Syria, Assad and the Military

News that a Syrian General has defected from the regime and fled to Turkey focuses international attention on the state of the Syrian military. More than any other single factor, the size and capability of Syria’s armed forces have deterred outside powers from intervening directly in the internal situation of that troubled country. Its ‘order of battle’, in the military jargon, is that of a significant military power, equipped primarily with Russian hardware. Even the creation of buffer zones along the border in Syria, let alone a large-scale intervention to topple the regime, would risk confronting this sizeable military adversary. It would require a major air campaign to dismantle Syria’s air defence system before outside troops could be inserted into what would remain a hostile military environment. No coalition of powers or even NATO have the political will to consider such a course of action.

The equation might be a different one if the Syrian armed forces showed more evidence of disintegration. It has been one of the disappointments for western observers that the Syrian military edifice appears so intact. Granted, there have been defections from the military and the case of Brigadier-General Manaf Tlass is just the most high profile of these. There is also a rising death toll amongst the military that will inevitably be placing strains on loyalties. Nevertheless, there has not yet been the large-scale fracturing of the Syrian armed forces that many expected. Unlike the experience of Libya, the Syrian military has remained largely cohesive and loyal to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. As a result, the Free Syrian Army finds itself consistently outgunned when it comes into confrontation with the armed forces.

The apparent cohesion of the Syrian armed forces may obscure the fact that the command and control exercised by the political leadership in Damascus is weakening. With pockets of violence breaking out across the entire country, the ability of the Assad regime to exert direction over its forces is coming under intense pressure. Violence, confusion and rumour are all playing a part in degrading the ability of the President and his senior officers to maintain control. This is what the classical Prussian strategist Carl von Clausewitz referred to as the ‘fog of war’. It results, over time, in the attrition of the government’s ability to manage the crisis.

It may also help to explain the growing brutality that is reported from inside of Syria. The names of towns and villages, such as Homs and Houla, have become synonomous with massacres and the killing of civilians. This may be a deliberate policy by an increasingly desperate leadership in Damascus but equally it may be the result of the armed forces slipping out of central control. Reports speak of pro-government militias, the Shabiha, perpetrating atrocities alongside regular armed forces.

It may also account for the mysterious shooting down of a Turkish F-4 Phantom aircraft on 22 June. Whether or not the plane was in Syrian airspace and irrespective of its mission, it is hard to think of an act more designed to incur the hostility of a powerful neighbour. With the Free Syrian Army having no airpower at its disposal, there was no strategic thinking behind this belligerent act. But it becomes more understandable if we see this in the context of a politico-military leadership that is losing control over its front-line units. An air defence commander in the north of Syria may have decided to use his own initiative and may not have obtained the consent of his superiors.

The outlook for Syria is bleak. As the violence continues to spiral upwards, and arms flow into Syria from outside parties, the control exercised by the Assad regime over its military is likely to deteriorate further. Unless a diplomatic solution can be reached, there appears every prospect of a descent into civil war that may result in the break up of the military. Once that point is reached, the level of blood letting will get much worse and the experiences of conflicts such as in the Balkans in the 1990s may be re-lived.

Professor Wyn Rees

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