Despite Heavy Losses and Weakness, Syrian Army Hangs On
According to a recent estimate by the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights (SOHR), a U.K.-based monitoring group, 28,800 Syrian soldiers have been killed since the beginning of the conflict 2 1/2 years ago. This represents a massive hemorrhage of manpower for an army that was estimated to have a strength of 220,000 at the beginning of the war.
The army has also suffered desertions and from the beginning could rely only on a handful of crack units loyal to the government. Most of the army consists of Sunni Arab recruits, many of whom were judged unreliable to fight an insurgency that has its roots mainly in that religious community.
There are no reliable figures for loss of equipment, but a study by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (.pdf), published in September, estimated that the army had lost 534 main battle tanks and 77 infantry fighting vehicles since March of this year alone.
According to Globalsecurity.org, a consultancy, the army had about 4,700 main battle tanks at the start of the war, though nearly half of those were obsolete T-55 models.
“They are definitely worn down,” said Jeffrey White, a co-author of the Washington Institute study.
It remains difficult to know the army’s active strength. A March 2013 study for the Institute for the Study of War (.pdf) found that the government had “relied on approximately one-third of the Syrian Army’s doctrinal combat power to conduct [the] counterinsurgency campaign,” mainly to ensure that line units were fully reliable.
A telling development is that the regime has essentially given up much of the country, particularly the north and east, and is focusing mainly on trying to secure key areas of the west. These include the capital, Damascus; the highway linking it to Homs, Hama and Aleppo; and the provinces of Latakia and Tartus on the Mediterranean shoreline. Those two provinces are mainly populated by the Alawite religious community, the regime’s main support base.
The regime has been largely successful in these objectives, although despite its massive conventional firepower and the suspected use of chemical weapons it has been unable to permanently dislodge the rebels from some Damascus suburbs and the key city of Homs, all within the regime’s heartland.
It was also unable to stop a major rebel assault on Latakia province in August, when Islamist militias succeeded in seizing several Alawite villages for nearly three weeks. According to an investigation by Human Right Watch, the rebels massacred 190 civilians in that time.
The army’s relative weakness has been visible since at least February 2012. Around that time it started relying on heavy weapons, mainly artillery, and then to an increasing extent on the air force to fight pockets of rebel resistance, instead of attempting to clear neighborhoods with armored columns and infantry.
Analysts say that this may have been caused by a scarcity of reliable infantry units. “By shelling opposition areas from a distance, the military was able to limit casualties and defections among its already overstretched forces,” wrote the Institute for the Study of War. The reliance on heavy weapons has also contributed to the huge death toll among civilians, some 41,000 of whom have been killed, according to SOHR.
Edward Hunt of IHS Jane’s, a London-based defense consultancy, says the government’s reliance on heavy weapons may have also been an attempt to shield a Sunni Arab conscript force from realizing it is being asked to fight a popular insurgency, rather than foreign-backed terrorist cells, as the government routinely calls the rebels.
More recently, the regime’s military tactics have changed to some extent. In May 2013, in the battle of Qusayr, a rebel-held town between Homs and the Lebanese border, the government relied on allied militias, particularly the Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah, to clear the area in house-to-house fighting, in addition to heavy bombardment.
“They seemed to have adapted a light infantry-like approach, fighting in more of a guerrilla fashion reflective of Hezbollah's own insurgency background,” said Hunt.
The government is also increasingly using paramilitaries to compensate for the weakening of the regular infantry. Since mid-2012, the lightly armed neighborhood watches and armed gangs loyal to the regime have slowly coalesced into the National Defense Force (NDF), estimated to be 60,000 to 100,000 strong.
The NDF is mainly used for internal security in government-controlled neighborhoods, although some paramilitary groups have been implicated in the massacre of Sunni civilians. Some of the militias have reportedly received training from Iranian advisers. The government has also started to set up all-female militia units, suggesting it may be facing a shortage of manpower.
Hunt suggests the increasing mobilization of the population may also be the government’s way of tying Syrians’ fate to its own survival. “It forces people to really take sides, especially if they then come under attack by the rebels,” he said. In the long run, however, the government has a far smaller pool to recruit from than the rebels, as nearly three-quarters of the population is Sunni Arab.
None of this has led to a significant improvement in the government’s military situation, though it has so far prevented a collapse. Rebel forces remain active in the regime’s core areas: in the suburbs of Damascus, south of the capital around Daraa, in Homs to the north and along the Lebanese border. The stalemate may have contributed to the reported decision by the government to deploy chemical weapons in two Damascus suburbs on Aug. 21.
With the opposition splintering, it is difficult to see either side securing a military victory any time soon. Yet as White said, “these attrition processes have an effect eventually. They are losing people and equipment every day. It can’t go on forever.”
The Syrian army has managed to hold on much longer than most expected. Whether it can avoid collapse and for how long, however, remains to be seen.
Balint Szlanko is a journalist based in Budapest. He recently completed a trip to eastern Syria.