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Syria Table of Contents


Chapter 5. National Security


Lion-headed eagle pendant, Tall Hariri

In early 1987, Syrian national security encompassed a wide range of issues. Military and political problems were created by the deployment of around 25,000 troops to Lebanon and by Syria's ambitious attempt to attain strategic parity with Israel. Whether President Hafiz al Assad and his primarily Alawi civilian and military advisers would be able to maintain Syria's unprecedented period of continuous political rule was a further consideration. During the 1980s, the Syrian armed forces gained greater manpower, equipment, and operational capability--but this improvement in quantity was not matched qualitatively. The quality of Syria's forces remained an important national security consideration because the Syrian military, after having suffered defeat and loss to Israel of the Golan Heights in the June 1967 War, had faced difficult battles in the October 1973 War and the June 1982 Lebanon War. As of 1987, prospects for future SyrianIsraeli hostility had not lessened.

As part of Syria's quest to improve its armed forces, in 1987 the Soviet Union continued large shipments of military equipment, including some of the most modern items in the Soviet arsenal. However, financial and military aid from traditional Arab sources declined, primarily because of the fall in Arab oil revenues. Decreased aid was also caused by Syria's increasingly confrontational role in regional affairs, including its support of Iran in the Gulf War and its association with the radical Shia groups that have emerged as a threat to the stability of Muslim Arab regimes. Syria's continued presence in the Lebanese quagmire further contributed to diminished Arab assistance. Moreover, Syria's "peacekeeping mission" in Lebanon, to which the Arab states had agreed, had grown detrimental to the morale of its armed forces and had weakened Syria's defensive and offensive capability vis-ŕ-vis its principal enemy, Israel.

However, in early 1987, Syria's perception of threats to its national security extended beyond Israel. To the east, Iraq remained a rival for ideological leadership and political power within the Baath movement (see Political Dynamics , ch. 4). For many years the two countries had been embroiled in vitriolic propaganda warfare and internal subversion, and, with the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War, Syria actively supported Iran. To the west, the government perceived as a threat the emergence in Lebanon of either a radical Muslim state or a Christian-dominated state aligned with Israel. Major internal threats included sectarian rivalry within Syria's many communities (see Introduction , ch. 2). Syria's long history of coups d'état also caused concern to a government that had itself achieved power in November 1970 through a military coup. Fear of a coup was demonstrated by maintenance of powerful internal security services and a praetorian guard.

Because of the ever-present threats to Syria's national security, both domestic and external, and its ties to the Soviet Union, information about Syria's military and police affairs is severely limited. However, national security concerns, which have played a central role since Syrian independence in 1946, clearly pervade the society and its economic and political activities.

Data as of April 1987