Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government can only count on the loyalty of 50,000 troops, down from a total of 220,000 at the start of the country’s civil war, according to an analysis.
The International Institute for Strategic Studies, a London based research organization, said the regime now relies on elite units including special forces formations, the Republican Guard and the 3rd and 4th Divisions.
“The cumulative effect of defections, desertions, battlefield losses and damage to morale will weigh heavily in determining the outcome of the conflict,” John Chipman, IISS Director-General, told reporters in London today.
The two-year Syrian conflict has killed more than 70,000 people and the United Nations said this month that 1 million refugees had fled to Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and other countries. The fighting has evolved along largely sectarian lines, with many in the Sunni majority supporting the rebels while Assad draws support mainly from his Alawite community.
Rebel forces are being hampered by lack of co-ordination as much as by lack of weapons, said Brigadier Ben Barry, senior fellow for land warfare at the IISS and a former British army officer, citing their failure to press a military advantage in Aleppo last year.
“The single greatest weakness of the rebels is the lack of political and military unity,” Barry said. “It considerably inhibits their ability to gain a military advantage.”
The collapse of the regime would lead to widespread instability in the region, said the IISS, which published its annual research book, “The Military Balance,” today. The country could also become a training ground for Islamist militants, exporting fighters and weapons used in the conflict around the region.
“If Assad falls, there will be considerable focus among regional states and international actors about the intent of armed groups and the fate of government and rebel weapons,” Chipman said. “There is a considerable risk that a rapid end to the conflict is likely to be as destabilizing as its prolongation.”
“We want the Europeans to lift the arms embargo, not to start a total war,” he said. “The British and French agree on this option. We can’t let a people be massacred as it is being right now.”
France may start delivering weapons to Syria’s rebels even without agreement from its EU partners, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said today.
U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague told reporters in London today that while Britain’s policy was largely similar to France’s, it still planned to send only non-lethal aid to the rebels. That will include armored vehicles and body armor, the British government has said.
Syria’s conflict may provide training for a new generation of militants in the same way as past wars, analysts said.
Syria could “become a crucible for a new generation of transnational jihadists in the same way that the post-Soviet Afghanistan became one in the 1980s,” said Nigel Inkster, formerly head of operations at Britain’s MI6 intelligence service and IISS director of political risk.
To contact the reporter on this story: Thomas Penny in London at firstname.lastname@example.org