United Nations 'dithers' over Syria
by Anthony Tucker-Jones
The UN has avoided implementing an arms embargo on Syria, but who supplied the Syrian military?
In the wake of President Bashar al-Assad's brutal suppression of political opposition in Hama and other Syrian cities, there have been calls within the United Nations for an international arms embargo. In the event, this week the UN failed to issue a full Security Council resolution – instead opting for a feeble condemnation of the Syrian authorities' human rights violations and use of violence against civilians. There were no punitive measures, thereby avoiding any Libyan style intervention. Many would now see an arms embargo as a hollow gesture.
The European Union has increased its sanctions against Syria – with travel bans and asset freezes against 35 senior Syrian regime figures, including Assad and defence minister Ali Habib – but these will have little effect on events on the ground. The reality is that the Syrian military inventory is already bristling with weapons supplied by European nations, most notably Russia but also the United Kingdom, the former Czechoslovakia, France, Germany, Italy, Poland and Slovakia.
Syria was supplied by France with Gazelle attack helicopters, and by the former Czechoslovakia with Albatros armed trainer aircraft as well as tanks in the 1980s. Italy also provided helicopters and anti-tank missiles, while Poland built landing ships for the Syrian navy. All of this was much to the displeasure of Israel. For a long time Syria was a major Soviet client state receiving billions of dollars worth of arms, as well as the support of Soviet and East German personnel. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia maintained this relationship as Syria sought to complete a $3bn re-equipment programme.
During the mid-1990s, Damascus negotiated a massive deal with Moscow for $1.6bn worth of arms, which included fighter aircraft, surface-to-air missiles and tanks. Surface-to-surface missiles were also supplied by North Korea. Just three years ago the Syrian government embarked on another major modernisation programme, seeking Russian fighter and trainer aircraft, missile systems and submarines. The final status of the deal is unclear, but it was opposed by the United States and Israel on the grounds that the weapons could fall into the hands of Iran, or Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Syria has struggled to maintain what equipment it has without buying even more. Its lack of an indigenous defence industry means much of its vast, ageing inventory is in storage. Today the Syrian opposition's only real hope of orchestrating regime change is if the military refuses orders to quell demonstrators and defects. Following Assad's clampdown on political dissent across the country, there have been reports of cracks appearing in the military – with reservists refusing their call up or deserting. But 70 per cent of the army's career soldiers are drawn from the ruling minority Alawite sect and 80 per cent of the officers are Alawites. Only the army's conscripts and the air force are drawn from the majority Sunni community.
Although battered Hama is a Sunni city, there are no signs of a mutiny within the ranks of the armed forces. Problems may occur when the army's increasing overstretch means they have to rely on predominantly Sunni units. At full mobilisation the Syrian armed forces can field in excess of half a million men – currently, though, Assad can only rely on about 140,000 Alawite regulars. The Syrian army simply does not have the manpower to dominate cities like Aleppo, Hama and Homs. Its key formations are the Republican Guard Division and the 4th Armoured Division, backed by the Shabbiha Alawite militia, but these forces can only be in one place at a time.
It is no secret that the UN does not have the wherewithal to interfere and its options are severely limited. Assad is essentially playing a waiting game to see if the opposition runs out of steam in the face of swift retribution by the military. Arms embargoes are never very effective and the Syrian military has more than enough weapons and ammunition in hand for the job – after all they have been stockpiling for a war with Israel for decades. While the UN dithers, as it initially did over Libya, Assad is given a free hand to shore up his regime using weapons provided by his now-critical European neighbours.
Anthony Tucker-Jones is a former intelligence analyst and now writes as a correspondent for defencemanagement.com and intersec – The Journal of International Security