Assad's war machine seen as teetering

The Syrian Army is supposedly equipped to fight a war with Israel but a full-scale armed insurrection against the regime has depleted resources and stretched morale

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Unmoved by widespread condemnation of his campaign to crush revolt and outwardly confident that he can still secure a military victory to end the Syrian conflict, the president Bashar Al Assad is a man who appears to have few friends in the world.

The strength of the government's armed forces offers a striking reminder that the friends he has - notably his main arms supplier, Russia - carry plenty of weight. But as rebel forces gain more successes on the ground, depleting resources and stretching morale, many analysts remain convinced it is only a matter of time before the regime crumbles.

The military publication Jane's Defence Weekly estimated before the uprising began that Mr Al Assad was able to count on about 3,800 battle tanks, and 2,200 infantry fighting vehicles, along with large fleets of armoured personnel carriers and reconnaissance vehicles.

The number of troops at the government's disposal was put at almost 500,000, although more than half of these were reservists. But this figure also dates from before the anti-Assad protests, which began in March last year, developed into a full-scale armed insurrection.

This strength has been affected by relentless pressure from the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and other anti-Assad forces, leading to assassinations, spectacular attacks and high-profile defections, including that of Mr Al Assad's prime minister, Riyad Hijab.

Despite official attempts to play down the significance of these events, they represent serious blows to the regime. The president remains in charge of a powerful military machine, with help still reaching Syria from Iran and Iraq as well as Russia. But there are limits to its effectiveness.

"They are not about to run out of equipment or ammunition," said Nadim Shehadi, a Lebanese associate fellow in the Middle East and North African programme at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, based at Chatham House in London. "This is an army supposedly equipped to fight a major war with Israel."

But Mr Shehadi said recent signals point to significant advances for the FSA and other anti-Assad fighters, both in their battles with government forces and in obtaining the supply of arms of which they previously claimed to be starved. "In the past two weeks, there have been indications that they have obtained new arms," he said.

"Even the fact that they have stopped complaining about under-equipment is, I am told, one such indication. Before, they were certainly badly equipped, mostly small arms and a few RPGs [rocket propelled grenade launchers]. That was not enough to fight tanks, but now they have managed to capture some."

Scott Johnson, a senior defence analyst with specialist regional knowledge at IHS, publishers of Jane's, said much of the material available to Mr Al Assad was "antiquated" showing great signs of wear and tear.

He said the government was also losing a growing number of tanks and other fighting vehicles but suggested a more pressing issue was the number of reliable units it could push into battle rather than the amount of equipment it possessed.

"My suspicion is that the regime is focused on preventing many units fragmenting, so keeping them at their bases or not giving them particularly challenging tasks," he said. "That means the assets of these unreliable units can be given to reliable units - but those guys are going to be getting tired, suffering casualties and possibly low morale."

He cited a recent New York Times report that Syria was using L-39 jets in ground attacks in place of overused helicopter gunships.

While these planes have been deployed in the battle for the city of Aleppo, Mr Johnson said this is mainly because they are based nearby. "I imagine the Russians could provide adequate spares for the gunships."

Mr Johnson could not offer a reliable estimate on how many of the reported 275,000 reserve military personnel had been called into action, or the true effect of the rebellion on morale. However, the FSA claims many former military personnel among its numbers.

The rebel forces' commander, Colonel Riad Mousa Al Asaad, called a year ago on the Syria army's "many honourable officers, non-commissioned officers, and men … to immediately defect from the army, stop pointing their rifles at their people's chests, join the free army, and form a national army that can protect the revolution and all sections of the Syrian people with all their sects".

The extent to which soldiers have changed sides is unclear, with estimates ranging from 10,000 by some western intelligence sources to as many as 25,000 cited by pro-rebellion elements at the end of last year.

Col Al Asaad told the London-based Arabic newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat in June that the rate of defections among Syrian officers had grown to 20 and 30 daily.

Mr Johnson said more recent developments were significant: "The apparently highly coordinated nature of the latest flurry of defections is both extremely damaging and embarrassing for the Syrian regime at a time when the battle for Aleppo is still raging."

For Mr Shehadi, the defeat of Mr Al Assad cannot come too soon. Despite concerns about the level of influence Al Qaeda may wield in Syria, he dismisses as absurd the idea that the uprising is "led by anti-western ideas", but offers one cautionary thought.

One of the lessons of Iraq, Mr Shehadi said, is that the longer a dictator clings to power, the more he creates the conditions for sectarianism and extremism to flourish.