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Military balance in Syria

There is a modern military saying: amateurs talk tactics, professionals talk logistics. If evidence were needed of the truth of that, it was supplied last month in the fighting in Syria's capital, Damascus, when an offensive by opposition forces sputtered out as its fighters ran short of ammunition.

world Updated: Aug 11, 2012 23:04 IST

There is a modern military saying: amateurs talk tactics, professionals talk logistics. If evidence were needed of the truth of that, it was supplied last month in the fighting in Syria's capital, Damascus, when an offensive by opposition forces sputtered out as its fighters ran short of ammunition.

In the fighting for Aleppo, the same problems seem to be recurring. On Thursday, opposition fighters, under heavy pressure from a regime assault, finally pulled back from the Salahedin neighbourhood. They blamed shortages of ammunition. Petrol, too, has increasingly become an issue.

But it is not only the opposition that has had problems with logistics. According to reliable accounts, including defectors from the regime, the Syrian armed forces have also had difficulties, not least in maintaining the serviceability of the attack helicopters on which they have become increasingly reliant.

In a conflict in which President Bashar al-Assad's armed forces appear unable to defeat an opposition growing ever more effective, both tactics and logistics have suddenly become crucial. So what has happened?

The reality is that while the military balance between the two sides remains hugely uneven, the opposition has been able to play to its advantages - in the short term at least. The regime, on the other hand, has found it increasingly difficult to exploit its strengths as the fighting has moved to the country's largest cities.

When the conflict began, the Assad regime had more than 300,000 troops under arms and could call on more than 100,000 militia and paramilitary personnel. While defections and combat casualties have made inroads into that total, experts believe regime forces are still likely to be two to three times larger than the 70,000 or so the Free Syrian Army claims to have fighting on its side. German intelligence recently calculated the government had lost about 50,000 men to defections and deaths.

The regime also maintains its monopoly on air power, with little hard evidence that the FSA has significant numbers of anti-aircraft missiles.

In terms of armour, opposition forces remain hopelessly outgunned, claiming just over half a dozen captured tanks and some other armoured vehicles against the almost 5,000 the regime had at the outbreak of hostilities.

Game-changer

Despite all that, analysts believe things have changed. "My sense is that the military balance is shifting," said Jeffrey White, a former US intelligence officer who now comments on Syria for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "People are always looking for the mythical turning point in Syria. There has not been a decisive moment but there has been a change."

White, like others, believes that one decisive factor has been improvements by the FSA's fighters in using what weapons are easily available to them, captured or bought from the army. There have been also improvements in the quality of their leadership despite continued heavy losses among leaders.

"What they have got - like small arms and RPGs - they are using much more effectively," he said. "They are also using captured anti-aircraft systems like the ZU-23s and Dushkas much better." The result is that the regime is taking ever higher numbers of casualties. "In the last couple of months we are talking about 150-160 killed a day," he said.

What is counterintuitive - despite all the talk of weapons deliveries for the FSA paid for by Saudi Arabia and Qatar and talk of US and Turkish intelligence assistance - is how little evidence there is so far of large amounts of weapons being delivered from outside.

Foreign hand?

What evidence there is of foreign weapons so far is of small arms. Belgian journalist Damien Spleeters has been attempting to identify the source of rebel small arms that do not appear to come from the Syrian military, including Belgian-made FAL and Austrian Steyr AUG rifles.

Some reports suggest they have been smuggled from Libya via Iraq into northern Syria. Instead, examination indicates most of the weapons acquired by the opposition are of Syrian origin, largely older, Soviet-supplied equipment.

One fighter interviewed by Reuters in late July described how his own unit, operating in Idlib province, had obtained its heavy weapons. "We took their anti-aircraft guns, the booty, and left a dozen of their men dead," said Radwan al-Saaour, 26, a former labourer from Latakia.

"We did not have the experience to lay explosives, or any coherent leadership … but this is now changing," said Khaldoun al-Omar, another rebel interviewed. "The battles are looking more like warfare between two armies, even though they far outgun us."

The growing effectiveness of the FSA has been fuelled by a number of factors that are likely to be increasingly important even as the rebels seem to be losing the current battle for Aleppo.

As the Assad regime has lost control of more of the rural areas, the opposition has found it easier to move men and arms, while denying the same ability to the regime.

Despite that, some observers believe the regime retains considerable military resilience in terms of personnel and equipment. They argue that Assad's generals, anticipating a crisis over the Golan Heights, had topped up their military arsenal to be able to fight a two-year conventional conflict against Israel if necessary. (GNS)