Illustration: Helicopter
Illustration: HelicopterFlash 90

The Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad has recruited at least 15 North Korean pilots to man its attack helicopters, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The London-based Observatory, which monitors casualties and other developments in Syria's ongoing civil war, cited the opposition-linked Al Durar website, which claimed the move was the result of fears by the regime that its own pilots could defect, taking with them valuable military hardware at a time when it forces are struggling to replenish severe losses after two and a half years of costly attritional warfare.

North Korea is an ally of the Assad regime's own key backer, Iran. Cooperation between Tehran and Pyongyang runs deep, and North Korean scientists are believed to have played a role not only in the Iranian nuclear program, but also the nascent Syrian program that was reportedly destroyed in 2007 by an Israeli strike.

The Syrian government has long relied on foreign allies - particularly Shia militias from Iraq and Lebanon - to supplement its badly-overstretched and increasingly battle-weary regular forces. Most prominent among them is the Lebanese terrorist organization Hezbollah, as well as the multi-national Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas Brigades, which counts Iraqi, Lebanese and Syrian Shia amongst its ranks. According to a recent report by Al Monitor, as many as 14 Shia Islamist factions from Iraq alone are operating in the country on behalf of the regime.

Syrian rebels - and in particular those linked to Al Qaeda, such as the Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shams (ISIS) - have also been drawing a steady stream of foreign recruits from a wide range of countries, as the Syrian civil war takes on wider sectarian undertones.

Compounding the Syrian military's manpower shortage is the fact that much of the regular Syrian army's rank-and-file are Sunni Muslim recruits, whose loyalty to the Iranian-backed Allawite regime is questionable. This has meant that, despite the shortage of manpower, some battalions have had to be kept from the front lines to avoid the prospect of mass-desertions.

More than 115,000 people have died in the Syrian civil war, according to UN estimates.