Very interesting report in today's NYTimes about the mounting toll on the Syrian military's most sophisticated weapons, especially helicopter gunships. This may be compelling Assad to make increased use of fixed-wing aircraft.
Perhaps even more worrying to Mr. Assad, his military has come to rely more heavily on equipment designed for a major battle with a foreign enemy, namely Israel, rather than a protracted civil conflict with his own people. Close observers of his military say Syria is having trouble keeping its sophisticated and maintenance-intensive weapons functioning.
The strain is likely to grow more acute as the government depends on helicopter gunships to extend its reach to parts of the country rendered impassable to logistics convoys and even armored vehicles by the rebels’ improvised bombs.
Analysts said Syria’s fleet of Mi-25 Hind-D attack helicopters, which numbered 36 at the start of the conflict, is insufficient to hold back rebels as the number of fronts, from Aleppo and Idlib in the north to the suburbs of Damascus in the south and Hama and Homs in the center of the country, continues to proliferate.
Maintenance technicians are struggling to keep the machines aloft in an intense campaign and in the searing heat and sand associated with summer desert war. Estimates are that only half his fleet can be used at a given time, with some helicopters cannibalized for spare parts and Mr. Assad dependent on supplies from Russia.
“This army is going to start breaking,” said Jeffrey White, a former Defense Intelligence Agency analyst now studying Syria for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Not the whole thing at once, but pieces of it will break.”
Mr. White said that by his estimates the Syrian military suffered nearly 1,100 soldiers killed in July, and is losing more soldiers and officers to defections. The loyalties of many commanders and units are suspect, he added, and months of sustained combat are no doubt taking a heavy toll on tanks and aircraft in a military that he said “was never known for maintenance.”
Defections of government troops and seizures of armaments are also a growing problem. Rebels in Aleppo claim to have control of a total of 14 T-72 and T-55 tanks and many indirect-fire weapons, including artillery pieces as well as mortars.
“The tanks are driven by our members, and their specialty is driving tanks, that’s what they did before they defected,” said Bashir al-Haji, a Free Syrian Army commander in Aleppo. “The tanks and artillery are important in our fight because they enable us to shell the regime from a distance.”
More potent arms for the rebels and the strain on helicopters may help explain why the Syrian military recently began using L-39 trainer jets in and around Aleppo, Syria’s most heavily populated city.
Another explanation for the appearance of jets “is that the Syrian military is fighting for Aleppo without enough artillery tubes,” said Joseph Holliday, a former American intelligence officer who covers the war for the Institute for the Study of War, in Washington.
At a glance, and for now, the government’s helicopter fleet is an imposing force. Highly maneuverable and able to carry several types of munitions, including free-fall bombs, it allows Mr. Assad’s military to roam above the Syrian countryside, seeking targets beyond the ready reach of its ground units.
Rebel commanders routinely say that what they most need are antiaircraft weapons to thwart government aircraft, especially helicopters.
But even if the rebels have no missiles these aircraft are almost certainly a dwindling asset, arms specialists who follow the Syrian conflict say. An American government official who covers the war said that fewer than 20 of these aircraft were likely available to the Assad government on any given day, out of the 36 in the fleet.
Mr. Holliday, the former American intelligence officer, put the estimate of working Hind-Ds even lower. “Assessing a max of 15 operational,” he wrote by e-mail.
All of this begs the questions:
- At what point does some ally of the rebels begin to supply them with Stinger-type missiles - the kind of weapon that proved the great equalizer for Afghan mujahideen in their 1980s fight against Soviet occupiers.
- At what point, if ever, will Russia try to resupply Assad with sophisticated helicopters? Evidence of that would surely force Mr. Obama's hand in terms of expanding US assistance to the rebels to include more than "non-lethal" forms.