Syrian Army defections probably not decisive

By and large Bashar al-Assad's military is holding firm, in part because Alawites – who dominate the officer corps – believe they have little choice but to stick together or face annihilation.

Shaam News Network/REUTERS
Damaged buildings are seen in Homs, Syria, June 23.

The defection of five Syrian Army officers and some 30 soldiers to Turkey overnight is further evidence of the slow but steady toll on the manpower of the military loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.

But there is little evidence to suggest that the key fighting units in the Syrian Army have begun to witness significant defections that could shift the struggle decisively in favor of the Free Syrian Army and other armed opposition units.

A general, two colonels, and two majors, along with the 30 soldiers were part of a group of 200 Syrian soldiers who had split from the Army and dashed for the relative safety of the border with Turkey on Sunday night.

Turkey has hosted the leaders of the Free Syrian Army, the rebel force mainly comprised of defectors, since it emerged a year ago. The latest defectors were taken to Apaydin refugee camp in Hatay Province, some 2.5 miles from the border with Syria. The general, whose has not been identified, is the 13th to defect from the Army since the uprising against the Assad regime began in March 2011.

The Turkish authorities are hosting some 33,000 Syrian refugees, including FSA combatants, at several camps in the southeastern provinces of Hatay, Gaziantep, Sanliurfa, and Kilis.

So far, the vast majority of the defectors are Sunnis, who form the bulk of the opposition against the Alawite-dominated Syrian regime. The Alawites, the sect the Assads belong to, are an obscure offshoot of Shiite Islam and represent about 12 percent of Syria's population (The Sunnis account for some 70 percent). Sunnis comprise around 60 percent of the Army but the Alawites dominate the officer corps and form the majority in the elite military units, such as the 4th Armored Division, which has been at the forefront of the regime's campaign to crush the rebellion.

Alawite defections have been extremely rare. In March, Capt. Saleh Habib Saleh, an Alawite Army officer, announced his defection and formed a small unit affiliated with the FSA known as the "Free Alawites." But his defection has proven exception rather than the rule.

As the confrontation between the Assad regime and the opposition has taken on an increasingly sectarian color, many Alawites, even those generally unsympathetic to the Syrian leadership, believe they have little choice but to stick together or face annihilation at the hands of a Sunni majority. However, if desertions begin to take hold among key Alawite-dominated army units, that could spell the beginning of the end of the Assad regime.

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