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Syrian-Israeli Hostility

Support for Greater Syria, opposition to Jewish settlement in Palestine, and the 1917 Balfour Declaration in which Britain promised Jews a "national home" in Palestine (as part of the World War I promises to the Arabs and Jews), contributed to the growth of pan-Arabism as well as to the opposition to recognizing Israel as a legitimate Middle Eastern nation (see World War II and Independence , ch. 1). The November 1947 United Nations (UN) declaration calling for partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab states provoked a general strike in Damascus and major rioting throughout Syria. In addition, armed bands of irregulars from Syria's fledgling armed forces began to raid Jewish settlements near the Syrian border.

In February 1948, Syria signed the League of Arab States' (Arab League) political and military alliance, under which King Abdullah of Transjordan was appointed commander in chief of the invading armies. On May 16, 1948, one day after the declaration of Israeli independence, Syrian armed forces, as part of the Arab forces, attacked Israel near Lake Tiberias (Sea of Galilee) from the Golan Heights. Syria's leaders, as well as the leaders of other Arab League states that simultaneously invaded Israel, expected a swift Arab victory. The Syrian forces numbered 8,000 troops, in two infantry brigades with a mechanized battalion of French-built tanks, and a small air force. Although General Taha al Hashimi of Iraq was the figurehead leader of the Arab Liberation Army, its real leader was a former Syrian officer of the Ottoman Turkish Army, Fawzi al Kaukji (who had been a leader of the Arab irregulars during the 1936 revolt in Palestine and had led the Arab guerrilla forces based around Nablus). Arab forces were equipped with modern weapons (such as tanks, armored cars, artillery, and aircraft support) and trained by European instructors attached to Transjordan's Arab Legion, but they lacked an effective central command. The Israeli forces, on the other hand, became a coordinated fighting force under their outstanding and committed leadership.

By October 31, following its defeat, Syria's war along Israel's northern borders had ended, although the war continued along Israel's southern front. The Arab forces were stunned by the effective Israeli resistance and the incompetence of the Arab armies, both factors having become apparent after only ten days' fighting. By June 11, when the United Nations imposed a truce, the Syrians had been pushed back across their frontier in all but two small border areas. Sporadic fighting continued, however, until the Syrian-Israeli armistice agreement, signed on July 20, 1949.

Although Syria lost no territory in its first confrontation with Israel, the war had a profound effect on the newly independent nation. Revelations of corruption and profiteering and the incompetence of Syria's civilian political leaders were seized upon by military officers as an excuse for Syria's debacle in the war. In addition, the presence in Syria of around 100,000 Palestinian Arabs who had fled Israel during and after the war compounded the country's economic and social problems and initiated what would remain, four decades later, one of the central exacerbating issues in the Middle East and the Arab- Israeli conflict.

Political and economic discontent led to widespread rioting. On March 30, 1949, Colonel Husni az Zaim, commander in chief of the army, led the first of many Syrian coups d'état to restore political order and the supremacy of the armed forces. Such coups would punctuate Syrian politics for over two decades (see Coups and Countercoups, 1961-70 , ch. 1).

The 1949 Syrian-Israeli armistice agreement contained numerous clauses that were interpreted differently by Israel and Syria, leading to ambiguities over such issues as administrative rights within the demilitarized zone that had been created from areas evacuated by the Syrian army in 1949, fishing rights in Lake Tiberias, and access to the waters of the Jordan River. These and other issues were constant sources of tension between the two countries, leading to localized exchanges of artillery and rocket fire, which escalated on December 11, 1955, into an Israeli raid on Syrian forces in which fifty Syrian troops were killed. Syria did not fight in the 1956 Sinai campaign, although it was a member of the Unified Military Command established in October 1956 among Egypt, Syria, and Jordan. Israel's victory in that war intensified Syria's determination to confront Israel militarily, and was a factor in establishing the Syrian-Egyptian union of 1958-61. The stationing of the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) in Gaza and Sharm ash Shaykh following Israel's withdrawal in 1957 meant that the Syrian-Israeli front now became the most important source of confrontation between the Arab states and Israel, leading to armed skirmishes, such as the Tawafiq raid by Israel of February 1, 1960.

On May 17,1967, Egyptian President Nasser forced the United Nations Emergency Force to withdraw from the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip, where it had been engaged in peacekeeping functions since the 1956 Sinai War. Then, on May 22, Egypt announced a blockade against Israeli shipping in the Strait of Tiran (at the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula). Contingents arrived in Syria from other Arab countries, including Kuwait and Algeria, and Israel was soon surrounded by an Arab force of 250,000 troops, over 2,000 tanks and some 700 fighter and bomber aircraft. Strategically, Israel faced a military offensive on its border with Egypt, Jordan, and Syria.

Against this background of mobilization, Israeli leaders began planning a preemptive strike against the Arabs. The attack came on the morning of June 5 as the Israeli Air Force bombed military airfields and engaged in aerial battles with Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. In the fight, Syria lost thirty-two MiG-21, twenty-three MiG-15 and MiG-17 fighters, and two Ilyushin II-28 bombers--two-thirds of its total air inventory. To Egyptian dismay, no major move of Syrian ground forces occurred, although Syrian cooperation had been a major consideration in Egypt's mobilization and deployment in the Sinai. Although it issued belligerent communiques, the Syrian leadership's behavior was very restrained. At the beginning of the war, the Syrian Air Force mounted an attack against Israeli oil refineries in Haifa, but the Israeli Air Force retaliated and destroyed the bulk of what remained of Syria's aircraft. Syrian artillery kept up a steady bombardment of the Israeli forces in eastern Galilee, while the rest of the Israeli forces were deployed along the Egyptian and Jordanian fronts. Despite Jordanian pleas for reinforcements, no Syrian troops had been deployed in Jordan by the end of the war.

After defeating the Egyptian and Jordanian armies, Israel turned to the Syrian front to end Syrian harassment of Israeli border settlements from the Golan Heights. The Israeli Northern Command attack came on June 9 in an armored and infantry assault following Israeli Air Force strikes that systematically reduced Syrian forward positions. On June 10, the Syrian forces collapsed, and, despite their previous geographic and tactical advantages, fled, abandoning tanks. After about thirty hours of fighting, the Israeli armed forces occupied about 1,150 square kilometers of Syrian territory on the Golan Heights. An estimated 2,500 Syrian troops were killed, and around 100,000 civilians uprooted from their homes in the Golan during and after the hostilities.

The Syrian armed forces' poor showing in 1967 has been attributed to negligence, lack of overall coordination, and poor high-level command. Observers considered the failure the result of Syria's twenty-year military tradition of politicization at the expense of professionalization.

The 1967 defeat also led to increased support for irregular Palestinian guerrilla forces that, in 1964, had been formally united under the banner of the PLO. Syria was the major Arab supporter of the PLO immediately after the June 1967 War, although this relationship was often marked by violent conflict and upheaval. Syria formed As Saiqa (Thunderbolt), theoretically a guerrilla unit under the aegis of the PLO, but aligned politically with the Syrian Baath Party and manned largely by Palestinian volunteers from the Syrian Army (see Special and Irregular Armed Forces , this ch.).

Between 1968 and 1970, the PLO operated against Israel from Jordanian territory, on occasion supported by Jordanian units. Israel conducted some major reprisals, notably the Karameh Operation of March 21, 1968. The PLO created a virtual "state within a state" in Jordan, even organizing an assassination attempt against King Hussein, whose regime felt increasingly threatened by the PLO's activity. In response, Hussein launched an all-out attack on PLO forces in August and September 1970. The latter, "Black September," was a bloody eleven-day civil war between Jordanian troops and PLO commandos backed by Syrian armored units which invaded Jordan. As the Syrian invasion developed and the Jordanian army strove to resist it, Syria and the Soviet Union received unequivocal indications that neither the United States nor Israel would view with equanimity a Syrian invasion of Jordan. Israeli mobilization and American troop, fleet, and air activities led the Soviets to advise the Syrians to pull back. The Syrian invasion of Jordan also caused political strife within Syria. Two months later, Minister of Defense General Hafiz al Assad, who had strongly opposed Syrian involvement in Jordan, assumed the presidency of Syria in a bloodless coup d'état.

Clashes between PLO units and the Jordanian Army continued throughout 1971, but most of the surviving PLO fighters left Jordan for Syria. Syria's new leadership supported the goal of "the restoration of the national and legal rights of Palestinian Arabs," but was ambivalent about the presence of the potentially subversive Palestinians and placed severe restrictions on their activities. As a result, the majority moved to Lebanon.

Another major foreign policy goal was the recovery of Syrian territory on the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel in 1967 and annexed in 1981 (see Foreign Policy , ch. 4). The October 1973 War (known in the Arab world as the Ramadan War and in Israel as the Yom Kippur War) was principally a result of Syria's pursuit of this second goal, which coincided with Egypt's desire to recover the Suez Canal, the Sinai Peninsula, and the Gaza Strip, also taken by Israel in 1967. Other intricacies of Arab politics, including President Assad's desire to end Syria's traditional isolation in the Arab world (and ultimately to attain regional hegemony), also played a part. The International Institute for Strategic Studies, noting the wave of riots by workers and students in Egypt in 1972 and 1973 and Sunni Muslim protests in Syria in early 1973, argued that "The very [political] weakness of Sadat and Assad were important factors in the decision to launch war on Israel."

By 1973 Syria's post-1967 effort to increase the professionalism of its armed forces, largely through the aid of the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia, had borne fruit. Syrian military leaders felt self-confident and believed that their superpower ally would lend considerable weight in the event of renewed war with Israel. From mid-1973 until the beginning of hostilities, Arab leaders met frequently to plan the coordinated offensive, and Syrian and Egyptian army units began massing along their respective borders during the last days of September. However, Israeli intelligence, military and political officials misinterpreted these deployments. When the Syrian-Egyptian offensive was launched on October 6, at 2 p.m. on Yom Kippur, Judaism's holiest day, 5 Syrian divisions, consisting of some 45,000 men, moved against only 2 Israeli armored brigades of about 4,500 men stationed on the Golan Heights.

The timing, no doubt deliberate on Syria's part, in fact had a different effect than intended. Because most Israelis were either at their synagogues or at home, the roads were clear, and troops could be rushed to the border. Nevertheless, for some twenty-three hours, Syrian forces held the offensive, almost reaching the encampment overlooking the Jordan River Valley at the southern edge of the Golan Heights region, but making little headway beyond the 1967 cease-fire line in the north. About 1,800 Moroccan troops held the peak of strategic Mount Hermon near the common Syrian, Israeli, and Lebanese border. In the central region, Syria recaptured Al Qunaytirah. But reinforced Israeli troops launched successful counterattacks on October 8 and 9 and had pushed Syrian troops back behind the 1967 lines by October 10. Two Iraqi mechanized divisions, a Jordanian armored brigade, and a Saudi Arabian detachment had joined the Syrian offensive line east of Sasa, less than forty kilometers from Damascus, by October 14. To its credit, this Arab defense line held for three days of fierce fighting.

During the war Syria deployed vast numbers of Soviet-made surface-to-surface missiles. Between October 7 and 9, several of these hit populated areas in northern Israel. As the Israeli ground forces advanced into Syria, the Israeli Air Force destroyed part of the Syrian missile system, vital oil installations, power plants, bridges, and port facilities at Tartus, Baniyas, and Latakia.

Syria finally accepted the United Nations cease-fire on October 24, but sporadic fighting continued on the Golan until the disengagement agreement of March 31, 1974. In all, the war was extremely costly to Syria. An estimated 7,000 troops were killed and 21,000 wounded, and 600 tanks, 165 fighter aircraft, and 7 naval vessels were destroyed or lost. An additional 845 square kilometers of territory was lost, and much vital economic infrastructure was destroyed.

Syria, however, counted several victories. First, Syria's six years of struggle to professionalize the armed forces paid off when Syrian forces revealed great improvement in battle. In addition, Soviet airlifts and sealifts of military equipment during the hostilities demonstrated the importance of Syria's military relationship with the Soviet Union (see Foreign Influence , this ch.). Also, for the first time in the twenty- five-year-old Arab-Israeli conflict, there had been effective coordination of Arab armies. Finally, under the terms of the disengagement agreement, Israel withdrew from all freshly captured territory and also from a narrow strip of territory, held since 1967 and including Al Qunaytirah, which was incorporated into a demilitarized zone policed by the 1,200-man United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF).

Syria's next engagement with Israel was an outgrowth of its aspirations toward regional hegemony, especially with regard to Lebanon. On June 6, 1982, Israel launched Operation "Peace for Galilee," a campaign intended to establish a security zone north of the Lebanese border, a distance of some forty kilometers that would be free of hostile Palestinian and Shia elements. However, this official intention was soon transformed into an overarching strategic plan for a three-pronged attack: one along the coastal plain to destroy the PLO military infrastructure; a central advance to reach the Damascus-Beirut road and establish a presence there; and, a third to turn eastward along the Damascus- Beirut road and cause the Syrian forces in the Biqa Valley to withdraw toward the Syrian border, thereby removing the Syrian military presence in Lebanon.

The Israeli invasion of Lebanon was prompted by a number of elements. First, the Lebanese Christian Phalangists had appealed to Israel for help following the escalation in fighting between the Syrian Army and Phalangist units, placing the mostly Greek Orthodox enclave in Zahlah in the Biqa Valley and the Phalangist- controlled port of Juniyah, north of Beirut, in danger of being overrun by the Syrian Army. Then, both Israel and Syria violated tacit agreements concerning Lebanese air space. Syria placed surface-to-air missile (SAM) batteries in the Biqa Valley, thus hampering regular Israeli reconnaissance flights over Lebanese territory, flights to which Syria previously had acquiesced. In addition, Israeli and PLO clashes intensified with PLO long-range shelling of Israeli border towns and heavy Israeli retaliation against PLO concentrations in Lebanon. Finally, on June 3, members of the Abu Nidal group, a Palestinian terrorist organization, attempted to assassinate Israeli Ambassador to Britain Shlomo Argov.

One of the most significant military events of the conflict was the Israeli aerial attack against the Syrian surface-to-air missiles, resulting in the destruction of nineteen sites and the damaging of four. Israeli aerial mastery was confirmed in the skies over the Biqa Valley. At the conclusion of the first week of the war, after the participation of approximately 100 combat planes on each side, a total of 86 Syrian MiG-21, MiG-23, and Sukhoi-22 aircraft had been shot down with no Israeli losses. At the end of the battle, Israel had lost two helicopters and an A-4 Skyhawk, which was shot down by PLO missile fire.

There were also armor battles with the Syrians in the central and eastern sectors, around Jazzin and Ayn Darah, the latter of which commands the Damascus-Beirut highway, and stretching into the Biqa Valley. The Syrian armored divisions, with a strength of about 700 tanks, were equipped with the Soviet-made T-72 tanks, the most modern in the Syrian arsenal. Fighting effectively to prevent the Israeli forces from reaching the Damascus-Beirut highway, the Syrians also used heavy concentrations of antitank weapons manned by special commando units. In other battles, Israeli forces advanced into the vicinity of Beirut, moving beyond the original terms of reference laid down by the Israeli cabinet. Under the direction of Ariel Sharon, the controversial minister of defense, Israeli forces moved into West Beirut, attacking from land and sea, and laid siege to the Palestinian fighters.

By mid-July 1982, through the mediation of United States Ambassador Philip Habib, negotiations involving Syria, Israel, Lebanon, and the PLO led to the evacuation of some 8,000 PLO fighters and remnants of the Syrian 85th Brigade, under the supervision of a Multinational Force composed of United States Marines, French, and Italian troops. PLO personnel were evacuated by sea to eight Arab countries; the Syrian forces were evacuated by land along the Beirut-Damascus highway to the Biqa Valley in eastern Lebanon.

Following the assassination of Lebanese President-elect Bashir Jumayyil (also Gemayel) on September 14, 1982, Israeli forces once again entered West Beirut, with the declared intention of preventing an outbreak of sectarian strife. However, it was under Israeli coordination that on September 15, the Lebanese Phalangist forces entered the two Palestinian refugee camps in Sabra and Shatila in West Beirut and massacred Palestinian civilians. The Israeli forces withdrew from Beirut on September 3, 1983, and redeployed along a new line along the Awali River. This redeployment followed the breakdown of the May 17, 1983, Lebanon-Israel Agreement and the handing over of Beirut to the Lebanese forces and troops of the 3,000 strong Multinational Force. Lebanon's abrogation of the agreement under Syrian pressure was considered a major victory for Assad in his quest for regional hegemony.

Israel initially refused to withdraw its troops from southern Lebanon unless arrangements were also made for the withdrawal of Syrian and PLO forces. However, the high human and material cost of deployment in Lebanon, as well as adverse international and domestic public opinion, were major factors in Israel's decision to withdraw most of its forces from southern Lebanon in June 1985, although the Christian forces of Antoine Lahad's pro- Israeli South Lebanon Army (SLA) remained.

By May 1983, Syrian materiel losses amounted to 350 to 400 tanks, 86 combat aircraft, 5 helicopters and 19 surface-to-air missile batteries; human casualties totaled around 370 killed, 1,000 wounded, and 250 prisoners of war. Israeli losses, meanwhile, amounted to about 50 tanks; Israel's casualties in the overall war in Lebanon reached about 480 killed, 2,600 wounded, and 11 prisoners.

The 1982 Lebanon War represented a number of milestones in military warfare. For example, the new Soviet T-72 tank was battle tested against US-equipped advanced Israeli armor. Also, Israel used new forms of battlefield intelligence (including electronic countermeasures), made effective use of reconnaissance drones, and demonstrated air superiority. The air battles over the Biqa Valley--one of the major aerial battles in modern history--involved a confrontation between two highly sophisticated electronic command, control, and communications systems, not just between aircraft and missiles. On the ground the Syrian Army fought well, and there was effective coordination between armor units and antitank commando units. Observers felt that the weakness of the Syrian Army was an inflexibility in maneuver at the major formation level.

The next clash between Syria and Israel, which occurred in November 1985, was caused by Syrian opposition to Israel's air surveillance in Lebanon. When Syrian fighter aircraft scrambled to prevent Israeli aircraft flying over eastern Lebanon, two Syrian MiG-23s were shot down in Syrian airspace. Syria responded by deploying mobile SA-6 and SA-8 SAMs into eastern Lebanon and by setting up SA-2 sites along its border with Lebanon. Thereafter, the potential for rapid escalation in Syrian-Israeli hostilities became a source of concern on both sides. Following the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon, Syrian influence and control expanded to eastern Lebanon and the Biqa Valley, where Syria maintained about two divisions; about six divisions were redeployed in the Damascus-Golan Heights region.

In 1987, Israel continued to be Syria's overriding security concern. Syrian leaders reiterated their denunciation of late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's 1977-81 peace initiative as "capitulationist" and continued to demand that all territory occupied by Israel in 1967 be returned. They also considered the fulfillment of the national rights of the Palestinians as a primary objective of any peace talks with Israel. These demands encompassed both military and political considerations. Militarily, Israel's annexation and settlement of the Golan Heights gave it a strategic military position less than 100 kilometers from Damascus (see fig. 14, Disengagement Lines and Israeli Settlements on the Golan Heights). Politically, Assad and his colleagues wanted the Arab world to support Syria as the leader of the Arab "confrontationist" or "rejectionist" states. They felt their position was justified in light of Egypt's decision to seek a diplomatic solution to the conflict with Israel and Syria's defense of its position in Lebanon against the 1982 Israeli invasion.

Although a major buildup of the Syrian Army following the 1982 Lebanon War resulted in increased confidence in Syria's military capability, outside observers concluded that Syria would lose any future military confrontation with Israel. Israeli armed forces were considered far more skilled and innovative, in terms of manpower and materiel, than those of Syria. Even were there an alliance with other Arab states, such as Jordan, Libya, and Iraq, few analysts doubted in early 1987 that Israel would prove militarily victorious. Nevertheless, Syria's military inferiority has not precluded (as illustrated by its 1973 offensive) intervention in Lebanon, support for terrorist activities, or pursuit of a military option against Israel. Despite its losses on the battlefield, Syria won some political and territorial gains in the October 1973 War, the mid-1970s disengagement agreements, and the 1982 Lebanese War. Syria's continued efforts to massively reinforce its military capabilities with Soviet aid were designed to bolster the military option to retake the Golan Heights without the aid of Egypt, Syria's traditional Arab ally.

Data as of April 1987


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