Assad's army gets cut in half

While editing an article on Syria last year, I remember asking the author for a statistic that I hoped would give our readers a big-picture sense of where the country was heading. The reporter's response: "Welcome to Syria, there are no statistics."

It's largely true. Two years into the uprising, there is no shortage of anecdotes -- about the lives of individual Syrians, the fate of specific villages, or what happened in a given battle. But there are precious few facts that about how the war is playing out on a macro level.

The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) has done a lot of the legwork to answer one of the lingering, big-picture questions about Syria: What is the state of President Bashar al-Assad's army, and how has it been affected by the uprising? The 2013 Military Balance aims to provide a comprehensive assessment of the Syrian military's fighting strength, and the struggles both sides have faced in getting the upper hand.

Here's the Military Balance's bottom line: Between the beginning of the uprising and autumn 2012, the Syrian army's fighting strength had been halved to about 110,000 troops. Of that total, the regime could only be certain of the loyalty of roughly 50,000 soldiers -- those in the predominantly Alawite Special Forces, Republican Guard, and 3rd and 4th Divisions.

Now, Syria is home to roughly 22 million people -- Assad can't maintain his substantial level of control with only 50,000 troops. For that reason, it's reasonable to assume that his core force of 50,000 is receiving substantial support from other wings of the military. Specifically, it is supplemented by: 60,000 more active army soldiers, another 60,000 air force servicemen, and an indeterminate number of police and paramilitary forces. And that's even before getting into whatever forces Hezbollah or Iran have contributed to the war effort.

The Military Balance doesn't attempt to quantify the Syrian rebels' fighting force, but it does offer an assessment of their methods.  "The rebels increasingly employed all the methods of modern insurgency including hit-and-run attacks, ambushes, assassinations and suicide bombings," the report reads. However, they have been hindered by their lack of organization: "[T]he Syrian rebels were greatly handicapped by an almost complete lack of unified political authority and strategy."

The rebels' decentralized structure has prevented them from being wiped out by the numerically larger and technologically superior Syrian army. However, it has also resulted in strategic overreach -- such as the decision to invade the city of Aleppo before they had the strength to take it -- and could lead to infighting between rebel factions either before or after Assad's fall.

As the Military Balance puts it: "If Assad could not win, the rebels could still lose."


D. Leal Olivas/AFP/Getty Images


Congressman: I was right, Obama made a secret missile deal with Putin

Is the Obama administration's new missile defense initiative a direct response to North Korean threats -- or the culmination of a secretive deal between Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin to scale back America's defense apparatus?

According to Congressman Mike Turner, the administration's cancellation of the final phase of a missile defense system in Europe on Friday is vindication of his warnings about Obama's "secret deal with the Russians."

"We watched the president state to Medvedev that he would have greater flexibility after the election," Turner told Foreign Policy on Sunday night. "Putin later announced the terms of the agreement. You'd have to conclude that there was a deal."

The Ohio Republican was referring to a "hot mic" exchange between Obama and then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev at a nuclear security summit in South Korea last March. "After my election I have more flexibility," the president told Medvedev, referring to ongoing discussions about missile defense. "I understand," replied Medvedev. "I transmit this information to Vladimir."

Since the incident, the administration has steadfastly denied ever plotting a secret deal with Putin. Additionally, on Friday, when the Pentagon announced the cancellation of some Europe-based defenses as part of a reallocation of resources to protect against North Korea, Pentagon spokesman George Little rejected the notion that the plan had anything to do with Russia. "The missile defense decisions Secretary Hagel announced were in no way about Russia," he said.

But Turner said his warnings had been vindicated, and went on to lament that the president's "secret deal," which he referred to matter-of-factly, elicited no apparent concessions from Russia.

"The problem with the president's secret deal with the Russians is we never understood what we were going to get out of it," Turner told FP. "The president clearly has abandoned the shield that the Russians opposed and we're left with the U.S. having greater exposure to North Korea and Iran without any benefit."

In the wake of the hot mic incident last March, a number of Republicans, including GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, joined Turner in criticizing the president. But after a spate of White House denials, the issue died down. On Sunday, Republicans even spoke favorably of the president's realignment of missile defenses against North Korea. "I think it's really good that we're taking those precautionary measures to make sure that they cannot do damage," Tennessee Senator Bob Corker said on Fox News Sunday. Michigan Congressman Mike Rogers told CNN that "this is something that we have to take seriously."

But Turner has never lost sight of the so-called "secret deal" between Obama and Putin.

In June, he delivered an address on the House floor, saying "the issue of the president's secret deal with the Russians is not one open to interpretation." His office then issued a press release featuring a spreadsheet that documented the various events at which U.S. and Russian officials had met, suggesting the continuation of secret missile negotiations.

He also released a video that spliced together clips of himself repeating the words "secret deal" on the House floor.

On Sunday, Turner pledged to "call for hearings in the Armed Services Committee" to increase scrutiny of the "secret deal." When asked if he believed the entire North Korea realignment was a White House red herring to implement the alleged deal, Turner said "it's certainly possible."

Rejecting Turner's allegations, White House spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden reiterated that the president's decisions on this matter had nothing to do with Russia. "They were made based on technological developments and an increased threat of ballistic missiles from North Korea," she said.