Region | Syria

Defections rile Syrian regime

FSA steps up attacks amid growing defections

  • By Joseph Kechichian, Senior Writer
  • Published: 16:23 June 28, 2012
  • Gulf News

  • Image Credit: REUTERS
  • Wrecked cars are seen at the site of an explosion outside Syria's highest court in central Damascus June 28, 2012. The explosion tore through the car park outside the court on Thursday, torching at least 20 cars, a Reuters witness said, but it was not immediately known if there were any casualties. REUTERS/Khaled alHariri (SYRIA - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST)

Beirut: Syrian rebels have a renewed boldness, buoyed by a series of recent successes that strengthened their resolve, which galvanised the opposition against the Bashar Al Assad regime.

First, it was Colonel Hassan Mirei Al Hamadeh who flew his MiG-21 fighter jet over the border to Jordan, where he asked for and promptly received political asylum. A few days later, a Syrian general, two colonels, a major, and a lieutenant defected along with 33 other junior officers, all of whom settled in Turkey. These defectors were followed by two brigadier generals and two colonels from Aleppo whose “conversions” from staunch supporters of the Ba`ath regime to renegade status were taped and posted online. On Wednesday, rebel forces attacked the Al Akhbariyyah television station in Damascus, killing seven and wounding scores.

Given increased desertions and attacks on government positions, military analysts asked whether the morale of the Syrian army and, over time, its raw capabilities could be significantly curtailed. While impossible to verify, allegedly because defectors were not from the ranks of combat units, it was important to stress that the numbers of individuals no longer beholden to the Syrian Arab Army were relatively growing.

Although merely speculative because no official data was available, the count of daily desertions during the past 16 months placed the figures in the 40,000 to 200,000 range, which was a sore point for Damascus no matter what the actual numbers were.

Of course, it would be a mistake to underestimate the impact that such moves have on the military, especially because most of the fighting is among soldiers. For 50 years, Syria insisted on combat training for a vast majority of its male population as part of its compulsory military service programs—ostensibly to fight against Israel—and must now confront these same forces to salvage the regime.

In fact, the recent spike in the use of helicopters to strafe-bomb rebel positions indicated that the military faced a serious problem getting its ground forces to fight, which was certainly telling. Still, with a nearly intact air force, analysts wondered whether the Ba`ath regime was truly threatened or whether its leaders lost their appetites to inflict serious damage on the country to stay in power.

For Damascus, the Achilles Heel may be the state of its finances, as Syria’s Gross Domestic Product that, according to the World Bank, was expected to take a nose dive with a whopping 6.4 per cent fall in 2012—on top of the -3.1 per cent in 2011. Naturally, real unemployment added to the shock as around 50 per cent of the labour force was idle, which meant that Damascus faced difficulties in meeting its payroll.

By the government’s own admission, an estimated 42 percent of all Syrian households had a member of the family outside the country, whose remittances and, more important, whose willingness to send food into Syria prevented widespread starvation.

It may thus be safe to conclude that the opposition’s empowerment was two-fold—financial and military support—that literally ensured a prolonged confrontation.

Reliable sources confirmed that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Shaykhdom of Qatar were actually preparing the necessary mechanisms to pay the salaries of FSA troops and, presumably, military defectors that wished to join it.

The assumption was that such assistance could certainly accelerate a mass exodus from within the ranks because many recruits were not paid in a while. The generally well-informed London Guardian reported that “men dressed in the style of Gulf Arabs” who were carrying large bundles of cash were seen along the Turkish-Syrian border, and transferred ammunition, medicine, and money to local FSA officers crossing back and forth. Of course, the idea was to provide as strong an incentive as possible, and to spread the message that soldiers could do better with foreign currency, US Dollars or Euros, which allowed them to purchase food at a time when the value of the Syrian pound reached dramatically law levels.

Military aid was also flowing in gradually, although not in the required quantities that FSA officers desperately needed, to mount the type of spectacular operations like the assault on a base housing Republican Guards.

It was after this “successful operation” that President Al Assad acknowledged that Syria was “in a state of war,” a diametrically opposite assertion to his oft-cited “crime waves conducted by foreign-backed terrorists,” which was revealing.

Though difficult to quantify, clandestine military assistance flowed inside Syria, chiefly through Turkey and Iraq, less from Jordan and Lebanon. It remained to be determined whether recent military defections and the financial and military aid now pouring in would actually tip the scale in favor of the opposition. Recent successes certainly heightened morale that, perhaps, the FSA stood a chance against was still was a formidable arsenal.

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