Syria: The Military Nuances of the Conflict

5 MINS READJun 15, 2012 | 10:03 GMT
D. Leal Olivas/AFP/GettyImages
Syrian opposition fighters on April 15

Numerous recent reports indicate that Syrian rebels have taken the April 12 cease-fire as an opportunity to regroup and rearm with weapons shipments organized, funded and transferred by other countries. The rebels claim that large numbers of assault rifles, machine guns, mortars, sniper rifles and anti-tank missiles have been smuggled into Syria in recent weeks. The weapons came to the rebels allegedly through Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq, predominantly from suppliers in Saudi Arabia and Qatar. With the rebels better armed and motivated and the Syrian regime determined to crush the opposition, the environment is right for the conflict to intensify.

Supply lines through Lebanon have proved crucial, particularly because they are so close to Homs. But in the last few weeks, the number of weapons reportedly entering Syria from Turkey has increased dramatically. The Syrian rebel force in the Idlib governorate, which borders Turkey's Hatay province, is now reputed to be one of the strongest and best-equipped rebel forces in Syria and has said it is prepared to attack regime forces.

Because Hatay province is home to most of the Syrian refugee camps and serves as the Free Syrian Army's headquarters, accumulating rebel strength in Idlib makes strategic sense. Supply lines are shorter, and the rebels in Idlib have a path of retreat into Turkey in case of overwhelming pressure from government forces.

The sharp increase in the number of destroyed Syrian army tanks and armored fighting vehicles over the last month attests to the capability the rebels have gained with the new equipment, particularly with the anti-tank missiles. In addition, the Syrian rebels have been at war for more than a year now. With experience and aid from defecting Syrian troops, their fighting acumen has improved.

The influx of fighters and jihadists from other countries also bolsters the rebels. This influx includes experienced Syrian and Iraqi fighters who fought in the Iraq War against U.S. forces. Given the improvised explosive device tradecraft that these fighters have brought to Syria, they have had an enormous effect on the rebels' ability to inflict casualties and damage on the Syrian military. 

The Syrian army has begun changing some of its tactics and operations to better fight an increasingly capable enemy. With Russian and Chinese diplomatic support, Damascus has grown confident that it can avoid foreign military intervention and is starting to rely more on artillery and even attack helicopter support. Artillery and aviation also allow the Syrian regime to largely avoid costly armored attacks on rebel-held urban positions where armor is more vulnerable.

Determined to prevent the rebels from acquiring and holding critical territory, the Syrian military is set to continue offensive operations with its main assault units (the 4th Armored Division, Republican Guard and 14th Special Forces). Damascus will rely more on the Shabiha, a local mercenary force, to hold territory and carry out less-demanding operations.

In a speech delivered June 14, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton accused the Russians of delivering attack helicopters to the Syrian regime. It is not entirely clear whether she was referring to new or refurbished Syrian helicopters, but Moscow has admitted it is transferring weaponry to Syria, including relatively advanced Buk-M2E surface-to-air missile systems. The Russians have stated — correctly — that air defense equipment cannot be used against the rebels since they have no air capabilities. However, this equipment will strengthen Syria's air defense network, complicating any potential NATO intervention. Syria already has a sizable inventory of attack helicopters, including 35 to 50 Mi-24 series Hind gunships. More important than whether the Russians are sending more helicopters is Syria's recent decision to use the ones they have.

One of the first known instances of the Syrian regime's using helicopters was March 22, when an Mi-8/17 "Hip" was videoed using its side-mounted machine gun. Since then, numerous videos have emerged showing helicopters being used against the rebels, including videos of Mi-24s reportedly operating over Rastan and Farkia in recent weeks. These helicopters alone will not decide the outcome of the conflict, but they can be particularly devastating to ground forces without air defense equipment. They can also be instrumental in turning the tide in localized fighting, as seen in the June 5-13 Battle of Al-Haffah, during which heavy helicopter fire forced rebels to retreat.

Attack helicopters were of great use during the Soviet war in Afghanistan. The Soviet forces relied particularly on the Mi-24 to provide heavy fire support against the mujahideen, who nicknamed the aircraft "Satan's Chariot" and who were largely defenseless against it until they received FIM-92 Stinger man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS) from the CIA. Given that many members of the mujahideen became members of the Taliban and given the continuing U.S. concern about loose MANPADS, the United States and its allies would be very reluctant to deliver these weapons to the Syrian rebels.

The Syrian rebels could attempt to acquire Syrian army MANPADS, as they nearly did when they overran a Syrian surface-to-air missile site near Homs on June 10. The rebels claimed the base housed some Soviet-designed SA-7 MANPADS, but helicopter fire drove the rebels off before they could take the systems. Because Damascus is greatly intensifying its helicopter operations, Syrian military forces are likely to take considerable measure to secure their MANPADS.

Encouraged by an influx of weaponry and fighters, the Syrian rebels are becoming more confident and are determined to carry out further operations. The regime in response has escalated its crackdown and has intensified the use of helicopter gunships as well as artillery. Thus, the April 12 cease-fire is looking increasingly shaky. While the conflict is set to intensify, neither side has overcome its fundamental constraints and an end to the conflict is not yet in sight.

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