Analysis: Don't underestimate Syria's military

Damascus now believes it can use Hizbullah-like tactics in a future confrontation with Israel and possibly even defeat the IDF.

syria army 88 (photo credit: )
syria army 88
(photo credit: )
While the Knesset heard about potential scenarios for reaching peace with Damascus on Thursday, senior defense officials warned of an unprecedented military buildup in Syria and said that prevailing in a war with Israel's northeastern neighbor would not be as simple as some might have been led to believe. Following the Second Lebanon War, IDF Military Intelligence noticed a change within the Syrian military. Syria feels empowered by Hizbullah's surprising success last summer and Damascus now believes it can use Hizbullah-like tactics in a future confrontation with Israel and possibly even defeat the once-thought-to-be invincible IDF. "For years we thought that the IDF had a clear upper hand over Syria's military," a top official told The Jerusalem Post. "After the war in Lebanon we now know that this assumption was not accurate." Syria has emphasized missile development in recent months. According to Western sources, Syria has the ability to independently manufacture Scud missiles, and it has 300 of them deployed just north of the demilitarized zone in the Syrian part of the Golan Heights. A division of some 10,000 troops is responsible for operating the missiles, which include an small number of Scud D's with a range of 700 kilometers and said to be capable of carrying nonconventional warheads. Syria has close to 30 launchers for its Scud missiles, according to foreign sources. Syria keeps the projectiles in bunkers at several locations; most are in a valley near Hama, where it has built a missile electronic and assembly facility. Syria has a massive military divided into 12 divisions and totaling close to 400,000 soldiers at full mobilization. One of the divisions is made up of 10,000 elite commandos, a formidable force that would serve as Syria's first line in an offensive against the IDF. Since the Second Lebanon War, Syria has established new commando units and is said to have increased urban and guerrilla warfare training. "Syria saw the difficulty the IDF had during the fighting inside the southern Lebanese villages and now the military there wants to draw us - in the event of a war - into battles in built-up areas where they think they will have the upper hand," explained a source in the IDF Northern Command. Over the last year, the Syrian military has made only two major acquisitions: a number of advanced Russian anti-aircraft systems called Stretlets. It has not received new fighter jets, tanks or armored personnel carriers for a number of years. According to Yiftah Shapir - a researcher with the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University - the Syrian military plans to use short-range Katyushas alongside the long-range ballistic Scuds in any future conflict with Israel. "Syria was impressed by Hizbullah's strategic success, with its use of small rockets and Israel's inability to neutralize them," Shapir said. "This is a weapon that is not traditionally used in conventional wars, but can be." While Ibrahim "Abe" Suleiman - the Syrian national who appeared before the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Thursday - might be right in his prediction that peace between Israel and Syria is possible, war, officials said, was no longer impossible. Both militaries have raised their level of alert along the border and while the IDF has increased its presence on the Golan Heights - mostly with troops who are training - the Syrians have also moved units as well as military infrastructure closer to the border. In satellite images broadcast this week on CBN News in the US, reporter Chris Mitchell revealed Syria's three major missile sites. One site - referred to as the "heart" of Syria's missile program - is in Hama, where a weapons factory is surrounded by more than 30 hardened concrete bunkers that house multiple launchers and missiles. In just minutes, experts said, these launchers could deliver more than a ton of nonconventional warheads anywhere in Israel. Another missile site near Homs contains a previously undisclosed chemical warhead facility where a drive-through building leads to a facility where warheads are installed on ballistic missiles. These images do not necessarily indicate that Syria plans to attack Israel, but they do send a clear message to the IDF and the Israeli leadership: Do not underestimate us.