Syrian regime is running out of men
BEIRUT - Arguably the biggest problem facing the Syrian regime of President Bashar Assad these days is that it’s running out of men to fight rebel forces in an incredibly complex multi-sided, multi-front civil war in which more than 220,000 people have died.
When the conflict erupted on March 15, 2011, amid the “Arab spring”, the Syrian Army boasted some 250,000 men, including conscripts, and reserves of 280,000, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London.
Today, death, desertion and defections have reduced the army’s strength to an estimated 110,000 men, with some 80,000-100,000 auxiliaries, half of them in a formation known as the National Defence Force (NDF), some little more than hired thugs used to terrorise a rebellious populace.
There have been thousands of defectors from the military, including several senior officers. The most notable was Brigadier-General Manaf Tlass, a commander of the elite Republican Guard and an Assad confidant who jumped ship and fled to France in July 2012. He is the son of a regime stalwart, Mustafa Tlass, who was defence minister from 1972-2004, mainly under Assad’s father, Hafez.
But what made the defection of such a high-profile figure at the heart of the minority Alawite regime so damaging was that Tlass, like his father, is a Sunni and his flight underlined the mushrooming sectarian nature of the conflict in which the rebels are overwhelmingly Sunni.
The number of conscripts in government-controlled areas has been seriously curtailed, as young men increasingly dodge mandatory military service, which means the regime relies on auxiliary forces like the NDF, trained by Iranians and Hezbollah, Tehran’s powerful proxy in Lebanon.
Iran, Assad’s key regional ally, has sent thousands of Shia militia fighters to bolster the regime, mainly Lebanese Hezbollah and Iraqis, with growing numbers of Afghanis and Pakistanis.
But the human haemorrhage has reached such proportions amid recent rebel advances that the regime, which at most controls about one-quarter of the country, appears to be relinquishing some regions to concentrate its forces around Damascus, the seat of Assad’s minority Alawite regime, the Alawite heartland in the northeast and the coastal city of Latakia on the Mediterranean, the regime’s only port, and the land corridor linking the two regions.
Since the war began, the army has banned all discharges from the armed forces. But the drain on manpower has gone on, with men forced into military service deserting in large numbers, many joining the rebels.
Replenishing its fighting forces was always going to be a critical problem for the regime because the manpower pool was limited. On the other hand, rebel groups have been constantly reinforced by volunteers from the Arab world and beyond, in what has become primarily a sectarian war between Islam’s mainstream Sunni sect and the minority Shia. The Alawites are a Shia offshoot.
Four years of fighting has taken its toll on the regime’s arsenal. The armoured and artillery forces have been severely reduced — particularly since Saudi Arabia began supplying rebel forces with US-made TOW anti-tank missiles, which greatly increased their firepower.
According to the 2015 edition of the IISS’s Military Balance, the air force has shrunk from 555 combat aircraft in 2011 to 277 today.
Even so, since the rebels have no air wing, the air force remains a potent weapon that Assad frequently unleashes on civilians in rebel-held territory, which have also been repeatedly targeted by Soviet-era Scud ballistic missiles and FROG-7 rockets. These have often been armed with chemical warheads that have inflicted heavy civilian losses, according to civil rights monitors, relief agencies and diplomatic sources.
Hundreds of people were slaughtered by sarin nerve gas in a missile attack on rebel-held suburbs of Damascus in 2013. Under international pressure, the regime agreed to eliminate its chemical weapons arsenal but there are serious concerns that Damascus retains stockpiles. There have been repeated allegations the regime is using toxins such as chlorine gas.
In 2014, the army, supported by Hezbollah and Shia militias deployed by Iran’s military supremo in Syria, Major-General Qassem Soleimani of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), made substantial advances. The regime appeared stronger than at any time since 2012 as its forces became more adept at urban warfare and counter-insurgency operations.
Russian and Iranian arms supplies were steady, while most rebel groups were having trouble acquiring weapons, particularly anti-tank missiles to counter Assad’s armour. Elite units such as the Presidential Guard and the 4th Armoured Division are loyal and remain the core of the regime’s military.
But as the army has been degraded Assad finds himself totally dependent on Iran and that has reportedly caused friction within the Damascus leadership.
Some senior officers have apparently fallen from favour because they complained about the role of Soleimani’s officers from the elite Quds Force, the IRGC’s expeditionary wing and the spearhead of Tehran’s expansionist operations from Lebanon to Afghanistan.
These officers are particularly incensed at the way that Iran, which for most of the time since Assad’s father struck an alliance with the Islamic Republic in 1980 was the junior partner, has become the dominant partner.
Manaf Tlass told The Wall Street Journal in 2014 that one of his reasons for defecting was the Iranian takeover, along with Assad’s refusal to compromise. “Bashar never opted at any time for serious and credible reforms, but instead chose to destroy the country rather than lose power,” Tlass said. “He sold Syria to the Iranians.”