While editing an article on Syria last year, I remember asking the author for a statistic that I hoped would give our readers a big-picture sense of where the country was heading. The reporter’s response: "Welcome to Syria, there are no statistics."
It’s largely true. Two years into the uprising, there is no shortage of anecdotes — about the lives of individual Syrians, the fate of specific villages, or what happened in a given battle. But there are precious few facts that about how the war is playing out on a macro level.
The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) has done a lot of the legwork to answer one of the lingering, big-picture questions about Syria: What is the state of President Bashar al-Assad’s army, and how has it been affected by the uprising? The 2013 Military Balance aims to provide a comprehensive assessment of the Syrian military’s fighting strength, and the struggles both sides have faced in getting the upper hand.
Here’s the Military Balance’s bottom line: Between the beginning of the uprising and autumn 2012, the Syrian army’s fighting strength had been halved to about 110,000 troops. Of that total, the regime could only be certain of the loyalty of roughly 50,000 soldiers — those in the predominantly Alawite Special Forces, Republican Guard, and 3rd and 4th Divisions.
Now, Syria is home to roughly 22 million people — Assad can’t maintain his substantial level of control with only 50,000 troops. For that reason, it’s reasonable to assume that his core force of 50,000 is receiving substantial support from other wings of the military. Specifically, it is supplemented by: 60,000 more active army soldiers, another 60,000 air force servicemen, and an indeterminate number of police and paramilitary forces. And that’s even before getting into whatever forces Hezbollah or Iran have contributed to the war effort.
The Military Balance doesn’t attempt to quantify the Syrian rebels’ fighting force, but it does offer an assessment of their methods. "The rebels increasingly employed all the methods of modern insurgency including hit-and-run attacks, ambushes, assassinations and suicide bombings," the report reads. However, they have been hindered by their lack of organization: "[T]he Syrian rebels were greatly handicapped by an almost complete lack of unified political authority and strategy."
The rebels’ decentralized structure has prevented them from being wiped out by the numerically larger and technologically superior Syrian army. However, it has also resulted in strategic overreach — such as the decision to invade the city of Aleppo before they had the strength to take it — and could lead to infighting between rebel factions either before or after Assad’s fall.
As the Military Balance puts it: "If Assad could not win, the rebels could still lose."