Armed Forces Overview: Syria’s armed forces include an army, navy, air force, and air defense forces, with a total of 296,800 active personnel and 354,000 reserves (up to age 45) in 2004. The army had 200,000 active personnel and 280,000 reserves; the navy, 7,600 active personnel and 4,000 reserves; the air force, 35,000 active personnel and 70,000 reserves; and the Air Defence Command, 54,200 active personnel. In the past, Syria was highly dependent on Soviet military training, matériel, and aid/credit. The fall of the Soviet Union deprived Syria of this vital support and has hampered Syria’s ability to modernize its arsenal. Nevertheless, Syria’s military is regarded as one of the largest and most capable in the Middle East.
Foreign Military Relations: Traditionally,Syria’s primary military alliance was with the Sovietbloc, and arms transfers, training, and other military assistance from Russia and other former Soviet states have continued. Syria also is believed to have engaged in military cooperation with Iran, China, and North Korea. Following the Gulf War, Syria was rewarded for its participation on the side of the coalition with substantial financial aid from Gulf Arab states, a large portion of which was devoted to military spending. In 2002 Syria reportedly signed a military cooperation agreement with Turkey, although the relations between the two states are often tense because of their dispute over water from the Euphrates River and alleged Syrian support for Kurdish guerrillas in Turkey.
External Threat: Syria regards Israel as its principal enemy and has long sought to achieve strategic parity with Israel in order to defend its national security and recover the Golan Heights, seized by Israel in 1967. Iraq has long been an ideological and political rival within the Baath movement, and Syria supported Iran in the Iran-Iraq War (1980–88). Since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Syria has been threatened by the spillover of refugees and violence from Iraq as well as the possibility of U.S. military action directed at Syria. To its west, Syria perceives as a threat the emergence in Lebanon of either a radical Muslim state or a Christian-dominated state aligned with Israel. As a result, Syria has sought to control Lebanese affairs and has stationed military forces there since October 1976, ostensibly as a peacekeeping force.
Defense Budget:In 2003 Syria’s defense expenditures reportedly totaled about US$1.5 billion, or 7 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP), as compared with US$1.1 billion in 2001 and US$1.2 billion in 2002.
Major Military Units: Syria’s ground forces are organized into three corps with a total of 12 divisions (seven armored, three mechanized, one Republican Guard, and one Special Forces). In addition, the army has four independent infantry brigades, one Border Guard brigade, two independent artillery brigades, two independent antitank brigades, 10 independent Special Forces regiments, three surface-to-surface missile (SSM) brigades, and two coastal defense SSM brigades. The navy operates from three bases, at Latakia, Minet el Baida, and Tartus. The air force has nine fighter/ground-attack squadrons and 16 fighter squadrons.The Air Defence Command is organized in two air defense divisions with 25 air defense brigades and two surface-to-air missile regiments.
Major Military Equipment: The army is equipped with 4,600 main battle tanks (1,200 of which are in static positions or storage), 800 reconnaissance vehicles, 2,100 armored infantry fighting vehicles, 1,600 armored personnel carriers, 1,630 towed artillery pieces, 430 self-propelled artillery pieces, 480 multiple rocket launchers, 710 mortars, 72 surface-to-surface missile (SSM) launchers and about 850 SSM missiles, 4,190 antitank guided weapons, an unspecified number of rocket launchers, 2,050 air defense guns, and 4,335 surface-to-air missiles (SAMs). The navy is equipped with two frigates, 12 missile craft, 8 inshore patrol craft, 5 mine countermeasure ships, 3 amphibious ships, and 4 support and miscellaneous ships. Naval aviation resources include 16 armed helicopters. The air force is equipped with 520 combat aircraft and 71 armed helicopters (including some in storage). Air defense forces are endowed with 160 SAM batteries and more than 828 surface-to-air missiles as well as 4,000 air defense artillery pieces.
Syria seeks both to sustain its conventional forces and to develop weapons of mass destruction (WMD). In January 2004, Syria appeared to have tacitly admitted to possession of WMD when Assad stated that Syria would only agree to dismantle its WMD if Israel did the same.
Military Service: Syria has a 30-month period of compulsory military service for males, who become eligible for conscription at age 18. In 2004 available males aged 15–49 totaled an estimated 4.9 million. Those judged fit for service totaled 2.7 million. Approximately 216,000 males reach the age of conscription annually.
Paramilitary Forces: Syria’s paramilitary forces comprise the Gendarmerie, administered by the Ministry of Interior, which has 8,000 regular personnel, and the Workers’ Militia, or People’s Army, operated by the Baath Party, with an estimated 100,000 reserves.
Foreign Military Forces: The United Nations has 1,029 troops stationed in Syria with contingents from Austria (364), Canada (186), Japan (30), Nepal (1), Poland (356), and Slovakia (92). Russia has about 150 advisers in Syria, primarily for air defense purposes.
Military Forces Abroad: At least 16,000 Syrian troops have been deployed in Lebanon since October 1976, forming one mechanized division, with elements of one armored and four mechanized infantry brigades, as well as elements of 10 Special Forces and two artillery regiments. In early 2005, Syria was subjected to strong U.S. and international pressure to withdraw its forces from Lebanon following the assassination of the Lebanese prime minister, an act of terrorism in which Syria was suspected by many of complicity or at least indirect involvement. At the end of March, Syria reportedly had moved some troops back across the border and redeployed others in eastern Lebanon. In early April, Syria announced that it would complete the withdrawl of its military forces and intelligence personnel by the end of the month.
Police: Security services play a powerful role in Syrian society, monitoring and repressing opposition to the regime. The internal security apparatus is large and effective, with several security services that operate independently of each other and of the law, including the Political Security Directorate (PSD), Syrian Military Intelligence (SMI), General Intelligence Directorate (GID), and Air Force Security (AFS). Only the PSD, subordinate to the Ministry of Interior, is under civilian control. Human rights violations are common. Police forces, under the Ministry of Interior, consist of four separate forces: emergency police, local neighborhood police, riot police, and traffic police.
Internal Threat: Repression of internal dissent is effective, and public criticism of the regime is generally muted and circumspect. Sectarian rivalry within Syria’s many religious and ethnic communities has been a perennial source of instability, in particular resentment of the well-connected Alawi. The regime systematically represses the Kurdish minority, fearing any push for Kurdish autonomy. In March 2004, Kurdish riots erupted in Al Hasakah Province and then spread to other parts of the country. Security forces reportedly killed more than 30 persons and arrested more than 11,000. The regime also fears a resurgence of Sunni Islamic fundamentalists. Security forces reportedly conducted mass arrests of suspected Islamists and Muslim Brotherhood adherents throughout 2004. Given Syria’s long history of military coups and countercoups prior to the Assad regime, the possibility of a military coup may also constitute a potential threat to Syrian stability.
Terrorism: Syria has publicly condemned terrorism, but the government makes a distinction between terrorism and what it views as legitimate resistance against Israel. As such,Syria continues to support the Lebanon-based Hezbollah, a Shiite Muslim group, as well as the Palestinian group, Hamas. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC) is based in Damascus. Syria has cooperated with the United States and others against al Qaeda and the Taliban. Nevertheless, in 2004 the United States accused Syria of permitting, if not actively facilitating, the movement of funds and insurgents into Iraq. In mid-2004, in accordance with the Syria Accountability Act passed by the U.S. Congress in December 2003, the United States imposed economic sanctions on Syria because of Syria’s support for terrorism, continued occupation of Lebanon, pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and missile programs, and efforts to undermine stabilization and reconstruction in Iraq.
Human Rights: According to the U.S. Department of State’s 2004 report on human rights, Syria’s human rights record remains poor. A state of emergency has been in effect since 1963. Security forces continue to commit numerous and serious human rights abuses including arbitrary arrest and detention, torture in detention, prolonged detention without trial, fundamentally unfair trials in the security courts, and infringement on privacy rights. Police and security forces are corrupt. Prison conditions are poor and do not meet international standards for health and sanitation. The regime significantly restricts freedom of speech, press, assembly, and association and imposes some limits on freedom of religion and freedom of movement. Kurds suffer systematic discrimination. After a brief period in 2000–2001 known as Damascus Spring, during which time independent debating clubs were established, satellite dishes became much more prominent, Internet cafés opened, new independent print publications were established, and political detainees from across the political spectrum were released, Decree No. 50/2001 was passed, which places severe restrictions on the media, especially the print media. According to Arab Press Freedom Watch, the current regime has one of the worst records on freedom of expression in the Arab world.