The long-burning civil war in Syria, now heading into its tenth year, has arguably reached an impasse in which the regime has won a military victory but has failed to regain control of the entire country, and is now facing crippling economic and social crises. The central events of 2020, particularly the major offensive in Idlib and west Aleppo, have led to the freezing of the conventional conflict for the near future.
In this retrospective piece, we will look back at the recorded casualties among government and opposition ranks throughout the year, and illustrate the flow of conflict across two periods: from January 1 to March 7, when all eyes were on the regime’s northwest offensive, and from March 8 through the rest of the year, when the northwest front was largely frozen. The end of major military operations on the country’s largest front also meant a sharp drop in civilian deaths in 2020, though hundreds of thousands of civilians continue to live in squalid, miserable conditions where suffering is exacerbated by the virtually unchecked spread of COVID-19.1.“Covid-19: virus spiraling out of control in Syria’s Idlib, warns charity”: Middle East Eye
Government Losses – Analysis
The authors recorded 2,331 combat-related deaths among pro-regime forces in 2020. Fifty-seven percent of these deaths occurred between January 1 and March 7. In total, 1,196 pro-regime deaths were recorded in northwest Syria during these first nine weeks of 2020, with only 270 soldiers being killed on this front throughout the remainder of the year.
As the table below indicates, once the northwest offensive ended at the beginning of March, the front rapidly quieted, with both sides resorting to increasingly infrequent sniper and mortar/artillery attacks. By May, the southern Syria insurgency had become deadlier than northwest Syria. Beginning in July and maintaining pace through December, central Syria was the deadliest front in the country. In fact, since the end of the northwest offensive, more pro-regime soldiers have died in central Syria fighting ISIS than on any other front, with 38% of all recorded deaths occurring here.
A higher than usual number of death reports on social media in 2020 had no home governorate listed. This is plausibly attributed to the massive influx of casualties earlier in the year, with many being hastily reported without additional information. Still, 30% of all pro-regime deaths were men from the ‘core’ loyalist governorates of Latakia, Tartous, and Hama. Of the 665 confirmed deaths from these three governorates, 515 were killed in northwest Syria. Many, if not most, of these men hailed from the majority Alawite and Ismaili communities of these governorates. After the northwest front froze, all three regions saw a drop in representation among martyrs, as combat shifted to auxiliary militias and second tier SAA units.
For the first time in at least three years, Homs governorate provided more recorded martyrs than any other governorate, both over the course of the entire year and following the end of the northwest offensive. Dara’a and Deir Ez Zor saw a surge in representation due to their respective ongoing insurgencies. It should be noted that nearly half of the “unknown” home governorate deaths occurred in central Syria, and almost certainly were men from Deir Ez Zor, Raqqa, and Homs (in that order).
Half of all confirmed deaths among men from Dara’a occurred in their home province, with the vast majority of the remaining Dara’a deaths occurring in northwest Syria during and shortly after the offensive.
Northwest Syria experienced by far the most officer deaths of 2020, with 88 soldiers of the rank of Captain or higher reported killed over course of the year, accounting for 6% of all deaths reported there. Sixteen of these men directly commanded units, operations centers, or sectors. Among these were the commanders of the Republican Guard’s 124th Brigade, 152nd Regiment, 873rd Battalion, and 105th Brigade’s artillery units, the national head of NDF Military Operations, a 25th Division regiment and battalion commander, and a 5th Corps armored battalion and artillery battalion commander.
Central Syria had the second highest number of officers killed at 29, or 6.7% of all reported deaths. Among the dead was Russian Major General Vyacheslav Gladkikh, an IRGC general, an SAA regiment and battalion commander, a Republican Guard brigadier general and colonel, and five sector commanders in Deir Ez Zor.
South Syria followed closely behind, with 22 officers killed, or 6.9% of all deaths. Among the dead was the Chief of Staff of the 52nd Brigade, a 4th Division battalion commander, and three Mukhabarat sector commanders.
Opposition Losses – Analysis
Significantly fewer opposition losses were recorded throughout 2020, attributable to the fact that pro-opposition reporting networks on the local level are nowhere near as intact as they were at the beginning of the conflict. With families separated and broken, activists fleeing the country, and general disorder throughout rebel-held territories, casualties among opposition ranks are reported less frequently than those in government ranks. Nevertheless, 505 confirmed rebel losses were recorded in 2020, a small increase from the 451 confirmed losses recorded throughout last year.
The vast majority of these losses occurred in Idlib, during the regime offensive in January and February and the first few days of March. As the graphs below illustrate, 368 of the 505 confirmed losses (almost 3/4 of all losses) were recorded in Idlib, with the vast majority of them recorded between 1/1/21 and 3/5/21. Significant action was also seen in W. Aleppo, where opposition and government forces fiercely contested the towns of Miznaz, Kafr Halab, and Hayy Rashideen in the first two weeks of February. Action elsewhere was limited to brief exchanges of gunfire or attrition via shellfire or IEDs, and as such casualties in other governorates are significantly lower.
Many of these deaths were reported without information about their unit affiliation. Only 162 of the 505 were reported with unit details, and many of these came from the official social media accounts of Turkish-backed SNA regiments. Foreign fighter groups would occasionally announce their losses too – Katibat Tawhid wa’al Jihad (or Tavhid va Jihod), an Uzbek jihadist organization, announced 7 of its members dead in a failed raid on 1/2/21, and another four slain on 2/2/21. Outside of these groups, however, finding unit details to attribute the casualty to was difficult. Often, the losses would be reported by hometown acquaintances, local activists, or family who were more concerned about the loss of a loved one than the details of their military career.
Just as government forces have used child soldiers in their ranks, so too have opposition units. And just as pro-gov media reported the deaths of child soldiers throughout the year, so too did rebel sources reported the deaths of 3 confirmed child soldiers in the past year. Two of them were killed in February – one in the bloody assault on Nayrab on the 24th, and the other killed on the Kafr Awid front on the 28th. A third likely child soldier was killed by shelling on the Saraqib front on October 27th, after months of relative quiet. While child soldiers make up a relatively small percentage of the total losses suffered by rebel groups this past year, their presence nonetheless is a disturbing indicator that armed groups continue to be unwilling to adhere to international regulations regarding underage fighters.
Overall, the bloodiest day for opposition forces was February 24th, when 43 fighters were recorded as martyrs – almost all of them killed in the attack on Nayrab, west of Saraqib, at the height of the Idlib offensive. February 28th was similarly bloody, with 23 fighters recorded slain as Turkish forces intervened directly against the regime, but the second deadliest day of the year for the opposition would occur much later on, long after offensive operations would cease. An RuAF airstrike on an Faylaq al-Sham training camp near Armanaz, Idlib on October 26th would claim the lives of at least 34 rebel fighters at a graduation parade. Throughout the rest of the year after Idlib had become quiet, shellfire, air raids, and failed infiltration attacks would make up the bulk of the reported rebel losses.
War Enters a New Phase
The drastic geographic shift in combat deaths mirrors the year’s biggest development: the freezing of fighting in northwest Syria. The last ‘independent’ bastion of anti-Assad forces appears to be locked behind an increasingly long-term shield of Turkish military forces. While this shield has been flexible in the past, it lashed out at the end of February last year, forcing the regime to rethink its goals as its frontline forces were dealt stinging blows from Turkish firepower. The end of military operations in the northwest also meant a slight reprieve for the region’s civilians, who counted 913 dead this year at the hands of regime artillery and aerial strikes, more than half of whom were killed in the first three months of the year.
Yet while northwest Syria cooled to a low simmer, Syria’s southern insurgency continued to swell. Former rebels, ISIS cells, and criminal groups carried out more than 150 attacks resulting in the deaths of combatants, and dozens more killing civilians. As the year progressed, the 5th Corps’ 8th Brigade, consisting of ex-rebels and reconciled civilians, has emerged as a Russian-backed, pseudo independent force in the south. The next year will likely test Damascus’ ability to reign in this burgeoning southern powerhouse, or risk ceding significant degrees of autonomy to the region.
Meanwhile, ISIS surged across central Syria in 2020, expanding its operations from the heart of the Syrian Badia to the farms of east Hama and solidifying its control over southern Raqqa. More pro-regime fighters have been killed here than anywhere else in Syria since the Idlib ceasefire took place, and this trend shows no signs of stopping. With Idlib frozen, Syrian and Russian jets have finally began striking the Badia over the past several months, but the Syrian high command appears to remain reluctant to redeploy more soldiers from the northwest to fight ISIS. Barring any significant developments in Syrian and Russian counter insurgency doctrine, 2021 will see further ISIS advances against regime forces.
Overall, it is unlikely now that the ground situation in Syria will shift significantly throughout 2021. Barring major ISIS advances or a Turkish operation against YPG/SDF forces in the northeast, frontlines will remain fairly quiet. The violent outburst of fighting that defined the first three months of the year was an exception to the new rule that Syria is a frozen conflict, and very likely represented the last offensive gasp of a military that is too strained for manpower and resources to affect serious change on the ground.