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Tuesday, 13 June, 2000, 01:22 GMT 02:22 UK
Syria's ebbing military power
Syrian soldiers
The military is the essential pillar of the regime

By defence correspondent Jonathan Marcus

Syria remains the keystone in any effort to secure a comprehensive and durable peace settlement in the Middle East.

It remains the only serious military player among Israel's neighbours that has not made peace with the Jewish State.

But its armed forces are in need of wholesale modernisation and it has all but abandoned President Hafez al-Assad's effort to achieve strategic parity with Israel.

On their own, Syria's armed forces would find it difficult to mount a significant strategic challenge to Israel.
General Hafez Assad
Military parity with Israel was Hafez al-Assad's life-long ambition
Syria's army, navy and air force are seriously out of date - their mainly Soviet supplied equipment is badly in need of modernisation.

Syria's economic weakness meant that its efforts from the late 1970's to establish strategic parity with Israel were doomed to failure.

And unlike the Soviet Union, post-communist Russia was far less enthusiastic about funding Syria's modernisation plans.

Modernisation

Nonetheless military modernisation is now again on the agenda. Syria is hoping to buy advanced Russian combat aircraft and surface-to-air missile systems.

Syria's purchases are likely to be carefully chosen to maximise its capabilities in areas of known weakness like air defence, but also to bolster those arms - like its long-range missile forces - that can in some sense compensate for the overwhelming superiority of Israeli air power.
Syrian soldiers marching
Syria's military is mainly equipped with Soviet supplied weapons
But improving Syria's military capability is likely to be high on its new president's agenda for domestic reasons as well.

The military is the essential pillar of the regime.

But while many senior commanders have been changed over recent years to bring in officers loyal to Bashar al-Assad, many of the old guard remain in entrenched positions and their loyalty is by no means unquestioning.

The new president will need to modernise the military to consolidate his own power-base.

New equipment purchases will thus serve both a strategic and a political function and few analysts expect any serious peace overtures until the new Syrian president is confident of his own hold over the armed forces.

See also:

12 Jun 00 | Middle East
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