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Syrian Arab Army

Syrian Arab ArmyThe role of the army is to guard Syria's borders, defend the national territory and regain possession of the Golan Heights seized by Israel. For the purposes of local defense, administration and the control of reserves, Syria is divided into seven military regions - Damascus, North, East, South, Southwest, Coastal and Central. There is a regional command for each region.

The army is overwhelmingly the dominant service. In addition to its control of the senior-most posts in the armed forces' establishment, the army had the largest manpower, approximately 80 percent of the combined services.

In 1955 the Syrian Army of 35,200 was organized into six infantry brigades, 1 armored brigade, 5 artillery battalions and 1 commando battalion. Weapons and vehicles include 382 field artillery and heavy infantry weapons, 87 tanks and self-propelled weapons and 150 transport vehicles. In 1985 army regulars were estimated at 396,000, with an additional 300,000 reserves. In 2002, the Syrian army had roughly 215,000 soldiers by one estimate.

Estimates of the strength of the non-reserve forces are varied - Israeli experts who monitor Syria closely have estimated a figure in excess of 300,000, including conscripts, while the IISS estimates the total at about 200,000. There are sizeable reserve forces with a strength of nearly 300,000. They are organized into a reserve armor division, two motorized divisions, more than two dozen infantry brigades and a range of other reserve units. It is uncertain how many of these units are combat effective.

The Mandate volunteer force formed in 1920 was established with the threat of Syrian-Arab nationalism in mind. Although the unit's officers were originally all French, it was, in effect, the first indigenous modern Syrian army. In 1925 the unit was designated the Levantine Special Forces (Troupes Spéciales du Levant). In 1941, the force participated in a futile resistance to the British and Free French invasion that ousted the Vichy French from Syria. After the Allied takeover, the army came under the control of the Free French and was designated the Levantine Forces (Troupes du Levant).

French Mandate authorities maintained a gendarmerie to police Syria's vast rural areas. This paramilitary force was used to combat criminals and political foes of the Mandate government. As with the Levantine Special Forces, French officers held the top posts, but as Syrian independence approached, the ranks below major were gradually filled by Syrian officers who had graduated from the Military Academy at Homs, which had been established by the French during the 1930s. In 1938 the Troupes Spéciales numbered around 10,000 men and 306 officers (of whom 88 were French, mainly in the higher ranks). A majority of the Syrian troops were of rural background and minority ethnic origin (mainly Alawis, Druzes, Kurds, and Circassians). By the end of 1945, the army numbered about 5,000 and the gendarmerie some 3,500. In April 1946, the last French officers left Syria; the Levantine Forces then became the regular armed forces of the newly independent state and grew rapidly to about 12,000 by the time of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, the first of four Arab-Israeli wars between 1948 and 1986 (not counting the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon).

In the 1950s the Communist Party had made considerable progress in infiltrating the Army. Communist officers in the junior ranks were known to be spreading Party doctrine without effective interference from officers in staff positions, many of whom had leftist sympathies. Control of the important army information program, which included publication of periodicals and conduct of orientation courses for the troops, was in the hands of a Communist. To some extent a pro-Iraqi element in the army tended to offset Communist influence.

There seemed to be little question that the Syrian Army if properly led could maintain internal security, including the suppression of any Communist uprising, but continued Communist success among the junior officers in the Army, coupled with the existing influence of supporters of the Arab Socialist Resurrectionist Party [Baath], increased the danger that the Army would aid rather than oppose extreme left-wing elements.

Various coups culminated on March 8, 1963, in the installation by leftist Syrian Army officers of the National Council of the Revolutionary Command (NCRC), a group of military and civilian officials who assumed control of all executive and legislative authority. The takeover was engineered by members of the Arab Socialist Resurrection Party (Ba'ath Party), which had been active in Syria and other Arab countries since the late 1940s. The new cabinet was dominated by Ba'ath members.

For many years there was also a Syrian forces command in Lebanon that took units mainly from the 2nd Corps. As of 2003 approximately 20,000 Syrian troops occupied the north of Lebanon above Tripoli, the Beqaa Valley north of the town of Rashayah, and the Beirut-Damascus highway. This included units in Beirut, Metn, Bekaa Valley, Tripoli, Batrum and Kafr Kalous. These forces were comprised of one mechanized division headquarters (in Bekaa Valley), four mechanized brigades (1 in Beirut, 1 in Metn, 2 in Bekaa Valley), one armored brigade in Bekaa Valley, roughly ten special forces regiments or elements of regiments deployed to Beirut (5), Tripoli (1), Batrum (1), and Kafr Kalous (3).

These numbers compare to 35,000 troops at the beginning of Syria's occupation. Between May 1988 and June 2001, Syrian forces occupied most of west Beirut. In October 1989, as part of the Taif agreements, Syria agreed to begin discussions on possible Syrian troop withdrawals from Beirut to the Beqaa Valley, two years after political reforms were implemented (then-Lebanese President Hirawi signed the reforms in September 1990), and to withdraw entirely from Lebanon after an Israeli withdrawal. While Israel has, according to the United Nations, complied with its obligations, the Syrian withdrawal discussions, which should have started in September 1992, had not begun as of early 2004.

The 10th Mechanized Division was one of the major formations deployed in Lebanon. Its HQ was at Chtaura, at the eastern end of the strategic Bekaa Valley, and one of its roles is to protect the important Beirut-Damascus highway. The 3rd and 11th Armored Divisions also deployed a number of brigades in Lebanon. Elements of a number of Special Forces regiments are also based in Lebanon. Syrian troops in Lebanon were estimated to have a strength of about 20,000.

Former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who had resisted Syria's effort to secure Lahoud's extension, and 22 others were assassinated in Beirut by a car bomb on February 14, 2005. The assassination spurred massive protests in Beirut and international pressure that led to the withdrawal of the remaining Syrian military troops from Lebanon on 26 April 2005.

The general readiness and effectiveness of the Syrian Army was fairly low despite the generally good readiness of its special forces, roughly two armored divisions, one mechanized division and the Republican Guard division. Syria's reserve forces include one armored division comprised of four armored brigades, two armored regiments, 31 infantry regiments and three artillery regiments.

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Page last modified: 11-02-2017 16:28:02 ZULU