February 09, 2012

The Order of Battle Problem

As some of you may know, I have been shocked by the ease with which some in U.S. policy circles have begun to consider armed intervention in Syria. Many of these same people supported the military intervention in Libya, though few of them seem to have any intellectual interest in dealing with the awful mess that remains -- perhaps proving that when it comes to post-conflict stabilization and reconstruction, most liberal interventionists are no better than most neoconservatives.

Since most analysts seem to have quickly realized that the establishment of safe havens or no-fly zones would be very difficult if not also quixotic, the new big idea is to arm the Free Syrian Army, which may or may not even be an actual thing. John McCain thinks this is a good idea, as does Elliott Abrams. Even Dan Drezner, who is usually a careful thinker about such things, is on the bandwagon.

My colleague Marc Lynch has a long post explaining why no, this is probably not a very good idea.

My question for those who support arming Syrian guerrilla groups was prompted by something Drezner wrote:

What’s going on inside of Syria is a civil war, and the
government is clearly receiving ample support from both Russia and Iran.
Arming the opposition at least evens the odds on the battlefield.

Really? Did Drezner or anyone else consult an actual order of battle before talking about "evening the odds?" According to the 2011 Military Balance, Syria has:

  1. 4,950 main battle tanks.
  2. 2,450 BMPs.
  3. 1,500 more armored personnel carriers.
  4. 3,440+ pieces of artillery.
  5. 600,000 men under arms in the active and reserve forces.

Now, for the sake of argument, let's say Syria can only field half of the above equipment and personnel due to maintenance issues and defections or whatever. We're still talking about a ridiculous amount of advanced weaponry. What arms, then, are we talking about giving these guerrilla groups? Nukes?

The balance in Libya was only tipped when NATO warplanes began "enforcing the no-fly zone" by destroying Libyan tanks and armored personnel carriers. (I know those things don't actually fly, but the only way you can be really sure they won't grow wings is by dropping a GBU-31 on top of them.) If a scheme to train and equip the Syrians is not matched with a similar effort to degrade the capabilities of the Syrian army, I fail to see how arming the rebel groups will even any odds.

That doesn't mean the rebels don't stand a chance -- they can always carry out a guerrlla campaign using raids, ambushes and IEDs. But it does mean that schemes to train and equip the rebel groups will be more about doing something that makes us feel better about ourselves rather than an act that seriously changes the game in Syria.

I could always be wrong, of course. I am not an expert on the disposition and composition of the Syrian army and have no insight into how it is holding up through this campaign. But a quick glance at the strength of the forces doesn't make me optimistic about either the rebel groups or any western attempts to arm them.