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JDW article on Syria part 1


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Robin Hughes is JDW Middle East Editor based in London

Bashar Al-Assad is forced to prioritise as domestic pressures and external imperatives collide. Robin Hughes reports

* Washington maintains diplomatic pressure on Damascus, accusing Syria of complicity in the Iraqi insurgency

* The renewed warmth between Damascus and Moscow could open the way for limited modern armament acquisitions, particularly in air defence

At the heart of a rapidly changing regional environment and beset by serious socio-economic challenges, underscored by rumblings of domestic political discontent, burgeoning reformist aspiration, Kurdish separatist ambition and the prospect of explosive population growth, the Syrian regime faces a multidimensional dilemma.

Three years into his seven-year term of office, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is torn by the need to balance the pressures of domestic reform with the necessity to address strategic developments that could ultimately threaten the survival of his regime.

The anticipated 'Damascus Spring' - largely nurtured through Al-Assad's inaugural declarations of the need for 'democratic thinking', 'administrative reform' and 'political openness' - has to date proven overly ambitious, if not largely cosmetic. Further, these objectives have been tempered by the increasing shadow of Washington (through the presence of its forces in neighbouring Iraq) and, after 29 years, the peremptory withdrawal in April of the Syrian military and security presence in Lebanon in perceived capitulation to international pressure.

A much-heralded domestic panacea, prompted by external considerations, including the nascent democratic drive in neighbouring Iraq and progress in Lebanon, arrived in June in the form of the vaunted Tenth Regional Congress - the first Ba'ath Party Congress in five years. However, Al-Assad's promised "great leap" in reforms at the Congress provided little in the way of real structural change, although Congress agreed to review the 42-year-old Emergency Law, limiting its use to 'violations of national security' - an umbrella term with a myriad of applications.

Al-Assad has in reality attempted to consolidate his grip on power by closing ranks with the senior leaders of his regime. Recognising the ramifications of reform for the aspirations of the Sunni majority, he has imposed further constraints upon the reform movement, cracking down on any challenge from Islamists with suspected ties to the Muslim Brotherhood and toughening his stance on suspected Kurdish separatists. At least 20 people were killed and thousands detained in early 2004 when Kurds rioted in the north of the country.

Tensions resurfaced in Qamishli in June with the reported killing of leading Kurdish cleric Sheikh Ma'shuq al-Khaznawi who disappeared on 10 May. The regime has denied involvement in al-Khaznawi's death.

The nascent drive for democratic reform and pluralism in neighbouring Iraq and Lebanon has served only to foment anxiety among Ba'ath Party hardliners and foster an inward-looking policy in which survival of the status quo is paramount. Ba'athism is essentially a social network. The configuration of the new power structure in Syria has in reality followed the old pattern institutionalised by Bashar's father, Hafiz al-Assad. No organic change has taken place and Bashar's regime appears to rely on an informal core of loyal military officers, mainly Alawite, and a formal core of high-ranking state officials, mainly Sunni.

The locus of power

Al-Assad's power derives firstly from his inherited position of president. Within the Syrian Ba'ath Party, as well as within the minority Alawite sect (which comprises some 11 per cent of the total population) to which his family and most senior military/security officials belong, he enjoys legitimacy as his father's heir. Further, and in contrast to some elements of the 'old guard' (an oversimplification when describing the composition not only of Syria's political elite, but also in explaining the country's political processes) of his father's regime, he also enjoys a modicum of popularity, although not as much as that of his father Hafiz.

Al-Assad has inherited the leadership of a highly centralised, authoritarian presidential system shaped during his father's rule and had assumed all of the latter's formal positions even before his election as president: he was appointed commander-in-chief of the Syrian Armed Forces and general secretary of the Ba'ath Party. As president, Al-Assad heads the Progressive National Front - a formal alliance that incoporates a number of smaller tolerated parties with the dominant Ba'ath Party. He has the power to appoint and dismiss the cabinet, judges, provincial governors and military, intelligence, security and other senior regime officials. He can dissolve parliament, parliamentary decisions require his consent to become law and he has legislative powers of his own. As such, all formal chains of command are encompassed under the president's office.

The informal levers of power remain in the hands of Alawite officials and Al-Assad - who was relatively unknown to the military and security hierarchy before he took office (his brother Basil had been groomed for the position before he was killed in a road accident in 1994) - has consolidated his power by systematically appointing trusted aides to senior positions. These include:

* People close to Al-Assad in age or outlook - technocrats he chose to run various senior positions in public administration, including the Minister of Presidency Affairs Ghassan Laham (Shiite), Minister of Tourism Sadallah Agha al-Qalaa (Sunni), Minister of Expatriates Buthaynah Shabban (Alawite) and provincial governors;

* Personal friends and unofficial advisors who have no positions in the senior leadership. Prominent among them are the sons of the 'old guard', such as Manaf Tlass, the son of the former defence minister; businessmen from the Makhluf family - the family of the president's mother, especially Rami Makhluf; and Nabras Fadel, a businessman based in France who is the president's advisor; and

* Associates of the president, his supporters, either from his father's generation or younger ones who hold key positions in the military security system. These people are vital to the security apparatus and the propagation of the presidency. These include Maher Assad, the president's brother, who has emerged as the strongman of the Republican Guards protecting the presidential palace and the capital; Major General Assaf Shawkat, Al-Assad's brother-in-law, appointed director of military intelligence in February; Major General Bahjat Sulayman, the head of the Internal Security Branch of the General Intelligence Directorate (GID) - the overarching civilian intelligence service in Syria - whose influence, diplomatic sources tell JDW, surpasses that of GID chief Lieutenant General Hisham Bakhtiar; Gen Bakhtiar, a Sunni, who has since been appointed Director of the National Security Bureau and is attached to the Ba'ath Party apparatus; Major General Ghazi Kana'an, the former head of the Political Security Directorate and Syrian military intelligence in Lebanon, appointed Minister of Interior in October 2004; General Muhammad Mansura, who replaced Gen Kana'an as head of the Political Security Directorate and who, sources say, "is on the rise"; General Soul Hamm Chalice, Al-Assad's cousin, charged with protecting the president; General Ali Habit, who replaced General Hassan Turkmani as Syrian Armed Forces Chief Of Staff in May 2004, while Gen Turkmani replaced General Mustafa Tlass as defence minister. The majority of these officials, with the exception of Gen Turkmani and Gen Bakhtiar, are Alawites with tribal and or familial connections to the president.

Parallel to all these changes, the head of the military security apparatus, Major General Hasan Khalil, was replaced in February 2005 by Gen Assef Shawkat, his deputy and Bashar al-Assad's brother-in-law. Major General Ali bin Mouhamad Khaj Hamoud, the head of General Security Directorate, was replaced in December 2001 by Gen Bakhtiar, who has since been replaced by the former commander of the Air Force, Lieutenant General Ali Mahmoud, a staunch regime loyalist. Major General A'dnan Badr Hasan, head of the Political Security Apparatus, was replaced in October 2002 by Gen Ghazi Kana'an, who for many years was chief of Syrian intelligence in Lebanon and who was, a source notes, "kicked upstairs" two years later to the post of Interior Minister. This position is important, although less so than his former position in Internal Security. A Damascus insider told JDW: "In Syria, as in every Arab country, you would rather be the head of a security service than a minister."

Major General Izz AI-Din Isma'il was appointed head of the Air Force Intelligence Directorate in January 2002, replacing General Ibrahim Hueiji. However, it is noteworthy that the commander of the air force -- one of the most sensitive and important forces in the armed forces -- Gen Ali Mahmoud, was replaced by Major General Khazm al-Khadraa, who is Palestinian in origin and whose brother is a senior official/officer in the Palestinian Liberation Army. Diplomatic sources tell JDW that the change might indicate that Syria thinks there is a need to upgrade the capabilities of its air forces.

The replacement of Gen Kana'an in October 2002 by Major General Rustum Ghazala reflects something of Al-Asad's appointing and dismissing of senior officers. The surprising transfer from Lebanon of Gen Kana'an, who headed the Syrian security and intelligence apparatus in Lebanon, was, according to diplomatic sources, "actually a result of Al-Asad conceding to Hizbullah [Lebanese Party of God] pressure.This move was also considered a further expression of the strengthening of the strategic alliance between Damascus and Hizbullah," sources said.

"Over the past 20 years Gen Kana'an was the number one Syrian in Lebanon, in charge of conveying instructions from the regime in Damascus to the various power elements in Lebanon. The decision to dismiss him derived from the dissatisfaction of Bashar and the Hizbullah leadership with Gen Kana'an's growing independence over the past year. Added to this was Gen Kana'an's blatant criticism of Al-Asad's policy vis-à-vis Hizbullah in Lebanon.

"The appointment of Gen Ghazala as Gen Kana'an's replacement was not surprising since he has served as the head of the Syrian intelligence apparatus in Beirut and was, in effect, a kind of deputy to Kana'an. More important is the fact that Ghazala is considered a colourless personality and no more than a rubber stamp. Unlike his predecessor, he is not expected to express independent stands on areas he is in charge of and certainly not on the Hizbullah issue," the source said.

"This process demonstrates Bashar's increasing confidence to take measures to shape the senior security and military echelons to strengthen his grip on these mechanisms," a diplomatic source told JDW. However, the impact of these changes on the officer cadre in terms of continuity, stability, trust and morale can only be surmised in the negative.

More importantly, Al-Assad's own power base, the Alawite minority, is watching closely. If they believe that his policies threaten their tenuous hold on power they will act against him in their own interests. In 1969 when President Salah Jadid began to put the Alawites in a difficult situation, a majority of Alawite officers supported Hafiz Al-Assad against Jadid and the regime was immediately overthrown.

The external factor

However, current strategic issues could potentially pose a more immediate threat to regime stability and for now command greater attention than domestic reform. A diplomatic source told JDW:"It is fair to say that regional/international policies have constrained the reform effort and at this point Bashar is probably more motivated by foreign policy considerations, that is, placating, accommodating or acquiescing to whatever is foisted upon him from outside, rather than things genuinely instigated from his own agenda."

Al-Assad's tenure has, to date, been marked by a series of failures that have weakened his position internationally. These include the fall-out with France over Lebanon; the regime's implication in and subsequent failure to co-operate with the UN in its investigation of the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri; the breakdown of the Middle East peace process and a failure to scrupulously exploit the opportunity of negotiations with Israel; his defiance of the US over the conflict in neighbouring Iraq and the consequent deterioration of relations with Washington; and the termination, after 29 years, of Syria's military presence in Lebanon - the only major asset he inherited from his father.

US pressure

The Bush administration's decision to invade Iraq in March 2003 and promote democracy in the wider Middle East region not only shattered the regional status quo around which Syria built its reputation as the vanguard of Arab nationalism, but has also threatened the very survival of the regime in Damascus. Caught clearly in the crosshairs of US foreign policy (one of the triumvirate of US President George W Bush's 'axis of evil'), the protection and survival of the regime has become the principal challenge for the Syrian leadership.

Washington has not eased the pressure on Syria since it withdrew its troops from Lebanon in the aftermath of the murder of Hariri in February. While it stopped short of blaming Damascus directly for Hariri's killing (the UN fact-finding mission report compiled by Peter Fitzgerald clearly alludes to Syrian involvement, noting that "the government of Syria bears primary responsibility for the political tension that preceded the assassination"), the US recalled its ambassador to Damascus, Margaret Scobey, and talked of adding additional sanctions to those provided for under the 2003 Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act.

As JDW went to press, Lebanese police arrested three former pro-Syrian security chiefs in connection with the assassination of Hariri. The three are former public security director Jamil al-Sayyad, former internal security forces head Ali al-Hajj and former military intelligence chief Raymond Azar. Sayyad was widely seen as Lebanon's most powerful security figure between the end of the civil war in 1990 and the withdrawal of Syrian forces earlier in 2005. All three resigned earlier in 2005 after huge anti-Syrian demonstrations following Hariri's assassination. The current head of Lebanon's presidential guard, Mustafa Hamdan, also gave himself up.

Bush, who on 11 May 2004 signed an Executive Order implementing sanctions pursuant to the Act, has also frozen the overseas assets of senior Syrian military and intelligence officials. Scobey admitted in May that security and military co-operation with the Syrians had ceased "months ago".

The regime in Damascus has appeared unsure of how to react to the intensity of the pressure it is facing. Indeed, in an interview as far back as February, published in the Italian daily La Republica, Al-Assad said he had been expecting a US attack on Syria since the official end of hostilities in Iraq. He added that he believed an attack was still imminent but hoped that the US would realise "Syria wanted peace and to be a force for stability in the region".

Diplomatic sources told JDW that Washington, unwilling to negotiate with Damascus, is not so much interested in Syria's efforts at domestic reform, "although more strident steps in that direction may have bought Syria more time". Increasingly, sources say, the US is leaning towards the idea of regime change -- although in the Syrian instance it is more likely to be a case of political pressure rather than military action. Syrian Minister of Foreign Affairs Faruq al-Sharaa said on 26 July that Syria wants better relations with the US. He argued, however, this does not mean that Washington should exploit these relations by making endless demands because this would not ensure stability in the region.

Washington is not particularly determined at present to force a confrontation with Syria. Bush has adopted a forceful stance, but he is currently preoccupied with Iraq and the nuclear ambitions of Iran and for now has left the day-to-day management of foreign policy vis-a-vis Syria to the State Department, which traditionally prefers a softer line on Syria based on dialogue accompanied by mild threats. However, US equivocation may be a passing phenomenon.

Two factors likely to trigger a more robust response from Washington are its perception of Syrian complicity in the Iraqi insurgency (thereby undermining the US drive to stabilise Iraq and promote 'democracy') and its continued support for Hizbullah and Palestinian groups. Israeli military and intelligence officials unequivocally support the US position on the latter issue.

Washington hardliners, including Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and the controversial new US ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, continue to warn Syria that it had better revamp its security system and arrest and prosecute militants passing through the country or the US might consider further economic sanctions, or perhaps even a cross-border military strike.

US Army General George Casey, Commanding General, Multi-National Force - Iraq, has already gone on record saying that "insurgents operate out of Syria with impunity", providing both financial support and guidance. Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari has urged the Bush administration to increase pressure on Syria, with US troops operating near the Iraqi-Syrian border in an effort to hit terrorist bases of operation.

Several Iraqi insurgent groups seek to operate out of the country, most prominently loyalists of the former Baghdad regime. The US Treasury Department has recently linked four of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein's nephews, who are operating out of Syria, to the insurgency. Diplomatic sources suggest that Syrian intelligence operatives active along the Iraqi border have even been aiding Iraqi insurgents and foreign fighters in return for financial compensation.

"The Syrians are not doing everything we've asked them to do," US Central Command Commander General John Abizaid told CNN in late March. "The Syrians know there are facilitation cells in places like Damascus, Aleppo, Homs and Hama. Their security services can find those facilitation cells, they can dismantle those cells and they can certainly go after the people that we've identified to them by name that are former members of the regime that is co-ordinating actions inside Syria. I won't go as far as to say these groups have the support of the Syrian government, but the Syrians certainly aren't doing enough to shut off their support for the insurgency."

To hammer home its point, in July the US military established the first long-term military base at Rawah, north of the Euphrates river, along the strategic route that connects the Syrian border to roads leading north to Mosul and southeast to Baghdad, to secure the border.

The move follows the large-scale US-led operations ('Phantom Linebacker', 'Matador' and 'Spear') near the Syrian-Iraqi border regions earlier in 2005.

"Syria is ostensibly co-operating with the West in the war on terror yet it is not really acting firmly against it," diplomatic sources told JDW. "Despite its strong security organisations, Syria continues to provide a haven for terrorist infrastructures. Islamic Jihad operatives take advantage of Syria's hospitality to infiltrate Iraq through the porous Syrian-Iraqi border. This is despite claims that it has beefed up its deployment on the Iraqi borders. While it has made a number of 'anti-terror' moves recently, including the extradition of Saudi and Tunisian Islamic Jihad operatives to their own countries, and has hinted in closed talks that Hizbullah could be expendable if Syrian interests were at stake, these measures were more cosmetic, aimed at media coverage and the alleviation of international criticism."

In parallel, Washington has expressed its growing concern regarding Syrian support for Palestinian groups. The US Department of State Country Reports on Terrorism released in April states that: "The Syrian government in 2004 continued to provide political and material to Lebanese Hizbullah and Palestinian terrorist groups. Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, among others, continue to operate from Syria, although they have lowered their public profiles since May 2003, when Damascus announced that the groups had voluntarily closed their offices. Many of these groups, in statements originating both inside and outside of Syria, claimed responsibility for anti-Israel terror attacks in 2004. The Syrian government insists that these Damascus-based offices undertake only political and informational activities. However, Israeli officials note that the PIJ which claims responsibility for a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv earlier in 2005, had an office in Damascus, and that Syria was indirectly involved in the 31 August 2004 bus bombings in Be'ersheva."

The report added that: "Syria also continued to permit Iran to use Damascus as a transhipment point for resupplying Lebanese Hizbullah in Lebanon." Israeli officials go further, claiming that Damascus has actively sought to arm Hizbullah, including the recent supply of a large quantity of 220 mm rockets, domestically produced by the Syrian Studies and Research Centre (SSRC), to maintain pressure on Israel's northern border.

On 9 June, Washington also claimed that following its declared withdrawal of all military and intelligence assets from Lebanon, Syria has compiled a 'hit list' of senior Lebanese political figures it wants to eliminate in an effort to destabilise the country and allow Damascus to restore its hegemony over its Western neighbour.

Syria has publicly condemned international terrorism and has co-operated with the US on the Al-Qaeda issue. Nevertheless, the State Department notes, Syrian officials make the distinction between terrorism and what they consider to be the legitimate armed resistance of Palestinians in the occupied territories and of Lebanese Hizbullah -- a distinction that has little resonance with the Bush administration and only serves to fuel the hard-line perspective in Washington.

part 1


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part 2

The Lebanon dilemma

Hafiz al-Assad institutionalised Syrian hegemony in Lebanon against both the US and Israel, establishing his authority and that of his regime domestically and regionally. Despite couching its withdrawal in terms of compliance with the Taif Accords that ended the Lebanese civil war, Bashar's perceived capitulation to international pressure has called into question the credibility of his authority in both spheres.

"The danger for the regime domestically is that the withdrawal implies it is weak, which will not go unnoticed by the Kurds, Sunni majority and the Muslim Brotherhood, and most importantly by his own Alawite minority, while the loss of its military presence in the Beka'a and with it the strategic depth that help it defend Damascus potentially damages Bashar's regional credibility," diplomatic sources said, adding that: "Demonstrations of support in Damascus for Bashar show that he is under pressure."

Diplomatic sources with access to an Iranian Foreign Ministry source told JDW in May that the withdrawal could potentially impact upon Iranian-Syrian relations.

The focus of Iran's anger is directed principally at the Syrian president, whom, the source said, Tehran perceives as "an unreliable partner for building strategic relations" and holds directly responsible for Iran's potential loss of influence (through Hizbullah) as its foremost strategic and ideological outpost. Accordingly, the source notes, Iran plans to map the Syrian military and intelligence leadership and mark those whose radical stands are closest to Tehran's posture in order to undermine Al-Assad's position.

In addition, Tehran recognises that many senior regime officials have suffered major financial losses from their withdrawal from Lebanon; many senior officers and intelligence officials became rich from smuggling, drug trafficking, bribery, counterfeiting and regular business deals.

"They know that the loss of these assets in and ties to Lebanon provide another and arguably potent source of discontent," said one source.

The impact on the Syrian economy, and therefore the regime, cannot be ignored. Hundreds of thousands of Syrian workers provided regular remittances from Lebanon; not only has this valuable source of revenue been curtailed, but those workers are now streaming back into Syria with the consequent impact on unemployment levels (currently 20 per cent to 25 per cent) and the accompanying political unrest it could foment.

The Syrian Armed Forces

On paper, the Syrian military machine looks formidable with some 380,000 personnel. The armed forces comprise some 12 divisions, 3,700 main battle tanks (MBTs), 2,600 artillery pieces and nearly 500 aircraft.

However, under-resourced and generally poorly trained conscripts, obsolescent equipment, a rigid command structure and a lack of flexibility in the approach to military exercises and force planning have served to generally undermine the capabilities of the armed forces.

Comprising the Syrian Arab Army, Syrian Arab Navy and the Syrian Arab Air Force (including the Air Defence Force), the armed forces are principally geared to provide regime security and confront the main external threat.

Diplomatic sources note that personnel management is poor, that there is a lack of effective training and that the largest service, the army, is burdened by an inefficient support and logistics apparatus based on the Soviet model. The sources assess motivation, particularly in the army, to be satisfactory, although morale has deteriorated in the past two to three years.

However, the impact of a recent decree by Al-Assad, reported by the official Syrian News Agency in July, allowing potential and serving conscripts to purchase exemption from the 18-month mandatory military service could, if true, be socio-economically divisive and remains to be considered.

While some army formations are believed to have a reasonable level of training and combat readiness, including two new armoured divisions, the Republican Guards Division and the Special Forces - who are assessed to have a certain level of capability - the shortcomings of the non-elite elements, particularly in the army, are reminiscent of those associated with neighbouring Iraq under the Ba'ath regime. Those forces failed to put up an effective resistance to the US-led coalition that ousted Saddam Hussein's regime in March-April 2003 and, amid speculation that Syria might face a US threat, the clearly demonstrated technological superiority of the US has prompted concern in Damascus.

However, deficiencies in the Syrian Armed Forces are not a new phenomenon, as was clearly demonstrated in the conflicts with Israel in 1973 and 1982 where the combat capability of the air force was effectively destroyed. All services have been adversely affected by funding shortfalls, coupled with the fact that the primary source of modern materiel dried up with the demise of Syria's patron, the Soviet Union, in 1990.

Nevertheless, Syria needs to maintain a level of capability to sustain its regional credibility, but with limited funds has to carefully select in which capacities to invest.

Procurement trends

In the past year and a half Syria has shown interest in procuring a number of weapon systems - mostly air-defence, anti-tank and surface-to-surface missiles, that are intended to balance the technological advantages of Western countries by offering simple and inexpensive solutions.

Judging new armour capabilities to be too expensive and less important than in investing in asymmetric capabilities principally to redress the balance with Israel, Syria in 1998 nevertheless signed an estimated USD200 million contract with Galileo Avionica of Italy to upgrade 122 T-72 MBTs with the Tank Universal Reconfiguration Modular System T-series tank fire-control system. The upgrade included new armour and an attachment for the Russian KBP Instrument Design Bureau 9K119 Reflecks (AT-11) anti-tank guided missile (ATGM), which is fired through the T-72's 125 mm smoothbore main gun.

Diplomatic sources note that some 200 T-55 MBTs configured to fire Russian A-10 ATGM were also upgraded by Ukraine, along with a number of BMP-1 infantry fighting vehicles.

In effect, there have been little in the way of armour and artillery upgrades (other than some ammunition and recent interest in the Russian Mashina-M and Kapustnik-B automated artillery fire-control systems). However, diplomatic sources note a considerable investment in anti-tank capabilities, notably the signing in early 2004 of "dozens of contracts for AT-14 Kornet-E and AT-13 Metis ATGMs".

Since 1982 Syria has determined that, with the prohibitive cost of new aerial platforms and the realisation that the Syrian Arab Air Force cannot defeat Israel in the air. (Its ageing MiG-25, MiG-29 and Su-24 combat platforms are the most modern in its inventory), investment must be made in acquiring what diplomatic sources say are "the most desirable strategic systems, including the SA-10, SA-20, S-200, S-300PMU air-defence systems".

Following Al-Assad's visit to Moscow in January, Russian Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin announced that Russia would write off 73 per cent of Syria's debt, mainly incurred from arms purchases during the Soviet era, cutting Syria's foreign debt to less than 10 per cent of GDP and freeing up finance to acquire new systems.

Russia agreed to sell Syria an unspecified number of 9K38 Igla (SA-18) low-altitude surface-to-air missiles, despite objections from Israel and the US, although Russian President Vladimir Putin said Syria will only be supplied with the vehicle-mounted version and not with manportable Iglas, which Israel fears could be transferred to Hizbullah or to Palestinian insurgent groups. Despite the assurances, Israel is still concerned that even the mounted version could still be dismantled and transferred to such organisations.

Further, Syria is understood to be in advanced negotiations with Russia for the procurement of new United Arab Emirates development-funded Pantsir S1 short-range surface-to-air missile systems. Diplomatic sources say that Syria plans to acquire "several dozen systems at a cost of over USD400 million. The Pantsir's improved mobility matches Syria's new operational doctrine, which gives preference to light, low-signature systems". Sources note that if the Pantsir agreement is concluded, Syria might also seek to acquire the S-300PMU air-defence system, significantly augmenting its air-defence capabilities.

It is noteworthy, however, that Syria has yet to invest in or explore the acquisition of elements for an integrated air-defence system.

Earlier in 2005, Syria was reported to be interested in acquiring the Iskander-E short-range ballistic missile. The Iskander-E is the export version of the Kolomna-designed 9M72 short-range ballistic missile currently in service with the Russian armed forces. The 9M72 has a given range of 400 km; Iskander-E has a given range of 280 km. Russian officials have played down the reports and diplomatic sources told JDW that the proposed acquisition "could be just 'camouflage' to acquire the other systems".

The navy, with a standing strength of some 3,200, lacks parity with the other services and is placed under the command of the Chief of General Staff, Commander of Land Forces. The ageing fleet, based in the ports of Latakia, Baniyas, Minat al Bayda, and Tartus, principally comprises two Petya III-class frigates and a number of patrol craft variants (including 10 advanced Osa II-class missile boats, eight Zhuk coastal patrol craft and three Yevgenya-class inshore minesweepers). Two Romeo-type diesel-electric submarines, transferred by the Soviet Navy in 1985, are considered unseaworthy.

Little investment is planned in the navy. The sources note, however, that: "Syria could be forced to make changes if the service deteriorates any further - this could mean the acquisition of newer surface vessels and perhaps an improved below-surface capability and surface-to-surface missiles. The most likely prospect of investment in the navy, however, will be to shore up Alawite interests in the coastal region."

In addition to its contracts with Russia, Syria is also negotiating weapon deals with countries such as Belarus, China, the Czech Republic, Iran and North Korea.

Weapons of mass destruction development?

Syria, according to diplomatic sources, is also maintaining and investing in its strategic missile capabilities and its chemical/biological capability warfare activities.

The US Central Intelligence Agency's 'Unclassified Report to Congress on the Acquisition of Technology Relating to Weapons of Mass Destruction and Advanced Conventional Munitions' in 2004 claimed recent Syrian civilian nuclear co-operation agreements could be an indication that Damascus has atomic aspirations.

According to the report: "Although specific assistance has not yet materialised ... we are looking at Syrian nuclear intentions with growing concern." US intelligence officials told JDW that "recent agreements and procurement activities" with Russia, Iran and Pakistan have led to the worry that current Syrian civilian nuclear projects "could develop into a nuclear weapons programme". The country has a nuclear research centre at Dayr Al Hajar that is subject to international inspections under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Moreover, the report says, Syrian efforts to improve its ballistic missile programmes continue. These efforts include North Korean and Iranian assistance in "developing longer-range missile programmes such as a 'Scud-D' and possibly other variants". Diplomatic sources claim that Syria currently has 20-30 launchers and some 200 'Scud-D's manufactured in Syria.

Syria is striving for missiles in two configurations: one that can deliver a 550 kg warhead to 700 km and the other a 1,000 kg warhead to 500 km, the officials added.

The SSRC in Damascus engages in independent weapon system development for the Syrian military establishment and is involved in almost every weapon development programme in the country. It is also responsible for producing strategic weapons, including surface-to-surface missiles and rocket systems, as well as chemical and biological warfare agents.

Syria's chemical warfare programme began in the mid-1970s and has since been run by the SSRC's Chemical/Biological Warfare Department. Initially the programme focused on the volatile nerve agent Sarin, beginning production in the mid-1980s. "The Syrians stockpiled an arsenal of thousands of aerial bombs and some 100 Scud-B chemical warheads designed for weaponisation with Sarin in a semi-binary configuration (with the binary components mixed on the ground)," a source said.

In the late 1980s, the Syrians began research and development for the persistent nerve agent VX. The programme gained momentum in the mid-1990s when following foreign assistance (sources say it is not clear but there are indications of Chinese, North Korean and Russian involvement) they began serial production of VX components. According to sources, Syria has stockpiled "enough components to weaponise no more than a few dozen 'Scud-B/C' warheads and/or aerial bombs".

Relevant installations for Syria's chemical warfare programme are located at SSRC facilities in Dumayr, Khan Abou, Shamat and Furklus.

Syria's biological warfare efforts have for the past 20 years focused on research and development of Ricin at the SSRC. According to sources "the SSRC has examined the possibility of weaponising Ricin, along with various delivery means [rockets and surface-to-surface missiles]". The programme status is unclear.




Syria might also seek to acquire the S-3000PMU air-defence system, significantly augmenting its air-defence capabilities
(Source: P Felstead/Jane's)

A Syrian soldier mans a machine gun along the border with Iraq. Syria has on numerous occasions tried to dispel claims it is not doing enough to control the border

Reshuffles in the Syrian Army

To ensure continued loyalty to the regime, Al-Assad is continuing the process begun by his father to tighten his control over the security and military leadership. More importantly, this process ensures that senior military figures do not retain office long enough to form the focus of an alternative power base.

In April 2004 a presidential decree was issued to change the retirement age of army officers and limit the maximum age of service for a general to 62, lieutenant general to 60, major general to 58 and so on.

This decree facilitated the retirement of most of the veteran security and military leadership and, combined with regular reshuffles at senior command level, has negated the opportunity for any one individual or group to form a locus of power that could pose a challenge to the president's authority.

In October 2004, Syrian Arab Army Deputy Commander in Chief Lieutenant General Farouq I'ssa was dismissed from the post he had held since 1998.

A few months later (in January 2005) another deputy commander in chief, Lieutenant General Tawfiq Jaloul, was dismissed, after serving in that post from April 2003. Both, according to diplomatic sources, "were members of a secret council, which served as a tool to transfer power from Hafiz al-Assad to his son, Bashar" and "were accused of overly interfering in the decision-making processes in Syria".

The two other members of that council, Lieutenant General Ahmad Abd al-Bani and Lieutenant General Ibrahim AI-Safi, both deputies at the Syrian Ministry of Defence, were later removed on the basis of the same accusation.

From January 2002 to January 2005, the command of First Corps has changed three times.

The commander of the Syrian Arab Army First Corps Major General Ahmad Abdel al-Razak Abd al-Nabi was replaced in June 2002, after nine years in the post, by Major General Abd al-Kader Abd aI-Sheikh, who in turn was replaced in December 2003, a year and a half after he was appointed, by Major General Haeel Khuriya. Gen Khuriya was replaced, again, only one year later by Major General Munir bin Moukhsin Adanof.

A similar pattern can be discerned in the Second and Third Corps. Second Corps commander Major General lbrahim al-Safi Ali was replaced, in June 2002, by Major General Ahmad Hassan Ali, after serving nine years in his post. Gen Ali was subsequently replaced in January 2004 by Major General Adib Kasem. One year later, Gen Kasem was replaced by Major General Muhammad Fayiz.

Third Corps commander Major General Shafiq Fayadh served for nine years, to be replaced in June 2002 by Major General Madar Yousuf.

Gen Yousuf was in turn moved out after a year and a half, in January 2004, to be replaced by Major General Munir Nasir.

© 2005 Jane's Information Group


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Interesting article thanks for posting it.
Life for Assad could be alot easier if he ran the terrorists out of Syria, shut down their training facilities and decided to work with Iraq instead of against it. The harder part would be to negotiate with Israel and reach a reconciliation like Egypt has done.


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Kilekaldar: Very informative posts. Where abouts have you sourced your information ?


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tomahawk6 said:
Interesting article thanks for posting it.
Life for Assad could be alot easier if he ran the terrorists out of Syria, shut down their training facilities and decided to work with Iraq instead of against it. The harder part would be to negotiate with Israel and reach a reconciliation like Egypt has done.

He is running the terrorists out of Syria: straight into Iraq.

As for the position with Israel, the Golan Heights is the big bone of contention. The water sources in the Heights make it much less likely that Israel will sacrifice them for peace, as they did with the Sinai.