NEAR HOMS, Syria -- 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 countrys armed forces.
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 militarys 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.