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Syrian army eroded by defections, deaths

BEIRUT -- A top Syrian cleric's appeal to young men to join the army raised the question whether President Bashar Assad is running out of soldiers, prompting a pro-government newspaper to reassure readers yesterday that the military can keep fighting insurgents for years to come.

Syria's civil war, with its large-scale defections, thousands of soldiers killed and multiple fronts, has eroded one of the Arab world's biggest armies, with pro-Assad militias increasingly joining the force.

But while the rebels have scored military and diplomatic gains, the regime is far from its breaking point.

Assad appears to have stopped trying to retake all of the rebel-held areas, lacking the manpower to do so. But his forces have pinned down opposition fighters with artillery and airstrikes, while repelling rebel assaults on Damascus and other regime strongholds.

Syria's troop strength moved into the spotlight with a call for a general mobilization by Grand Mufti Ahmad Badreddine Hassoun, the country's top state-appointed Sunni Muslim cleric and Assad loyalist. He told state TV on Sunday that Syrians must rally to defend their country against a "global conspiracy."

Yesterday, the pro-government al-Watan newspaper dismissed speculation that the mufti's appeal was a sign of attrition among the troops.

The uprising against Assad began two years ago, initially peacefully. In response to a regime crackdown, it turned into an armed insurgency and finally, last summer, into a full-scale civil war. The conflict has killed more than 70,000 people and displaced about 4 million of Syria's 22 million people, according to UN estimates.

The army was said to have had about 220,000 troops at the start of the conflict. Assad deployed only the most loyal one-third of them, an estimated 65,000 to 75,000, to try to beat back the insurgency.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said it had documented the deaths of 14,521 soldiers.

Over the weekend, rebels seized a missile base in the Damascus suburb of Khan Sheih, killing 30 soldiers, opposition groups said. Rebels said they seized nine anti-aircraft guns and other ammunition.

Yesterday, 40 soldiers were killed, including eight slain when a car bomb exploded on the outskirts of Idlib. The blast wounded 10 people, according to the Observatory.

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