The Syrian Army is facing its most serious challenges since the start of the Syrian Civil War.
Fatigued, over-stretched, and losing the support of its base constituency, the Syrian Army is conceivably nearing the point of collapse. Major rebel offenses have taken control of the strategic cities of Idlib and Jisr al-Shegour in the north. Meanwhile, a second rebel offensive in the south has been steadily working its way towards Damascus, the capital.
These steady rebel gains have demoralized the Syrian military, created fissures within the regime of president Bashar al-Assad, and force Damascus to accept greater foreign assistance in propping an ailing government, according to an April 30th New York Times report.
Here’s why the regime may be nearing its most serious crisis yet.
A plunge in Syrian Army manpower
The Syrian Army has suffered extreme causality and desertion rates during the civil war. During the 4 years of the conflict so far, the military has lost approximately half of its personnel.
“Four years ago, Syria’s army had 250,000 soldiers; now, because of casualties and desertions, it has 125,000 regulars, alongside 125,000 pro-government militia members, including Iranian-trained Iraqis, Pakistanis and Afghan Hazaras,” the Timesreports.
This increased reliance on foreign fighters has elevated the Iranian-backed Lebanese Shi’ite militia group Hezbollah to a key position, often to the chagrin of the Syrian military. According to the Times, Hezbollah “now leads or even directs the fight in many places,” at the expense of Syrian commanders.
When irregular volunteers and foreign fighters are taken into account, the regime has not seen a collapse in overall firepower. But an increasing reliance on irregular forces and foreigners further limits the regime’s actual reach and credibility. A multitude of smaller fighting forces also makes it more difficult for Assad to coordinate the military into a single overarching force, or mobilize specifically in the regime’s defence.
Declining support for the government
Throughout the civil war, Assad has counted on the support of religious minorities for his rule. Much of the regime’s top leadership is comprised of Alawites, a Shia offshoot. Generally Assad could also count on a de facto truce with Kurds, Christians, and Druze as well.
But after years of grinding warfare the minority communities are increasingly unwilling to send their sons off to military service within the Syrian Army. A growing number of communities that once supported the regime are keeping their children home in order to create local defence forces that are disconnected from regime command and control structures, the Times reports.
Draft-dodging and desertions are also on the rise. In response, Assad has banned military-aged males from leaving the country and has pressed discharged soldiers into multiple rounds of duty. This has fuelled discontent with the regime and further eroded support among Assad’s base.
The stresses of the civil war have taken a toll on the inner workings of the Assad regime. Assad’s political security chief was reportedly beaten to death after an argument with the head of Syria’s Military Intelligence over the role of foreign fighters. After the incident, Assad was forced to replace both officials.
This infighting is escalating only weeks after Assad allegedly gave a direct order for the arrest of his cousin on charges of plotting against the regime.
The regime is almost broke
The years of fighting and the collapse of the Syrian economy has almost bankrupted the government. According to the Times, Syria started the civil war with approximately $US30 billion in foreign exchange reserves. After four years, the regime is down to approximately $US1 billion.
This erosion in foreign capital and the collapse of the war economy has collapsed the value of the Syrian pound. The Assad regime has carried out raids throughout Damascus in a desperate effort to find foreign currency.
Meanwhile, the weakening of the pound has led to further discontent within the Syrian Army, according to the Times, as soldiers continued to be paid the same salaries but with a currency that’s becoming more and more worthless.
Security is failing in Damascus
All of the previous factors taken together has led to a collapse of regime authority and law and order within the Syrian capital. The Times reports that checkpoints in the center of the cityare understaffed, while the Syrian police are rarely seen on the streets to enforce even the most basic of laws.
Meanwhile, entire neighbourhoods have become de facto controlled by Hezbollah as the regime becomes increasingly stretched.
The rebels have consolidated
The ongoing rebel campaign in the north of Syria focused around Idlib province marks a significant turning point in the war. A mixture of al Qaeda-affiliated groups, Islamists, and moderate rebels have come together to take Idlib and Jisr al-Shegour, the first major gains the rebels have experienced against the regime in 2 years.
This concentration of fighters has swung the momentum in the rebels’ favour, threatening the heartland of Assad support along the Mediterranean coast. It’s also created conditions for a wider offensive throughout the north of the country in a single consolidated campaign.