Syria's Army Is Not Quite What Israelis Have Been Led to Believe

In the shadow of two purported Israeli attacks in Damascus, it is clear that the Syrian Army has not been seriously preparing for war against Israel for quite a while.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

For nearly four decades, generations of IDF fighters have been training in the Golan Heights to push back a Syrian attack. For 39 years, since the end of the Yom Kippur War, the Israeli-Syrian front has remained calm. Now, in the space of four months, three air-strikes around Damascus have been ascribed to Israel, and the Syrian cannons which supposedly target Israeli bases and villages in the Golan are silent.

Where are the masses of artillery, the ballistic missiles, armored divisions and commando battalions? Every foot-soldier in the Golani Brigade learns to recite the details of the Syrian order-of-forces in enemy-recognition lessons and reservists acquaint themselves with their positions for the day it comes.

Of course, the last two years of civil war has significantly degraded the Syrian Army - but to the extent that it has lost any capability of responding, even symbolically, to the Zionist enemy's bombardment of their capital city?

So far there has been no response to the two strikes that occurred over the weekend, just as there was no response to the bombing in January. While as a precaution, an Iron Dome battery has been deployed to the north, it seems that Israel is not expecting retaliation. How else could one explain Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's sticking to his plan of spending five days this week on a working visit to China?

The question of why the Syrians have not responded joins another query that has been being asked for many months now, actually for nearly two years: How come, despite tens of thousands of desertions and armed uprisings throughout the country, reinforced by thousands of Jihadist fighters from around the world, entire units of the Syrian Army are still intact and fighting to keep Assad's regime in place? Israeli intelligence officers who confidently announced in 2011 that Assad had only a few weeks left have, long ago, given up predicting his downfall.

"You Israelis have turned the Syrian Army into something much more frightening that it really is," says a member of the Free Syrian Army who is currently in Europe trying to drum up more significant Western support. "The regime also said to the Syrian people for years that the army is there to fight the Zionist enemy," he said. "But in reality, the military capabilities were neglected and they focused on making the army an organization of internal repression. Most of the units have very old and faulty equipment and those that did get relatively new tanks and armored cars are loyal Alawite units, which are responsible foremostly with protecting the regime."

The neglect of the offensive capabilities of the Syrian Air Force is evident by the fact that the fighter-jets being used to bomb the rebels are not the relatively new ones that entered service in the 1990s, but ancient Mig-21 and Mig-23s, mainly over 30 years old and in some cases over 40.

The fragility of the Syrian lines on the Golan Heights were already noticeable eight years ago during the Second Lebanon War, when the Syrian Commando units that the IDF were expecting to see spread out across the border disappeared. They were almost certainly redeployed to bases nearer Damascus so as not to be harmed if the war boiled over from southern Lebanon. IDF soldiers serving on Mount Hermon in the snowy winter months saw it even earlier, when they watched as Syrian soldiers - without suitable clothing or shelter - froze to death. In intelligence briefings, they were told that these were cannon-fodder conscripts, while the elite forces were being kept for war. This assessment was not baseless, but it seems now very likely that the IDF exaggerated the threat posed by the Syrians, especially in recent years.

This is partly due to the trauma of the Yom Kippur War when Israel was caught unawares by the Egyptians in Sinai and the Syrians on the Golan. In any case, it is much easier, even for the best intelligence agencies, to count the number of tanks and artillery barrels than to assess their level of maintenance and the motivation of the operators. Nearly every year, when the IDF fought a battle to enlarge its budget, it had little interest in admitting that the only significant enemy-state that remains on Israel's borders does not field an especially fearsome army any longer and that the quality of its arms systems and the level of training have seriously eroded through long years of economic depression. Acknowledging that could have led to the closure of IDF armored divisions. In any case, now it's clear that the Syrian Army has not been seriously preparing for war against Israel for quite a while.

This doesn't mean that Assad no longer has the capability to cause significant damage to the Israeli home-front, with ballistic missiles (some with chemical warheads) - and there is always the possibility that Hezbollah would do that for him, though right now the Lebanese movement is itself getting stuck in Syria, fighting the rebels in an effort to keep its ally in power. But using that capability to hurt Israel would undoubtedly lead to a devastating Israeli counter-attack, which would expose the fact that, beyond its missiles, the Syrian Army today is little more than a militia dedicated to propping up the regime.

IDF soldiers on the Syria-Israel border.Credit: Yaron Kaminsky

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