Syria’s army weakened by growing desertions
The most senior commander to abandon the Syrian military during a 10-month uprising against President Bashar al-Assad said desertions were wearing down the army but rebels could take more than a year to topple him.
General Mostafa Ahmad al-Sheikh told Reuters that up to 20,000 soldiers, mostly majority Sunni Muslims, have deserted despite “iron controls” and large swathes of land are regularly falling into rebel hands before loyalist forces mount operations to retake them.
However the revolt is likely to take longer than revolutions that toppled the autocratic rulers of Libya, Egypt and Tunisia because Assad retains the loyalty of highly trained and well equipped forces from his minority Alawite sect, he said.
“If we get 25,000 to 30,000 deserters mounting guerrilla warfare in small groups of six or seven it is enough to exhaust the army in a year to a year-and-a-half, even if they are armed only with rocket-propelled grenades and light weapons,” he said in the telephone interview from south Turkey on Thursday.
Sheikh said most deserting soldiers have not taken up arms against pro-Assad forces and their primary concern has been to evade capture by secret police units in charge of stifling dissent within the military.
He said he had started helping to reorganize the Syrian Free Army, an umbrella group of defectors that formed several months ago under which deserters are loosely based.
“The Free Syrian Army needs to remain under control for fear that the regime may suddenly collapse,” he said, advising rebels to stick to protecting protesters until they are molded into a more effective force.
Army deserters have carried out a wave of attacks on military and security targets, raising the prospect of the mainly peaceful protests against Assad being eclipsed by an insurgency that could tip Syria towards civil war.