After 40 years, Syria once again has dual military rule, where the president and his brother are the highest authorities. In the early 1980s, Rifaat al-Assad, the brother of Hafez al-Assad, was the commander of the Defense Companies and the strong man in Syria in the military, security, and even civilian spheres, while Hafez was in a coma. Today, we see this scenario echoed with the control of Maher al-Assad, Bashar al-Assad’s brother, over the Fourth Division, which has become an elite military unit due to strong Iranian support and its control over various territories of the country.
Yet there is a difference between 1984 and 2021. In 1984, Rifaat and his brother Hafez turned against each other, following an attempted coup by Rifaat. In contrast, the relationship between Maher and Bashar remains harmonious so far and has not been disturbed, despite the competition between the Fourth Division led by Maher, and the Republican Guard, supervised by Bashar himself.
The growing strength of the Fourth Division, which is a new version of the former Defense Companies, over the course of the Syrian war raises major questions about the future of this division, the future of the Syrian army, and the balance of military powers. It has also raised fears of the emergence of another power matching the strength of the army, which has been collapsing due to defections, the entry of militias into its ranks, and the prolonged war that has financially and morally exhausted the army. Another concern is Iran’s infiltration into various parts of the army and its close alliance with the Fourth Division, enabling Iranian influence in Syria to persist even with the withdrawal of the militias from Syria.
What is the Fourth Division, in terms of structure, influence, extension, and role? How has this force been transformed throughout the war with respect to deployment and military functions? What is the future of this military force and to what extent may it reduce the strength of the Syrian army — or improve it?
Fourth Division capabilities
Like the former Defense Companies, the mission of the Fourth Division is to secure Damascus and protect the regime from any significant threats. These two forces have been the main ones responsible for protecting the Syrian regime militarily, specifically from within. During the war, however, the Fourth Division turned into an army that deployed its forces throughout Syrian territories, no longer exclusively in the capital and its outskirts. This resulted from a lack of confidence in regular army forces and the considerable number of defections by Sunni officers, in addition to the special capabilities of the Fourth Division. This in turn reduced the ability of the Syrian army to take firm actions against the Division, conceding to it enormous power during the war and enabling it to sit atop the military establishment as a superior class morally, financially, and militarily. Even though the Fourth Division has never won any battle on its own without support from the rest of the military formations since the beginning of the war, its impressive strength and wide-ranging bombing and destruction established its reputation.
“The thief of victories” is how various officers in the Republican Palace as well as in the regular army describe the Fourth Division. It would not have won battles in Aleppo, Rastan, and Daraa had it not been for the Iranian militias and Hezbollah. These forces have been deliberately dedicating victories in battles to the Fourth Division, to give Maher al-Assad a reputation as victorious in his war against the militants.1
The Fourth Division consists of four brigades: 38, 40, 41, and 42. Regiments number 555, 666, and 54 are affiliated with it. All of these military units belong to the Armored Corps. Specialized factions and brigades are affiliated with it as well, such as the Signal, al-Sata, and Engineering brigades. The Fourth Division also has other army sectors so that it can take the form of a holistic army. The number of regular elements, including conscripts and recruits, is approximately 16,000. It has about 500 tanks of various models, in addition to armored vehicles for transporting supplies, infantry, and other weapons related to the armored vehicles.2
However, the sheer size of the military force along with the influx of civilian recruits joining it turned the Fourth Division into an undisciplined and unruly force. The military discipline of the recruits fell into disarray due to clashing civilian and military mores. Moreover, some civilian recruits were appointed to military leadership positions even though they were not military professionals. One example is Ya’rob Zahreddine, who leads groups from the Druze governorate of As-Suwayda, even though he does not belong to the military establishment. Because of such unprofessional military leadership, various transgressions against civilians have been committed by the Fourth Division, earning it a bad reputation among Syrians, while it has been a shield exclusively for the protection of the regime.
Over the protracted, 10-year course of the Syrian war, an urgent need for the Fourth Division developed due to the poor combat capabilities of the Syrian army, which was not originally qualified for combat or urban warfare. Furthermore, the regime was concerned that the entire army would be involved in major battles, which would lead to more defections. Hence, the Syrian leadership tended to strengthen the role of the Fourth Division, of which the Alawites constitute about 95% of its officers and regular soldiers.3 As a military wing of Bashar al-Assad, it was provided with weapons and personnel that are not available to the rest of the military divisions in the Syrian army, the most important of which is the Suicide Battalion, which is made up of four brigades. Normally it contains 600 elements who are ready to carry out suicide missions. This group, however, has not been utilized so far, which is an indication that the severity of the Syrian war over the past 10 years has not yet reached its peak from the point of view of the regime.
According to private military sources, this suicide unit was prepared in the event of the collapse of state and military power, especially in case the army disintegrated. Sources indicate that this group, whose members are drawn from the Alawite sect, is the military weapon of last resort that could be used by the Syrian regime.
The Fourth Division has reinforced its military strength with the Chemistry Battalion, which is the only battalion in the well-known military divisions of the Syrian army that still possesses an arsenal of multi-class chemical weapons. Dissident officers in the army who worked in the Fourth Division told the author in an interview that they believe some of the chemical weapons are still in the possession of the Fourth Division. They were hidden in cooperation with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards in the As'Saboura Mountains and territories on the borders of Lebanon.
As for air defense, the Division has formations of S-200, S-300, Pantsir, and Cobra systems. These medium- and long-range missiles are strategic weapons designated for confrontations with Israel or in case of a foreign military conflict. They are stored in warehouses in the Saboura and Yafour regions, with another small stockpile in the mountains near the “Assad villages.”
The Fourth Division is the only military unit that owns military clothing factories. Moreover, it is the only force that has two supply and repair points, one in the military section of Damascus military airport and the other in the Mezzeh military airport. It is also the only military division that can use combat helicopters to transport military supplies and repair teams to any combat point on the Syrian front.
Because of the special status that Maher al-Assad was able to grant to the Fourth Division, separating it from the Syrian army became a necessity, despite originally being integrated into the army at the end of 1985 after Rifaat’s exit from Syria, when the division used to be called the Defense Companies. However, it became the only military division to obtain an exception that allowed it to establish a special security bureau. Before the war, this bureau was entrusted with certain tasks, namely, to discipline the division’s elements in relation to military violations and war crimes. During the war, however, the tasks of this bureau were expanded to include combat missions through reconciliation groups and contractors with the security bureau of the Fourth Division and organizing them within forces commanded by Ghiath Dallah, Firas Kreidi, Ya’rob Zahreddine, and others.
The security bureau of the Fourth Division currently has approximately 15,000 recruits, most of whom are volunteers. They joined the ranks during the Syrian crisis, after considerable attrition in the Syrian military establishment, which had even affected the Fourth Division. Hence, civilian elements alongside Iranian militias were drafted to offset shortages. Yet that led the Fourth Division to be held hostage by Iran. The Fourth Division currently has around 18,000 fighters that have recently carried out various military missions, especially in southern Syria.
The structure of the Fourth Division
Although the Division has crossed all red lines in terms of lackluster battle performance, lack of military discipline, and treating other army divisions with a sense of superiority, it is still one of the most important arms of President Bashar al-Assad. One can even say that it is his direct safety valve. Being commanded by Maher al-Assad gave this maverick military division its unique status. Since the beginning of the crisis, Maher has been strict in selecting extremely loyal and dedicated officers to lead combat missions and military units while keeping the division nominally commanded by Maj. Gen. Ali Mahmoud, a prominent commander who executes Maher’s orders while bypassing higher levels in the military chain of command. Maher carefully selected Alawite officers after widespread criticism within the Alawite sect and the army elite against Bashar al-Assad as well as against Ali Aslan, who was considered one of the main supporters of reducing Alawite influence in the Syrian army. However, recent events in Syria have convinced both Maher and Bashar that Alawite expansion within the army is indispensable to maintaining its strength. More than before, Maher has tended to consolidate Alawite influence at the level of military leaders, where the percentage of Alawite officers in the Fourth Division exceeds 95%.
The unique strength of the Fourth Division compared to the Syrian army is not only due to its military capabilities and the influence of Maher al-Assad. This division is also the only one among the army sectors capable of requesting military supplies from any of the Syrian army divisions under a direct order from Brig. Gen. Ali Mahmoud or Maher al-Assad without direction from the military command in the General Staff. Organizationally, its commander is directly under the minister of defense, making it more a powerful and authoritative body that is unbreakable. Consequently, the army has been in the service of this division and not the other way around, which has enabled the Fourth Division to have power over all the military sectors.
Fourth Division weaknesses
Within the extended period of war, despite its many notable military capabilities, the Fourth Division is no longer a purely military division proficient in professionally executing military tasks. This may be due to the following reasons:
- The majority of recruits in the ranks of its security bureau are deserters from the army or people wanted for committing crimes, whose charges were settled in exchange for fighting on the side of the Syrian regime.
- The military system disintegrated because it was mixed with sectarian militias and relied on unprofessional methods of warfare, which are characterized largely by sectarianism.
- The elements of the Fourth Division have become responsible for collecting money on roads, military checkpoints, and the crossings between conflict areas, making it a pariah popularly and even among the military.4
- The emergence of civilian economic beneficiaries linked to the Fourth Division who have exploited the war conditions. Among them is Abu Ali Khader, who came to be known during the war as a businessman associated with the Division because of his special relations with its officers. While Khader suddenly appeared during the war as an economic figure, he is an extension of Maher al-Assad, as he worked alongside the Fourth Division in collecting money. This turned the Fourth Division into an arrogant and condescending militia, even when dealing with the Syrian army.
All of these factors gave the Fourth Division a bad name in Syrian circles, especially within the military, where it is no longer respected, deviating from service in the context of the war to turn into an identical copy of Rifaat al-Assad’s Defense Companies.
All of the above factors suggest deep threats are facing the Syrian military establishment. They also indicate an increase in the hegemony of the regime in Syria, especially considering the consensus and harmony between Maher al-Assad and his brother Bashar. Consequently, the military forces in Syria, whether the army or the Fourth Division, have turned into a force with only one task: protecting the regime. Still, the greatest risk lies in the conviction of the Alawite military class, on top of it Bashar al-Assad himself, who has granted the Fourth Division tremendous power, that power should be confined to the hands of the Alawite faction, similar to what has transpired in the Fourth Division. This principle may jeopardize the Syrian state, making it a hostage to the regime’s private military establishment. Hence, it would be impossible to reconstruct such a force without the permission of top sectarian authorities. It also places the Alawites in conflict with other Syrian sects. Yet, it is noteworthy that Assad uses the Alawites to consolidate his authority without granting them privileges.
Furthermore, such a military force centered around the Alawites does injustice to the overpowered Alawite sect. Over the past 10 years, it has become a victim of the Syrian regime while linked to it by virtue of sectarian mobilization. In such a context, the new challenge that has emerged is the difficulty in separating the military hegemony from the Alawite sect. Syria is in grave danger socially and militarily, considering the expansion of the Fourth Division, which has turned into an Alawite instrument linked directly to the regime.
As Russian enthusiasm for restructuring the Syrian army, which started in 2015, is currently weakening, that may increase the hegemony of the Fourth Division, further strengthening the military’s dominance over all aspects of life in Syria and making it a state exclusively linked to the army. That in turn would prevent any change in the country.
There are discussions about the importance of restructuring the army and security forces on professional military bases to reduce Assad’s authority over the country. One can see that the Syrian military orientation is inclined to strengthen its control over the security and military apparatus of the state. Hence, the growing strength of the Fourth Division is extremely problematic as it impedes any attempt to restructure or engage in real change in the army for the benefit of the Syrian state and not specifically for the sake of the regime.
Abdullah Alghadawi is a writer and journalist interested in civil-military relations. The views expressed in this piece are his own.
Photo by AFP via Getty Images
- Private sources interviewed by the author.