Syrian government has clear arms advantage over rebels
Analysis: it is not clear what supplying weapons to the opposition might achieve
Free Syrian Army fighters prepare to launch a rocket in Deir al-Zor. International estimates put the number of Free Syrian Army fighters and assorted jihadists at about 70,000. Photograph: Reuters/Khalil Ashawi
The EU decision not to renew an arms embargo on the Syrian opposition appears to give the green light to countries such as France and Britain to supply weapons to armed opponents of the Assad regime. From a military perspective, the likely outcome of such a move is unclear.
Unlike the situation in Libya – and indeed in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation – the military superiority enjoyed by Assad’s forces does not primarily reside in air power. Assad’s army consists of approximately 200,000 troops backed up by local militias (often composed of well-armed army reservists) totalling 170,000. In total, at any one time, Assad can field almost half a million troops, though desertions since the conflict began have depleted his numbers somewhat.
International estimates put the number of Free Syrian Army fighters and assorted jihadists at about 70,000. Unlike the Syrian military, these irregular forces have no coherent centralised command and control. Nor do they have armour or heavy weapons. Assad’s forces, on the other hand, consist of seven functioning armoured divisions and a number of mechanised brigades. These formations are equipped with about 5,000 old but highly effective Russian-manufactured tanks such as T72 and T90 main battle tanks. The mechanised brigades also have some 2,000 Russian-manufactured armoured personnel carriers. These relatively low-tech but robust assets are highly effective in urban combat. Most of the fighting in Syria has taken place in densely populated towns and cities – resulting in high civilian casualties.
The Syrian army also possesses a small number of Soviet-manufactured fighter jets and helicopters. Their air assets are relatively slim. Countrywide, they are believed to possess about 100 Soviet-manufactured Mi-24 attack helicopters and a similar number of Mi-8 transport helicopters.
If France and Britain were to supply the rebels with surface-to-air missiles, it is likely they would destroy Assad’s modest air superiority. Such missiles, however, would have little impact on the movement of Assad’s considerable armoured and artillery units.
Any state contemplating the supply of such missiles to rebel forces will be mindful of the manner in which the US-supported mujahideen in Afghanistan morphed into the Taliban. Many in the international defence and security community are nervous such missiles might eventually be used by Islamist guerrillas against civilian aviation targets beyond Syria’s borders. The Syrian military is concentrated in a number of key strategic areas. Assad has surrounded himself in Damascus with a mechanised division, a republican guard division and the fourth armoured division – augmented by controversial special forces units believed to have been involved in mass killings.
The Syrian army has concentrated its forces in Aleppo and is fighting desperately to retain control of a corridor of territory adjacent to the Mediterranean from Qusayr through Homs, Hama, Idlib and Aleppo. Elements of the Iranian Republican Guard and Hizbullah are fighting alongside Assad’s forces. With opposition forces concentrated here, the stage is set for further urban combat in these central and northern towns and cities – with a spillover into Lebanon or Turkey possible.
The rebels are armed with AK-47 assault rifles, DShK heavy machine guns and RPG-7 rocket-propelled grenades. They have deliberately deployed themselves among the civilian population and have concentrated on ambush, harassment and interdiction of the Syrian military. They have little or no artillery support. More often than not, they are unable to hold ground when assaulted by Assad’s forces. For its part, the Syrian Army has tended to fire indiscriminately on civilian populations among whom the rebels are deployed.
In arming the rebels, it is not clear what weapons a western nation might supply to effect a “game change”. Missiles will not turn the tide of this conflict. Heavy weapon systems, such as armour and artillery, would require western boots on the ground to command, control and co-ordinate. Unlike Libya, with a population density of just four people per square kilometre of contested territory, Syria has a population density of almost 120 people per square kilometre.
A no-fly zone would therefore require troops on the ground – forward air controllers and command and control elements to ensure pinpoint target acquisition among densely populated towns.
Even if a decision were made to send weapons to the opposition, it is unclear to whom they would be distributed. The Free Syrian Army is a fractured entity whose authority is contested by competing groups. It is fighting alongside groups such as Jabhat Al Nusra – an al-Qaeda-style organisation – along with other radical Islamist allies such as the Al-Tawhid Brigade, Ahrar al-Sham, Fajrul Islam and Al Fatah brigades. There are parallel combat operations involving Bedouins in Daraa, a variety of Libyan, Chechen and Afghan jihadists in Idlib and Aleppo – and Turkmen brigades and the Syrian PKK along the border with Turkey. While the military outcomes of arming such groups would be difficult to predict, the humanitarian outcomes would be certain to involve a dramatic increase in civilian casualties.
Tom Clonan is The Irish Times security analyst