Following the end of the second round of the Geneva II conference for peace in Syria, it is worth taking a brief look at the military situation in the country. The UN-backed negotiations have produced no agreement, and they have already led to an upsurge in the fighting as the parties try to gain an edge before the next round of diplomacy.
This post will look at the Syrian government’s capabilities, arguing that while the regime has seen some important success recently, it continues to be hobbled, and might eventually be undone, by a serious manpower problem.
Strategic Gains for the Government
In recent months, the government has been able to rack up some important successes. These include:
- pushing rebel groups farther away from the center of Damascus and isolating them in the southern neighborhoods;
- gaining terrain south and east of Aleppo, the country’s biggest city and long a rebel stronghold that is now in danger of encirclement; and
- initiating a big clearing operation in the Qalamun Mountains along the Lebanese border to slow rebel infiltration and protect the main highway linking Syria’s western cities. This campaign has just reached an important test: the attack on the town of Yabrud, a rebel stronghold 50 miles north of Damascus.
These successes show that the Syrian government has managed to consolidate its military capabilities to a point where the fighting is largely going its way. It has done this by refocusing its army around a few core units that are unquestionably loyal to the regime and by reinforcing and repairing its artillery, armored units, and air force with help from foreign allies—such as fuel deliveries from Iran and military equipment from Russia.
Most importantly, the regime has grown increasingly reliant on irregular forces. The National Defense Force—Syria’s main pro-government militia—is thought to number around 50,000 local recruits, but the government camp also includes foreign Shia militias. The Lebanese group Hezbollah has thousands of fighters in Syria, and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is sending officers both for advisory and direct combat roles, while Iraqi Shia volunteers number around 5,000, according to an estimate by Valerie Szybala of the Institute for the Study of War (ISW).
The Manpower Problem
This influx of irregular forces has to some extent allowed the government to deal with its biggest problem: a shortage of manpower in general and a shortage of reliable and effective infantry in particular. This has plagued the regime since the beginning of the conflict, due to questionable loyalty among and huge desertions from army units made up mostly of Sunni Muslim conscripts.
The problem hasn’t quite gone away, however, and it continues to affect operations. The push into rebel areas east of Aleppo, for instance, has come at the price of pulling out of areas south of Damascus, such as the town of Jasim, and going slow on the big clearing operation by the Lebanese border.
It also means that the regular army no longer appears to be able to conduct maneuver warfare, where all its different arms—infantry, artillery, armored units, and air force—are integrated into coordinated operations. It now mainly serves to provide heavy-weapons support to the militias. “We are not seeing regular military operations at and above the battalion level anymore,” Jeffrey White, senior defense analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told me.
This has led government troops to rely on what Christopher Harmer, a military analyst at the ISW, calls siege warfare. “They identify rebel neighborhoods, encircle them and then shell and starve them into submission, trying to deny the rebels a safe haven,” he says. “They have enough infantry to go head-to-head in very specific places only.” The brutal barrel bombing of Aleppo, the starvation tactics that have left thousands of people without food in Damascus and Homs, and the razing of entire neighborhoods in these cities are only the most striking examples of this.
It also means that no success is final. “They just don’t have the capacity to completely destroy the rebels or stop them from leaking back in,” says White. Even as regime forces are working to envelop Aleppo, rebel fighters remain active in the government’s core areas, including Damascus and stretches of the crucial north–south highway.
Minority Support is Not Enough
In the final analysis, the problem is simply that the rebels have far more men. Syria’s population is 70 percent Sunni Muslim, and within this group most are overwhelmingly hostile to the regime. Alawites, the backbone of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s rule, make up just over one-tenth of the population, though the regime can rely on some support from the Christian and Druze communities as well. In a war of attrition—which is what his siege tactics amount to—Assad is bound to be the loser in the long run.
The government continues to suffer serious attrition: around 50 pro-regime fighters are killed every day, according to the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights, a UK-based opposition monitoring group. By late 2013, the army had suffered 29,000 deaths. That is a big loss considering that it was allegedly unable to deploy more than one-third of its 220,000 soldiers already at the start of the conflict.
A Question of Time
Some experts speculate that the army could break down as early as next year under the strain of attrition. But the moment of reckoning could also be years away. The recent outbreak of serious rebel infighting may give the government breathing space. Foreign Shia volunteers are also likely to keep streaming into Syria to support Assad’s government—although this poses another strategic problem for the regime by making it dependent on foreign forces that are not under its own control—and Assad still has a local pool to recruit from.
“The war has taken a great toll on the Alawite community, but it has shown a tremendous ability to adjust and rebuild,” says Joshua Landis, a leading Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma. “Do the math. There are about 3 million Alawites in Syria. The median age is twenty-one. That is a lot of cannon fodder.”
Balint Szlanko is a freelance journalist who has covered the Syrian war since early 2012. His website is found at balintszlanko.com and he tweets at @balintszlanko.