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Syrian army eroded by defections, battle deaths

Syrian army soldiers hold the flags of the opposition after defecting in Homs province. A Sunni Muslim cleric and President Bashar Assad loyalist asked Syrians to rally to defend their country.

Associated Press (2012)

Syrian army soldiers hold the flags of the opposition after defecting in Homs province. A Sunni Muslim cleric and President Bashar Assad loyalist asked Syrians to rally to defend their country.

BEIRUT, Lebanon — A top Syrian cleric's appeal to young men to join the army raised the question of whether President Bashar Assad is running out of soldiers, prompting a pro-government newspaper to reassure readers Tuesday that the military can keep fighting insurgents for years to come.

Syria's civil war, with its large-scale defections, thousands of soldiers killed and multiple fronts, has eroded one of the Arab world's biggest armies, with pro-Assad militias increasingly filling in for troops.

But the regime is far from its breaking point. Assad appears to have stopped trying to retake all of the rebel-held areas, lacking the manpower to do so. But his forces have pinned down opposition fighters with artillery and airstrikes, while repelling rebel assaults on the capital of Damascus and other regime strongholds.

In this scenario, the regime can hang on for months, said Joseph Holliday, a Syria analyst at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War. "The opposition is definitely ascendant, and Bashar is going down, (but) it's a question of time," he said.

Syria's troop strength moved into the spotlight with a call for a general mobilization by Grand Mufti Ahmad Badreddine Hassoun, the country's top state-appointed Sunni Muslim cleric and Assad loyalist. He told state TV on Sunday that Syrians must rally to defend their country against a "global conspiracy."

On Tuesday, the pro-government al-Watan newspaper dismissed speculation that the mufti's appeal was a sign of attrition among the troops. The army is "fine," the newspaper said in a commentary. The army can keep fighting for years, it asserted.

The Syrian army had about 220,000 troops at the start of the conflict, according to Holliday, who follows battlefield developments. Assad only deployed the most loyal one-third of those soldiers, or between 65,000 and 75,000, Holliday estimated. Tens of thousands more deserted, while others were deemed unreliable, he said in a new report.

Estimates vary on casualties among the troops. As of Tuesday evening, the activist group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said it had documented the deaths of 14,521 soldiers.

Syrian army eroded by defections, battle deaths 03/12/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 13, 2013 12:18am]

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