"We have means of defense that will surprise people," said Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem on Tuesday, August 27, in an apparent warning to the United States and its allies. Russia, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's powerful ally, has also warned Western capitals that a successful intervention may not come that easy. “It will not be an easy victory,” said a Russian military-diplomatic source quoted by Interfax on Tuesday.
What military resources are available to the Syrian regime? The answer to this question explains in part why the international community has not been eager to respond to the atrocities committed in the Syrian war so far. “They said the Syrian army would quickly lose the conflict. That was two years ago and it’s on the point of winning,” Philippe Migault, armed conflicts specialist and director of research at Institute of International and Strategic Relations), told HuffPost.
According to Migault, it is crucial not to underestimate Syria’s strike force, incommensurate with the means available to Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya before NATO intervened in 2011.
In theory, the Syrian army consists of 178,000 troops, including 110,000 in the ground forces, 5,000 in the Navy, 27,000 in the Air Force and 36,000 in Air Defenses. In addition, a portion of the 314,000 reservists available to the Army at the beginning of the conflict has already been mobilized. Another 4,000 men can also be called to swell the ranks of the Navy, 10,000 those of the Air Force and another 20,000 the Air Defense Forces.
Because of the civil war, the IISS is unable at present to accurately estimate the strength of the paramilitary forces (which are not part of the army). Yet these troops have played a key role in fighting the insurgency in the last two years. In 2009, they were estimated at 108,000, including 8,000 in the gendarmerie, under the authority of the Ministry of Interior, and 100,000 in the popular militia of the Baath party.
However, these impressive figures (the French Army has barely 100,000 troops) should be revised after two years of conflict. “The nominal pre-war strength of the army has likely been reduced by half: the result of a combination of defections, desertions and casualties,” IISS experts said.
"A career in the Syrian army was considered somewhat dishonorable" and many Sunnis refused to enlist, says Philippe Migault. Consequently, the Alawites, the minority to which Assad belongs, ended up with the top posts. After two years of fighting against the mainly Sunni opposition and the Islamists who promise them death, Alawites and Christians have no choice, even in the event of Western intervention, except to remain loyal to Assad. "Their survival depends on it," says the expert.
The IISS estimates that the regime can count on about 50,000 elite troops. “Strong and disciplined forces,” says Migault.
The Syrian army is equipped with mainly Russian-made – or Soviet-made - materiel, and owned 4,950 tanks before fighting began. “This figure was significantly reduced during the civil war,” according to the IISS. The regime also has a large arsenal of missiles, the command of which is based in Aleppo (north).
The Air Force has in principle 365, mainly Soviet-built, fighter planes (555 in 2009, twice as many as France). Again, these pre-war figures are certainly much lower now, and according to the IISS, “the level of readiness of a significant element of the Air Force's combat aircraft inventory is likely poor.” Even in reduced numbers, however, the Syrian combat aircraft give the regime a crucial advantage. Although as Migault points out, “Destroying the Syrian aviation and Navy would not be a problem for the Westerners. Just target the runways and ports.” Three ships and 24 fighter planes would be enough to render the Syrian Air Force incapable of fighting the opposition, a U.S. military analyst estimated in early August.
Air defense units appear to have been the least affected by the fighting, and are equipped with several thousand Russian ground-air missiles, including some recent and potentially effective models. "By firing missiles 1,200 or 1,300 kilometers from the target, the allies would not be taking any risk but their strikes would have only relative impact,” notes the IRIS researcher. “Air strikes, however, would expose them to heavy losses.”
Furthermore, Migault adds, the Damascus regime has had ample time to move its arsenal to residential areas. Even targeted strikes would result in heavy civilian casualties.
The Syrian chemical arsenal is considered one of the largest in the Middle East, yet without publicly available data it is difficult the measure its volume. The country ruled by the Assad family since the early 1970s is one of the few not to have signed the Convention for the prohibition of chemical weapons and is not a member of the OPCW, in charge of monitoring its application.
Developed in the 1970s with the help of Egypt and the former Soviet Union, the Syrian chemical weapons program was created to counterbalance Israel's nuclear program. "Russia in the 1990s and Iran since 2005 have also provided support," says the Nuclear Threat Initiative, an independent organization that gathers data on weapons of mass destruction.
From the latest generation of chemical weapons (sarin gas and VX) to older agents such as mustard gas, the Syrian army is said to have “hundreds of tons” of chemical agents, according to an expert at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute in the United States. “Their range of chemical agents is quite robust," confirms a French specialist at the Foundation for Strategic Research.
For the purposes of comparison, the regime of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi (who joined the OPCW in 2004) still had 11.5 tons of mustard gas, or 45% of its initial stock, to eliminate when the rebellion broke out in February 2011.
This piece was translated from French and originally appeared on HuffPost France.