The use by Bashar al-Assad’s armed forces of ever-deadlier weapons to crush the 18-month Syrian uprising at the expense of greater civilian casualties is a sign of the regime’s weakness, military and Middle East analysts say.
Syria’s government has become more reliant on heavy weaponry including attack aircraft, helicopter gunships, artillery and tanks even as lightly armed rebels win and hold ground in the biggest cities -- Aleppo, the business center, and suburbs of the capital, Damascus.
Assad’s forces have been employing heavier weapons because “they don’t have enough combat maneuver units to deal with the rebellion,” according to Jeffrey White, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a 34-year veteran of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency. That shortage of troops indicates a loss of army personnel from defections and desertions, White said in a phone interview.
The Syrian army’s full-time notional strength is about 220,000 personnel, plus allied Shabiha militiamen, according to the London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies’ Military Balance 2012. Yet the fighting has reduced its effectiveness as a military force and its manpower may now be only about 100,000 troops, White estimates, while the remaining units “aren’t necessarily fighting very well.”
If the Syrian military is unable to break the deadlock even with air power, it may resort to still-tougher tactics.
“There is another level beyond that when they actually start systematically destroying entire suburbs of major towns,” said Crispin Hawes, head of the Middle East program at Eurasia Group, a New York-based political risk research company.
In Aleppo, government forces shelled neighborhoods and battled overnight with rebels near the international airport, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on its Facebook page today. More than 140 people, including 95 unarmed civilians and 26 personnel from the Syrian army, died yesterday in the clashes, the U.K.-based group said.
A car bomb and rebel assault at military position killed at least 18 soldiers today in Idlib province, the Observatory said, after rebels attacked as many as 100 troops manning a checkpoint.
Syrian forces routinely storm small towns and city districts seeking rebels and their supporters. In August, loyalists entered Dariya, a town outside Damascus, leaving bodies piled on the streets and in a mosque, according to opposition groups. A video posted on YouTube showed the corpses of men covered in blankets on the floor of the Abu Sulaiman Darani mosque in Dariya. The authenticity of the video couldn’t be verified.
Syria’s armed forces possess a large inventory of military hardware. Mainly Russian-supplied, this includes 4,950 main battle tanks and 3,440 artillery pieces, while the air force has 365 combat-capable aircraft including 240 MiG-21s, MiG-23s, Su-22s and Su-24s assigned to ground attack, according to the IISS. In addition, it has 33 Mi-25 attack helicopters.
“Statistically the regime has considerable power, but the part that can be used is very small,” said Mustafa Alani, an analyst at the Geneva-based Gulf Research Center, in an interview. “We are witnessing a shift in the balance of power on the battlefield inside Syria.” That’s why the government is using its weaponry “to regain the balance that was lost.”
Alani says the best-equipped unit, the 4th Armored Division led by Assad’s brother Maher, is being held back in the capital for “the last stand of the regime.”
Syria’s economy is showing signs of weakening under sanctions. In June, consumer prices rose 36 percent from a year earlier and climbed by 2.9 percent from May, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics in Damascus. Crude output has fallen by almost 50 percent during the uprising, Oil Minister Said Hunaidi said last month.
Even so, Assad’s downfall is not assured, Hawes says. “Syria potentially looks like an open-ended conflict,” he says. Unlike the removal of governments in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, “Assad is going to be a lot harder to tip over.”
Both sides have switched tactics as the conflict has evolved since the start of the uprising in March 2011.
“For most of last year, the military response was reasonably measured in that they were attempting to minimize civilian casualties, with the eye on re-establishing order and being able to run the country in the way that they ran it before,” said Hawes. “That goal is no longer perceived to be realistic. They are happy to use helicopter gunships and air support to attack suburbs, losing a huge number of civilian casualties.”
Pressure from more than a year of combat operations has “taxed” the Syrian military, causing problems with resupply, maintenance and morale, U.S. Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last month.
That’s why Iran has started to train a new militia force, called “ the Army of the People,” drawn from the minority Shiite and Alawite communities “to take some of the pressure off of the Syrian military,” he said.
The Syrian military is also being resupplied by Iran, says Theodore Karasik, director of research at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis in Dubai. While Iran has supported Assad’s government in public statements, it hasn’t officially acknowledged any military role in Syria.
The rebels too have altered their approach, entering and holding areas of the biggest cities. Even so, the Free Syrian Army lacks a “grand strategy,” White says.
The partial seizure of Aleppo, “didn’t reflect any profound strategic thinking,” he said. “They saw an opportunity, saw that regime forces were weak and not fighting very well, and they seized on the opportunity.”
He says the Syrian military response has failed to dislodge them and that the rebels are fighting a long war.
“The FSA doesn’t have a field force, they can’t come out of the towns and villages meet the Syrian army in some kind of open battle,” he said. “They can weaken the army over time, and I think that is what they are doing. They are going to break the army piece by piece.”
Rebels have turned their attacks against airbases as they try to degrade the government’s air power. Battles have been fought around the Abu Zhuhoor military base, the Kwers military airport in Aleppo and in the city of Bukmal in Deir Ezzour province near the border with Iraq.
Heavy fighting erupted in areas of Damascus and Aleppo in July as rebels confronted the government in its biggest urban power bases.
The same month, a bomb was smuggled into one of the government’s most sensitive institutions, the national security headquarters in Damascus, killing key members of Assad’s military establishment, including his brother-in-law, Major General Assef Shawkat, and Defense Minister Dawoud Rajhah. In August, Prime Minister Riad Hijab defected to Jordan and denounced Assad’s regime as “the enemy of God.”
The Syrian Observatory estimates that more than 26,000 people have died to date, an average of about 50 a day. Throughout most of August and September, opposition groups have reported death tolls of more than 100 daily, with the Local Coordination Committees in Syria identifying Aug. 25 as the bloodiest, with 440 people said to have lost their lives.
The problem for Syria’s rebels, according to White, is that they lack the firepower to bring the battle to Assad’s forces, while loyalist units lack the stomach for close-quarters combat. “When regime ground units attack, they don’t attack very hard,” he said.
With the conflict dragging on, “there will be no winners in this rolling slaughter,” said Paul Sullivan, an economics professor specializing in Middle East security at Georgetown University in Washington. “Syria is likely finished as a country that functions for some time to come.”