As Syrian army defections multiply, the backbone of the regime remains grounded on a loyal core of officers motivated either by conviction or fear of a post-revolt purge of their ranks.
The most prominent desertions have been the June 22 defection of a pilot who landed his fighter in Jordan and that of 85 soldiers who escaped to Turkey on Monday.
Such events offer inspiration for the increasingly organised rebels which, according to activists and monitors, have inflicted heavy losses on government troops in past weeks.
“These defections hurt the morale of the army,” Riad Kahwaji, who heads the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA), told AFP.
But “you don’t have the kind of scale of defections that would make an impact,” said Aram Nerguizian, an analyst at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
The scale of defections in the Syrian army, one of the largest in the Arab world, is hard to quantify, despite widespread videos and news reports of dissent.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, “tens of thousands” of soldiers have fled since the anti-regime revolt broke out in March 2011, but not all have joined the armed rebellion.
British military analyst Paul Smyth points out that “the number of people who have deserted is still quite low considering the size of the Syrian military, which is quite large.”
“Any army which has been fighting in various parts of a country for over a year has obviously maintained a certain degree of cohesion,” said Smyth, founder of defense consulting firm R3IConsulting.
The International Institute for Strategic Studies estimates that in 2010, a year before the revolt, the Syrian army could count 325,000 troops under its command.
This number does not include an additional 300,000 reservists.
Either “people are not leaving the army because they are genuinely still loyal to the regime, or they are frightened of reprisals that may happen to their families,” said Smyth, a retired British officer.
“Probably both are true,” he added.
Testimonies from deserters often cite disobeying orders to shoot civilians as the prime cause of defections.
Kassem Saadeddine, spokesman for the rebel Free Syrian Army, said that soldiers who were reluctant to defect for fear of reprisals were supporting the rebels with weapons, intelligence and logistics.
But in elite units, the backbone of the army, numbering approximately 100,000 men, there have been no visible cracks.
“In Syria, there are two armies: the military itself and the army defending the regime,” Kahwaji said.
These include the dreaded fourth division of the First Army Corps, led by the younger brother of President Bashar al-Assad, Maher, which Kahwaji said “is the best equipped and better paid.”
The special forces, the Republican Guard and some of the fifth and ninth divisions are also “darlings of the regime”.
But in a majority Sunni country led by the Assad clan, hailing from the minority Alawite faith, loyalty to community has become more pronounced as the conflict takes an increasingly sectarian bent.
“Every major unit within the Syrian armed forces that has the ability to shape the security outcome is either directly or indirectly controled by Alawite officers,” Nerguizian told AFP.
“While these defections are not insignificant, they are still mainly Sunni soldiers who don’t have the kind of access to command and control” needed to cause “shifts within the Alawite command structure.”
Even many Sunni officers are hesitant to take the plunge.
“Many now believe that even if Assad were to go, the country will be embroiled in instability for years,” Nerguizian said. “There are still far too many within the military who prefer some kind of continuity over years of instability.
“Even if they support the opposition, they fear the prospect of an Iraq-style ‘de-Baathification’,” the analyst said, referring to the dissolution of the Baath — the ruling party in Syria — after the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq.
“They are going to hang in there with the hope of some political settlement.”
According to experts, the status quo is likely to drag on, especially given NATO’s reluctance to intervene in the conflict.
“The regime cannot decapitate the opposition by force and vice versa. It is a real war of attrition,” said Nerguizian.