Syria’s regular Army nears the breaking point

Special to WorldTribune.com

By Brian M. Downing, FreePressers.com

Recent fighting in Damascus and Aleppo has differed markedly from that of only a couple of months ago when the regular army swiftly defeated rebel enclaves in Homs, Idlib, and Deraa. Fighting in Damascus has persisted for several weeks now and while it trails off at times, it flares up again.

Significantly, it took the Assad regime several days to concentrate enough troops to begin a campaign to retake Aleppo, the country’s largest city. Fighting there has raged for weeks and some reports claim that the rebels are taking ground — an improbable if not unthinkable event only a few weeks ago.

A Free Syrian Army fighter fires an anti-aircraft gun at a Syrian Air force helicopter in Aleppo Aug. 16. /Goran Tomasevic/Reuters

All this suggests that the Syrian Army is presently, qualitatively and quantitatively, far weaker than it appears on organizational charts, and much weaker relative to the Free Syrian Army than it was not long ago. The Syrian Army may be close to a breaking point.

And as goes the Army, so goes the regime.

Keys to the rising fortunes of the Free Syrian Army and the declining ones of the regular army are unclear.

Too much is still hidden in the fog of war.

However, several possible factors may be noted.

  • Rebel forces have benefited from increased desertions from the regular Army and from the growing numbers of volunteers from the civilian populace, some of whom are veterans who bring skill and discipline.
  • Rebel tenacity may stem from training in safe havens in Turkey and the presence of experienced NCO and officer cadres fresh from regular units.
  • The cadres may also include foreign special forces officers. Their presence was critical in coalescing forces in western Libya last summer, which were decisive in wearing down Col Gadhafi’s Army.
  • The rebels may also be benefiting from foreign communications and intelligence which provide the exact locations of regular Army units. Such information can be drawn from intercepted network traffic and from drones and satellites before being relayed to unit commanders at the neighborhood level in the cities and countryside — a tremendous tactical advantage.

The regular Army is of course a predominantly conscripted force that includes a large proportion of Sunnis, most of whom are ill-disposed to the Alawite/Shi’ite minority that controls the Army, state, and economy. Most of the Army, then, cannot be relied upon for fighting the revolt. Indeed, they are mostly unarmed and watched over by security officers lest they desert or rise up. This leaves the regime resting on thus-far loyal elite units who, judging by the inability to control Damascus or Aleppo, are overstretched.

Morale within loyal Army units is almost certainly on the wane. They see desertions with great acuity and unease. They see rebel forces growing in numbers and prowess and seizing control over large portions of the country, including the home areas of loyalist soldiers. This leads to concerns for families back home and to soul-searching as to the prospects of their side. (Such was the case in the Confederate army after Union forces cut a swath through Georgia.)

Loyalist soldiers see little if any foreign support aside from words from Russia and Iran and a few Revolutionary Guard advisers from the latter. The rebels, on the other hand, enjoy a great deal of foreign support. Arms come in from Sunni Gulf states, NATO, insurgents from Sunni Iraq, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Salafi networks throughout the region. It is increasingly clear that many powerful states are determined to oust Assad and that Syria’s allies are unable to effectively counter them. Signs of further erosion are likely on the horizon.

Continued fighting in cities, even if militarily inconclusive, will steadily inflict losses on an Army with limited and declining capacity to replace them. Sunni garrisons may rise up against regime watch dogs and declare against the regime, leading to an increasingly unfavorable correlation of forces for loyalist forces. At the very least, Sunni desertions may continue or even increase. Additional assassinations of key regime figures will trigger greater alarm at all levels of the army and state.

The Kurdish region may formally declare its autonomy and align with Kurdish Iraq — itself an independent state for all practical purposes. We may even see, perhaps within a month or two, sizable loyalist units worn down and put out of action, as was the case with Gadhafi’s Khames Brigade at Misurata, or loyalist units may see the end soon and quit the fray. At that point, the road to Damascus will be open.

Brian M. Downing is a political/military analyst and author of The Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: War and Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam. He can be reached at brianmdowning@gmail.com.

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