It is, in many ways, elementary.  Bigger is better, stronger, and more able to survive punishment.  The smaller something becomes, the more fragile it is.  A lot of fretting is going into the long-term effects of an air assault on Syria.  Most of it centers on how Americans feel about themselves following eight long years of unrewarded combat in Iraq.  But focus in on Syria itself.  There are a number of things that can happen in Syria following the assault – few of them bode well for Assad.

By now, the Syrian army is a husk of itself

Free Syrian Army rebels fighting against Assad...
Getting closer and closer. (Photo credit: FreedomHouse)

Nobody should give the Syrian army much in the laurels column.  Their combat performance in every war they’ve fought is downright dismal. (See here, here, and here).  The only thing they’ve been good at is being a pivotal player in Syrian politics and keeping the Muslim Brotherhood down.

It’s true they’ve probably learned some things over the past two and a half years of brutal war.  But their equipment, already not great, has been worn down, shot at, captured, and otherwise abused.  Replacement parts are probably, by now, in short supply, meaning only so many tanks, helicopters, and artillery units can be active at any given time.  Moreover, soldiers do keep defecting when they get the chance, sometimes taking heavy stuff with them.

And don’t give Hezbollah too much credit

We know that Syria’s army badly needed Hezbollah to shore it up.  It helped free up Syria’s troops to fight elsewhere.  But Hezbollah is a relatively small organization – perhaps only a few thousand full-time fighters.  These might be hardcore guys, with combat experience against the vaunted Israeli military, but Rambo is a fiction and no matter how badass your team feels, numbers still matter.

The role of dumb luck keeps getting bigger

English: Bashar al-Assad under pressure
Eventually crushed. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In a total war between societies, the bigger wins because the conflict does not stop until one side is overwhelmed.  Luck, on the other hand, is just the random happening.  Germany got quite lucky in World War II – the Allies sat around while they swallowed up large swathes of Europe in 1939-40, then France got caught with its pants down.  But despite all that, the conflict was on a vast scale never before seen, and so, as soon as Germany attacked the Soviet Union, the war was lost.  The Allies just had more; over time, they could wear down the luckier Germans.

But in smaller conflicts, luck matters.  Many strategic decisions are made and won on the basis of luck – generals gamble with others’ lives quite routinely.  A big army can afford a string of unlucky decisions because they can absorb the losses (just look at Ulysses S. Grant).  A small army cannot; they must fight smarter, or be luckier, in order to prevail.

Syria now has so many refugees, displaced persons, and others who are trying to stay out of the fight that the actual number of combatants is relatively low.  The effects of the war have touched the lives of every Syrian, but has not caused every able-bodied Syrian to get directly involved.

So when the Americans bomb, it’ll hurt

Yes, Assad is moving his forces around to try to avoid the brunt of the assault.  But every loss hurts proportionately more.  Destroying command and control centers reduces his communications.  Hitting arsenals cut down the number of artillery shells.  Regardless, every strike forces Assad to put resources into repairing or replacing stuff when he’d rather use those resources to battle the rebellion.

Is Assad’s government another Saddam or another Milosevic? 

Can Assad withstand a strike?  In the short term, probably yes.  Like Saddam, he’s willing to do anything to stay in power.  But like Milosevic, his forces are rapidly degrading in their combat abilities.  Saddam had such an effective system of terror that nothing short of a full-scale invasion could remove him.  Milosevic did not and was deposed, dying in The Hague during his war crimes trial.

Assad is Assad, so comparisons have only so much usefulness.  While he’s shown himself to be ruthless, he’s also lost control of much of his country (see this great map here).  Saddam’s agents were dug deep into Iraqi society and so prevented any full-scale risings.  When one did happen, he crushed it quickly.  Assad seems to have failed to do both.

Ignore the bluster; Syria’s government will be much weaker after

Sure, Syria says it can take it.  They could never say otherwise.  But the assault will boost the rebels.  Which ones?  Our “good guys” or our “bad” ones?  That will be the result of leadership and a dash of dumb luck.

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