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    Middle East
     Jul 28, 2006
Syria's military flatters to deceive
By Richard M Bennett

While it is still largely true that the Syrian military remains one of the largest and best-trained forces in the Arab world, it has significantly lost every major conflict with Israel since 1948. Its combat strength has deteriorated dramatically over the past 15 years as its equipment has become increasingly obsolescent, poorly maintained and short of spare parts.

The collapse of the Soviet Union created immense problems of resupply for the Syrians, and the slowdown experienced by the

Syrian economy resulted in a further downgrading of the military's combat efficiency.

This said, the recent military cooperation agreement signed with Iran has offered Damascus a much-needed opportunity to update and re-equip large parts of its armed forces. Spare parts for its Russian weapons, improved electronics and new Iranian-made missile systems will provide a considerable strengthening of combat capability and a possible improvement in morale.

Syria, like its more powerful partner Iran, is desperate to become a serious participant in any negotiations involving the future of the Middle East and is widely suspected of trying to use Hezbollah, its protege in Lebanon, as a lever to help fulfill its geostrategic ambitions.

The risk that Syria runs in adopting the policy of limited confrontation with Israel via a third party is that Israel and indeed the United States may take it as a welcome opportunity to embark on a campaign finally to remove the Assad regime in Damascus.

If Syria has seriously miscalculated over the use of Hezbollah, then the question arises whether the Syrian armed forces could prevent the regime of President Bashar al-Assad from reaping the whirlwind it had so unwisely stirred.

A close analysis of its current military capability would suggest that they could not.

The army
The Syrian army has some 220,000 personnel, with the core of its combat units deployed between the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and the capital city, Damascus. Significant military units are to be found deployed along the Lebanese and Iraqi borders and to the north on the border with Turkey.

The army command also directly controls both the Republican Guard Mechanized Division, which acts as a Praetorian Guard, equipped with the best of Syria's weapons, including T72/72M battle tanks, and the elite 14th Special Forces Division with the 1st, 2nd 3rd and 4th SF Regiments deployed near the Golan Heights, around the Mount Hermon area and along the Lebanese border.

The army's main war-fighting element comprises three corps formed in 1985 to allow, at least in theory, more flexibility and to improve combat efficiency by decentralizing the command structure. This was an attempt to absorb at least some of the lessons learned during the Israeli invasion of the Lebanon in 1982.

1st Corps. The heavily fortified defense zone between Damascus and the Golan Heights bristles with long-range artillery, anti-tank weapons, mines and bunkers. Behind this is based the army's premier 1st Corps, with its headquarters in Damascus and deployed in an arc from the capital to Der'a on the Jordanian border.

2nd Corps. To the north of Damascus and covering the Lebanese border, with a headquarters in Zebdani, is the 2nd Corps.

3rd Corps. The last of the major formations, the 3rd Corps, formed in the late 1980s, is based in the north and covers Hama, the Turkish and Iraqi borders, and the Mediterranean coastline and is tasked with protecting the complex of chemical and biological weapons (CBW) and missile production and launch facilities. It is headquartered in Aleppo.

Syrian armored and mechanized divisions are still largely structured along traditional Soviet army lines and equipped with some 3,500 aging Russian battle tanks, with another 1,000 in static positions or in store. More than 4,500 armored personnel carriers and 500 self-propelled and 1,500 towed artillery, protected by some 2,000 anti-aircraft guns, make up a substantial and, on paper, powerful military force.

The army also deploys a fairly modern and effective anti-tank missile force with some 6,000 Russian AT3, AT5, AT7, AT10 and AT14, as well as the Euro MILAN (missile infantry light anti-tank). To this can be added more than 5,000 Russian and Iranian man-portable surface-to-air missiles (SAMs).

A separate air defense command has some 600 aging Russian SA2, SA3, SA5 and SA6 SAM systems, with only the few SA8 and SA10 being considered modern, and about 4,000 anti-aircraft guns. This important aspect of Syria's defense will probably be the first to benefit from the agreement with Iran, as new radar, missiles, command and control systems are an undoubted priority for Damascus.

Missiles and WMD
Of particular interest is Syria's undoubted strength in missiles and in chemical warfare. This ranges from long-range Scuds to a coast-defense brigade deployed to protect Latakia and other naval bases with four battalions of Russian and Iranian anti-ship missiles, such as the SSC-1B Sepal and C802 systems. The latter recently proved its effectiveness by damaging an Israel warship off the coast of Lebanon.

However, the real Syrian military threat to Israel is provided by the large number of such weapons now available to the missile command based in Aleppo. It has been suggested by some observers that as many as 1,000 Russian or Iranian modified Scuds are deployed on some 60-70 transporter-erector-launchers (TELs), in numerous well-hidden launch silos or housed within a reported 15 massive tunnel complexes constructed in recent years with the help of Iranian and North Korean engineers.

The majority of these missiles are improved Scud-D or Iranian/North Korean versions with ranges of some 700 kilometers with a 500-kilogram warhead. To this can be added some 210 highly mobile Russian SS-21 Scarab short-range missiles. Syria may also have acquired Chinese technology in the form of the M-9 and M-11 missile systems. Syria has two large underground improved Scud-missile production facilities near Aleppo and Hamah built with Iranian, North Korean and Chinese assistance.

It is believed by some intelligence sources that between 150 and 200 of the longest-range missiles are equipped with CBW warheads. There is considerable evidence that Sarin nerve agents and HD (mustard gas) are produced at facilities just north of Damascus and near Hamah, while the deadly VX nerve agent is produced at a petrochemical complex just south of Homs. Anthrax has reportedly been produced by the Damascus-based Scientific Research Council.

The air force
The Syrian air force still appears, at least on paper, to be highly impressive with a strength of some 40,000 personnel and reportedly some nine fighter and bomber squadrons and 17 air defense fighter squadrons.

These are equipped with 90 Su-22, 134 MiG-23, 20 Su-24, 198 MiG-21, 40 MiG-25 and 60 MiG-29 combat aircraft and 48 Mi-24/25 attack helicopters. They are armed with a wide variety of relatively modern Russian and French air-to-surface and air-to-air missiles. Most of the main air bases are well provided with hardened shelters, camouflaged dispersal sites and heavy air defense.

However, the fact that about half of the aircraft are currently non-operational and the limited amount of annual flying hours, with little or no advanced training, for the combat pilots place significant limits on the air force's actual combat capability.

There is little doubt that Syria's pilots are both brave and committed, but the hard reality is that the air force could not sustain more than a day or two, at most, of full-scale conflict with its Israeli neighbors.

The navy
The 5,000-strong Syrian navy is unlikely to play any significant part in any future conflict with Israel. Its small force of eight elderly fast missile boats, two anti-submarine patrol craft and a handful of other minor vessels based in the ports of Latakia, Baniyas, Minat al-Bayda and Tartus are probably destined to provide no more than useful target practice for Israel's warships.

AFI Research provides expert information on the world's intelligence services, armed forces and conflicts. Contact rbmedia@supanet.com.

(Copyright 2006 AFI Research. Used with permission.)

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