Syrian Army Eroded by Defections, Battle Deaths

BEIRUT (AP) -

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 media on Sunday that Syrians must rally to defend their country against a “global conspiracy.”

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.

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