Syria’s Military Capability

The secu­rity of a nation is essen­tial for the sur­vival of any coun­try. A strate­gic doc­trine, estab­lish­ing ground forces, an air force, a navy, devel­op­ing an indus­trial base to equip the offi­cer corps and deploy­ing them in var­i­ous the­aters are some of the basic duties of a nation’s mil­i­tary. Syria, like much of the Mus­lim coun­tries, has a mil­i­tary that has for long propped up the al-Assad regimes, which is play­ing a key role in stem­ming the cur­rent upris­ing. Under­stand­ing the capa­bil­i­ties of the Syr­ian regime is essen­tial for any polit­i­cal observer who seeks to have a clear pic­ture of real­ity on the ground.
Syria has very lit­tle indige­nous mil­i­tary indus­try to speak of, and there­fore the coun­try has always been reliant on for­eign pro­cure­ment of mil­i­tary weapons and sys­tems. Despite this, for a long time it has been assem­bling SCUD mis­siles in coop­er­a­tion with North Korea and Iran.[1] Syria’s mil­i­tary indus­try also man­u­fac­tures rock­ets, notably the 220 mm and 302 mm rock­ets, which are of Syr­ian design and have been absorbed by the Syr­ian forces and even passed on to Hizbul­lah. The spe­cial secu­rity rela­tions Syria has with Iran has also aided arms trans­fers into Syria. Both coun­tries main­tain close secu­rity rela­tions and have jointly devel­oped weapon sys­tems, such as bal­lis­tic missiles.
The Syr­ian mil­i­tary con­sists of air, ground, and naval forces. Active per­son­nel prior to the upris­ing were esti­mated as 295,000, with an addi­tional 314,000 reserves.[2] The major­ity of the Syr­ian mil­i­tary per­son­nel are Sunni, but Alaw­ites make up most of the mil­i­tary lead­er­ship. The military’s most elite divi­sions are the Repub­li­can Guard and the 4th Mech­a­nized Divi­sion, which are com­manded by Bashar’s brother Maher and are exclu­sively Alaw­ite. Only the air force con­sists mostly of Sunni’s.[3] Syria’s ground forces are orga­nized into three corps with a total of seven armoured divi­sions, three mech­a­nized divi­sions, one Repub­li­can Guard divi­sion, and three Spe­cial Forces brigades orga­nized into a nom­i­nal divi­sion. It has four inde­pen­dent infantry brigades, one bor­der guard brigade, and two inde­pen­dent artillery brigades. There is an inde­pen­dent tank reg­i­ment, and 10 Spe­cial Forces regiments.[2]
Prior to the rev­o­lu­tion, the army’s equip­ment included 4,700 tanks and 4,500 armoured per­son­nel car­ri­ers. About 2,000 of the tanks are 1960s-vintage T-55s, another 1,000 only slightly newer T-62s. Another 1,700 are T-72s, from the 1970s and 1980s,[2] but many of those are embed­ded in sta­tic defen­sive posi­tions, and none have received much in the way of spare parts or main­te­nance since the Soviet Union col­lapsed. These tanks would stand very lit­tle chance in the face of mod­ern tanks. Syr­ian armoured exer­cises are slow mov­ing and have poor com­bined arms con­tent and there are almost no joint war­fare trainings. 

The air force attack capa­bil­ity totals 10 squadrons, while its air defences forces total 16 squadrons. Their fighter jets con­sist of Su-24s and MiG-29 SMTs which are capa­ble, how­ever dated air­crafts. The bulk of its attack forces con­sist of Su-22s and MiG-23 BNs  air­crafts with lim­ited capa­bil­ity to deliver pre­ci­sion or unguided weapons with accu­racy. The air force has 611 com­bat planes, its com­bat planes are very old, con­sist­ing of Soviet Sukhois and MiGs and many of these are con­sid­ered to be rust­ing. Syria’s use of attack heli­copters is more effec­tive, but equip­ment and tac­tics have not been mod­ern­ized since the early 1980s. The Syr­ian Air Force has around 90 attack heli­copters split between Mi-25s and SA-342Ls.
Syria pos­sesses 850 surface-to-air mis­siles, with 130 surface-to-air mis­sile (SAM) bat­ter­ies, many of which are now obso­lete and are sup­ported by aging radars and an obso­lete com­mand and con­trol and man­age­ment sys­tem. Most of Syria’s mis­siles are Russ­ian imports and recon­fig­ured SCUD mis­siles, which are noto­ri­ously inaccurate.
The Soviet Union was the prin­ci­pal source of train­ing and mil­i­tary hard­ware for the Syr­ian forces. The col­lapse of the Soviet Union plunged Syria into a cri­sis as it also meant the loss of their patron that had sup­plied them with arms and tech­ni­cal sup­port. As a result, Syria stopped acquir­ing weapon sys­tems and over the years its mil­i­tary capa­bil­ity decreased, as it suf­fered from severe short­ages in parts its arms ulti­mately became obso­lete. Anthony Cordes­man, of the Cen­ter for Strate­gic and Inter­na­tional Stud­ies, high­lighted that the Syr­ian army was not merely sup­plied but trained by the Sovi­ets, and so inher­ited their highly cen­tral­ized, top-down, take-no-initiative style of warfare.[4]
While the Syr­ian armed forces suf­fer from major arms short­ages, dis­cour­age­ment and lack of cer­tain capa­bil­i­ties, in the face of an inva­sion or attack they would be no pushover. While the West con­tin­ues to present Syria’s for­mi­da­ble mil­i­tary as one of the rea­sons for not inter­ven­ing, this con­tra­dicts the real­ity of Syr­ian mil­i­tary capa­bil­i­ties as there are major con­cerns with most of its equip­ment. Bashar al-Assad is still able to muster a size­able force even in the face of major defec­tions, which still failed to end the upris­ing after nearly two years.

[2] “The Mil­i­tary Bal­ance 2011″, International Insti­tute for Strate­gic Studies


  1. Peo­ple seem to think of an Army purely based on it’s paper fig­ures, rather than the real­ity of what it is capa­ble of.Whilst Syria may use what is con­sid­ered out­dated mil­i­tary hard­ware, it still posses mil­i­tary hard­ware which is of prac­ti­cal use. On paper and the­o­ret­i­cally the Syr­ian Arab Army would not be able to stand up to out­side inter­ven­tion, the prac­ti­cal­i­ties change that.
    Yes Syria uses what most think of as ‘Old Soviet junk’, yet it is not as out­dated as most would claim. A T-72, espe­cially what the Repub­li­can Guard use with reac­tive armor and a upgraded gun, is a still very capa­ble and prac­ti­cal tank: Even if they are not the flashy Sci-Fi stuff of the Chal­lenger 2, or Leop­ard 2.
    By regional stan­dards the Syr­ian Arab Army is a very capa­ble one. More so than Jor­dan, Iraq or Saudi-Arabia. Not a world power like Israel, yet still a huge regional player. It has the most capa­ble air-defense and bal­lis­tic sys­tems in the Mid­dle East, with both the S-300 air-defense sys­tem, and the Iskan­der bal­lis­tic mis­sile sys­tem. Not to men­tion it’s huge stocks of Chem­i­cal and Bio­log­i­cal weapons.
    The war rav­aging Syria is tes­ta­ment to the Syr­ian Army’s capa­bil­i­ties. Whilst it has not been able to put down the insur­gency it has man­aged to hold all key and strate­gic cities, as well as main­tain­ing the upper hand through­out the war.
    Syria is fac­ing the largest insur­gency in recent his­tory, more than just a ‘Rag-tag group of Rebels’, it faces expe­ri­enced Jihadi fight­ers from Chech­nya, Iraq, Pak­istan, Libya, Afghanistan and the Gulf States. For an Army which has not waged war since 1973 it is hold­ing well.
    The Syr­ian Army is one of the best struc­tured and designed in the region, but it does not face what it was intended to fight: A doc­trine based around con­ven­tional war­fare serves no place when fight­ing an insur­gency, (unless you have the over­whelm­ing fire­power that the Rus­sians had when crush­ing the Chechen insur­gency), rather the Army has had to adapt and restruc­ture it’s force to counter the guer­rilla war­fare it faces.
    The main prob­lem hin­der­ing the Syr­ian Army is it’s armored to infantry divi­sion ratio. With 7 armored divi­sions it is well suited to fight a con­ven­tional army, (even with it’s out­dated T-55’s and T-62’s), but armor counts for less when fight­ing an insur­gency. And when you only have 4 infantry divi­sions you can not ade­quately sup­port your armor.
    The Army does not have enough infantry divi­sions to to carry out their required tasks, such as clear­ing Rebel held dis­tricts or build­ings, whilst hold­ing their own ter­ri­tory. This is why you often see lone, or packs of tanks and BMP’s patrolling the streets or attack­ing Rebel posi­tions with­out infantry sup­port. Which makes for easy pick­ings as far as the Rebels are con­cerned.
    The man­age­ments of the Syr­ian Army is not help­ing it’s sit­u­a­tion: It focuses on the siege of cities, and fight­ing pitched bat­tles; employ­ing the Russ­ian tac­tic used in Chech­nya and which raised Grozny to the ground.
    Rather the Army should focus on a mobile and fluid style of war­fare, with bet­ter coor­di­nated com­bined arms. The best chance the Army has is of beat­ing the Rebels deci­sively in the field of bat­tle, a war of attri­tion is not what an Army based around armored and con­ven­tional war­fare should be doing. Though under the cir­cum­stances the Syr­ian Army is lim­ited in what it can do.
    The Syr­ian Army has the will and capa­bil­i­ties to pull through this war, if it pushes it’s offen­sive capa­bil­i­ties more and stops it’s overly defen­sive posture.

    Just my opin­ion any­way :P

  2. If nato inter­venes in syria, they will defeat the syr­ian army . Nato will not inter­vene because,1) whos author­ity gives them the right to inter­vene mil­i­tar­ily 2) rus­sia sup­plies syria with very mod­ern SAM and some are very pow­er­ful which syria doesnt say pub­licly, but keeps them behind the shed to suprise nato of its real capa­bil­i­ties. 3) the syr­ian army is well organ­ised and it took nato is over­throw qad­iffi in 7 months, so how long will it take to over­throw al assad, prob­a­bily over a year, so nato must have ground forces to dis­able the SAMs, there­fore nato troops will die. 4) there are extrem­ists and the tal­iban, al qadia, mer­ce­nar­ies and killers colab­o­rat­ing with the rebels, so if nato inter­venes they will sup­port­ing their ener­mies and if the syr­ian state would col­lapse these killers would move to niegh­bour­ing coun­tries with their sophis­ti­cated arms with will tar­get isreal, amer­i­cas biggests inter­est in the region and it will ham all the other euro­pean inter­ests. Finally not fpr­get­ting hezbol­lah which is very expe­ri­enced and the PLO which will be fight­ing along­side syr­ian troops.Therefore no inva­sion will occur.

  3. rus­sia, iran and china stand behind syria. nato weapons sys­tems such as Aegus are eas­ily jammed. NATO has nei­ther the man power. the morale or the money to fight against syria or it allies. they would be eas­ily defeated by oppo­nents with supe­rior weapons and man power. and also the abil­ity to take casu­al­ties which nato can­not. over all view is that this inva­sion will fail. this is not a civil war

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