April 4, referred to Ukraine’s great need for “Patriot” air defense systems, explaining that there is not enough firepower in the war, and repelling an adversary like Moscow requires more missiles and air defense systems.

It is likely that Moscow will intensify its mechanized attacks before the muddy terrain becomes clearer in spring, making mechanized maneuver warfare more challenging. Moscow might also intensify mechanized attacks to benefit from the lack of Ukrainian equipment, before the arrival of Western security assistance, which was expected on April 4, according to a report from the American “Institute for the Study of War.”

Despite talks since 2017 about Moscow’s pursuit to reduce the number of Russian forces operating in Syria, this issue became markedly more evident after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Since March 2022 (about a month after the invasion began), Russia has been transferring elements from the “25” and “30” divisions affiliated with the Fifth Corps towards the Hmeimim military base in Latakia’s countryside, in preparation for their transfer to Ukraine to support the Russian army there.

In May of the same year, The Moscow Times website, an online platform for a newspaper that used to publish quarterly, mentioned that Moscow is moving to reduce its forces in Syria, estimated by the site to be more than 60,000 military personnel, half of them officers. The reduction at the time was justified by Russia’s pursuit to continue its military operations in Ukraine, against the backdrop of handing over some of the points and military bases used by Russia to the Iranian forces and the Lebanese Hezbollah militia.

Why now?

The researcher at Omran Center for Strategic Studies, Nader Khalil, explained to Enab Baladi that the appearance of the document at this time might be linked to regional or international developments that contribute to a change in the Russian strategy or a shift in military priorities.

If the leak was intentional from the regime, it can be interpreted as a message to the Gulf and the West, that it suffers from the pressure of Iranian influence due to the retreat of Russian influence, which Iran fills its gaps.

As for the reasons for reducing the Russian support since mid-2023, the researcher believes that the developments of the war on the Ukrainian front affect the Russian influence in Syria, explaining that Russia’s engagement in Ukraine more and the rising material and human cost on that front might contribute more to Russian contraction in Syria.

The researcher Nader Khalil also considered Moscow’s establishment of observation points on the borders with the occupied territories an attempt to retain a sensitive card of influence that allows Moscow to market its presence as beneficial to the West, and apart from these points, the Russian presence in Syria is not beneficial to Israel or the West and may be harmful. Therefore, Moscow’s inability to invest its influence in Syria in any political bargaining with the United States specifically.

From his side, military analyst Tariq Haj Bakri, to Enab Baladi, pointed to changes imposed by the war in Gaza, which may lead to the birth of new alliances and a repositioning in this region against other parts of the world.

He also referred to Russia’s attempt to modernize the Syrian army and transform it into a professional army, but it did not achieve a result, and Brigadier General Suhail al-Hassan was moved from commanding the 25th Division in the Fifth Corps supported by it to command the Special Forces, and transferring al-Hassan from Russian command to that of the Syrian regime.

Since the Syrian regime forces controlled the southern region after “reconciliations” with factions of the Free Syrian Army in 2018, Russia has opened the door to joining the Fifth Corps for the elements of the “reconciliations,” and handed over its command to Ahmed al-Awda, the former leader in the Free Syrian Army.

Many elements of the “reconciliations,” who were affiliated with the opposition factions, preferred to join the ranks of the Fifth Corps, as a better option than the available choices before them, which are leaving the province to the northern Syria or joining the Syrian regime forces and its military formations, especially the Fourth Division.

If Moscow is willing to reduce the number of elements of the Fifth Corps by half in order to cut spending, then attempts to reduce the expenses of the Fifth Corps are not the first of their kind, as the military formation supported by Russia has already halved the monthly salaries of its elements in Aleppo and its countryside since April 2022, that is, about two months after the invasion of Ukraine began, falling to 100 dollars instead of 200.

Conflicting messages

Despite Moscow’s more recent positions leaning toward the Syrian regime, highlighted by three condemnations of Israeli bombing at sensitive sites and points in Syria, and the establishment of observation points on the Syrian borders with the occupied territories, in addition to a failed Russian attempt to condemn in the Security Council the Israeli targeting of the Iranian consulate in Damascus at the beginning of the current April, these stances were preceded by indicators and messages suggesting misalignment or a fault in the relationship between the Russian military presence and regime forces on the ground, interpreted by directives to the military units prohibiting the passing of information to the Russians and Iranians.

In August 2023, the Ministry of Defense in the Syrian regime’s government obliged the leaders of the military formations in the army, to not send any information or documents directly to the Iranian and Russian commanders located in military bases on Syrian territory.

In a circular issued by the ministry, on the 5th of the same month, obtained by Enab Baladi, the ministry requested not to send any information or documents directly to “friends” except after being duly scrutinized by the relevant authorities.

The ministry justified its circular by maintaining the confidentiality of transmitting and securing information and documents, adhering to the principles of military correspondences and communications according to the addressed entity, and sending only an extract concerning “friends” and not to send classified security documents.

Furthermore, the ministry issued in April 2023, a directive stating that Russian and Iranian delegations are required to obtain approval for visiting its military headquarters, and in the case of having companions, they need to obtain security approvals.

The directive seen by Enab Baladi stated that “recently it was observed that several security and military entities sent letters to the general command of the army and the armed forces, which included entry of friends with civilian interpreters or civilian contractors, without coordination with the formation leaders.”

The Ministry of Defense in the regime’s government also issued, on August 24, 2023, a circular that required military personnel not to convey any military information to the Russians, Iranians, and members of Hezbollah present in Syria.

In the circular, obtained by Enab Baladi, it was noted that recently some “friends” (Russians, Iranians, Hezbollah) and their accompanying interpreters asked about some important locations, and some security information, for an unknown purpose.

The circular requested, for the sake of maintaining the security and confidentiality of information, to alert all elements (officers, non-commissioned officers, personnel) and interpreters working with “friends” not to disclose any information about the army and the armed forces, and not to engage in any side conversations, or to answer any questions about current issues in the country, outside official channels, or any information concerning the country’s security.

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