Feb 15, 2013 – Joseph Holliday
Current estimates of Syrian opposition strength have generated confidence that the Assad regime will be defeated militarily. This assessment cannot be made without also estimating the real fighting power of the Syrian regime. The regime’s military strength rests on many factors, such as the loyalty of troops, the status of equipment, and the number of casualties sustained. These variables have no meaning, however, if not compared to a valid baseline. This paper establishes the composition of the Syrian Army, provides insight into the historical roles of particular units, and assesses the doctrinal order of battle of the Syrian Army as it existed in 2011. The Full Order of Battle appears on page 12.
This report precedes the Institute for the Study of War’s upcoming report, The Assad Regime: From Counterinsurgency to Civil War, which will examine the ways in which Assad has deployed his forces in the ongoing campaign against Syria’s opposition. Understanding the composition, history, and doctrinal order of battle of the Syrian Army is necessary to explain how the Assad regime prosecuted counterinsurgency operations in 2011-2012. Explaining the structure and orientation of the Syrian Army as it existed at the outset of the conflict forms the baseline from which to analyze Syrian military operations and deployments in the current conflict.
At the beginning of the Syrian conflict in 2011, the Syrian Army was one of the largest and best-trained forces in the Arab world. Organized according to Soviet doctrine, it was oriented to project power into Lebanon and to defend against a potential Israeli invasion. Despite its relatively poor combat record against the Israelis, the Syrian Army had earned a reputation as a disciplined and motivated force.1 The Army’s cohesiveness and continued logistical capacity in the current uprising is consistent with this reputation.
The Syrian military has also exhibited shortcomings. Most of Syria’s military materiel is outdated Soviet equipment from the 1970s or earlier. Corruption among Syrian military leadership has been pervasive. Most importantly, Syrian military commanders have not traditionally demonstrated initiative or the ability to react to opposing forces without deferring to their superiors in the chain of command. Years of training with Soviet military advisors may have contributed to this inflexibility, but the behavior derives primarily from Hafez al-Assad’s insistence on a highly centralized and personal chain of command reaching directly from the President to individual unit commanders.