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Syria: Foreign Influences in the Development of the Armed Forces
Country Study > Chapter 5 > National Security > The Regular Armed Forces > Foreign Influences in the Development of the Armed Forces

FOREIGN INFLUENCES IN THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE ARMED FORCES


Various foreign countries were essential to the development of the armed forces of the late 1980s. As the former colonial power, France had been the dominant foreign influence during the formative years after Syria's independence. Later, Britain and the United States also aided the military, largely by serving as sources of professional officer training. During the 1958-61 union with Egypt, Egyptian doctrine and training were influential. By 1987, however, the Soviet Union was the predominant foreign influence, as it had been for over two decades. At times, Syrian-Soviet relations have been strained, and Syria has guarded its freedom to make policy independent of the Soviets, particularly with regard to Iraq, Lebanon, and the Palestinians. However, Soviet military assistance and the presence of Soviet military advisers continued to be essential to the growth and professionalization of the armed forces. Other East European countries, notably Czechoslovakia, East Germany, and Romania, have also provided some materiel and training.

The Soviet-Syrian military relationship began in March 1955, when the Soviets offered to extend considerable economic and military assistance in support of Syria's refusal to join the Baghdad Pact, an alliance that was being formed under the general auspices of Britain and the United States. Initial arms shipments arrived from Czechoslovakia in 1956, but East European aid was small-scale until the rise of Baathist President Nureddin Atassi in 1966. During the June 1967 War, the threat of Soviet intervention on behalf of Syria and Egypt was partly responsible for halting the Israeli advance on both fronts. After the June 1967 War, Soviet military aid to Syria grew substantially and the Soviets established a sizable military presence there.

Assad's rise to power led to a strengthening of political and military ties with the Soviet Union. Contributing to these closer relations was Egypt's sudden ouster of Soviet military advisers in July 1972, which caused an increased Soviet interest in Syria. The months preceding the October 1973 War saw a significant increase in Soviet arms flow to Syria. During the war, Soviet military advisers supervised the operations at SAM sites and were present at Syrian command posts.

The most significant Soviet involvement between October 10- 23, 1973, however, was its airlift of almost 4,000 tons of military equipment and its sealift of considerably more, to rearm the Syrian and Egyptian armies. Within a year after the ceasefire, the Soviets had more than replaced Syria's massive equipment loss.

However, Syria's intervention in the Lebanese Civil War against leftist Muslim forces in 1976 led to a strain in SovietSyrian relations. For more than a year, the Soviets suspended deliveries of military materiel, while Syria retaliated by reducing its Soviet military presence and halting training for its military in the Soviet Union. To replace Soviet support, Saudi Arabia supplied most of the funds to maintain Syria's troops in Lebanon. By 1987, however, Saudi financial aid was believed to have decreased.

During the Syrian-Soviet rapprochement in 1978, Libya reportedly supplied the equivalent of US$500 million to US$1 billion to pay for Syria's Soviet-supplied weaponry, including 12 MiG-27s.

Syria was also able to pay for Soviet weaponry as a result of the October 1978 Arab summit in Baghdad that pledged payments to Syria (as well as to Jordan and the PLO) if it agreed to reject the Camp David accords (signed in Washington in September 1978). Under the agreement, Syria was allotted US$1.8 billion annually. Only a few countries, however, notably Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, maintained regular payments; consequently, Syria has received only US$700 to $800 million per year in Baghdad Agreement aid

From 1979 to 1983, the Soviet Union delivered US$9.2 billion in arms transfers (out of a total of US$10.53 billion pledged). Czechoslovakia was the next largest supplier, with US$470 million in military aid. China delivered US$90 million, Poland US$30 million, and Romania US$20 million. In addition, Syria received US$200 million in military aid from France, US$180 million from Britain, and US$40 million from West Germany.

In addition to arms, Syria received military advisers and technicians from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe and sent military personnel to those countries for training. The number of such advisers and technicians in Syria was estimated at 3,500 in the aftermath of the 1973 War, 2,500 in 1976, 2,000 to 3,000 in 1978, 5,300 in 1984, and 2,300 in 1986. With regard to training, the United States Central Intelligence Agency has estimated that 6,600 Syrian military personnel trained in the Soviet Union between 1955 and 1985 and a further 1,515 trained in other East European countries.

Some observers saw the 1980 Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation between Syria and the Soviet Union as the culmination of the two countries' relationship. From the Syrian perspective, however, this treaty had a deep-seated flaw; there was no reference in it to Syria's position in Lebanon. Syria wanted and had requested a "strategic agreement" with the Soviet Union to offset any United States-Israeli agreement. Yet no such SovietSyrian agreement was signed and no broader alliance evolved, although the Soviet Union increased its military assistance following Syria's 1982 defeat in Lebanon. While maintaining its sovereignty, Syria expressed appreciation for Soviet assistance by granting the Soviets facilities to base reconnaissance aircraft and expanding the ports of Latakia and Tartus to accommodate large Soviet ships.

In 1983 and 1984, the Soviet Union increased involvement by installing SAM-5, SAM-6, SAM-9, and SS-21 missile systems in Syria. These SAM systems, which had adequate range to cover a major part of the region, were at first manned and protected by Soviet advisers and troops and have only gradually been turned over to Syrian control. The large Soviet resupply of SAM systems was interpreted by the United States, Israel, and Jordan as a Soviet response to the massive destruction of Soviet-built SAMs in the Lebanese War, among other reasons. Syria acquired additional T-72 tanks following Assad's October 1984 visit to Moscow.

In 1983 Syria's rejection of the Camp David accords, its alleged support for international terrorism, and its close friendship with the Soviet Union led the United States Congress to prohibit any new aid; since 1979, no new American aid has been assigned to Syria. Meanwhile, despite, or perhaps because of, the dominant Soviet influence on the armed forces, Assad has repeatedly sought to diversify Syria's source of armaments, for instance, by negotiations with France. However, Syrian-French arms deals broke down over the issue of Syrian support for antiFrench terrorist groups. In general, Syrian efforts to purchase Western defense technology have been unsuccessful.

Data as of April 1987




Last Updated: April 1987


Editor's Note: Country Studies included here were published between 1988 and 1998. The Country study for Syria was first published in 1991. Where available, the data has been updated through 2008. The date at the bottom of each section will indicate the time period of the data. Information on some countries may no longer be up to date. See the "Research Completed" date at the beginning of each study on the Title Page or the "Data as of" date at the end of each section of text. This information is included due to its comprehensiveness and for historical purposes.

Note that current information from the CIA World Factbook, U.S. Department of State Background Notes, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Country Briefs, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Country Profiles, and the World Bank can be found on Factba.se.

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