A photo released Aug. 8 shows Syrian army tanks parked on the side of a road during an alleged pursuit of opposition fighters in the Latakia province, western Syria. (Agence France Presse via Syrian Arab News Agency)
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The debate has shifted from whether the U.S. will attack Syria to punish President Bashar al-Assad for a chemical weapons attack allegedly carried out by his forces to what day the attack will start.
Syria is a police state run by Alawites, an offshoot of Shia Islam, who are a religious minority. For more than two years, Assad’s forces have been battling the fractured opposition, which includes al-Qaida fighters. Here is what you need to know about the Assad’s military capabilities:
1. Men under arms. In addition to the Syrian military, which has between 70,000 and 80,000 troops, Assad can call upon Alawite militia members, said Christopher Swift, a professor of national security studies at Georgetown University. The militia — which one media report put at 100,000 members — is most effective in defending its neighborhoods against Sunni rebels.
The Lebanon-based terrorist group Hezbollah has sent thousands of fighters to Syria, but its main mission is to transport young men who want to martyr themselves in battle rather than taking on the rebels directly, Swift says.
Assad also has support from hundreds of advisers from Iran’s Qods Force, which is mostly concerned with combating al-Qaida fighters.
2. Focus on internal threats. Over the past decade, the Syrian military has shifted its emphasis from projecting power outside of the country to maintaining internal security, Swift said. That’s why Syria has bought hundreds of Russian transport and attack helicopters and has upgraded its air defense systems.
“They also have a lot of tube artillery ... I mean, mortars, howitzers, the ability to put a lot of lead downrange,” Swift said.
3. Good esprit de corps. The Syrian army is much tougher than the Iraqi military under Saddam Hussein, Swift said. While some Sunnis and Christians have defected, the Syrian military remains an Alawite force that is committed to maintaining the state’s control over other ethnic groups.
“If you look at the Alawite officer corps, those are the people who are at the pinnacle of society in terms of status and in terms of their economic well being, they’re also a minority, so they’re not just fighting for their country and fighting for their unit, they’re fighting for their clan and tribe,” Swift said.
4. Well equipped. Assad’s forces aren’t hurting for arms and equipment, said Rebecca Grant, a defense analyst with IRIS Independent Research.
“That place is stuffed with Russian-made military equipment of all types — that’s from helicopters to armored vehicles,” Grant said. “We don’t know how much of it is in first-class order — obviously, quite a bit of it is being used on a regular basis — but the inventory there is more than what we’ve seen. It wouldn’t half surprise me if they have more than the Iraqis.”
5. Sophisticated air defenses. It would take months to take out Assad’s air defenses, Grant said. For one thing, Assad’s forces have a “worrying” number of man-portable air defense systems [MANPADS], which are shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles.
“The red flags there for me are just the sheer numbers of MANPADS available, the fact that they do have fairly new, revamped air defenses and that they’ve concentrated on building them up with Russia’s help since 2007,” Grant said. “When you have as much of an air defense as they have and as many MANPADS, you’ve got a constant level of risk.”