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The Assad clan is trying to maintain control of the country with less than 200,000 troops and only about half of those are trained and disciplined. This is not working out well. The government is trying to fix this problem by organizing, or supporting, more armed militias. These groups are much less reliable and more prone to desertion. Most of the original security forces have been killed, captured, switched sides, or deserted. Two years ago the Syrian security forces had 450,000 personnel (50,000 secret police, 300,000 troops, and 100,000 police). About half this force is now gone. Over 30,000 have been killed or badly wounded. Over 100,000 have deserted and nearly 100,000 troops are in units that the government is reluctant to send into combat because of loyalty issues. Over the last year about 100,000 armed men have joined the Assads, mostly as local militia. But the Assads have fewer than 100,000 troops they can move around to fight the rebels. There’s another 100,000 that are, in effect, garrisons in places like the east (near the coast) Damascus and towns and cities in central Syria that will fight defensively but will not (or the government will not order to) move elsewhere. The government is having difficulty finding replacements for existing soldiers and police (especially the secret police who are the most loyal and effective armed men the government has). Several thousand of the security forces are being killed or wounded each month. Add in over a thousand desertions and you have a situation where the Assad forces keep getting weaker while the rebels grow stronger. There’s little doubt where this is going.
The basic problem has always been that most of the security forces, especially the lower ranking personnel, were not Alawite (the minority the Assads belong to). Those non-Alawites have largely deserted or been confined to their bases because of questionable loyalty. Even some of the non-Sunni units have such fragile morale that the best they can be expected to do is defend their bases. That will only last as long as supplies last. As the early fighting made clear, the non-Alawite troops cannot be trusted and will desert, refuse to fight, or even turn on their Alawite officers and NCOs. For this reason, the government is depending more on hastily organized (with the help of Iranian and Hezbollah trainers and organizers) Alawite militias. The problem with militias is that they are poorly disciplined and tend to commit atrocities, especially when responding to attacks on their own families. These militias also tend to disintegrate if pressed too hard. Many of the militias were created to simply provide security from the growing number of bandits, as well as small groups of rebels or soldiers seeking some looting opportunities. Throughout the country there are now over a million armed men organized for fighting. Less than a third of those are loyal to the government and there only about 100,000 troops and secret police that the Assads can really depend on. The rebels are lightly armed and lack training and discipline. But the rebel combat leaders are imaginative and energetic. Fortune favors the bold and the government has less and less opportunity to be bold.
Total deaths from two years of violence are approaching 80,000, and over 100,000 have been badly wounded (with permanent disabilities). Over a million have fled the country and over two million have sought temporary refuge inside Syria. At the rate things are going, the number of refugees could double by the end of the year, meaning that over 20 percent of Syrians have been driven from their homes. The economy has broken down in most of the country and shortages (especially of food and electricity) are more common. Law and order are breaking down, despite rebels efforts to establish government services in areas they control. The Assads are rewarding their dwindling followers with the property of rebels or suspected pro-rebel populations. Two years ago most of the population disliked the Assads, now most Syrians hate the Assads, and that animosity will continue for a long, long time. The Assads refusal to reform and improve the way they ran the country is the cause of this mess, and few Syrians will come out of all this without some loss. It’s all becoming very savage, old-school, and flat-out scary.
The government troop shortage means the Assads have had to abandon most of the country to various rebel groups and concentrate on defending key cities like Aleppo (in the north), Homs (in the center), and Damascus (in the southwest). This is where most of the fighting is and where the war will be won or lost. Given the way this is playing out, most nations in the region are pressuring the West to help with supplying weapons to the rebels. Already the cost of handling over a million refugees is partly paid for by Western nations and a lot of aid, short of weapons, has gone to the rebels. Several Arab nations have been bringing in weapons but it’s very important to get NATO countries, especially Turkey, to join in doing this. That could end the fighting much quicker, and this realization is what is changing Western attitudes about arming the rebels. Everyone accepts that after the Assads are defeated there will be another round of fighting between the various rebel factions (especially the Islamic radicals versus everyone else).
Iranian support for Assad is essential. The Iranians have hundreds of advisors and technical experts in Syria and fly in tons of weapons, ammo, medical supplies, and equipment each month. This comes through Iraq, which lies to the world about allowing these flights. All other local countries have forbidden Iranian flights to Syria via their territory. The Iranians also provide a lot of cash, as the Assads still appear to have money to pay for supplies and to meet the government and military payroll. There is less to buy in Syria but getting paid is good for morale. Iran loses big-time if the Assads are overthrown and seems determined to stick it out until the end.
March 9, 2013: Rebels released their 21 Filipino peacekeepers and denied they had demanded the UN pressure the government forces to stop attacking a rebel village to get the peacekeepers back. The UN did, however, call for a cease fire around the village in question. Apparently the rebels holding the Filipinos were persuaded that annoying the UN, which has been largely anti-Assad, was not good for all rebels. Meanwhile, the UN has ordered its peacekeepers on the Syrian border to eliminate night patrols and to, in general, be more wary of what Syrian or rebel forces are doing in the area.
March 8, 2013: Rebels who recently took 21 Filipino peacekeepers (part of the UN force monitoring the Syrian-Israeli border in the wake of the 1973 war) captive refused, as promised, to release them today. The Syrian rebels had demanded that the UN persuade the government to move troops away from a pro-rebel village in the area and stop shelling the place. The UN thought it had convinced the rebels that the UN could not do that. Apparently some rebel factions believe the UN is lying and has persuaded most of the local rebels to go along with holding on to the peacekeepers. The larger Syrian rebel command (the Free Syrian Army), to which most rebel groups belong, has not been able to force the release of the UN peacekeepers. It’s also believed that the peacekeepers are being used as human shields against possible Syrian use of artillery or air attack.
March 7, 2013: The government published photos of what were described as Israeli espionage equipment found on the Syrian coast. The devices, some disguised as rocks, appeared to be day/night cameras and a satellite dish for transmitting the photos taken of activity along the coastline. Israel does have naval commandos (like the U.S. SEALs) who have tried to secretly emplace this sort of spy gear.
March 6, 2013: On the Syrian border Syrian rebels kidnapped 21 UN peacekeepers who were escorting a supply convoy to one of the border observation posts. This happened less than a thousand meters from the Israeli border.