Military analysts say Syrian Army is far from point of collapse
The State Department has said repeatedly that the Syrian Army is growing weak, but independent military analysts say it is still capable of handling the rebel forces.
Shaam News Network SNN via AP video/AP
Though degraded by a war of attrition against increasingly capable guerrilla militias, the Syrian military remains a cohesive force capable of continuing its operations for the foreseeable future, according to independent military analysts.
The assessment that the Syrian military remains a potent force contradicts months of suggestions by Obama administration officials that defections and the pace of the increasingly violent conflict is overstretching the military, a theme thatâ€™s been voiced repeatedly for months in official State Department briefings.
â€śWe think that the army is increasingly overstretched. We think that the economy is under increasing strain. And we think the rebels are getting stronger,â€ť State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said Aug. 9 in one typical comment.
Yet despite a bombing in July that killed four of President Bashar Assadâ€™s closest advisers â€“ including his minister of defense â€“ Syrian military strategy has changed little from six months ago: using the highly mechanized army â€“ built to fight the Israeli army â€“ to surround rebel-held areas and pound them with artillery and airstrikes before making incursions with infantry and paramilitary forces.
â€śTheyâ€™re still capable of handling the threats that theyâ€™re dealing with, and theyâ€™ve been reaching deeper and deeper and deeper into their armory,â€ť said Joseph Holliday, a researcher at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington who specializes in the Syrian conflict.
Thatâ€™s not to say that the rebels havenâ€™t made the conflict costly for the military. Since the conflict began, the military has been forced to call up reserves and it continues to use paramilitary forces to supplement its infantry.
â€śTheyâ€™re taking somewhere around 40 (killed in action) a day. If you extrapolate from that, wounded would be about four times that number. So you can see thereâ€™s a steady toll just from combat on the army,â€ť said Jeff White, a senior defense fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
While there continue to be individual defections from the military, mass defections generally havenâ€™t occurred, something Holliday credits in part to a government strategy of teaming units made up of conscripts with more professional, better trained troops.
â€śThey are pairing their elite, reliable units with their less reliable units to prevent defections,â€ť Holliday said.
White thinks the overall trend is downward for the army and that the rebels eventually will prevail. He thinks the fact that the rebels continue to contest areas in Aleppo, Syriaâ€™s largest city, and in Damascus, the capital, show the militaryâ€™s weaknesses.
â€śThe armyâ€™s going to become less and less capable of conducting operations successfully, and I think the best example of that now is Aleppo,â€ť he said. â€śThe city is critical to the regime by all accounts, and it is disputed territory. For the regime, I think that is defeat. Itâ€™s not decisive defeat, but the regimeâ€™s inability to reclaim the city is a defeat.â€ť
Holliday is more skeptical. â€śThe rebels are trying to harass supply lines, but the corollary to that is that the regime is making sure it has everything it needs in place. Itâ€™s not going to lose a fight in Aleppo,â€ť Holliday said.Â
The mixing of army units that Holliday described has made it difficult to track which military units are fighting where, though Holliday said it was clear that Syriaâ€™s 4th Armored Division and Republican Guard were undertaking most of the fighting near Damascus. The 4th Armored Division is led by Assadâ€™s brother, Maher Assad.Â
The rebels have managed to destroy significant amounts of the armyâ€™s equipment, becoming particularly adept at attacking armored vehicles with rocket-propelled grenades and roadside bombs.
â€śAt the beginning we were seeing T-72s,â€ť White said, referring to the most advanced tanks, bought from Russia, that the Syrian army possesses. â€śNow weâ€™re seeing some T-54s and T-55s.â€ť
T-54s and T-55s are Cold War-era tanks that first went into production at the end of World War II.
But the army hasnâ€™t yet deployed some of its heaviest weaponry. Despite punishing artillery and rocket strikes on rebel-held areas, a number of rocket and artillery systems havenâ€™t yet been used.
â€śTo me, thatâ€™s the most important advantage the Syrian military has over the rebels,â€ť White said.Â
He predicted that the rebels eventually will acquire anti-aircraft weapons or learn to use the weapons they have to shoot down jets and helicopters, which the Assad military has begun to use more frequently. The use of jets to bomb rebel positions is among the developments that led the death toll to surge in August to 5,384, more than triple the number of dead recorded in May and the highest monthly total yet of the 18-month conflict.
But that wonâ€™t erode the regimeâ€™s advantage in artillery, White said. â€śThe one thing they will find it very difficult to deal with is the artillery,â€ť he said of the rebels.
White said that even if the military were to be broken, it probably wouldnâ€™t end the violence. He suggested that some commanders would use the mayhem to set up regions that theyâ€™d control. â€śIt isnâ€™t going to be just one outcome for the army,â€ť he said.
Holliday pointed to the shabiha, a pro-government militia whose membership is drawn largely from Syriaâ€™s Allawite religious minority, to which Assad and much of the countryâ€™s elite belong, as one likely outcome for a dissolved army. The militia has been used as infantry across the country, and human rights groups and the rebels accuse it of carrying out some of the worst atrocities in the conflict to date.
â€śThe shabiha are a big deal, not only because theyâ€™re being used as infantry, but itâ€™s also a nightmare scenario for what the army could become,â€ť Holliday said.
Enders is a McClatchy special correspondent. Email: email@example.com Twitter: @davidjenders