LONDON (Reuters) - The Syrian army, a vital pillar of President Bashar al-Assad’s power, is showing little sign of the serious splits and defections the opposition seeks in its ranks, despite strains caused by his military repression of unrest.
But as tanks spearhead a crackdown in the city of Hama, Assad must wonder whether is most loyal and heavily-armed soldiers are sufficiently numerous to deploy in several places at once if the need arose.
The Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, usually a time of family visits and gift-giving that can produce much larger night-time crowds than normal, could severely test Assad’s armed might if protests escalate and Syria’s crisis grows more bloody.
“We are seeing some defections but nothing near the critical mass that might indicate the beginnings of a serious mutiny by Sunni soldiers,” said Andrew Terrill, Research Professor of National Security Affairs at the U.S. Army War College.
The army command is drawn from Assad’s minority Alawite sect, while majority Sunni Muslims make up the rank and file. Most of the protesters targeted by army action are also Sunnis.
Firas Abi Ali, an analyst at British-based Exclusive Analysis forecasting company, said he rated the cohesion of the Syrian military as “quite high” in terms of possible splits that could trigger a coup d’etat, but sheer numbers were a problem.
“If they don’t have enough loyal units to take Hama, they don’t have enough loyal units to take on much bigger cities like Homs, Aleppo or Damascus,” he said.
“I don’t think they have enough of these units to crack down in a major way on multiple cities at the same time, at least not without seeing defections and without risking expanding the scope of the protests.”
Security forces had besieged Hama, a mainly Sunni city of 700,000 where an Islamist revolt was bloodily repressed by Bashar’s father Hafez al-Assad in 1982, for nearly a month before starting their assault on Sunday.
The plight of Hama has prompted many Syrians to stage solidarity marches since the start of Ramadan, but Assad’s tough response suggests he will resist calls for change that have swept Syria and much of the Arab world this year.
There are no reliable published reports about the precise deployments of Syria’s armed forces.
Even in normal times there was a dearth of information about the military, given government opacity and curbs on the media. Now most foreign media are in effect barred, and Reuters correspondents were expelled soon after unrest began in March.
Syrian exiles and security specialists say a trickle of defections so far is too small to indicate rifts in the army.
That is testament to stringent controls that ensure Alawite ascendancy in the military. These include the appointment of Alawite officers in key jobs and, in some units, a Sunni-Alawite-Sunni-Alawite pattern of staffing of senior posts created to block any attempt at subversion.
“Creating splits in the Syrian army is not easy,” former Syrian state security official Samer Afndi told Reuters.
“The staffing structure has layers, like a Russian doll. A break in one layer is not going to affect the other layers.”
Discipline for lower ranks is brutally enforced.
Syrian exiles, citing accounts from relatives, say that in cases where Sunni troops are deployed on the frontline, they are coerced into firing on demonstrators because security agents positioned to their rear will shoot them if they disobey orders.
“If you don’t kill, you will be killed,” said Ahmed Hussein, originally from the eastern city of Deir al-Zor, demonstrating against Assad outside the Syrian embassy in London.
“Anyone who is Sunni and has a capacity to do anything is carefully watched,” said Terrill. “You would not want to defect if you were afraid you did not have much of a chance.”
What is equally clear, analysts say, is that the most loyal army units — the mainly Alawite divisions commanded by Assad’s brother Maher, including the Republican Guard and the Fourth Armored Division — cannot be everywhere at once.
Each of these units has about 10,000 men, backed by tanks, and often acts in concert with units of secret police and pro-Assad Alawite militia called Shabbiha.
Terrill said overstretch meant the army was having to use Sunni units in some areas, resorting to “brutal conditions” in which soldiers could be executed for disobedience.
Talal al-Mayhani, a British-based academic who helps with external relations for opposition groups, said the sequential pattern of military operations against a string of towns and cities in recent weeks showed that the army did not have sufficient loyalist troops to deploy simultaneously everywhere.
Other analysts say the army is showing signs of deploying more slowly than in earlier weeks, suggesting it was having to juggle numbers to reinforce Sunni units with elite troops.
“They don’t have an enough troops who are loyal .. So we have entered a chronic stage of this struggle in which neither the army nor the people will achieve a decisive result,” said al-Mayhani, who was last in Damascus in mid-July.
Standing in a group of a dozen protesters outside the Syrian embassy in London on Monday, Afndi, 34, who is from the northern town of Jisr al-Shughour, said defections were a key opposition goal, although he understood the fear that inhibited them.
He added: “Security officials know they are killing their own brothers, sisters and children on behalf of the regime. This is the time for them to stop this, and prove they are patriots.”
The government blames what it calls armed terrorist groups for most killings in the five-month-old revolt, saying more than 500 soldiers and security personnel have died.
Reporting by William Maclean