WASHINGTON — Syrian President Bashar Assad is now using most of his regular ground forces in an intensified drive to crush the uprising against his family's four-decade-long rule in what could be a critical test of his minority-run military's cohesion, according to U.S. officials and experts.
Assad and his inner circle are apparently betting that their ferocious artillery-backed onslaught on the city of Homs will deal a crippling blow to the insurgency, which will quickly be followed by seizures of other rebellious cities and towns. Refugees arriving in Lebanon say Assad's forces already have retaken the town of Zabadani.
The regime, however, may be in a race against time: The longer the insurgents hold out, the greater the risk of the army becoming overstretched; the more civilians killed and maimed in the wanton pummeling of opposition strongholds, the greater the threat of the army fraying, plunging the country into all-out sectarian war, some experts warn.
"We've been building up to a critical test over the last few months and that test is in the form of whether or not the regime can make significant gains in terms of taking back critical terrain," said Aram Nerguizian of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank based in Washington.
"This is increasingly becoming a sectarian war," said Joshua Landis, the director of Middle East studies at the University of Oklahoma.
The regime began intensifying military operations after the withdrawal last month of an Arab League observer mission, experts said. The mission left in disarray after failing to curb the bloodshed that was ignited when Assad's troops responded with gunfire against peaceful protests demanding his ouster that began just over a year ago in an outgrowth of the Arab Spring.
Assad was further encouraged to step up his scorched-earth strategy by Russia and China's Feb. 4 vetoes of a U.N. Security Council resolution that would have backed an Arab League peace plan calling for Assad to step down, U.S. officials and experts said. Two days later, the Obama administration released satellite photos of artillery and armored vehicles deployed around a smoke-shrouded Homs, home to an estimated 800,000 people.
Moreover, the United States, its NATO allies and Arab powers have ruled out military intervention and — at least for now — arming opposition fighters, while Russia and Assad's closest Middle Eastern ally, Iran, have continued to supply weapons to his army.
Testifying on Feb. 16 before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said that the Assad regime is now using "about 80 percent" of his 220,000-strong army's ground forces "in assaults on the civilian population."
An estimated 80 percent of the army comprises conscripts from Syria's Sunni Muslim majority, while about 60 percent of the officer corps is from the Assad family's minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of the Shiite branch of Islam that controls the regime's top posts.
A steady stream of deserters has been joining the Free Syrian Army, the name of the disparate bands of anti-Assad insurgents. But most of those deserters appear to be coming from reserve or non-combat units, not from Assad's main forces, Nerguizian said. They rely on smuggled and stolen arms, control only slivers of territory, have no coherent command structure and are waging largely defensive battles.
Their number also is far lower than the 40,000 claimed by the Free Syrian Army, U.S. officials and experts said, showing that the military has so far withstood rising sectarian tensions being fueled by the overwhelming number of Sunni civilians being killed and wounded by the Alawite-controlled army.
"While we've seen signs of some of the seniors in the Assad regime making contingency plans to evacuate, move families, move financial resources, to this point they've held together," said Clapper.
Sectarian tensions are also rising because the Free Syrian Army is being infiltrated by extremist Sunni fighters linked to al Qaida's Iraqi affiliate, according to U.S. officials, who blame the group for recent suicide bombings in Damascus and Aleppo, Syria's second largest city.
The Sunni extremists' involvement serves to strengthen the regime's contention that it is fighting Islamic terrorists, not a pro-democracy movement, a narrative that would not only bolster support for Assad inside the military, but also within the Sunni-dominated bureaucracy and the business community, experts said.
"It looks like we fundamentally underestimated the resilience of the Syrian armed forces," said Nerguizian, explaining that many non-Alawite officers remain loyal to the secular Arab nationalist ideology of Syria's ruling Arab Socialist Baath Party. "This is the Baath Party army. It's the product of 30 years of indoctrination."
Other factors are aiding the military's cohesion, experts said.
With Syria's sanctions-choked economy in freefall and the country in chaos, many Sunni soldiers are relying on their salaries to support not only their families, but those of relatives who are unemployed or have been fired for joining protests, said Randa Slim of the Washington-based Middle East Institute, who is in daily contact with people in Syria and neighboring Lebanon.
Moreover, the regime's assaults on Homs and other rebel strongholds have primarily involved the army's elite 4th Division and the Republican Guard, both commanded by Assad's brother, Maher, and armed Alawite criminal gangs controlled by other family members, Slim said.
The loyalist formations "are the ones they (the regime) can count on and it brings them into cities like Homs to do the clear-and-hold operations and the real killing," she said. "The Sunnis are kept outside and then are brought in after the ... operations."
This approach helps the Assads avert a coup because it makes Alawite officers who might otherwise conspire to topple them complicit in the shelling of civilian areas and other acts that U.N. human rights officials are publicly condemning as war crimes, Slim said.
"The strategy of the Assad family is to bloody the hands of every Alawite officer and the hands of all the Alawites ... binding their fate and their survival to the survival of the Assads," she said.
Assad, however, appears to be gambling that his scorched-earth strategy will succeed before the growing sectarian strains begin to seriously unravel his army, experts said.
The regime's reliance on the 4th Division and the Republican Guard risks over-stretching those units, with the former being used as a "fire brigade" and sent "where the action's the hottest," while the latter is tied down in the Damascus area, said Jeffrey White, a former Defense Intelligence Agency analyst who is now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
"They can concentrate forces in an area and suppress the FSA and demonstrations effectively, but they can't do it everywhere at the same time," he said. "When they need to go somewhere else, resistance rebounds. They are not able to completely destroy the FSA or local defense elements. They are not able to break the will of the people."
The longer the fighting goes on, the more other divisions will have to be deployed in serious fighting, and more Sunni conscripts will be exposed to the regime's brutal, indiscriminate attacks on urban areas and the civilian casualties they cause, increasing the risk of an accelerating desertion rate, White said.
"The regime is showing some difficulty in fighting inside the cities," said White. "The FSA is well armed enough now that it's making it pretty expensive for the regime to put forces into these deep urban environments. That's one of the reasons that I think we've seen the deployment of field artillery now.
"It's more of a war of attrition now in terms of material, people and equipment, but also psychological attrition," he continued. "Is the regime going to break or the (opposition) going to break? That is the main question."
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