Country Listing

Syria Table of Contents


Special and Irregular Armed Forces

Defense Companies (Saraya ad Difa)

In 1987, the Assad government controlled or sponsored several important special military units in addition to the regular armed forces. Until they were disbanded and reorganized as a standard division in 1984, the most important special forces were the Defense Companies, which consisted of about 15,000 to 25,000 specially trained and equipped officers and men. Established in 1971, the Defense Companies were organizationally independent of the regular armed forces and under the command of Rifaat al Assad, the president's brother. In 1984 Rifaat was relieved of his command and replaced by Lieutenant Colonel Mu'in Nassif, his deputy commander and brother-in-law. Nassif, in turn, was replaced by General Hikmat Ibrahim. Foreign observers viewed this elite military unit as the president's private army.

Defense Company personnel were recruited independently of the regular armed forces. Recruitment was believed to be predominantly among Alawis, the ethnic community presumed most loyal to Assad. Observers reported that the Defense Companies were equipped with some of the most modern weapons available to the Syrian Army, including T-72M tanks, SAMs, and attack helicopters, and could call on regular forces for logistical help and military support.

The Defense Companies were garrisoned outside Damascus, presumably with the primary mission of countering attempted coups or other challenges to the central government. These special forces, however, also had military missions beyond the role of a praetorian guard. For example, they acquired combat experience during Syria's first armed intervention in Lebanon (June-October 1976). Defense Companies units also were involved in internal security, such as carrying out house-to-house searches during the nationwide strikes and demonstrations in Aleppo in March 1980 and in June 1980 killing between 600 and 1,000 Tadmur Prison inmates suspected of belonging to the banned Muslim Brotherhood. In 1982 units were deployed in Hamah during the armed uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood, and they participated in the massacre of 10,000 to 25,000 civilians there.

The Defense Companies have also been deployed against Jordan. In late February 1981, some of their senior commanders, including Colonel Adnan Barakat, were alleged to have been involved in an abortive assassination attempt against Jordanian Prime Minister Mudir Badran. Members of the Defense Companies also reportedly have been sent abroad to monitor Syrian political exiles and to impede their activities. In Lebanon, Defense Companies units have supported pro-Syrian Lebanese militias, such as the Tripoli-based Arab Knights of the Arab Democratic Party (founded in 1981 by Rifaat al Assad and composed largely of Lebanese Alawis of Syrian origin), and the Lebanese Baath Party and its militia, the Assad Battalion. Following a power struggle between Rifaat al Assad and his rivals in the armed forces in early 1984, the Defense Companies were renamed Unit 569 and reorganized as a standard armored division with four armored and three mechanized brigades.

Data as of April 1987