November 4, 2013
As Syria’s civil war wears on and the death toll continues to climb, regime and opposition forces alike are struggling to sustain their troop numbers. Both sides have been bolstered by foreign fighters, both have begun sending women to the battlefield, and both have been accused of employing child soldiers.
Brigadier General Zaher al-Saket was formerly the head of chemical warfare in the Syrian army’s Fifth Brigade, and defected on March 12 of this year. He now lives in Amman, Jordan, where he spoke with Syria Direct’s Abdulrahman al-Masri to discuss the current state of regime and opposition forces, and how both sides are seeking to bolster their capacities.
Q: Over the past year, what changes have occurred in the regime and opposition military formations?
A: In March 2013 the regime was on the verge of collapse, at which point they shifted from offensive to defensive operations in order to hold their positions. However, intervention from Hezbollah, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, and other militias helped shift the balance back toward the regime, whose forces were able to reclaim some areas such as al-Qusayr.
FSA forces today are caught between the regime and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), but have nonetheless managed to launch a number of effective attacks against regime forces, particularly in Daraa and Aleppo.FSA forces arefacing a shortage of ammunition, but they are beginning to manufacture their own bullets, mortar shells and short-range missiles.
Q: Can you estimate the number of soldiers currently fighting with the regime, the FSA, and the various Islamist groups? What kind of training do these groups have?
A: Regime forces—supported by Hezbollah, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, and other loyalist militias—are made of up soldiers that have been trained by Qasim Sulaimani [commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force] to kill Sunnis. Their numbers are roughly the following: 800,000 soldiers fighting for the regime and loyalist militias, 6,000 for Hezbollah, 8,000 for the Abu al-Fadel al-Abbas Brigade, 12,000 from the Iranian Quds Force, and an additional 2,000 fighters from the [Yemen-based Shiite] Houthi movement.
FSA battalions and moderate Islamic battalions are not more than 300,000 fighters. Al-Qaeda groups—whose influence we reject—areestimated at roughly 12,000.
Q: How is the regime maintaining its troop numbers today?Compulsory enlistment, or voluntary participation in the shabiha militias?
A: The regime is convincing Alawites that if the regime fails, they will face extermination. The regime knows that all Sunni sheikhs forbid killing Alawites unless in self defense, but Syrian Alawites don’t understand this because they are surrounded by regime propaganda.
Q: What problems does the regime face in convincing young Syrians to enlist in the army? How is it coping with these?
A: In Syria, there is an old law that forbids any citizen from getting a passport without having completed military service. The most someone can do is get a temporary passport, which will expire after two years.
The regime is currently employing every available method to make eligible Syrians enlist, but many have refused; some have joined the FSA and some have left Syria. The regime has even failed some university students in order to force them to join the army; some of these students left the country to complete their studies, and others joined the FSA.
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