Syrian Rebels Gain Traction With Heavy Weapons

A new report in the New York Times suggests that the arms upper hand the Syrian regime has had over rebel fighters is deteriorating quickly. Audie Cornish talks with Joseph Holliday, a former American intelligence officer who is now with the Institute for the Study of War.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Even without U.S. help, Syrian rebels have managed to obtain some heavy weapons. Those include Syrian military tanks, some captured, some handed over by defectors. They also have shoulder-fired, anti-armor weapons, the kind that can be used against tanks and low-flying helicopters.

We're going to focus now on the weapons they're up against. There are mixed reports about the state of the Syrian military's arsenal, including one in The New York Times today, suggesting the government's helicopter fleet is shrinking because of heat, sand and a shortage of parts. For more, we're joined by Joe Holliday, military analyst at the Institute for the Study of War. Welcome to the program.

JOSEPH HOLLIDAY: Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: So describe the kind of threat that the Syrian military is prepared for. I don't know how this army was sort of oriented.

HOLLIDAY: Of course. Well, the Assad regime's military has always been oriented primarily against an Israeli threat coming over the Golan Heights. And their force has been built on the Soviet model with a lot of emphasis on mechanized formations. So in some ways it wasn't exactly structured for the type of conflict they have faced in the sense that this has never been a particularly heavy force of infantry.

CORNISH: So what does that mean in terms of the weapons they have and sort of how the military is set up?

HOLLIDAY: So the Assad regime still has a large number of both main battle tanks as well as armored personnel carriers. And they also have a large number of artillery tubes as well as rotary wings or helicopter platforms and finally, of course, their fixed-wing air force, their jets. So they definitely have, in terms of an even count of the amount of materiel that they have, the Assad regime looks much better on paper than the rebels do.

CORNISH: So you're saying it looks good, but it's not necessarily a sign that they're ready to go all out in using it?

HOLLIDAY: No. They're ready to use it. I mean, they're - one of the things that the Assad regime has continuously been forced to do is use more and more pieces of its arsenal. Throughout 2011, the regime was actually showing selective brutality. They wanted to not do too much violence because they would draw the ire of both their people and the international community. But by January, they had to start using artillery because the rebels have become strong enough to stop their ground offenses. By June, the regime had to start using helicopters because the rebels had made it difficult for them to use the roads.

One thing that makes it difficult for the Assad regime to employ though is that they don't have enough of them. The attack helicopters that are really the most effective against attacking ground targets are - there are probably no more than 15 of those available to the regime. And so now what we're seeing is the next step in that escalation where the regime is willing to use their fixed-wing aircraft because they don't have the artillery support that they need in the far north of the country.

CORNISH: So then, let's talk about what may be changing for the Syrian military. We mentioned earlier problems about keeping up the fleet of helicopters, for example. What else is going on there?

HOLLIDAY: Well, to be frank, the Assad regime has been very impressive in their ability to sustain their operations for over a year at this point. And they've been running their tanks all up and down Syria for a long time, which is a difficult logistical undertaking. But what you're seeing happen now is that the Assad regime has become stretched to the point where those logistical capacities are starting to break down.

CORNISH: So in plain language, logistical capacity means what?

HOLLIDAY: The ability to frankly drive spare parts and fuel and food, simple as that, up the highways to reinforce and supply this force.

CORNISH: What weapon would be a game changer for rebel forces?

HOLLIDAY: Well, frankly, I think that weapons aren't even introduced to the battlefield. And that is the IED, the improvised explosive device, the roadside bombs that the rebels have begun to use with greater and greater effectiveness. They've used IEDs from the very early point in this conflict since last fall. But what we've seen really in the last three months is that they are now building IEDs that are capable of taking out the main battle tanks that the regime has relied on as their primary piece of equipment to build their force around. And as a result of this, it's really forced the regime to get out of their tanks and walk a lot more and has really mitigated one of the greatest advantages that the regime had against the insurgents.

CORNISH: Joe Holliday, he is a military analyst at the Institute for the Study of War. Joe, thank you for talking with us.

HOLLIDAY: Glad to be here.

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