Video: Al-Assad's ragtag army massacres 330 civilians
Bashar al-Assad's army is close to a collapse that could plunge the Middle East into a "nuclear reaction", its most senior defector has said.
In his first full-length newspaper interview, General Mustafa al-Sheikh, who has taken refuge in Turkey, gave an apocalyptic view of the state of the regime -- despite its attempt to reassert control this weekend.
But General Sheikh said only a third of the army was at combat readiness due to defections or absenteeism, while remaining troops were demoralised, most of its Sunni officers had fled, been arrested, or sidelined, and its equipment was degraded.
"The situation is now very dangerous and threatens to explode across the whole region, like a nuclear reaction," he said.
The failure of President Assad to keep a tight grip even on the towns and suburbs around Damascus, some of which have driven out the army for periods in recent weeks, has led to a re-assessment of his forces' unity.
When General Sheikh fled over the border from his town in the north of the country in the second half of November, he thought the army could hold out against an outnumbered opposition for a year or more. Now, he said, attacks by the rebels' Free Syrian Army (FSA) were escalating as the rank and file withered away due to lack of belief in the cause.
The Assads' increasing reliance on loyalists from their own Alawite minority meant Sunni officers had fled, were under house arrest or at best marginalised and distrusted.
"The army will collapse during February," he said. "The reasons are the shortage of Syrian army personnel, which even before March 15 last year did not exceed 65 per cent.
"The Syrian army combat readiness I would put at 40 per cent for hardware and 32 per cent for personnel. They are sending in elements from the Shabiha (militia) and the Alawite sect to compensate, but this army is unable to continue more than a month. Some elements of the army are reaching out to the FSA to help them to defect."
Gen Sheikh is negotiating with the Syrian National Council and the FSA over his future role in the offensive against President Assad.
"That the government's days are numbered can no longer be in serious doubt, but just how many it has left remains an open question," Yezid Sayigh, an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment, a think tank, wrote this week. "The regime cannot win, but it certainly can resist and prolong the conflict."
General Sheikh said he had battled with his conscience before fleeing, mindful of his 37 years' service and of possible retribution against his extended family.
He said the final straw had been a sexual assault by soldiers who took turns to attack a young bride at a village near the town of Hama.
He believes the army has become a "crazy killing machine", and that without a solution within a fortnight, "the whole region will flare up".