Middle East

Though depleted and fatigued, Syrian army remains cohesive

In this October 2011 file photo, Syrian soldiers carry the coffins of their comrades during a funeral procession in Homs.

BEIRUT: One evening, just over two years ago, Mustafa and his fellow conscripted recruits returned to their military academy compound in rural Syria following their day’s training to find the usual evening LBC news broadcast had been scrambled.

Even before the channel, which had been broadcasting confusing images of riots in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, was canceled, there were other ominous signs that things were amiss, the former special forces conscript, who declined to give his real name, recalled during a Skype conversation with The Daily Star this week.

Certain military classes had been inexplicably canceled and security around the academy had been visibly beefed up.

“It was definitely tense. I remember when things started to heat up and all the classes were postponed, training was postponed and all of a sudden there were guards on duty at the academy 24/7,” Mustafa said, speaking from a secure location outside the country, having completed his military service.

“We would switch on the TV and there would be images of Tahrir Square in Cairo and we wouldn’t really know what was going on. It was all in the context of the what the government wanted us to know. We were very isolated, disconnected and restricted in our access.”

Two years after popular demonstrations broke out in Syria’s southern city of Deraa, the uprising has evolved into a widespread militarized insurrection increasingly defined in sectarian terms.

The question of why other young Sunnis like Mustafa have not mutinied en masse, like the army in Egypt that eventually led to the overthrow of former dictator Hosni Mubarak, is perplexing.

Having suffered heavy losses in battle against rebels across the country, the Syrian army is showing signs of strain. The country’s top Sunni preacher, Grand Mufti Ahmad Badreddine Hassoun, made a public call Monday for general mobilization, calling on Syrians to defend against a “global conspiracy,” prompting speculation that the army was struggling. State media Tuesday dismissed the idea, claiming the army was “fine.”

Military analysts and those who have served in Syria’s feared armed services say while attrition is playing a role, a coup is unlikely and that the army remains largely cohesive.

Joseph Holliday is a senior analyst at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War and author of the first comprehensive comparative report on the strategy and capabilities of the Syrian army under both the current President Bashar Assad and his father and predecessor, Hafez Assad.

He says reorganization of loyalist brigades and a dependence on irregular army militia has kept the armed forces largely loyal and transformed the conflict to an unconventional civil war.

The report, “The Assad Regime: from Counterinsurgency to Civil War,” released last Wednesday, concludes that while the Syrian army is suffering from high casualties it is increasingly reliant on core trusted units to control all of Syria.

Using open-source material, including YouTube clips, interviews with defectors and other previously available military data, Holliday surmises that the regular army is now deployed at about a third of the strength of the 220,000 troops available at the beginning of the uprising in March 2011.

Defections, groundings – confining possible defectors to barracks – and draft dodging account for most of the other two-thirds, Holliday says.

The other 55,000-75,000 troops, he adds, have been reorganized into loyalist units and deployed strategically under the command of trusted elite unit commanders.

“There has been significant reorganization of the deployable units. They have taken the most trusted soldiers out of the conventional battalions,” Holliday says, speaking to The Daily Star by telephone.

Units that are deployed at full strength are limited to the the 4th Armored Division and the president’s Republican Guard.

“The vast majority of the commanding officers are Alawites, or those in leadership positions have close ties to the regime through family ties or commercial interests. This is true even at division commander level,” Holliday says.

Syria, which is 80 percent Sunni, is facing an uprising against a regime dominated by the president’s Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. While the army is largely representative of the country’s sectarian makeup, Holiday says anecdotal evidence does suggest sect and geography have played a part in determining which soldiers are grounded.

“But it is not a full representation,” Holiday says. “There are both Alawites and Sunnis serving.

“Everyone that is still fighting can be considered loyal to the regime as of last summer,” he adds. That tallies with accounts from defected and former soldiers interviewed by The Daily Star.

Mustafa, who completed his service early on in the uprising, says discrimination against Sunnis from areas with a history of opposition to the Baath party, like Hama and Homs, was pronounced, but adds that loyalist mentality was hammered into recruits through a combination of fear and psychology, offering a partial explanation as to why Sunnis have not defected en masse.

“They had a completely different way of dealing with people from loyal areas and people from say, Homs and Hama,” he says.

“I was lucky because I had enough resources to get out and find a new path. But others had fewer options. For many it was just a living salary.

“They fear the alternative and they are used to being told what to do.

“Often in the military you are deprived of your basic rights and it ... wears you down.

“It’s powerful psychology. Being deprived of the right to see your family, for instance, and being forced to depend on the army and your superiors, has an effect.”

More significantly, Holliday says, fearing defections, the regime is increasingly dependent on loyalist irregular militia.

Loyalist gangs, usually made up of Alawites, and locally coordinated loyalist forces under the name of the Popular Committees, mostly organized along the lines of other minority sects, have been used as an important bolster to army units.

Holliday says there were two types of militia: “There are the shabbiha, Alawite gangs extended to members of the Assad family, or those from, say, slums in mixed areas made up of loyalist gangs who are not Alawite and often responsible for the worst kind of brutality.

“And the more numerous and emerging are the Popular Committees – which I tend to think of as minorities who have armed themselves.”

In the long term this makes any idea of a coup irrelevant, he says, in a civil conflict “drowned out by the broader trend of sectarian fear” whereby the “remnants of the Syrian army and the pro-regime militia are likely to wage a fierce insurgency against any opposition Sunni government in Syria if the Assad regime collapses.”

“The Syrian army has been weakened, that is incontrovertible, but it has been weakened in a way that reinforces its loyalty,” Holliday concludes.

A senior defense fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Jeff White, agrees that a coup is unlikely, but questions the military capabilities of poorly trained paramilitary forces like the Popular Committees in the face of increasingly effective rebel advances.

Instead, he says, Syria is likely to see “a chaotic collapse” of the army.

“The regular Syrian army is now very much degraded and not relied upon much at all for defensive operations,” he says via Skype from Washington.

“It is largely not trusted, and has suffered substantial attrition,” he adds, estimating that some 40 soldiers are now being killed daily and three to four times that number are incapacitated by injury.

“They [have been] using the 4th Armored Division and the Republican Guard almost exclusively for 15 months so you would expect they would be facing serious fatigue,” he said.

With no defection of a whole army unit recorded so far, he says the most likely scenario is provincial dismantlement of the army, region by region, as the Free Syrian Army units make gains.

“While we can’t rule out the July 1944 scenario – a military coup – it is highly improbable,” he adds.

“Senior commanders are now so heavily invested in the regime and so many have blood on their hands. ... There is a solidarity that has been reinforced by complicity in the regime’s crimes.

“My question is about the combat capability of the loyal militias. They are highly motivated, but 90 percent civilian. So I would say the balance of capability is in the rebels’ favor.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 14, 2013, on page 8.




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