Sword of Israel:
The Syrian Arab Army
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
While the Israel Defense Forces are justly famed for their performance in the June 1967 Six-Day War, that reputation is definitely aided by the presence of the Syrian Arab Army on the opposing side.
Syria’s regular army grew out of the small Troupes Speciales du Levant raised by the French during their 1919-1946 occupation. With just seven battalions of infantry, some cavalry and camelry squadrons and support troops, it was a fairly weak force and the mandate’s defense lay in the hands of French and French Colonial troops garrisoned there.
The French had recruited chiefly from Christians and minority Islamic sects for the Troupes Speciales and favored Christians for officer’s commissions, leaving the new army alienated from Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority (about 65 percent of the population). No Syrian, even from the favored minorities, could rise above the rank of major; all senior officers and battalion commanders were French. A military academy at Homs trained Syrian and Lebanese officer cadets.
Remember the Coalition of the Willing? A Syrian soldier defends Kuwait, 1991.
Soon after independence, Syria joined other Arab states invading Palestine in hopes of snuffing out the new state of Israel. Three small infantry brigades made up the new Syrian Arab Army, supported by a tank “battalion” with a company of leftover French Renault R35 light tanks and one of armored cars. Cadres came from the former Troupes Speciales, supplemented by eager new volunteers.
The Syrians fought reasonably well in 1948, but did not achieve their goal of destroying the new Jewish state. They did not press their offensive, and in turn did not receive the full force of Israeli counter-attacks, which may have spared them from defeat.
Over the next 19 years, the army became a full participant in Syria’s chaotic politics, constantly overthrowing the government. The 1958 union with Egypt was in large part sought to reign in the Syrian military’s political meddling by combining it with Egypt’s forces, but the United Arab Republic fell apart in 1961 and the Syrian armed forces returned to their accustomed king-making role.
As they did so, they largely lost interest in their military role. A Soviet training mission attempted to improve the Army and Air Force, but found their burden of training recruits in the most basic skills left to them as the Syrian officers concentrated on playing the game of thrones.
In 1955, the new Syrian President Shukri al-Quwatli began to chart a neutralist course for Syria in the Cold War, declining to join the American-sponsored Baghdad Pact. When he attempted to buy weapons from the United States, the Americans in turn rejected the bid. The Syrians, following the example of Egyptian President Gamel el-Nasser, turned to the Soviet bloc and in June 1956 signed a deal to buy 45 formerly German Panzerkampfwagen IV medium tanks and a dozen Sturmgeschütz III assault guns from Czechoslovakia. The Syrians also picked up another 60 Panzer IV tanks from France, and 17 from Spain. The Czechs later supplied small arms, radios and T-34/85 tanks.
Large-scale Soviet deliveries began in 1964, with additional purchases from Czechoslovakia, Poland and Yugoslavia. The Soviet Union gave Syria a 33 percent discount on arms purchases, while her Eastern Bloc allies charged full price. The Syrian Arab Army grew massively in size, with modern Soviet-designed small arms, artillery and tanks.
In February 1966, a group of Alawite Muslim officers overthrew the Ba’athist regime of Hafiz Amin. The Ba’ath Party – an Arab nationalist/socialist movement – remained the framework of the state, but with new leadership. Salah Jadid, the former armed forces chief of staff, took over as president with Air Force commander Hafez al-Assad as his defense minister. An attempted coup in October 1966, led by Druze officers, failed when the 70th Armored Brigade surrounded its epicenter in the Druze city of Suwayda and Assad threatened to destroy it with artillery fire.
An abandoned Syrian position overlooks the Sea of Galilee.
Following the coup attempt, Assad moved to secure the Jadid regime’s power and, by extension, his own. With the unsuspecting help of the Soviet training mission promising officers were selected for their intelligence and initiative. Assad then had them executed. Over 400 officers were purged by Assad, who was determined to exterminate anyone capable of launching a new coup against the government (other than himself, of course). Another 2,000 officers, mostly from the senior ranks, were cashiered but not murdered; Assad commissioned 2,000 Ba’ath “party educators” to take their place, most of them former teachers with little or no military experience.
That left the Syrian Arab Army with an officer corps deliberately chosen for indolence and stupidity. And as in most failed organizations, the incompetence started at the top. A few weeks before, Lt. Gen. Ahmad Suweidani had been a colonel assigned to the Syrian embassy in Beijing as military attaché. But he was the former head of military intelligence, and most importantly he was also an Alawite and part of the Jadid-Assad clique known as the Military Committee. He was both loyal to his leaders and seen as incapable of organizing a coup against them; that he was also incapable of overseeing his country’s defense was irrelevant.
On paper, the Syrian Arab Army looked impressive. Syria did a great deal to instigate the 1967 conflict, pushing both Egypt and Jordan toward war but remaining aloof when the actual fighting began. Syria had promised one brigade to fight alongside the Jordanians; this unit (the 17th Mechanized Infantry Brigade) did not arrive until after the West Bank had fallen to the Israelis. When the Egyptian commander of the unified Arab forces on the Jordanian front, Gen. Abdul Munim Riyad, ordered it to take up defensive positions along the River Jordan, the brigade commander refused. Riyad ordered the Syrians out of Jordan, and this time they readily obeyed.
Relieved of its promises to Jordan, the Syrian Arab Army had less than 40 miles of front to defend against the Israelis. The general staff had prepared two plans: Operation Jihad to defend the rugged Golan Heights, and Operation Nasr (“Victory”) for a two-pronged armor assault on either side of the Sea of Galilee, followed by a march in the port of Haifa in northern Israel. The Syrian leadership chose Victory, and their Soviet advisors claimed they would be in Haifa within six days.
To execute the plans, the Syrians had about 70,000 men organized into sixteen brigades. The twelve infantry brigades each had three infantry battalions, an anti-tank company with towed 85mm guns, an anti-aircraft battery with 57mm guns or ZPU four-barreled 14.5mm machine guns, and an organic tank battalion with T-34/85 tanks (some sources call the tank battalion independent, attached as needed to the infantry brigades). Each infantry battalion had three rifle companies and a heavy weapons company.
A Syrian T34/85 on the Golan Heights.
The two mechanized infantry brigades had a similar organization, with the infantry riding in BTR-152 six-wheeled armored personnel carriers. The towed anti-tank guns were replaced with SU-100 tank destroyers and the towed anti-aircraft guns with the very effective ZSU-23 Shilka anti-aircraft vehicle with its four-barreled 23mm automatic cannon.
Syria’s two armored brigades (14th and 44th) each had three tank battalions with T-54 or T-55 tanks; on paper each battalion had 40 such tanks in three companies of 13 each (with one for the battalion commander). About 550 of the army’s 750 tanks were available for action, the remainder struck down by a near-total lack of maintenance. The brigade also included one battalion of mechanized infantry riding in BTR-152 carriers, anti-tank and anti-aircraft companies like those of the mechanized brigades, plus a recon company in BRDM-1 scout cars.
All Syrian artillery was held as an army-level asset, grouped into ad-hoc brigades and doled out as needed. Syria had 265 guns along the Golan, many of them new 130mm Soviet-made pieces. In addition the older German-made tanks had been dug into the fortifications as static pillboxes.
Syria had no divisional organization in 1967 – concentrating troops under a single general’s command enhanced the risk of a military coup. Jordan likewise eschewed divisional organizations for the same reason. Instead, the twelve brigades deployed to the Golan were organized into three hastily-organized “Brigade Groups,” with little or no staff or services.
Mobilization in May 1967 went smoothly – the Syrian Arab Army included very few reservists, so as not to sow trained soldiers among the potentially hostile populace. The Ba’athist “educators” may have known little of the military art, but they did know their jobs, and the troops apparently looked forward to defeating the hated Israelis.
“We thought we were stronger,” infantry Capt. Muhammad ’Ammar recalled, “that we could cling to our land, and that the Golan was impenetrable.”
Lead the Syrians into battle. Click here to order this 1967 Sword of Israel.
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.