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Syria Vs. NATO: A Breakdown Of Forces.

With heated talk of foreign military intervention in Syria rising, it makes sense to take time for a calm comparison of the forces arrayed against one another in the Middle East. After all, the process of determining the future of the country is drawing interest from numerous, heavily armed powers, both within the region and without.

Prior to the opening of any hostilities against the President Bashar Assad's regime, we would likely see the UN withdraw its 300 observers from the country, Russia's possible removal of its marines and three ships from the port of Tartus, and large-scale force movements in Turkey, the Mediterranean and Iraq -- none of which has occurred so far.

In fact, Syria itself has one of the most powerful militaries in the region. According to leading international defense research groups like the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), the Syrian military officially had some 325,000 active soldiers before the internal conflict escalated -- two-thirds of which were in the army. Although increasing defections have sapped those pre-conflict figures, reserves and paramilitary groups have most likely increased the overall number of available armed personnel. There were more than 310,000 listed in the reserves in 2010, and the government can also draw on more than 100,000 members of paramilitary or militia groups.

Syria had 4,950 tanks before the conflict, according to IISS, more than any other country in the region. Rebels may have already knocked out small numbers of them with their rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), but likely have not made any significant dent overall. Most Syrian tanks are older Cold War models from the 1950s and 1960s. Nevertheless, the country does have more than 1,500 of the iconic Russian T-72 main battle tank. The army has 71 attack helicopters. The air force has about 550 combat-capable aircraft, again the largest in the region. 150 of these include the more modern Mig-23, 25, and 29 jet fighters, all made in Russia.

In addition, there are around 790 batteries of surface-to-air missiles and more than 8,000 shoulder-launched anti-air missiles. Small numbers of these include the Russian S-300 series, one of the most advanced anti-aircraft systems in the world today. However, most of Syria's anti-air defenses are older versions from the Cold War. The country also has 84 tactical ballistic missiles. The Assad regime is suspected of having an active chemical weapons program by the U.S. government and various non-government groups. It could potentially deploy those weapons using its long-range missiles, bomber jets, or helicopters.

The anti-Assad Syrian Free Army claimed to have some 70,000 under its flag in March 2012, although counting independent anti-government militias in the country would likely add additional forces. Nevertheless, they are heavily outgunned and outnumbered by regime loyalists, and only have small arms and RPGs to rely on -- hence their predominant use of insurgent/guerilla/non-traditional tactics.

The forces in Syria seem like an impressive assortment, but NATO has the ability to defeat them soundly and in short order. There are six major U.S. aircraft carriers located between the Atlantic Ocean and Persian Gulf. Each can carry about 90 advanced strike aircraft, flown by pilots immensely better-trained than their Syrian counterparts. U.S. forces in the area can also draw on 4 amphibious assault ships, which can each carry another 20 strike aircraft. Those ships would be operated under the 6th Fleet and 5th Fleets, which are respectively located in the Mediterranean Sea and Persian Gulf. Each armada has a powerful complement of cruise-missile carrying destroyers, cruisers, and submarines.

U.S. strategic bombers -- B-52s, B-1s, and B-2 stealth bombers, of which there are a total of more than 100 -- can be relocated from around the world to target facilities and structures in Syria.

In addition, NATO allies France and Italy can contribute another 72 combat aircraft from their own carriers.

Syria borders on Turkey, a NATO member that has grown increasingly opposed to the Assad regime's use of violence against its own civilians, and has been angered by the downing of a Turkish jet on June 22. Thousands of Syrian refugees have fled into Southern Turkey since the conflict began in March 2011. Ankara is also suspected of providing limited assistance to the Free Syrian Army.

Turkey has about 666,600 men under arms (with 378,700 in the reserves and another 152,200 in militias). Unlike Syria, which uses more outdated Soviet-era arms, Turkish equipment is generally modern and predominantly comes from the West. The Turkish military has 3759 tanks, 436 combat aircraft, and 30 attack helicopters.

If an actual invasion of Syrian territory ever occurred, the U.S. and Western European allies themselves could probably contribute approximately 200,000 soldiers (based on Iraq 2003 invasion numbers since Saddam Hussein's army was a comparable size at the time), including a 10-20,000 strong landing force of U.S. and allied marines.

These numbers, and a vast difference in technical and logistical capabilities, make it obvious that NATO forces would quickly overwhelm regular Syrian forces .

The problem is whether leading NATO governments and their publics have the stomach and financial resources to launch another major Middle Eastern conflict so soon after withdrawal from Iraq, especially when they are burdened by a souring mission in Afghanistan. If the last decade has proven anything, it is that the endeavor of occupying the country, creating a new government, facing a remaining pro-Assad insurgency, and then carrying out the arduous task of nation-building should not be entered lightly.

Modern weaponry can secure military victories, but not political or social ones.

How Iran, a long-time backer and political ally of Assad, would react in the face of foreign intervention could be indicative of whether the conflict becomes confined largely within Syria, or might expand beyond it. Although few analysts think Iran would become a direct party involved in a Syria-NATO conflict, it could still funnel arms to Assad forces, send in special operations troops (which it may have already done in limited numbers), and help train resistance fighters. Tehran could also threaten to close the Straits of Hormuz in support of its ally, blocking a critical supply of oil for the West. Iran may also call on the Lebanon-based political-military-terrorist organization Hezbollah, a Shiite Muslim close ally of the Islamic regime in Tehran, to support Assad through activities in Syria's neighbor Lebanon. The involvement of Lebanon and Hezbollah could in turn draw in Israel, which shares a heavily defended border area with Syria along the Golan Heights. A particularly destructive conflict could see Syrian refugees flood into Jordan or Iraq: neither is politically stable or capable of supporting large influxes of foreign refugees.

The potential for a larger war in Syria to draw in neighbors and other belligerent parties, then, would make Western powers think twice about any intervention, even if the the balance of forces heavily favors the U.S. and NATO.
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Publication:International Business Times - US ed.
Geographic Code:7SYRI
Date:Jun 30, 2012
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