Saturday, September 20, 2014

How Much More Can Assad's Army Endure?

Is Assad's army really on the rebound? I'm doubtful.

Strategypage writes of Assad's army:

In central Syria (200 kilometers north of Damascus) the army was able to move in sufficient reinforcements to defeat a major ISIL effort to take the city of Hama. The fighting went on for several days but the Assads maintained the edge throughout and inflicted a major defeat on the rebels. In the past such major offensive rebel operations tended to succeed because the government could not get enough troops or militiamen to the battle quickly enough. Thanks to Iranian trainers and cash, the pro-government militias are better trained and more effective as are the soldiers. All of these men are paid regularly and most see a better future than do many of the rebel fighters. The army is about half its pre-war strength of 300,000 but the remaining troops are loyal and most have combat experience. The army is expanding back to its pre-war strength. This is thanks to cash from Iran, because the Syrian economy is wrecked.

All the more reason we shouldn't have relaxed sanctions on Iran in a futile attempt to get them to agree to forego nuclear weapons.

But is the Assad army really combat experienced? That was the consensus about Saddam's army after 1988. But by 1991, that army (excepting the Republican Guards) merely seemed worn out by the war rather than battle-hardened.

Iran's help is surely making Assad's forces more effective than they'd be otherwise.

And reacting to rebel offensives in a timely manner may be new, but is it because the Syrian troops are better or the rebels not as effective in launching attacks?

Recall that Assad's forces have spent a lot of effort in fighting the rebels in the west and the mere fact that the rebels could mount an attack is bad news for the government, isn't it?

This article discusses Assad's military, too.

And it starts with the last thing I noted:

Syria's army declared a victory against insurgents last week when it pushed back their advance towards pro-government towns in the west of the country. But a month earlier the strategic area did not even appear at risk.

Western officials believe the Syrian army, already stretched, has been under growing strain since Islamic State staged lightening advances in Syria and Iraq in June: insurgents this week briefly pushed into an area of Damascus that had not seen fighting for 18 months, the Observatory reported.

The article notes that the Shia foreign legion recruited largely in Iraq has gone home in large part to fight ISIL there.

Yes, Hezbollah still fights for Assad, but earlier reports indicate that this group is under strain trying to keep up its commitment to fighting for Assad.

The Syrian armed forces may be the toughest guy on the block, but it doesn't even have enough to secure just the Core Syria of the west:

A lack of manpower means pro-government forces have had to concentrate their efforts, focusing on a strategic corridor of territory stretching north from Damascus to the Mediterranean.

They have left parts of the north and eastern Syria to insurgents including Islamic State, Western-backed rebels, al Qaeda's Syria branch and other Islamist brigades.

To defend key areas, the military has adapted, relying on units seen as the most loyal to Assad as well as mobilising powerful Syrian militias to fight alongside regular army forces.

This is certainly what I said Assad had to do to survive back when he was reeling. And he's done it. But surviving is just the end of the beginning and not the beginning of the end.

The militias are the National Defense Forces of tens of thousands of militia, the article reports. Yes, throwing them into the line has given Assad needed numbers. But they tend to be tied to local defense, aren't as well trained, and have taken terrible losses.

Yet key areas can't be defended it seems despite the addition of numbers to the depleted army, as the opening created by lack of defenders for the jihadi rebel offensive aimed at Hama indicates.

The heavy casualties have had an impact on the army:

The military's core has become a mix of highly politicised units that traditionally protect the president, units with heavy artillery and the air force, she said.

Some time ago I noted that the heavy losses of infantry seemed like it was creating a shell of an army organized around heavy arms like tanks and artillery, but lacking the infantry to complement these arms.

Assad's casualties could be 70,000 dead if casualty patterns hold. That's over about three years.

Recall that some here (wrongly) claimed our Army was being broken by the Iraq War where we lost more than 4,500 (and that's total casualties including substantial Marine Corps deaths) over 5+ years to win.

Throwing the new pro-Assad militias into the fight as replacements for the infantry has led to very heavy casualties in this force, I've read elsewhere--heavier even than the army's losses.

While Assad may have kept his most loyal (that is, largely Alawite) army units intact, these are relatively few.

Is this really the picture of an army that can rebuild itself even to pre-war strength?

And is even success in doing that enough to defend the west and begin the reconquest of the east?

The article also rejects Strategypage's assessment of Assad's ability to move his troops to counter rebel attacks:

"They are stretched and they have been stretched since at least 2012. They are engaged on many fronts, the complexity and size and the type of operations have changed compared to 2012," a Western official who follows developments in Syria said.

"In 2011 and 2012 a whole unit could be dispatched into somewhere like Homs, they would carry out complex operations. If you look at what they are doing there now, the numbers are down," the official added.

What Assad was able to do at Hama to counter the jihadi offensive worked. But the effort may have been the result of the rebels forces deteriorating more than Assad's.

If Assad's backers truly believe that we are going to help rebels defeat Assad and defeat ISIL, perhaps the strain of years of bleeding with no end in sight to their war will lead them to crack and retreat the way the defenders of that air base did not too long ago in eastern Syria, which prompted new levels of criticism from Assad's supporters.

I don't assume Assad's army will break at any moment. But I also wouldn't be shocked if it cracked at any moment.