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Syria: The Armed Forces and Society
Country Study > Chapter 5 > National Security > The Armed Forces and Society


Syria's maintenance of a substantial military establishment has affected the nation's political, social, and economic development, but the military's greatest impact has been on Syrian society's political orientation. Except during the first three years of independence, the head of government has been a military officer. From March 1949 to November 1970, power struggles among the factions of the highly politicized officer corps led to fifteen changes of government by military coups and undermined the organizational structure and military capability of the armed forces.

Despite the effectiveness of the military-political interrelationship, occasional evidence of political dissent within the officer corps existed. These problems stemmed from long-standing tensions between the Sunni Muslim majority and the minority Alawis who held most senior posts. In July 1977 the Manchester Guardian Weekly reported that Syrian officials had uncovered within the armed forces clandestine organizations believed to have participated in the assassination of a number of senior Alawi officers. Such activity, if it indeed existed, has important political implications for the future of the Assad regime. For example, a power struggle among factions centering around personalities among Alawi officers is an ever-present danger. Whatever may happen, it seemed clear that the armed forces, because of their capability for violent coercion, would continue to be the ultimate arbiters of political power in Syria.

The most significant sociological impact of the armed forces has been the social mobility that the officer corps has provided the nation's lower classes. Syria's upper classes have consistently disdained attending military academies, considering them to offer inferior education and a military career to lack prestige. Hence, the majority of cadets and officers are of peasant and village origin; a military career has afforded them rapid social mobility to positions of political power and influence. In 1975 one observer stated that in the view of many younger officers the importance of the military lay as much in its role as an instrument for social change as in its military role against Israel.

In particular, the armed forces have been the best vehicle for social mobility for Syria's Alawi community. Although they comprise about 11 percent of the population and are traditionally the poorest of Syria's ethnic minorities, hundreds of Alawis have risen from an impoverished childhood in the rural areas surrounding Latakia to the pinnacles of power as military officers.

While furthering social mobility, the armed forces have had a largely negative effect on economic development. For instance, the fledgling defense industry has not had much positive impact, either as an economic resource or as a source of armaments. Also, the military's requirement for increasing numbers of skilled technicians and mechanics to maintain and operate a growing inventory of modern weapons constitutes a drain on the already limited pool of skilled workers; the technical training some conscripts receive and use on their return to civilian life has not offset the drain. The rapid growth of the armed forces from about 80,000 in 1967 to 500,000 in 1986 inevitably slowed economic growth because of the loss of manpower in all sectors of the economy.

By all standard indicators, the economic burden of defense was large. Although government defense expenditures declined during the five years after the June 1967 War, they jumped markedly in 1973, beginning a rapid ascent that continued in 1985 and 1986. In 1986 there were reports that defense would account for over 55 percent of total government expenditures in Syria's 1987 budget, and that government spending on defense was driving Syria into heavy debt and an acute economic crisis.

Syria has consistently ranked among the countries with the highest burdens of defense on society. Economic and military analysts contended that the Syrian government's growing defense expenditures have severely limited expenditures in other areas vital to the nation's social and economic progress. According to data compiled by Ruth Leger Sivard in World Military and Social Expenditures, for example, in 1983 military expenditures per capita were the equivalent of US$249 (ranked 27th in the world), while public expenditures for education were US$102 (ranked 52nd); for health they were US$7 (ranked 95th).

In spite of these figures, observers agreed that the government's officially reported defense expenditures markedly understated the actual resources devoted to national defense. The same observers also suspected that the reported expenditures did not include such important items as construction projects for military use.

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

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