In 1919, the French formed the Troupes spéciales du Levant as part of the Army of the Levant in the French Mandate for Syria and the Lebanon. The former with 8,000 men later grew into both the Syrian and Lebanese armies. This force was used primarily as auxiliaries in support of French troops, and senior officer posts were held by Frenchmen, although Syrians were allowed to hold commissions below the rank of major.
As Syria gained independence in 1946, its leaders envisioned a division-sized army. On June 19, 1947, the Syrian Army took the survivors of Pan Am Flight 121 to the Presbyterian mission hospital at Deir ez-Zor. The 1st Brigade was ready by the time of the Syrian war against Israel on May 15, 1948. It consisted of two infantry battalions and one armored battalion. The 2nd Brigade was organized during the 1948 Arab–Israeli War and also included two infantry battalions and one armored battalion.
At the time of the 1948 Arab–Israeli War, the army was small, poorly armed, and poorly trained. "Paris had relied primarily on French regulars to keep the peace in Syria and had neglected indigenous forces. Consequently, training was lackadaisical, discipline lax, and staff work almost unheard of. ... there were about 12,000 men in the Syrian army. These troops were mostly grouped into three infantry brigades and an armored force of about battalion size" writes Pollack.
Between 1948 and 1967, a series of military coups destroyed the stability of the government and any remaining professionalism within the army. In March 1949, the chief of staff, General Husni al-Za'im, installed himself as president. Two more military dictators followed by December 1949. General Adib Shishakli then held power until deposed in the 1954 Syrian coup d'etat. Further coups followed, each attended by a purge of the officer corps to remove supporters of the losers from the force. 'Discipline in the army broke down across the board as units and their commanders pledged their allegiance to different groups and parties. Indeed, by the late 1950s, the situation had become so bad that Syrian officers regularly disobeyed the orders of superiors who belonged to different ethnic or political groups' writes Pollack. The 1963 Syrian coup d'état had as one of its key objectives the seizure of the Al-Kiswah military camp, home to the 70th Armored Brigade. There was another 1966 Syrian coup d'etat.
However, in 1967 the army did appear to have some strength. It had around 70,000 personnel, roughly 550 tanks and assault guns, 500 APCs, and nearly 300 artillery pieces. The army had sixteen brigades: twelve infantry, two armored (probably including the 70th Armored), and two mechanized. The Syrian government deployed twelve of the sixteen brigades to the Golan, including both armored brigades and one mechanized brigade. Three 'brigade groups', each comprising four brigades, were deployed: the 12th in the north, holding the sector from the B'nat Ya'acov bridge to the slopes of Mount Hermon, the 35th in the south from the B'nat Ya'acov bridge to the Yarmuk River border with Jordan, and the 42nd in reserve, earmarked for a theater-level counterattack role. During the Six-Day War Israeli assault of the Golan heights, the Syrian army failed to counterattack the Israelis as the Israelis breached the Syrian positions. While Syrian units fought hard whenever the Israelis entered their fields of fire, no attempts appear to have been made to exploit Israeli disorientation and confusion during the initial assault.
Judging from reports of 1967–1970, including the reporting of the 5th Infantry Division in 1970, the Army appears to have formed its first divisions during this period. The 1st and 3rd Armored Division, and 5th, 7th, and 9th Mechanized Infantry Divisions were all formed prior to 1973. Samuel M. Katz writes that after Hafez al-Assad gained power in November 1970, the army expanded to the five divisions listed above, plus ten independent brigades, an artillery rocket brigade (the 69th), and "a reinforced brigade variously termed the 70th Armored Brigade or the Assad Republican Guard. It is today known as the Armored Defense Force; as Assad's praetorian guard it is stationed in and around Damascus and subordinate to the Defense Companies under the command of Assad's brother Rifa'at."
On 18 September 1970, the Syrian government became involved in Black September in Jordan when it sent a reinforced armored brigade to aid the Palestine Liberation Organization. Syrian armored units crossed the border and overran Irbid with the help of local Palestinian forces. They encountered several Jordanian Army detachments, but rebuffed them without major difficulty. Two days later, the 5th Infantry Division, heavily reinforced, was also sent into Jordan. Two armored brigades were attached to the division, bringing its tank strength up to over 300 T-55s and its manpower to over 16,000. The division entered Jordan at ar-Ramtha, destroyed a company of Jordanian Centurion tanks there, and continued directly towards Amman. Pollack says it is likely that they intended to overthrow the Jordanian monarchy itself. Despite defeating the Jordanian Army at al-Ramtha on 21 September, after fierce air attacks on 22 September, the Syrians stopped the attack and began to retreat.
Syrian anti-tank teams deployed French-made MILAN
ATGMs during the war in Lebanon in 1982.
After 1970 further Syrian engagements included:
The Syrian armed forces have also been involved in suppressing dissident movements within Syria, for example the Islamist uprising in Syria in 1979–1982. In March 1980 the 3rd Armored Division and detachments from the Defense Companies arrived in Aleppo. The division was under the command of General Shafiq Fayadh,
Hafiz Assad's first cousin. The troops sealed "off whole quarters and carr[ied] out house-to-house searches, often preceded by tank fire." Hundreds of suspects were rounded up. Only two conventional Army brigades deployed to Hama in 1982, the 3rd Armored Division’s 47th Armored and 21st Mechanized Brigades. Three quarters of the officers and one third of the soldiers in the two brigades were Alawites. Most of the repression was carried out by the Defense Companies and the Special Forces. Meanwhile, the Special Forces were isolating and combing through Hama, killing and capturing suspected government opponents.
Syrian forces fought Israel during the 1982 Lebanon War.
In 1984, Major General Ali Haidar's Special Forces were instrumental in blocking an abortive attempt by Rifaat Assad and his Defense Companies to seize the capital. Fayadh's 3rd Armored Division moved into the capital to join Haidar's forces in the confrontation with the Defense Companies. The 3rd Armored Division, it seems, had historically been based at al-Qutayfah, near Damascus.
The 9th Armored Division served in the 1991 Persian Gulf War as the Arab Joint Forces Command North reserve and saw little action.
In 1994, Haidar expressed objections to the Syrian president's decision to bring Bashar home from his studies in Britain and groom him for the succession after the death of Basil, the eldest Assad son. Soon afterwards, on 3 September 1994, Jane's Defence Weekly reported that then-President Hafez Assad had dismissed at least 16 senior military commanders. Among them was Haidar, then commander of the Special Forces, and General Shafiq Fayadh, a cousin of the President who had commanded the "crack" 3rd Armored Division for nearly two decades. The 3rd Armored Division was "deployed around Damascus." JDW commented that "the Special Forces and the 3rd Armored Division, along with the 1st Armored Division are key elements in the security structure that protects Assad's government. Any command changes involving those formations have considerable political significance." Post-uprising reporting indicated the 1st Armored Division had historically been at al-Kiswah.
On 29 September 2004, Jane's Defence Weekly reported that Syria had begun to redeploy elements of one or more Syrian Army special forces regiments based in the coastal hills a few kilometres south of Beirut in Lebanon. A senior Lebanese Army officer told JDW that the 3,000 troops involved would return to Syria.
Cordesman wrote that in 2006 the Syrian Army had "organized two corps that reported to the Land Forces General Staff and the Commander of the Land Force."
In 2009 and 2010, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, the Syrian army comprised 220,000 regular personnel, and the entire armed forces (including the navy, air force and air defenses) had 325,000 regular troops. Additionally, it had about 290,000 reservists.
In 2013, Agence France Press wrote on 'Syria's diminished security forces.'
Syrian Civil War
At October 1, 2011, according to high-ranking defected Syrian Colonel Riad Assaad, 10,000 soldiers, including high-ranking officers, had deserted the Syrian Army.
Some of these defectors had formed the Free Syrian Army, engaging in combat with security forces and soldiers in what would turn into the Syrian Civil War.
At 16 November 2011, Rami Abdel Rahman, the head of the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, however estimated that less than 1,000 soldiers had deserted the Syrian Army; at the same moment, an FSA battalion commander claimed that the FSA embraced 25,000 army deserters. Also in November 2011, the Free Syrian Army or the website of France 24 estimated the Syrian Army at 200,000 troops. According to General Mustafa al-Sheikh, one of the most senior defectors, however, in January 2012 the Syrian forces were estimated at 280,000 including conscripts.
By March 15, 2012, many more soldiers, unhappy with crackdowns on pro-democracy protesters, switched sides and a Turkish official said that 60,000 soldiers had deserted the Syrian army, including 20,000 since February 20. It was added that most of the deserters were junior officers and soldiers. By 5 July 2012, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimated "tens of thousands" soldiers to have defected. By August 2012, 40 Brigadier generals from the Army had defected to the opposition army, out of a total of 1,200 generals.
On June 14, 2013, 73 Syrian Army officers and their families, some 202 people in total, sought refuge in Turkey. Amongst their number were seven generals and 20 colonels.
By August 2013, the strength of the Syrian army had, compared with 2010, roughly been cut in half, due to defections, desertions and casualties, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London: it now counted 110,000 troops.
Up until July 2012, the scale of defections from the Syrian Army, though hard to quantify, was too small to make an impact on the strength of that army, according to Aram Nerguizian from the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. Strategically important units of the Syrian armed forces are always controlled by Alawite officers; defecting soldiers – by July 2012 "tens of thousands" according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights – are mainly Sunni without access to vital command and control, Nerguizian said.
Analyst Joseph Holliday wrote in 2013 that "the Assad government has from the beginning of the conflict been unable to mobilize all of its forces without risking largescale defections. The single greatest liability that the Assad regime has faced in employing its forces has been the challenge of relying on units to carry out orders to brutalize the opposition." This has resulted in Bashar's following his father's precedent by attaching regular army units to more reliable forces (Special Forces, Republican Guard, or 4th Armored Division). When Hafez al-Assad directed the suppression of revolts in Hama in 1982, this technique was also used.
The Syrian Arab Army suffers from serious recruitment issues as the Syrian Civil War drags on, with military age men across sectarian lines no longer willing to join or serve their conscription terms. These issues are especially notable among the Druze population, who have clashed with regime security forces and broken Druze youths out of regime imprisonment to avoid them serving in the army. Increasingly, Assad's Alawite base of support refuse to send their sons to the military due to massive casualty rates among military age men in their community; a third of 250,000 Alawite men of fighting age have been killed in the Syrian Civil War, leading to major tensions between the sect and the Assad regime.
As of mid-2018, then-Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman said that the Syrian Arab Army had regained its pre-2011 strength levels, recovering from manpower shortages earlier in the Syrian Civil War.
Roles of 3rd, 11th, 17th and 18th Divisions
The 3rd Armored Division has deployed elements of three brigades from its bases around Qutayfah to Deraa, Zabadani, and Hama, while the 11th Armored Division has stayed close to its bases in Homs and Hama.
The European Council named Major General Wajih Mahmud as commander of the 18th Armored Division in the Official Journal of the European Union on 15 November 2011, sanctioning him for violence committed in Homs. Henry Boyd of the IISS noted that "in Homs, the 18th Armored Division was reinforced by Special Forces units and ... by elements of the 4th Division under Maher's de facto command."
Information from Holliday 2013 suggests that the reserve armored division is the 17th (rather than any other designation), which was responsible for eastern Syria. The division's 93rd Brigade left Idlib to secure Raqqa Governorate in early 2012. Following the reported capture of Raqqa on 3–6 March 2013, elements of the 17th Division remained under siege to the north of the city in October 2013.
Relationship with National Defense Force
The National Defense Force is under the control and supervision of the Syrian Army and acts in an infantry role, directly fighting against rebels on the ground and running counter-insurgency operations in co-ordination with the army which provides them logistical and artillery support.
Struggling with reliability issues and defections, officers of the SAA increasingly prefer the part-time volunteers of the NDF, who they regard as more motivated and loyal, over regular army conscripts to conduct infantry operations and act as support for advancing tanks.
An officer in Homs, who asked not to be identified, said the army was increasingly playing a logistical and directive role, while NDF fighters act as combatants on the ground.
In October 2015 the 4th Assault Army Corps (Arabic: 4 فيلق اقتحام) was established in the northeast. The NDF continues to play a significant role in military operations across Syria despite the formation of other elite units, many of which receive direct assistance from Russia.