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Syria's Army Withstands International Condemnation


As the assault against Homs continues, Secretary of State Clinton is urging Syrian security forces to disobey orders from their own commanders and stop the violence against protesters. Aram Nerguizian researches Middle East military strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. We asked him about the possibility of further defections among the ranks.

ARAM NERGUIZIAN: Well, unfortunately, while those calls are well-intentioned and they do play to the reality that there's a humanitarian crisis in Syria, it's far more complex than just units deserting on mass, in terms of battalions and brigades.

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

NERGUIZIAN: This is ideological force. It looks to the example of de-Baathification in Iraq, when you saw the dismantling of the Iraqi security services, it's a disadvantage of the ruling Sunni community in the times of Saddam Hussein. The dynamics are not that fundamentally different. You have an Alawite minority coupled with other minority groups like Christians, the Kurds and other minorities in Syria that have a great deal to lose, and this applies as much to a military that has a vested interest in maintaining access to social welfare to pay, and they know that in any scenario where they defect to an opposition that looks anything but cohesive, anything but likely to have a clear path for success and oppose Assad's structure, the catalyst is such that you're not going to see that kind of a rising up against the Assad regime in Syria.

SIMON: So they would see a prospect of regime change as something in which they would lose out?

NERGUIZIAN: Like many militaries in the Arab world, they are by design risk averse. That means that change doesn't come easy. They look at the examples of militaries across the region in countries that have undergone deep unrest that include Egypt, Libya, Yemen and others. They are either no longer in a position of autonomy or security, or they're pushed to the margins and end up becoming insurgents in their own right as in the case of Sunni Iraqi officers and NCOs.

SIMON: What kind of weaponry does the Syrian army have?

NERGUIZIAN: Well, in relative terms, the Syrian armed forces are among the most capable when compared to other Arab militaries. It's nothing to compare to the Israeli defense forces, but this is a military with combat experience. It has a relatively capable special operations capability. You have air power that hasn't been used in any measurable capacity so far against its civilians. If you had a recourse by the Syrian military to heavier systems that include multiple rocket systems, air power and as such, you would see a much higher death toll than the current cycle. And this is, again, all in relative terms.

This is a tragic cycle. But things could be far worse if the regime decided it really wanted to create chaos in places like Homs.

SIMON: If the Arab League or NATO, or any other group, were to contemplate military intervention into Syria against that military, what are some of the circumstances that they would encounter in Syria?

NERGUIZIAN: The Arab League does not have the capabilities, despite modernization, to wage a successful effort militarily against the Syrian armed forces. They are one of the countries with the largest regional stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons. So you do have a side to this that does create a whole plethora of risks in terms of proliferation, and unattributed fatalities from a retaliation from a Syrian military that is still very cohesive, can still count on air power.

And in the worst-case scenario, where there are inroads, potentially through a NATO strike or a combined operation against Syria, you would see the emergence of an insurgency in the country. And frankly, it does open up all kinds of other risks. If you have al-Qaida ready to exploit instability, a military intervention will exacerbate that.

SIMON: What about arming members of the opposition?

NERGUIZIAN: Well, I've heard a great deal in the policy world about this notion that we can somehow manage the militarization of the insurgency in Syria. And, frankly, the notion of managing militarization in a proxy battle is an oxymoron. It just doesn't make any sense. You can either decide - at the national or the international level - that you're going to back an insurgent group to fight against an Assad structure that is backed by Iran and by Russia, or you can decide that's not the right course of action.

There is no middle ground on this. What this entails is that it's a decision between getting involved in a regional proxy war or not. And it's really that simple. There are civilian casualties to factor in. But the reality is that taking sides in this crisis, no matter which side comes out victorious, there will be a humanitarian cost.

SIMON: Aram Nerguizian, visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, thanks very much for being with us.

NERGUIZIAN: It's a pleasure.


SIMON: You're listening to NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.