(Updated February 2014)
Syria is one of Israel’s principal immediate military threats. Syria's primary military objective following Israel's independence in 1948 had been the destruction of the Jewish State, however the IDF has defeated the Syrian army in every major military engagement since. Today, rather than use direct confrontations, Syria funds and arms terrorist organizations (primarily Hamas and Hezbollah) as proxies to attack Israel. Meanwhile, the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad continues to develop ballistic missile systems and weapons of mass destruction.
Since 2008, Syria has spent more than $3 billion on weapons procurement and development, up from less than $100 million in 2002. Syria also reportedly received $1 billion from Iran in late 2007 to buy surface-to-surface missiles, rockets, anti-tank missiles and anti-aircraft systems. “Iran and Syria share the same viewpoint regarding regional issues and efforts will be made to strengthen our shared interests and bilateral relations," said Hassan Turkmani, Syrian Defense Minister, who was dispatched to Tehran after Iranian officials condemned the resumption of negotiations with Israel in 2008.
- Situation Today
- Weapons of Mass Destruction
- Syria & Iran
- The Terror Connection
The Situation Today
The situation today vis-a-vis Syria's threat to Israel is muddled as a result of the ongoing bloody civil war. The fighting throughout Syria has created new instability on Israel's northern border, eliminated any hope of any near term peace agreement relating to the Golan Heights and increased the prospect of an even more dangerous radical Islamist regime coming to power.
The prospects for Syrian-Israeli peace are undermined by the likelihood that Bashar Assad will be replaced by someone even more extreme and less interested in a compromise with Israel on the Golan
Heights, and by increased Israeli concerns that an agreement would not be long-lasting because of the possibility of another change in regime.
Israel is also concerned about being drawn into the Syrian civil war if fighting spills over the border. In November 2012, a number of mortars were fired into Israel, likely by accident, but they triggered an Israeli response that demonstrated to both the Syrian government and the rebels that cross-border attacks on Israeli territory would not be permitted. The response, artillery targeting the the source of the fire in Syria, marked the first time the IDF fired into Syrian territory since the end of 1973 Yom Kippur War. In February 2013, after a few months of relative calm, a Syrian army tank shell - believed to have been an errant shot during a battle between government forces and rebels - landed near the norther Israeli town of Alonei Habashan. It was defused without any Israeli injuries.
In August 2013, as intelligence agencies reported that Assad's forces were using chemical weapons against the rebels, the specter of conflict spilling over into Israel became much more pronounced. As U.S. President Barack Obama considered a strike on Syria, Assad's allies in Iran made sure Israel knew it would be targeted in any conflict. "No military attack will be waged against Syria," Director-General of the parliament for International Affairs Hossein Sheikholeslam said in late August. "Yet, if such an incident takes place, which is impossible, the Zionist regime will be the first victim of a military attack on Syria." Khalaf Muftah, a senior Baath Party official who used to serve as Syria’s assistant information minister, echoed Sheikholeslam's statement: "[Israel] is behind the [Western] aggression and [it] will therefore come under fire ... We have strategic weapons and we're capable of responding. Normally the strategic weapons are aimed at Israel."
As of August 2013, the approximate breakdown for Syria's conventional forces was as follows:
Infantry: 304,000 Active; 315,000 Reserve. Armor: 4,800 tanks; 5,060 APC's. Air Force: 490 planes; 225 combat helicopters. Navy: 35 warships; 0 submarines.
On a more positive note, Israel has allowed a number of refugees to cross the border, primarily for medical treatment, and has set up a hospital near the border to offer care to injured Syrian civilians. At least 700 Palestinians have been killed in the fighting in Syria and I srael offered to allow Palestinians living in Syria to go to the West Bank; however, Palestinian Authority Pressident Mahmoud Abbas rejected the offer.
The potential upside of the civil war for Israel is that Bashar Assad will be driven from power and the new leadership - likely led by Sunni Muslims - will end Syria's alliance with Iran and Hezbollah, weakening both. That potential outcome explains why Iranian and Hezbollah fighters have joined the fight to try to save Assad.
In October 2013, al-Arabiya news confirmed that Israel struck two targets within Syria to destroy air defense and surface-to-air missiles that President Bashar Assad may have been trying to transfer to Hezbollah. The strike on the Syrian air defense base in Latakia was confirmed by a source in the Obama Administration. According to the report, Israel also struck near Damascus and destroyed SA-8 surface-to-air missiles that were destined for Hezbollah. Israeli military correspondant Ron Ben-Yishai said that Syria is constantly trying to move its weapons over the Lebanese border to Hezbollah.
In February 2014, James Clapper Jr., the director of U.S. national intelligence, said that Assad's hold on power in Syria had “strengthened” over the past year and that he had benefited from a deal to abandon his chemical weapons arsenal. Clapper also said it was possible the violence could rage on indefinitely, leading to “sort of a perpetual stalemate where neither the regime nor the opposition can prevail.”
Weapons of Mass Destruction
Though it is party to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, Syria was engaged in a covert nuclear program for more than a decade. On September 6, 2007, Israel
bombed a site in northern Syria that was later revealed by the CIA as a plutonium reactor being built with the help of North Korea. The
possibility that the site was related to
a nuclear program was supported by the
U.S. intelligence community which released reports
that said the covert Pakistani supplier
group headed by A.Q. Khan “offered
nuclear technology and hardware to Syria.” In February 2009, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported that samples
taken from the site revealed traces of processed
Syria denied the site was
for a nuclear facility but IAEA investigators were
given very restricted access to the area and the Syrian government quickly destroyed any evidence that remained. Nevertheless,
a report was issued
on November 19, 2008, which said the IAEA
found a “significant
number” of uranium particles and concluded, “While
it cannot be excluded that the building in
question was intended for non-nuclear use,
the features of the building...are similar
to what may be found in connection with a
In February 2011, commercial satellite photos published by Washington's Institute for Science and International Security identified another suspect nuclear installation in Syria. The photos provided evidence that Damascus may have been pursing atomic weapons prior to the 2007 Israeli strike and increased pressure for demands for a new round of expansive inspections of suspect Syrian facilities. Another IAEA report issued in May 2011, which cited both physical and photograhic evidence, confirmed that the Syrian project destroyed in the the Israeli air raid was a nuclear reactor intended for making material for nuclear bombs.
was already known to conduct nuclear research
at three facilities located at Dayr, Al Hajar
and Dubaya. “In
2004, Syria continued to develop civilian
nuclear capabilities, including uranium extraction
technology and hot cell facilities, which
may also be potentially applicable to a weapons
program,” the report said. As a signatory
to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty,
Syria is required to submit to IAEA safeguards
and inspections. In January 2007, the United
the assets of three Syrian entities involved
in the development of nonconventional weapons. The entities - the Higher Institute of Applied Science and Technology (HIAST), the Electronics Institute and the National Standards and Calibration Laboratory (NSCL) - were sanctioned pursuant to Executive Order 13382, an authority aimed at freezing the assets of proliferators of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and their supporters.
“Syria is using official government organizations to develop nonconventional weapons and the missiles to deliver them,” said Stuart Levey, Treasury's Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence (TFI). “We will continue to take action to prevent such state-sponsored WMD proliferators from using the international financial system.”
According to Gregory Schulte,
former U.S. envoy to the IAEA, Syria may
be operating more nuclear sites. In November 2011, an AP report seemingly confirmed those suspicions that Syria's nuclear weapons program was not confined only to the plutonium reactor destroyed by Israel in 2007. Rather, it seems that a suspect building in the northeastern town of Hasaka (about 100 miles from the destroyed reactor) was once a centrifuge plant where Syria intended to manufacture nuclear weapons. Though the building today houses a textile factory, its layout and blueprints match almost exactly with a centrifuge plant built by the Gaddafi regime in Libya. A working centrifuge plant could have produced highly enriched uranium which would have given the Syrian's an entirely separate route to an atomic bomb other than the destoryed plutonium reactor.
Israel's attack raised
Heights where Syrian actions had already
provoked concern about the possibility
of conflict. In
March 2007, it was reported that Syria has
positioned along the border with Israel
thousands of medium and long-range rockets
capable of striking major towns across northern
Israel, including Haifa.
A division was added to the Syrian army’s
forward deployment on the Heights and the
production of Scud missiles has
been accelerated. Many
of the rockets are hidden in underground
chambers and in camouflaged silos.
Syria expanded its arsenal of weapons
of mass destruction during the last decade. The Syrians can now
manufacture several hundred tons of chemical
warfare agents per year at four separate
production facilities. In late 2005, Jane's
Defence Weekly reported that Iran is
providing technical assistance to help Syria
develop the means to produce VX and Sarin
nerve agents and mustard blister agent. According
to a February 2009 report by Jane's, Syria
was constructing a new chemical weapons
facility in Al-Safir, the home of an existing
chemical weapons production facility and
a missile base with long-range Scud D ballistic
The Syrian civil war has reduced the immediate threat of a Syrian attack on the Golan Heights, but also created new concerns about the security of Syria's weapons of mass destruction. Israel and Western nations are especially concerned that chemical weapons might fall into the hands of either rebel forces or, worse, be transferred across the border to Hezbollah. Israel reportedly attacked a convoy thought to be bringing Syrian weapons across the Lebanese border and the Israelis have made clear they will take measures to prevent efforts to smuggle weapons to Hezbollah.
Syria & Iran
Under a mutual defense pact
signed between Syria and Iran in
2005, Syria agreed to allow the deployment
of Iranian weapons on its territory. On June
15, 2006, Syria’s defense minister,
Hassan Turkmani, signed an agreement with
his Iranian counterpart for military cooperation
against what they called the “common
threats” presented by Israel and the
United States. “Our cooperation is
based on a strategic pact and unity against
common threats,” said Turkmani. “We
can have a common front against Israel’s
threats.” In December 2009, Syria and Iran signed an additional defense agreement aimed to face “common enemies and challenges.” In praising the agreement, Iranian Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi said, “it is natural for a country like Syria - which has an inhumane and menacing predator like Israel in its neighborhood - to be always prepared [against possible foreign aggression].”
said in June 2007 the Iranians were preparing
to transfer medium-range Shahab-3, Russian-made
Scud-C missiles and Scud-B missiles in preparation
for military action if it is attacked over
its nuclear program. Many of these missiles
can be fired from mobile launchers and are
capable of hitting targets throughout Israel. Syria has
already received, via Iran,
hundreds of extended-range North
Korean Scud-C missiles, and is reportedly
building its own ballistic missiles from
imported technology. North Korea has supplied
complete Scuds and production equipment to Syria.
In 2003, Syria was
said to have a new Scud-D missile, developed
with Korean assistance, which has a range
of 300 miles (sufficient to cover all of Israel).
The missile is also capable of carrying chemical
weapons. The May 2006 U.S. intelligence report
said Syria continues to seek help in building
solid-propellant rocket motors, and that
North Korea supplied equipment and assistance
to the missile program. Syria is building
its own liquid-fueled Scud missiles and is
developing a 500-mile-range Scud D and other
variants with help from North Korea and Iran,
the report said.
test-fired three Scud missiles on May 27,
2005, including one that broke up over
Turkey,” the New York Times reported. “These
were the first such Syrian missile tests
since 2001, and were part of a Syrian missile
development project using North Korean technology
and designed to deliver air-burst chemical
weapons. The missiles included one Scud B
with a range of 185 miles, and two Scud Ds
with a range of 435 miles.” Months later,
Western experts who examined the remains of
the missile that fell in Turkey concluded Syria
had introduced significant
changes in the advanced model of the Scud D
missile that gives it greater guidance capability
Over the objections of Israel
and the United States, Russia announced
plans in early 2005 to sell Syria advanced SA-18 anti-aircraft missiles. Russian
President Vladimir Putin told Prime Minister Ariel
Sharon that the weapons were not shoulder-missiles
favored by the terror organizations, but
rather they would be mounted on vehicles,
and therefore they would not endanger Israel.
Putin also said Syria's placement of the
missiles would be designed to avoid a change
in the balance of power in the area, but
would prevent Israeli war planes from being
able to fly over Syrian President Bashar
Assad's presidential palace in Damascus.
Israeli defense officials still expressed
concern that the mounted version could
be modified into a shoulder-held version
in a relatively simple process. From that
point, the officials said, the missiles
could easily reach insurgents in Iran or Hezbollah operatives
By the end of 2012, Syria maintains a larger standing army than Israel and
has nearly as many reserve troops, tanks, aircraft and naval warships as Israel. The Assad regime
fields armed forces totaling more than 420,000 men.
Syria's arsenal also includes approximately 10,000 tanks and armored personnel carriers, 35 warships and submarines and some 715 combat aircraft including helicopters.
Though the quality of Syrian
forces is regarded as inferior to that of
Israel, the deployment of these forces facing
the Golan indicated Assad was
keeping his military options open. The outbreak of the civil war in Syria, however, has forced Assad to direct all his military assets against his own people in an effort to cling to power.
In May 2013, while fighting raged across Syria between government forces and rebels, Iran reportedly tried using Syria as a route to ship advanced surface-to-surface missiles to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Israel interdicted the shipment and destroyed the missiles at the Damascus International Airport. President Obama said, "The Israelis, justifiably, have to guard against the transfer of advanced weaponry to terrorist organizations like Hizbullah."
The Terror Connection
in Damascus representatives of ten Palestinian terrorist
organizations including Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the Democratic
Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), and the Popular
Front for the Liberation of Palestine all of which are opposed to
advances in the peace process between Israel and the Palestinian
Authority. These groups have launched terrible attacks against innocent
Israeli citizens, which have resulted in hundreds of deaths. Syria also supports the Iranian-funded Hezbollah.
For more than 30 years, Lebanon was
essentially controlled by Syria.
With Syrian acquiescence, Lebanon became
the home to a number of the most radical
and violent Islamic organizations. Hezbollah (Party
of God), in particular, has been used by
the Syrians as a proxy to fight Israel.
On October 19, 2004, the UN
Security Council released a demand
that Syria should abide by a resolution calling
on Damascus to withdraw its 14,000 troops
from Lebanon, dismantle the Hezbollah organization
and respect Lebanon’s independence.
Buoyed by the UN intervention, the
opposition in Lebanon grew more vocal demanding
an end to Syrian hegemony. After former Lebanese
Prime Minister Rafik Hariri
was assassinated on
February 14, 2005, the pressure on Syria
intensified and its troops were finally withdrawn
Nevertheless, Syria continues
to exercise great influence in Lebanon.
Syria and its allies are believed responsible
for a series of assassinations to undermine
Lebanese democracy that have eliminated anti-Syrian
members of the Lebanese parliament, the most
recent attack coming in September 2007. Syria
supplied Hezbollah with
weapons used in the war fought
with Israel in July 2006 and has been resupplying
the organization in defiance of the UN since
the war ended. Those rockets used in 2006 had ranges of 20 to 60 miles. In April 2010, the U.S. and Israel accused Syria of delivering shipments of long-range Scud missiles to Hezbollah in Lebanon. The Scuds have a range of more than 435 miles - placing Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Israel's nuclear installations at risk.
Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC);
The Algemeiner (August 26, 2013);
AP, (June 19, 2007);
Telegraph, (June 25, 2007);
(June 15, 2006);
16, 2005; October
26, 2005; December
5, 2005; March
Post (April 20, 2005; May
21, 2008; February
17, 2009; February 19, 2009; September
10, 2009; December 12, 2009);
(May 28, 2007);
JTA, (May 25, 2011);
(November 20, 2008);
York Times (June 3, 2005; May 4, 2013; February 4, 2014);
Times of Israel (February 27, 2013; November 12, 2012; August 27, 2013);
Wall Street Journal (April 14, 2010; February 24, 2011);
Post, (September 21, 2007; May 29, 2008);
Times(May 13, 2006);
The White House
News, (October 25, 2005; May
Jewish Connection, Washington Institute (November 1, 2011), Council on Foreign Relations (November 1, 2011)