Syrian army eroded by defections, battle deaths

Call to arms spurs reassurance that military is strong

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BEIRUT — A top Syrian cleric's appeal to young men to join the army raised the question of whether President Bashar Assad is running out of soldiers, prompting a pro-government newspaper to reassure readers Tuesday that the military can keep fighting insurgents for years to come.

Syria's civil war, with its large-scale defections, thousands of soldiers killed and multiple fronts, has eroded one of the Arab world's biggest armies, with pro-Assad militias increasingly filling in for troops.

But while the rebels have scored military and diplomatic gains, the regime is far from its breaking point.

Assad appears to have stopped trying to retake all of the rebel-held areas, lacking the manpower to do so. But his forces have pinned down opposition fighters with artillery and airstrikes, while repelling rebel assaults on the capital of Damascus and other regime strongholds.

In this scenario, the regime can hang on for months, said Joseph Holliday, a Syria analyst at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War. "The opposition is definitely ascendant, and Bashar is going down, (but) it's a question of time," he said.

Syria's troop strength moved into the spotlight with a call for a general mobilization by Grand Mufti Ahmad Badreddine Hassoun, the country's top state-appointed Sunni Muslim cleric and Assad loyalist. He told state TV on Sunday that Syrians must rally to defend their country against a "global conspiracy."

On Tuesday, the pro-government al-Watan newspaper dismissed speculation that the mufti's appeal was a sign of attrition among the troops. The army is "fine" and troops "have been waging since for the past two years with unprecedented valor and courage," the newspaper said in a commentary. The army can keep fighting for years, it asserted.

Experts say precise figures on rebel and regime troop strengths are difficult to come by. The Syrian military does not release detailed information and last year stopped publishing data on soldiers killed.

Rebel groups often operate locally, with considerable autonomy, despite attempts by Syria's main opposition group to introduce a centralized military command.

The uprising against Assad began two years ago, initially peacefully. In response to a regime crackdown, it turned into an armed insurgency and finally, last summer, into a full-scale civil war. The conflict has killed more than 70,000 people and displaced about 4 million of Syria's 22 million people, according to U.N. estimates.

The Syrian army had about 220,000 troops at the start of the conflict, said Holliday, who follows battlefield developments in Syria.

Assad only deployed the most loyal one-third of those soldiers, or between 65,000 and 75,000, to try to beat back the insurgency, Holliday estimated. Tens of thousands more deserted, while others were confined to their barracks as unreliable, he said in a new report.

Assad and Syria's ruling elite are members of the Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, while most of the rebels and a majority of army conscripts belong to the country's Sunni majority.