Syria Military Shows Strain in a War It Wasn't Built to Fight

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BEIRUT, Lebanon -- The Syrian military's ability to fight rebels and hold territory has steadily eroded, forcing it to cede the job of running many checkpoints to paramilitary groups, give up a provincial city last week without much of a fight and even enlist the top state-appointed Muslim cleric as a recruiter.

Though the government forces remain better armed and organized than the rebels, two years of fighting have pushed the military to continue to scale back its ambitions and rethink its tactics.

In recent days, the government has signaled a growing anxiety over its ability to refresh the depleted and exhausted ranks of soldiers, and has continued to consolidate its forces around the capital, Damascus.

The expanse of Syria is now a patchwork, where the government retains at least a partial grip on most major cities but where the rebels have extended their authority across a growing swath of the north and northeast.

Dozens of soldiers, cornered at a remote northeastern border post, recently fled into Iraq, where allies of the rebels eventually killed them. Around the country, numerous funerals for Syrian soldiers take place each day, not only sapping the military's manpower but also cutting into its support and resolve, analysts say.

In Washington, James R. Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence, appeared before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday and submitted written testimony saying that "the erosion of the Syrian regime's capabilities is accelerating." While the Syrian government has kept rebels from fully seizing the three largest cities, he said, "it has been unable to dislodge them" from their footholds there.

For President Bashar al-Assad's government, the insurgency has overly taxed a military that was designed not for sustained asymmetrical combat, but to repel an Israeli invasion.

As the government wages a war that a pro-government newspaper suggested on Tuesday could go on "for years," it continues to retreat from its initial approach of fighting the rebels wherever they popped up, focusing instead on protecting its strongholds. And in recent days it has placed new emphasis on mobilizing civilians to take up arms for what it paints as a battle for Syria's existence against foreign-financed terrorists.

Some in Syria even report that the government has begun putting special pressure on Christians -- who it assumes are supporters -- to join the army. At the same time, the government has turned to the nation's top Muslim cleric to press young people into military service, despite Mr. Assad's assertion that he is defending a secular order.

In an unusual appeal on national television on Monday, the grand mufti, Sheik Ahmad Badr al-Dine Hassoun, urged Syrians of all religions to join the army. "Syria is the last model of a civilized nation which converts diversity into richness instead of clashes and weakness," he said.

The strategy, analysts say, aims to relieve the strained forces from the task for which they are most poorly suited -- holding neighborhoods in an urban war -- and conserve their considerable remaining strength to protect the hub of government power.

The results of that consolidation could be seen last week as rebels swept into the northeastern city of Raqqa and, with an air of confidence, began setting up the foundations for self-government. Although the government continues to pound the city with airstrikes, the capture of Raqqa expanded the rebels' territory in the north.

Yet with the army still strong in the center, analysts say the country is increasingly divided between tight government control in Damascus, de facto rebel control in the north and some Damascus suburbs, and a bloody and increasingly sectarian paramilitary battle in contested cities like Aleppo and Homs.

A conventional army like Syria's "cannot really fight nonstop war," said Elias Hanna, a retired Lebanese general and a professor at the American University of Beirut. "It is weakening for sure."

Much of the Syrian Army remains well organized and capable, he said, with a far more effective command and control structure than the highly motivated but loosely structured rebel coalition it faces.

But, he said, its soldiers "rely morally and psychologically on something like a truce, like surrender, like destroying the enemy, and in this kind of war you are not really able to measure your success."

Since early in the conflict, large numbers of military-age men have paid thousands of dollars to legally avoid military service -- so many that analysts say the fees have constituted a significant revenue stream for a government that is determined to keep paying salaries to show that it remains in control.

The government has long lacked enough reliably loyal troops to blanket contested areas with patrols or take them with ground operations, so instead it has relied on indiscriminate airstrikes and artillery attacks that have pushed the death toll well above 70,000, according to United Nations estimates. Rebels say fighters from the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah have increased their presence to buttress government troops.

But now, to fill the gap further, the government is increasingly relying on paramilitary groups, according to analysts and a recent United Nations report.

The groups began as the pro-government militias known as shabiha, some of them given formal status as Popular Committees. In recent months they have been organized under a structure called the National Defense Forces. The United States government has accused Iran, Syria's ally, of helping build the groups on the model of Iran's feared Basij militia.

In government-controlled areas of Aleppo, Syria's largest city, many of the ubiquitous checkpoints are now operated by those groups -- usually made up of locals -- rather than the army, said Peter Harling, the Syria analyst for the International Crisis Group, a conflict-monitoring organization. As people lose faith in the army, they are loath to risk death on far-flung army deployments, he said, while "holding your ground, protecting your own neighborhood, is far more appealing."

The pro-government newspaper Al Watan declared Tuesday that the army had "at its disposal enough men and weapons to fight for years to defend Syria."

But it also urged civilians to go to the army's aid. "The army is fulfilling its duties, and citizens must now defend their districts, each according to their capacity, as they have done in Aleppo, Hama and Homs, where residents have taken up arms," the paper said.

Some Christian families have fled Aleppo rather than submit to a recent aggressive army recruiting campaign, fearing their sons will be stopped at checkpoints and forced into service, according to Aksalser, an Aleppo-based Web site that calls itself independent.

In his televised remarks, Sheik Hassoun, the grand mufti, also appeared to make a special appeal to Sunnis, saying the rebels were "targeting the Arab and Islamic nation."

Analysts said that he could not really expect to draw recruits from the Sunni heartland, where government artillery and airstrikes have leveled neighborhoods, and that the speech appeared aimed at reinforcing the government's narrative that its fall would destroy Syrian society.

A group calling itself the Coalition of Free Alawite Youth pushed back on Tuesday, offering an alternative for Alawites who do not want to take up arms. It invited them to flee to Turkey, promising that "within a few days, we will secure free accommodation for them with a monthly salary that will shield them from humiliation."

It invoked God's blessings, and concluded, "Those who wish to leave, please contact the administrators of the page."

Hania Mourtada contributed reporting.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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