Syria’s Government and Its Weapons.

Watch the video embedded in this post, which shows a Syrian attack helicopter in a strike on Talbisah. The videocamera involved initially struggled for focus. But at about the 0:21 second mark it manages, at exactly the right moment, to begin capturing the most important sequence. During the few swift seconds that follow, the helicopter releases an unguided, free-fall bomb. The videographer loses the scene for almost a half-minute, but what happens next soon (around the 00:52 second mark) becomes too big to miss: the explosion of the bomb among the structures below, where presumably civilians could be present.

Scenes like this one have been in the news for much of this year, as forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad have pressed their attacks on many of Syria’s cities, using an escalating array of weapons.

By many accounts, this has been marked down as a sign of strength, which in some ways it might be. But there is an altogether other way of assessing the government’s decisions to introduce more and larger weapons systems into the fight. Set against the happenings afield since mid-spring, it might be seen as a sign of weakness, the mark of a military force that keeps reaching deeper into its lethal toolbox, because the previous tools are not working as well as they did, or have become weak.

So, for a few minutes, allow another take. If you line up many of the events in this conflict over the last few months, putting the anti-Assad forces’ advances against the government’s escalations, what can be seen is that as the government has been pressured it has incrementally stepped up its campaign by freeing up heavier weapons. Thus, as makeshift bombs started to deny portions of the countryside to the government’s ground forces, the government increased the rate of helicopter attacks in these areas, seeking to influence the fight in places where its army could no longer readily go. And now, as its forces in Aleppo face determined resistance from anti-Assad forces there, and its units seem not to have the indirect fire assets seen elswhere (as in Homs) and its overland supply lines from Damascus are harassed, it has begun using its L-39 trainer jets in a ground-attack role.

There are many problems with these escalations, which can be examined from many different angles.  But setting aside for a moment the easy and common assessments — the attacks are indiscriminate and dangerous to civilians (as seen in the video above); or the attacks show the material imbalance of the competing forces in the field; or they demonstrate ever more clearly the reasons anti-Assad forces seek heat-seeking anti-aicraft missiles and the sidelining of Russian arms shipments to the government in Damascus — what emerges is something else.

The attacks are, in all likelihood, and in a strictly military sense, unsustainable.

On the NYT, a look at a pair of trends eroding the Syrian government’s military position: the turnabout resulting from the rebels capturing ever more of the government’s weapons and arms stocks, turning them against the army they were bought for (cf, fate of one Muammar el-Qaddafi by a crowd brandishing his armories’ former inventory); and the long-term weaknesses that result from relying on weapons systems, like the helicopter seen at the top of the post, that require intensive maintenance to keep operational. 

For Mr. Assad’s military, scattered in the field in a pitched fight against a strengthening foe, these are bad omens. And they only part of the picture. Add in attrition, add in defections, add in the suspect loyalty of certain commanders and units, add in the psychological and physical tolls of months of sustained head-to-head fighting, factor in the vulnerability of an extended supply line over terrain where the anti-government forces are active and growing more bold, and the far-flung Syrian military looks much less strong than it did only a few months ago, and in a much more precarious position than all the breathless accounts of its continued capacity for organized violence, or the appearance of a fresh weapon system, would tell.

What escalations might be next we’ll leave to those paid to make such predictions. But for now, look past the worrisome reports about one day or another in this conflict. The Assad government may have consolidated its position since the assassinations and street-by-street violence in the heart of Damascus last month. The military trends point in the wrong direction for Mr. Assad.

Right now, the heavier the weapons his forces use, the weaker they appear. That helicopter at the top of the post? Whether the rebels acquire MANPADS or not, it can only fly so long in this kind of campaign, and Syria’s air force did not enter this fight with nearly enough them to do all they would need to do to put this uprising down.


Notes

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