By William Tucker
As fighting in Syria drags on it is prudent to take a glance at the capabilities of the belligerents in the fight for Syria. Notable engagements in Aleppo and Damascus – both of which are ongoing – provide insight into the capabilities of each fighting force. There are some aspects that will be difficult to ascertain and this will not be an empirical analysis as verifiable information originating from Syria is lacking. Additionally, there are different factions fighting the Assad regime and their area of operations and foreign supporters may impact capabilities. Instead of focusing on the minute details we can still ascertain quite a bit from what information we do have.
The battle of Aleppo is dragging on far longer than one would expect for a better armed regime military force. At the onset, regime forces used artillery and air strikes to hit rebel positions in the city. Some observers noted that these weapons were not having the desired effect of softening up rebel defenses. This is plausible. The equipment in use by regime forces is antiquated Soviet/Russian technology, and as such, isn’t as accurate. Also, striking targets in an urban area using artillery and fixed wing aircraft is extremely difficult without spotters (i.e. Combat air controllers, target designation devices, personnel on the ground, etc.) to identify targets accurately. With such inaccurate weapons in an urban environment, areas at higher elevation, whether man made or natural, often impede these weapons from striking ground level. This favors the rebel forces as they are lighter and can quickly reposition. From the regime’s perspective, however, this shelling can force the civilian population to abandon their homes thus allowing for a higher saturation of munitions on a target once the civilians have cleared an area. Judging from past regime actions this doesn’t seem to be a likely concern, although it does remove the ambiguity of rebel versus civilian on the battlefield which could force rebel forces to abandon the neighborhoods they once held.
The approach used by the regime also indicates that the Syrian military may be suffering from high attrition rates from defections and prolonged combat. While it is accurate to say that attrition is problematic for any military force the imbalance resulting from the attrition must also be considered. Moving any military force is a daunting task and logistics often consume a majority of the manpower. In the U.S. Army for example, soldiers with a logistical function comprise 75% of the force leaving the rest available for forward operations. This includes infantry, artillery, armor, and special operations forces. What all this means is the Syrian military’s losses are likely most prevalent among forward operating forces. This might explain the hesitancy of the regime to commit ground forces to combat in Aleppo. Indeed, regime commanders on the ground in Aleppo were complaining of this very dynamic. If rear echelon soldiers are now bearing the brunt of forward operations while still trying to run logistical support to the heavier artillery and armor units the strain will cause significant problems in the long run for regime loyalists.
For their part, the rebels don’t necessarily have this problem. Battle fatigue will still be a problem of course, but the rebels are a much lighter force and have a significant portion of their logistical chain run by clandestine foreign supporters. Furthermore, the rebels are typically using light weapons that don’t require the maintenance of the heavy weapons employed by the regime. This simplified logistics chain coupled with the foreign training the rebels are receiving makes for better endurance over prolonged combat. This also serves to increase the availability of manpower for forward operations.
The rebels have another advantage that straddles the tactical/strategic spectrum. Rebel forces don’t necessarily need to occupy any of the major cities, while the regime must regain control of these cities to show its continued viability. As rebel forces set the time and place of each engagement, the regime will be forced to respond in kind. This constant movement will continue to strain the logistics chain and further exacerbate tensions within the Syrian military. Over time the regime may choose to cede ground to the rebels to alleviate these tensions, but it hasn’t shown any signs of doing so. The longer the regime waits, the more difficult this restructuring will be. Iran is now helping to train militias, such as the notable Alawite Shabia, to fill the gaps present in the regular Syrian military, but this may be too little too late. The rebels have nothing but time, and that is their most potent weapon.
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