Balint Szlanko writes: The National Defense Force — Syria’s main pro-government militia — is thought to number around 50,000 local recruits, but the government camp also includes foreign Shia militias. The Lebanese group Hezbollah has thousands of fighters in Syria, and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is sending officers both for advisory and direct combat roles, while Iraqi Shia volunteers number around 5,000, according to an estimate by Valerie Szybala of the Institute for the Study of War (ISW).
This influx of irregular forces has to some extent allowed the government to deal with its biggest problem: a shortage of manpower in general and a shortage of reliable and effective infantry in particular. This has plagued the regime since the beginning of the conflict, due to questionable loyalty among and huge desertions from army units made up mostly of Sunni Muslim conscripts.
The problem hasn’t quite gone away, however, and it continues to affect operations. The push into rebel areas east of Aleppo, for instance, has come at the price of pulling out of areas south of Damascus, such as the town of Jasim, and going slow on the big clearing operation by the Lebanese border.
It also means that the regular army no longer appears to be able to conduct maneuver warfare, where all its different arms—infantry, artillery, armored units, and air force—are integrated into coordinated operations. It now mainly serves to provide heavy-weapons support to the militias. “We are not seeing regular military operations at and above the battalion level anymore,” Jeffrey White, senior defense analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told me.
This has led government troops to rely on what Christopher Harmer, a military analyst at the ISW, calls siege warfare. “They identify rebel neighborhoods, encircle them and then shell and starve them into submission, trying to deny the rebels a safe haven,” he says. “They have enough infantry to go head-to-head in very specific places only.” The brutal barrel bombing of Aleppo, the starvation tactics that have left thousands of people without food in Damascus and Homs, and the razing of entire neighborhoods in these cities are only the most striking examples of this.
It also means that no success is final. “They just don’t have the capacity to completely destroy the rebels or stop them from leaking back in,” says White. Even as regime forces are working to envelop Aleppo, rebel fighters remain active in the government’s core areas, including Damascus and stretches of the crucial north–south highway.
In the final analysis, the problem is simply that the rebels have far more men. Syria’s population is 70 percent Sunni Muslim, and within this group most are overwhelmingly hostile to the regime. Alawites, the backbone of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s rule, make up just over one-tenth of the population, though the regime can rely on some support from the Christian and Druze communities as well. In a war of attrition — which is what his siege tactics amount to — Assad is bound to be the loser in the long run. [Continue reading…]