The defection this week of a Syrian general, five other officers and 33 soldiers to Turkey represents the latest setback to the beleaguered regime of Bashar Assad in Damascus.
This brings the number of generals who have deserted Assad’s cause to 13 – in addition to thousands of rank-and-file soldiers and more junior officers.
Three Syrian pilots also defected to Jordan on Sunday.
These latest losses to the Syrian dictator are of course not decisive in themselves. But they add to the general picture in which the regime, while still defiant, is visibly running out of ideas.
It is doubling down on the only strategy available to it – increasing the pitch and the brutality of its attempt to crush the rebellion by force. This strategy is succeeding in creating an ever-larger body count. But it is showing no signs of stopping the rebellion. This in turn is leading toward growing disillusionment among the remaining loyal forces.
Reliable estimates now suggest that the Syrian rebels have around 40,000 fighters available to them. This is a significant force, though one still concentrated in particular areas of the country.
By comparison, the Muslim Brotherhood uprising that Assad’s father crushed in Hama in 1982 never had more than around 4,000 insurgents under its banner.
Assad officially controls an army of just over 200,000 men.
But only some of them are sufficiently trusted to be engaged against the rebellion.
The Syrian rebels, having begun as an uprising against the recognized authorities, are beginning to look more like a rival center of power in the country. The latest defections are evidence that this is becoming apparent to a growing number of Assad’s men.
Many aspects are coming together to create this impression.
First, the rebels are in de facto control of a growing swathe of Syrian territory. This is despite the determined and bloody counter-offensive that the regime launched in March, in an attempt to reconquer areas under rebel control.
The Assad regime still has the capability to conquer and control any specific point in Syria.
But it does not possess sufficient loyal forces to simultaneously occupy and control all areas of support for the insurgency.
Assad controls the cities and main highways throughout Syria. But in a large part of the north, his troops no longer venture far into the countryside.
The area between Aleppo and Idlib cities is now effectively under rebel control. A second “safe zone” stretching from the Turkish border down to the outskirts of Hama is in the hands of the rebellion. Smaller rebel-controlled zones in Deraa governate, north and south of Homs city and in the Zabadani area near Lebanon have also been carved out.
Second, the rebels are able to call on more sophisticated weaponry, which is making its way across the border from Turkey, financed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and coordinated with Turkish and possibly also US help.
These increased capabilities are making a difference. Improvised explosive devices are being used to harass Assad’s forces, and photographic evidence has emerged of destroyed tanks in the north of the country. The death toll among loyalist forces is growing.
Increasingly, Assad prefers to use artillery and attack helicopters rather than armor and infantry.
This is an indication of declining manpower and perhaps also reduced trust on the part of the regime in its own foot soldiers.
Third, the Assad regime’s downing of a Turkish F-4 fighter jet last week threatens to bring down retribution. The Turks have called for a meeting of NATO countries under article 4 of the NATO charter, set to take place this week.
The Assad regime will be waiting to see if the downing of the aircraft proves to be the factor that finally precipitates more determined and overt international action against it. Turkey has proven unwilling to act alone, however, so this will depend on the views of other member states that have displayed marked reluctance toward stronger measures.
In any case, fear of this possibility also forms a background to the growing jitters among larger numbers of Assad’s men and growing numbers of Assad’s troops. Thirty-nine such men, including a general, made their way with their families from northern Syria to Hatay province in Turkey this week as a result of these doubts. More are likely to follow.
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