Myths of the Syrian Army
Over the course of the Syrian Revolution, comparisons have inevitably been made with Libya, and NATO’s intervention in that country, and lack of in Syria. Time and again, we are told that Syria isn’t Libya, that the Syrian armed forces are much better trained and armed than their Libyan counterparts, and that the opposition Free Syrian Army is weak, disorganized and not a credible force.
And yet, after over a year and a half, the Syrian regime has not been able to come close to subduing the country. In contrast, Qadafi was just twelve hours away from snuffing out Benghazi, were it not for the grace and mercy of NATO. Obviously, either the FSA has proven far more capable and efficient than their Libyan counterparts, or the regular Syrian Army isn’t as motivated, nor as well trained as some analyst would have us believe. If the FSA was indeed weaker and more disorganized than the Libyan rebels, and the Syrian regular army more powerful than the Qadafi Brigades, then the Syrian revolution would have been crushed months ago. An immovable object just cannot exist in the same universe as an irresistible force.
So, how are we to reconcile these seemingly irreconcilable contradictions? Well, that’s quite easy for anyone familiar with Syrian society, and knows just what an absurd joke military service became after Hafiz Assad died in 2000.
First, let’s take a quick look at how the Syrian army looks on paper.The numbers do look impressive. The Syrian airforce has around 650 combat aircraft, which is comparable in numbers to the British and French airforces. The army has an estimated quarter of a million men on active service, with the number of tanks a massive 4,900. The British and French armies put together don’t have 1,000 main battle tanks.
The Syrian army has had an interesting history. After being defeated by Israel in 1967, the armed forces were rebuilt from the ground up, with help from the USSR and Czechoslovakia. Training and discipline were tough and brutal. By 1973, Syria had one of the best trained and well armed forces outside of NATO and the Warsaw Pact.
Fast forward to 2012, and Syria still has….one of the best trained and well armed 1970s era armies. The massive bulk of the military hardware is obsolete Russian aircraft and tanks created in the 60s and 70s. Only a small fraction of the armed forces has anything even made in the ’90s.
Military doctrines and training are abysmal. Ranks in the armed forces are not based on any aptitude for military life, but on the highest level of education a conscript has completed before being drafted. A university graduate with a four year degree is automatically made a sergeant, while a high school graduate gets the automatic rank of corporal.
Military service under Hafez Assad was tough, demanding and strenuous. Hafez kept a tight leash on his generals. With the prospect of a war with Israel or action in Lebanon an ever present possibility, no general wanted to be found lacking if called on to fight. In 1982, Hafez made an example out of the division that failed to defend Beirut, disbanding it in disgrace. In 1973, a general was executed before the war had even ended, after his division had disintegrated in the face of the Israeli counterattack.
Hafez’s son, Bashar, was never able to exert the same combination of fear and respect that his father commanded among the Syrian army’s most senior generals. Generals became a law unto themselves, and military service suffered as a result. Leave from service could be bought for a few thousand liras a month. Many supposed recruits spent the majority of their service at their homes. Officers would sell “mobile phone time” to recruits for hundreds of liras a minute. Recruits found themselves spending their time in uniform working on their officers’ farms. Units based near the Lebanese, Turkish, Jordanian and Iraqi borders openly engaged in smuggling. A recruit would be allowed to spend his military service engaging in civilian work if he handed over part of his salary to his officer. The military hierarchy resembled more and more a mafia pyramid of payments flowing upwards, from the junior officers on the ground to their superiors.
Anyone unlucky enough to draw driving duty was expected to pay for the maintenance of their truck, jeep or car out of their own pockets. The Syrian army’s fleet of motorized vehicles were thus maintained by the unfortunate drivers and their families. Far from fostering a professional, potent and lethal fighting force, Bashar’s reign saw the technologically inferior Syrian army lose the one thing that saved its position in Lebanon; the strength and dedication of its rank and file.
Alot has been written about Syrian air defenses. Putting aside the fact that the Israelis have repeatedly made a mockery of these air defense assets, there has never been a single instance since the invention of air forces, where a country was able to rely on ground based defenses alone to prevent an enemy from gaining air superiority. In the end, the best way to defend one’s airspace is to put something up in the air. The Syrian airforce has neither the training, nor experience, nor the weaponry required to take on the most likely forces that would challenge Syrian airspace.
The disrepair that the Syrian armed forces have fallen into goes a long way to explaining how, despite relying fully on a “security” and “military” solution, Bashar Assad has proven far less able in subduing the country than Qadafi almost managed to do. Poorly trained and supplied soldiers just cannot compete with a defector who has burned his bridge, and whose motivation is the protection of his village, town and family. Bashar, with his reliance on paid mercenary shabihas, obviously never heard the phrase “One man defending his home is worth ten hired mercenaries”.