Twenty months into the Syrian uprising, president Bashar al-Assad’s message to the world has been nothing if not consistent – his military is strong, his enemies are foreigners and terrorists and he will prevail in the end.
But military analysts and intelligence officials are now wondering if his forces can maintain the pace of operations they have been conducting up to this point, particularly the Syrian air force, the arm of the military that maintains his edge over the rebels.
Analysts claim it is difficult to come up with reliable figures on the Syrian air force and air defences because of the extreme secrecy surrounding its military matters.
Mr Assad’s regime – its forces stretched thin on multiple fronts – has significantly increased its use of air power against Syrian rebels since the summer.
For now, government jets and helicopters are largely out of reach of the rebels’ arsenals, and Mr Assad projects confidence at every turn. In an interview last week with Russia Today TV, Mr Assad vowed to “live and die” in Syria, saying the conflict would never drive him into exile.
Still, the regime cannot maintain the status quo indefinitely.
One Middle East intelligence official yesterday said Syria’s estimated 300 jet fighters – mostly Russian-made and old by Western standards – lack the appropriate maintenance, spare parts and missile warheads. Syria’s estimated three dozen helicopters, also mostly Russian-made, are being “exhausted from overuse,” he said.
“The Syrian army is being stretched to the maximum because of simultaneous crackdowns on rebel strongholds across Syria,” said the official, who asked that his name and country not be used.
Mr Assad, whose family have ruled Syria for 42 years, has vowed to fight to the death in a conflict that has already killed an estimated 38,000 people and risks sucking in other countries.
Stretched or not, his warplanes again struck homes in rebel-held Ras al-Ain yesterday. Civilians fled over the border dividing it from the Turkish town of Ceylanpinar and thick plumes of smoke billowed upwards. Rebels wrested control of Ras al-Ain from Assad regime forces last week. The town is in the predominantly Kurdish oil-producing north-eastern province of al-Hasaka.
Syrian jets and artillery also hit the town of Albu Kamal on the frontier with Iraq, where rebels have seized some areas, according to the mayor of the Iraqi border town of Qaim.
Tension also remained high on the Golan Heights, where Israeli gunners have retaliated against stray Syrian mortar fire landing on the occupied plateau in the previous two days.
On the ground, “Syria has more than enough weapons for fighting the rebels,” said Igor Korotchenko, a retired colonel of Russia’s military general staff who is now editor of National Defence magazine.
“As long as Bashar al-Assad has the money to pay his military, it will keep fighting,” said Mr Korotchenko.
He said Syria had more than 1,000 tanks, along with a system of repair centres created during Soviet times and enough experienced personnel to service the weapons.
Twenty months of conflict have created a vast humanitarian crisis, with more than 408,000 Syrians fleeing to neighbouring countries and up to four million expected to need aid by early next year, according to the United Nations.