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Syrian Commandos Fade Away
by James Dunnigan
June 9, 2009

Syria's elite units are falling apart. The total number of elite troops in Syria exceeds 15,000 personnel. This in line with their Soviet era doctrine and tactics that insist on special units in massive numbers.  But years of poor funding, rapidly aging equipment (even small arms), and lack of action have turned Syria's special forces into a paper tiger. This is rapidly becoming a crisis for Syria because it  is the only remaining frontline Arab state (the other two being Egypt and Jordan) that borders Israel that has not signed a peace agreement with the Jewish nation. Syria still harbors ambitions of eventual armed conflict with Israel to regain the Golan Heights. As ludicrous as this goal is, the Syrians have remained recalcitrant and stubborn in their relations with Israel. Secondly, the Syrians rely on their best troops maintain order and put down potential threats to the regime.  

During the Cold War, Syria's elite units were considered, by Arab military standards, to be well-disciplined, thoroughly trained, and armed with the latest Russian (then Soviet) equipment. They had extensive battle experience against the Israelis on the Golan in 1973 and Lebanon in '82 and, according to most accounts, these units acquitted themselves well. 

The 1973 Yom Kippur War is generally considered to be the high point of their war fighting achievements. During the war, Syrian commandos and paratroopers managed to capture Mount Hermon from the Israelis using a helicopter-borne attack. Armed with RPGs and Dragunov sniper rifles equipped with infrared sights, the Syrians managed to beat off a determined counterattack on Hermon and slugged it out with the elite Golani Brigade on the last day of the war in an eight hour battle that lasted an entire night. The Syrians were actually better-equipped than the Israelis, who had no night vision equipment and, in many cases, obsolete antitank weapons. During the war in Lebanon in the 1980s, although again beaten by the Israelis, the Syrians managed to adapt innovative tactics to inflict major damage. The 20th Commando Battalion developed tactics involving "hunter-killer" teams for stalking tanks and armored vehicles that proved especially effective against Israeli armor.

The situation hasn't been that good for almost twenty years. The fall of the Soviet Union and crippling debt had not only affected Syria's air force and army mechanized units and equipment, but has even damaged the reputation and ability of their once-proud shock troops, which are now a shadow of their former selves. 

Currently, Syria maintains the 120th Mountain Infantry Brigade and the 14th Special Forces Division, along with ten additional independent commando regiments, which actually amount to enlarged battalions. Despite its reputation for fostering and aiding anti-Jewish terrorists, the Syrians have some counter-terrorist capabilities of their own. They are well aware of how easily today's allies can become tomorrow's enemies in the Arab world and do their best to plan and prepare accordingly. This role is taken up by one of the SF regiments and goes by the name of Al-Saiqa (Storm). The unit allegedly trains intensively in hostage rescue, intelligence gathering, and anti-hijacking operations. 

Ideally, these units would be equipped with sophisticated weapons and spend countless hours in intensive training, but this isn't happening for a number of reasons. For one, very few countries, and certainly nobody in the U.S. or Western Europe, is willing to sell Damascus high-tech equipment and the ones who are demand the money up front. Thus, like the Serbs during the '90s, they are forced to buy what equipment and technology they can off the black market in whatever quantities they can afford. 

Also, given their cash flow problems, training is nowhere near as frequent or as long as the Israelis. Finally, Syria's maintains an excessively large number of elite troops for a military of its size. Instead of a few compact, professional regiments that can pack a major punch, the Syrians have literally thousands of special forces soldiers organized into countless regiments. More personnel means more people to train, pay, and send through exercises, all of which is not free. 

With too many officers and enlisted men, too little money, and no one willing to give them the gear they need, Syria's commando seem destined to age poorly. The prospects for the Syrians to regain their previous effectiveness seem dim. 


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