The Syrian military, whose advantage in heavy equipment has been emphasized repeatedly by critics of the government of President Bashar Assad, rarely uses its tanks and helicopters effectively in combat against rebel forces, a shortcoming so consistent that it raises the question of whether some pilots and troops may be intentionally missing when they target rebel positions.
Weeks of observation of Syrian military operations while traveling with rebel forces leave the impression that the Syrian army is unfamiliar with modern military tactics. It rarely engages rebel forces directly and appears instead to rely on poorly aimed and random fire to intimidate its opponents. Helicopters observed in northern and central portions of the country fly at an altitude that prevents their effective tactical employment.
On Thursday, a Syrian air force pilot, reportedly on a training mission, flew his MiG-21 jet fighter to Jordan and asked for political asylum. It was the first high-profile defection from the air force, though hundreds of soldiers have joined the rebel cause. The pilot, who was identified as Col. Hassan Hammadeh, made no public statement after his defection.
There is no way to know whether the inept use of heavy weaponry is the result of poor training, incompetence or intentional. Some rebels, however, say they believe at least some of the erratic military actions are expressions of sympathy with the rebel cause by Sunni Muslims who are serving in the country’s armed forces.
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One rebel fighter who asked to be identified only as Mahmoud, who served as an air traffic controller during his mandatory military service in the early 1980s, said that most pilots are Sunnis. Assad is an Alawite, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. The anti-Assad uprising has been driven largely by anger at perceived unfair treatment of the Sunni majority by the Alawite minority.
Mahmoud said that because most pilots are Sunni, the government is wary of trusting them. He suggested that some pilots might be missing intentionally.
The Syrian military’s advantage in heavy equipment – tanks, armored personnel carriers and helicopters – has been a persistent theme of rebel sympathizers for months as they sought international agreement to impose a no-fly zone over Syria and provide weapons and ammunition to the rebels.
As recently as March, the Syrian military seemed to be able to use its better equipment to gain an advantage over the rebels, pushing them out of the Baba Amr district of Homs in February and from many other urban areas in a fierce campaign undertaken before a U.N.-brokered cease-fire was scheduled to go into effect April 12.
In the weeks since, however, rebel forces have received fresh weapons and ammunition and have established safe zones in northern and central Syria where they operate largely unimpeded by the Syrian military, whose lack of tactical knowhow is glaring, even in the face of rebel units whose own organization and coordination are poor.
The tactics employed by helicopters observed in the past few weeks are a case in point.
Identified from photographs by an experienced American attack helicopter pilot as Russian-made MI-17s, which are designed both for transporting troops and cargo and for use as an attack aircraft, the helicopters typically fly in slow circles at altitudes between 1,500 and 2,000 feet. They fire unguided rockets and guns at apparently random or nonexistent targets and do not appear to employ guided missiles.
To hit either people or a moving target, a helicopter at high altitude must either enter a diving profile, or descend to a lower altitude of 300 to 800 feet, according to the American pilot who responded to questions by email but asked to remain anonymous because he was not authorized to discuss Syrian or American military practices. The American pilot said that from altitudes above 1,000 feet, flying level, striking a moving target with rockets or guns would be a challenge, even for a pilot trained against moving targets. He doubted that Syrian pilots receive such training.
Remaining at such high altitudes does have one advantage: It puts the helicopters out of range of rebels trying to down them with rifle and machine-gun fire.
“On the first day of fighting, everyone shot at them, with Dushkas and rifles,” said Mohammed Fido, a rebel fighter who said he had participated in significant fighting two weeks ago in the city of Qusayr, near the border with Lebanon. A Dushka is a Russian-made heavy machine gun. “On the second day, some of us shot at them, others did not. By the third day, nobody bothered to shoot at the helicopters. We learned.”
The Syrian military also deployed helicopters during four of five days of heavy fighting earlier this month in the northern town of Kafer Zaita. But sustained attacks against a concentrated force of 600 or more fighters resulted in only two rebel casualties, one killed and the other wounded.
During the battle, a rebel commander named Shahm attempted to draw a helicopter away from the main rebel force by baiting it with a truck-mounted Dushka. One helicopter gave chase, pursuing the black truck into the open countryside and expending significant machine-gun fire and at least three rockets. The truck traveled about six miles to the nearby town of Khan Sheikhoun, arriving unscathed before hiding in a garage.
Syrian military use of tanks and armored personnel carriers also lacks tactical skill. Contrary to standard military doctrine, Syrian armor frequently advances into contested urban zones without the accompanying support of ground troops. This leaves the armor vulnerable to rebel gunners, equipped with rocket-propelled grenades, who fire at the tanks and then quickly retreat out of the tanks’ line of sight.
Mohammed Idris, a rebel captain who said he battled government forces for nearly a month during the February assault on the Homs neighborhood of Baba Amr, said that the tanks sometimes advanced with infantry but more often advanced alone, or shelled contested areas from a distance of several kilometers. He said that when tanks advanced alone the rebels were often able to destroy them using rocket-propelled grenades. T-72 tanks, the type predominantly used by the government, are vulnerable to RPG strikes against the turret, treads and rear engine area.
During the Kafer Zaita fighting, unaccompanied armor was repeatedly driven back by barrages of RPG fire. Two armored personnel carriers were observed parked alone in a vulnerable intersection, but they retreated before rebel fighters were able to react.
Fighters in Houla, the site of an alleged massacre on May 25, showed video they said was taken in the past week of two tanks firing shells at houses from a hill approximately half a mile outside the town. Homes in the city near the remaining government checkpoints showed significant signs of damage that appeared to be from tank cannon and machine-gun fire. But though the fighters said the shelling had killed nearly 40 people in Houla since the massacre, during that same time government forces have been driven from the town center and are now relegated to positions on the town’s periphery.
Tice, a McClatchy special correspondent, served seven years in the U.S. Marine Corps as an infantry officer. During his deployment in Afghanistan, he served for seven months as an air attack controller, guiding combat aircraft from forward positions.