Wednesday, March 07, 2007

New toys for the Syrian Army

Haaretz, the Israeli newspaper and Stratfor, a private intelligence organisation run by former CIA operatives, claimed last month that Syria was strengthening its air, ground and naval defences with advanced Russian, Chinese and Iranian missiles. If true, this could be good news for the beleaguered Syrian defence forces but don’t hold your breath. The Syrian military has been corrupted by three decades of occupation and plundering of neighbouring Lebanon and allowing senior army officers to treat their divisions as personal fiefdoms to ensure their loyalty to the regime.

Military strength is necessary for peace but it has to be visibly based on capable people, reasonably modern equipment and intelligent, efficient systems. The occupation of the Golan will continue as long as Israel perceives Syria to be a relatively weak adversary, at least on the human side.

Syria must negotiate the return of the Golan from a position of strength while simultaneously striving to build trust and normalize relations with Israel. Syria also has a moral and strategic responsibility to defend Palestinian rights and not allow itself to be sucked into a separate peace deal. Some argue that Syria has always adopted this strategic position. They are wrong. Syria has been relying on proxy militias to destabilize other countries in the region, thwart superpower plans and ignite mini conflicts instead of building a professional and loyal Syrian military machine. No amount of hardware can save a country if the majority of soldiers are poorly trained, poorly equipped, abused and humiliated by officers who owe their loyalty to the regime rather than the nation as a whole.

Haaretz, 22 Feb. 2007
Syria could soon receive thousands of advanced anti-tank missiles from Russia that could find their way into the hands of Hezbollah in southern Lebanon.

Ha'aretz, which did not disclose it's sources, said Thursday the new sale of Kornet AT-14 and Metis AT-13 missiles was close to completion despite Israeli diplomatic efforts to get Moscow to abandon it.

The Kornet AT-14 is a semi-automatic, command-to-line-of site missile system capable of destroying armored vehicles equipped with protective plating, including those with explosive reactive armor. It is also effective against fortifications and entrenched troops. Mounted on a small tripod, the missile is considered accurate when fired from as far away as 3 miles.

Evidence that Hezbollah was in possession of the weapons was found during last summer's war in southern Lebanon. Crates of the missiles, with shipping documents showing they were procured from Russia by Syria, were found near the Saluki River, where Hezbollah delayed an Israeli armored column with missile fire.

The report said the evidence was presented by Israeli diplomats to the Russians, who purportedly promised to re-evaluate some of its arms deals with Syria.

Stratfor: Syria's Russian Connection
The Israeli daily Haaretz reported Thursday (22 February) that Syria is strengthening its army "in an unprecedented way" and massing troops near the border with Israel along the Golan Heights. Syrian lawmaker Mohammed Hasbah denied the report, saying Syria has not redeployed its troops to the front lines but is prepared for any situation. Hasbah warned that Israel would "pay a heavy price" if it should "decide to do something stupid."

This heated war of words between Israel and Syria likely was sparked by the Israelis catching wind of a Russian arms transfer to Damascus; Haaretz also reported that Syria is close to sealing a deal with Russia to procure thousands of advanced anti-tank missiles.

Russia currently sees a prime opportunity to return to its Cold War policies in the Middle East. From the mid-1950s to the fall of the Soviet empire, Moscow's principal clients in the Arab world included Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Algeria and Yemen. Supplying these regional allies with military assistance and training under long-term loan arrangements that were unlikely to be paid back -- or even, in some cases, for free -- bought the Soviet Union leverage against the United States in the region. Eventually, Moscow's financial constraints caught up with its geopolitical ambitions, and military expenditures in the Middle East dropped low on its list of priorities.

Now, with the United States trapped in a thorny standoff with Iran over the future of Iraq, Russia has a chance to edge itself back into the sandbox. Moscow once again is trying to make friends in the region, with a particular focus on the two countries with the greatest ability to aggravate Washington and undermine U.S. policies: Iran and Syria.

While there have been some rumors about shipments of modern Russian air defense equipment to Syria, many reports are unconfirmed and are, at best, being debated in defense establishment circles. Of major concern is the S-300 long-range air defense system, considered to be among the most capable air defense asset in the world. The latest version of this system, the S-300PMU2, is unlikely to be in Syrian hands -- but the mere discussion of such a sale would be enough to put Israeli and U.S. policymakers on edge.

That said, there are plenty of other Russian military goodies that could be used to add some muscle to Syria's air defense. The summer 2006 conflict between Israel and Hezbollah was a major gut check for the Syrian defense establishment. As Israel Defense Forces (IDF) engaged Syria's militant proxy in Lebanon, the Syrian regime had little choice but to play nice and stay out of the fray for fear of a devastating strike by the Israeli air force (IAF) -- which used two F-16s to buzz Syrian President Bashar al Assad's Latakia palace in June 2006. The relative ease with which the IAF penetrated Syrian airspace -- without fearing a response -- reinforced the need for Syria to improve on its Soviet-era air defense capabilities. Syria knows that the denial of airspace to Israel or the United States is a key strategic priority.

A likely Russian sale of upgraded SA-9 and SA-13 Strela surface-to-air missiles to Syria would fit into this strategy. New acquisitions and deployment of Iranian-built Chinese C-802 anti-ship missiles also are rumored to be under way. The Syrian navy has badly decayed in the last 10 years, and the acquisition of significant quantities of these missiles would be a serious improvement.

But while it makes perfect sense that Syria is taking advantage of the regional dynamic to rebuild its military capabilities, the Syrian regime is not looking for a fight with Israel. Rather, the acquisitions are meant to signal to Israel and the United States that the cost of engaging Syria militarily would be too high. Damascus would much rather work through its militant proxies as it remains focused on re-establishing itself in Lebanon.

Hezbollah, meanwhile, is busily evading U.N. troops in southern Lebanon and rebuilding its own military capabilities -- with Iranian and Syrian assistance -- in preparation for round two of the summer's conflict with Israel. Recent Syrian imports of AT-14 Kornet-E and AT-13 Metis-M anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs) likely are making their way into Hezbollah arsenals in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. Hezbollah employed these advanced missiles against Israeli tanks during the 2006 conflict, when it successfully delayed an IDF advance near the Saluki River. The guerrilla tactics Hezbollah used against Israeli armor were not lost on Syria, which almost certainly will be deploying any new ATGMs it acquires near the Israeli border -- except for the ones that slip across the Lebanese border to Hezbollah.

Sources in Lebanon also say Hezbollah fighters in the Bekaa have been sighted at least twice carrying what appear to be SA-18s. The SA-18 is a shoulder-launched, infrared-guided missile akin to the U.S. FIM-92A Stinger (which was used to great effect against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan). While it will not stop the IAF, it will be especially useful in the Bekaa against low-flying close-air-support sorties and IDF helicopters.

Hezbollah has an interest in demonstrating that it possesses these weapons in order to dissuade Israel from launching commando raids against its forces in their Bekaa stronghold. After the 2006 summer conflict, Israel knows it will have little chance of crippling Hezbollah's militant arm unless it thrusts into the Bekaa; but the transfer of these weapons from Syria will make such an offensive more costly.

A concerted effort by Russia and Iran is clearly under way to exploit the U.S. position in the region and upset the regional balance in their favor -- which falls directly in line with Syrian interests. As long as Russia can take advantage of this geopolitical opening, it can stir up enough regional cyclones to make money for the Russian defense establishment, and more important, win back influence to barter with the United States. In the end, lesser powers like Syria stand to gain a great deal.


Nobody said...

i am disappointed, your majesty ... just when we were thinking about striking a separate peace deal with you , you tied yourself into a gordian knot of pan arabism ..

shit .. but never mind .. let it be a war ... i dont mind


Philip I said...


I thought you might react in this way :)

If a separate deal were sustainable, and I had the authority, I'd be the first to sign it.

The fact is you cannot build a lasting peace on shaky ground. And the shaky ground is made up of Palestinian grievances, Israeli insecurity and a massive Syrian/Israeli military imbalance.

This has nothing to do with pan arabism (a meaningless concept in my view) and everything to do with geopolitics in the Levant.

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