The War Nerd: Doing the math on Alawite casualty numbers

By Gary Brecher , written on May 23, 2015

From The War Desk

The Sunday Telegraph said recently that Assad’s Syrian Arab Army (SAA) will collapse soon, because one-third of Syrian Alawite “males of military age” have already died fighting the Sunni. Lack of manpower, the theory goes, will doom the Alawites.

There’s no denying that Assad’s forces have been looking weak lately. Islamic State has been making gains against them in the southeast, taking the only road connecting southern Syria with Iraq. Worse yet, in the minds of artsy Western news-chewers, is the fact that IS has now taken the ancient ruins of Palmyra, raising the terrible specter of bearded hicks taking sledgehammers to “cultural treasures” like they did in the museums of Mosul.

I have to confess, the prospect of Palmyra’s pillars falling down grieves me less than the thought of a brave, smart Kurdish soldier losing her life to the slave-selling pigs of IS. Art, schmart; you can rebuild a fallen temple a lot easier than you can bring back the YPG/J kids whose faces show up on the weekly death notices.


Truth is, I kind of understand the impulse to smash up some overpriced art. Who hasn’t wanted to push over the giant dominos in Stonehenge, see if the Parthenon pillars could stand up to a good shove, or spraypaint “Some sucker paid $46 million for this garage door” on a Rothko?

Islamic State strategy in Syria seems pretty clear: Defend, even retreat, against the Kurdish YPG/J in the north, and move combat power to the south against the SAA. That makes sense, because IS has been losing steadily against the Kurds. When this is all over and we get some decent numbers, it will come out that IS lost a huge number of fighters in the idiotic stand against the YPG/J and USAF in Kobane, and has been losing more in the east, in Hassakah.

So IS has backed off, shifted south, to crush the SAA once and for all.

They may do it, too, just by shunting their endless supply of cannon-fodder to the front. But the SAA won’t fall simply because it reaches a certain fixed percentage of casualties. There have been a lot of attempts to come up with a percentage like that, but they just don’t work. Too many variables, especially the question of morale, are involved, and there are too many cases where armies have dissolved without firing a shot, or held out to the last cartridge, to come up with a formula that works everywhere.

And when you’re dealing with the war in Syria, everything is murky, everything is doubtful. For example, how many Alawites are there in Syria? Not just Alawite fighters; how many Alawites, period? The usual figure is 15% of the total Syrian population of 27 million, say 4,000,000 people. But this is Syria we’re talking about, not Norway; there aren’t neatly dressed census-takers knocking on doors in Syria’s sectarian-segregated neighborhoods asking, “One last question, sir/madam, if I may: can you tell me your sectarian identity so I can paint a red X on your door for the death squads?” All we have are guesses about the Syrian population and its sectarian breakdown.

And one of the more sensible guesses I’ve seen is the one made by Kyle Orton, who says the Alawite population was much smaller than the official estimates. The Alawites, like the Maronite Christians down the coast in Lebanon, have been emigrating for generations, partly out of a deep fear of the Sunni majority dominating the Euphrates River Valley to the east.

Once a pattern of emigration starts, it tends to grow, as first-generation emigrants beg their kin to join them in a new country. The Alawites, who are fairly secular and urban, may also have had a lower birthrate than the Sunni, who are a very conservative, patriarchal, devout culture. In fact, the total Alawite population may have been closer to 2,000,000 than 4,000,000 at the start of the war.

And there’s no doubt that a lot of Alawites have been killed fighting. The SAA is really an Alawite combat force. Yes, there are still a few token Sunni soldiers in the SAA, but they’ve been kept away from the real fighting for fear they’d defect to the Sunni militias. So almost all of the SAA’s casualties have been Alawites. And SAA’s casualties have been horrific. Again, it’s hard to get a clear estimate, but it seems likely that at least 200,000 fighters from the SAA and its auxiliary forces have died. That’s a huge, horrific death toll for a small community like the Alawites.

But does it mean the Alawites are doomed? Not necessarily. It’s just not easy to say how many dead it takes to destroy the fighting ability of a tribe or army. There’s an old tradition, used by US Army statisticians, that a combat force begins to lose its effectiveness when casualties reach 15%, and becomes “ineffective” when losses hit 30%, but that formula just doesn’t work, even when you apply it to US Army units. By the time Lee surrendered, about a half million of the South’s 1.1 million soldiers were dead, wounded, or deserters.

That’s more than 40% of the Confederates’ total strength. If the 15-30% rate had any validity, the Confederacy would have collapsed long before 1865. In reality, even at Appomattox there were plenty of Confederates who were ready to fight on.

There are hundreds of examples of tribes who fought to the last man, then the last woman, and then the last child. In fact, there are probably far more of these stories than we remember, because…well, you know, genocide. Real genocide, the kind where nobody’s left to tell about it. Ishi, only without an Ishi. Moby Dick with no narrator, just a few hats floating on the waves. Who knows how many tribes have vanished from the planet? Genocide is the hidden norm of history.

Then there are the tribes and nations that survived, the ones we remember, but suffered incredible casualties before surrendering. My favorite example of this sort of suicidal heroism is Paraguay, the most heroic, unappreciated story in the Western Hemisphere. During the War of the Triple Alliance, Paraguay lost two-thirds of its male population. When the men were dead, the women and kids fought on. Long after casualty rates reached the 15%, the Paraguayan forces, which pretty much consisted of everyone in the country, fought on and even won major victories.

In September 1866, long after Paraguayan casualties had passed that supposedly magic one-third level, a Paraguayan force defeated a mixed Brazilian/Argentine army that outnumbered it five to one in the Battle of Curupayty, killing or wounding 5,000 out of 25,000 invaders while losing only about 150 of their own.

You could multiply these examples of armies and tribes fighting on, way past that 30% casualty mark, across eras and continents.

And if you look at the other anomaly — big, powerful armies skedaddling like puppies after suffering only a few casualties…well, those examples are even easier to find (and a lot less heartbreaking to read about).

Let’s start with our own slapstick empire. It’s always a good idea to bash your own people a little; keeps you from being one of those John Keegan home-team cheerleaders. And it’s not hard to find examples of American forces fleeing after a few casualties. Remember Black Hawk Down, which spent a whole lotta money turning a contemptible bug-out into two hours of cinematic glory? After that little skirmish, the US choppered out of Mogadishu after losing a mere 18 men.

The total strength of the US armed forces when they fled Mogadishu was about 1.4 million. Those 18 KIA represent .001% of total American military personnel. But they rendered the US mission in Mogadishu ineffective, in the sense of “skedaddled,” which is the ineffective-est form of ineffective.

Then there’s our star pupils, the so-called Iraqi Army, which set a new world land-speed record bugging out of Mosul before losing even one soldier to the handful of Islamic State pickup trucks “closing in” on the city. In the case of the “Iraqi Army,” aka “Cash Cow for Al-Maliki’s Dawa-Party buds,” the percentage of casualties which rendered their fighting force ineffective and outta town was . . . zero.

So, no matter how eagerly the Telegraph rubs its liver-spotted old hands in glee at the prospect of the Alawites’ imminent dissolution, there’s no magic casualty formula that can tell you when Assad’s regime will dissolve. You’d think we’d know that by now, since pundit imbeciles have been predicting the imminent demise of Assad’s regime since 2011, when I was in Najran and people were dancing around in glee at the upcoming Sunni cakewalk into Damascus.

In fact I remember a Syrian Sunni colleague yelling, in the middle of an office argument, “I would rather have SHAYTAN ruling my country than Assad!” I’ve always wondered whether he still feels that way, now that he’s had a chance to see the heads stuck on poles in Raqqa. You want Shaytan, kid, sometimes you’re gonna get Shaytan.

The Alawites are likely to fight to the last boy or old man because they know very well there’ll be very little mercy for them if the Sunni win. Long before the current war started, graffiti in Sunni neighborhoods in Syria said, “Christians to Beirut, Alawi to the graveyard.” That wasn’t what you call “mere hyperbole,” either; when Sunni militias made it into Alawite territory in Latakia Province in 2013, they killed hundreds of civilians.

Even Alawites who hate Assad’s clan have joined up, because when you belong to a small hill sect in a sea of Sunni sectarians, you’re in a prison situation: stick with your own or die.

What’s much more remarkable than the Alawites' grim determination is the clear refusal of most Syrian Sunni Arabs to fight in this war at all.

In theory, the Syrian Sunni have a huge pool of recruits. There are about 17 million Sunni Arabs in Syria. If you look at the country’s age structure, you can see that there are roughly five million Sunni Arab “men of military age,” roughly 15-40. (15 may seem young, and 40 old, for conventional armies, but in sectarian war people much younger and older are common.)

Five million men is potentially a huge military force. And the number may be bigger, since the Sunni who join the various Sunni militias are drawn heavily from rural, lower-class backgrounds, where big families are common. Even if you only consider the core fighting-age males, the 15-24 year old testosterone-poisoning cases as yet untainted by empathy, you still get an astonishing figure of available manpower for the Syrian Sunni. In theory, they would be able to field more than two million men if they only recruited these young dumb guys.

And there are no disqualifying factors that would neutralize this numerical advantage. Sometimes the more numerous tribe is simply terrorized into docility, but that’s not the case here. The Syrian Sunni were the traditionally dominant tribe under the long Ottoman rule; Alawite domination of Syria is a very recent and very odd accident, a result of France’s colonial strategy of taking the most despised local tribe and using it as a vengeful, loyal proxy army. Sunni Syrians, unlike the world’s many helot tribes that may have numbers but not morale, have always considered themselves the rightful rulers of the country. They’ve never really been afraid of the Alawites.

If Syria's Sunni Arabs had managed to mobilize effectively, they could have wiped out the Alawites long ago. But very few Sunni Syrians are actually willing to fight in this war, maybe as few as two or three per cent of those “men of military age.”

It’s hard to get a solid figure on the number of Sunni Syrians fighting with the 1,200 or so militias in Syria, but a rough guess (a very rough guess) would be something like 300,000. Again, these numbers are pure mud, very hard to rely on. One big problem is that there are two kinds of Syrian Sunni fighting forces: The big, mobile, relatively well-organized groups like Jabhat al Nusra, Islamic State, the core FSA contingents, and Ajnad as-Sham. Those are the only forces willing and able to deploy where the overall Sunni command (such as it isn’t) consider them most useful. These function as “real armies,” going where they’re ordered and doing what they’re told…more or less.

But they’re just a dozen or so of the roughly 1,200 Sunni militias. The rest are very different. They’re neighborhood groups above all, the usual multi-role hood-defenders/smugglers/protection rackets you get when slums revolt. Like small factions everywhere, they spend a lot of energy coming up with fancy names for themselves, some combo of “Martyrs,” “Battalion,” and “Lions.” I don’t know why lions are so big in Levantine military nomenclature; there hasn’t been a lion in the neighborhood for about 5,000 years, more’s the pity.

Generally, groups like these fight very hard for the ’hood, and badly when they leave it, if they’re even willing to leave at all. Fighting in their home alleys, they see the point, and they know the turf. Getting them to leave that turf defenseless to take a city they’ve never visited is a lot harder, like I said way long time ago.

The fact that the SAA may eventually collapse isn’t really as interesting as the fact that this tiny minority sect’s army has lasted so long against a Sunni majority that could swarm it with sheer numbers, if the Sunni Syrian population was really as fierce as the media make them out to be. The fact that the SAA is still in the game at all is yet another demonstration of something that the media can’t get right: the nature of the Sunni Revival we're living through. In the western media, the social/political importance of this movement is always downplayed, while its violence is front-page every day. The truth is that the military side of the Sunni revival has been a bizarre disaster. Out of a pool of more than a billion believers, with a demographic profile skewing young, very, very few Sunni are fighting. Many Sunni men are devout (not all of them by any means, but a significant minority), but their devotion mostly finds expression in ways more subtle, improvised, and mutable than the reactionary IS model. The anomalous survival of the SAA after four years of war is proof of that.