BEIRUT — Nearly 20 months into the Syrian uprising, President Bashar Assad’s message to the world has been nothing if not consistent: His military is strong, his enemies are mere terrorists and he will prevail in the end.
And despite a unity deal signed by Syrian rebels this weekend, which they hope will persuade foreign backers to send more powerful weapons to use to battle the regime, Damascus still has enough firepower and resources to keep up the fight.
“Syria has more than enough weapons for fighting the rebels,” said Igor Korotchenko, a retired colonel of Russia’s military general staff who is now editor of National Defense magazine. “As long as Bashar Assad has the money to pay his military, it will keep fighting.”
He said Syria has more than 1,000 tanks, along with a system of repair shops created during Soviet times and enough experienced personnel to service the weapons.
Analysts say it is difficult to come up with reliable figures on the Syrian air force and air defences because of the extreme secrecy surrounding its military matters. Assad’s regime — its forces stretched thin on multiple fronts — has significantly increased its use of air power against Syrian rebels since the summer.
For now, government jets and helicopters are largely out of reach of the rebels’ arsenals, and Assad projects confidence at every turn. In an interview last week with Russia Today TV, Assad vowed to “live and die” in Syria, saying the conflict will never drive him into exile.
Still, the regime cannot maintain the status quo indefinitely.
A Mideast intelligence official said Syria’s estimated 300 jet fighters — mostly Russian-made — lack the appropriate maintenance, spare parts and missile warheads. Syria’s estimated three dozen helicopters, also mostly Russian-made, are being “exhausted from overuse”, he said.
“The Syrian army is being stretched to the maximum because of simultaneous crackdowns on rebel holdouts across Syria,” said the official, who asked that his name and country not be used because he is not authorised to speak publicly.
Citing regional intelligence data, the official also said jammed Internet, satellite and cellphone circuits across Syria are contributing to the military’s woes, mainly by depriving army commanders of the means to communicate with field officers. He said the circuits are believed to have been jammed by Russian telecommunications equipment, installed in the early summer to block rebel communications.
With the regime hurting but still strong, the opposition would need an influx of weapons quickly to tip the balance of the conflict.
The rebels’ desire for arms was clear last week at an opposition conference in Qatar.
“Weapons,” barked George Sabra, a Syrian opposition figure, as rebels gathered for a unity conference with envoys from Washington and its Middle East allies in attendance. “We don’t need food. We don’t need money. We need weapons.”
The appeal came just hours before Syria’s splintered rebel factions agreed Sunday to an American-backed plan to unite under a new umbrella group that seeks a common voice and strategy against Assad’s regime.
Now, outgunned rebel fighters are waiting to see whether the pledge of cooperation will be rewarded with potentially game-changing arms — including critical anti-aircraft batteries — from main regional backers such as the wealthy Gulf states and Turkey.
A big part of the decision likely rests with the US, which has so far discouraged opening channels for heavy weapons because of unease about squabbling among Syrian rebels and possible footholds by Islamic extremists among the fighters.
The Obama administration has steered clear of any pledges to directly arm rebels. But some opposition figures believe Washington could give its tacit support to others funnelling weapons if the new broad-based rebel coalition holds together and gains international legitimacy, such as winning recognition from the Arab League and other groups
“This new body will help us mobilise more international support and resources for the Syrian opposition,” said the secretary general of the Syrian National Council, Bassam Ishak, during talks Sunday in Qatar’s capital, Doha, that were observed by representatives from the US, Turkey and other rebel backers.
The US also is likely to play more than simply a bystander role if major weapons channels open for the rebels, who now battle mostly with firepower seized from Assad’s military and light arms such as AK-47 machineguns bought on black markets or smuggled across borders.
Washington’s logistical aid, such as surveillance and intelligence, would be essential to keep weapons routes open and reaching the right rebel units, analysts say.
“Still, I don’t think we are quite at the green-light stage for weapons,” said Theodore Karasik, a regional security expert at the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis. “I think the jury is still out on what types of weapons are needed.”
Karasik believes Syrian rebels have the capability to hold ground with the weapons they have as the conflict increasingly takes on the urban combat showdowns of past insurgencies such as Chechnya.
“They are fighting a Soviet-built army using Soviet and Russian tactics,” he said. “You can probably fight that with the weapons you already have on the ground ... Anything else, like anti-aircraft capabilities, could help tip the scales.”
Two likely routes for stepped-up military aid would be Turkey and Jordan — both bordering on pockets of rebel-held territory.
The regime could face yet another challenge if Israel gets drawn into the fighting, something that would further stretch Assad’s already struggling forces.
An Israeli tank struck a Syrian army vehicle Monday after a mortar shell landed on Israeli-held territory, the military said, in the first direct confrontation between the countries since the Syrian uprising broke out, sharpening fears that Israel could be drawn into the civil war next door.
Israel has steadfastly tried to avoid getting sucked into the Syrian conflict, but it has grown increasingly worried after a series of mortar shells have struck territory in the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights in recent days. On Sunday, Israel fired a “warning shot” into Syria in response to the shelling.