Despite new Soviet missiles, tanks, Syria is not ready to battle Israel
Despite an influx of Soviet arms, including surface-to-air missiles, Syria's armed forces are by no means ready to take on Israel. According to diplomats and military intelligence sources, the Soviets have made good Syria's considerable losses during last year's war in Lebanon. In some categories, the Syrians have received better equipment than they lost, these sources add, citing particularly the SAM-5 missiles and T-72 tanks.
Even so, these analysts say, the bottom line is that the Syrian Army on the whole lacks the education to put those weapons to effective use.
''They have taken a quantum jump in technology without a quantum jump in education,'' said one military analyst.
Syrian officials as well as Western diplomats and military intelligence sources scoff at the United States and Israel for making an issue out of the SAM-5 missiles set up by the Soviets in Syria in February.
''The SAM-5 is a 20-year-old missile system used for knocking down slow, high-flying planes,'' commented one senior Western diplomat. ''It is a mild threat to Israel's strike capability.''
Referring to the Israeli downing of 80 to 100 Syrian fighter jets during the 1982 Lebanon war for the loss of two of its own planes (Israel says none were lost), one senior Western military intelligence source remarked: ''The SAM-5 has been around since 1963. . . By now Israel knows how it works and probably has worked out countermeasures so it would not lose more planes [than it did in 1982 ].''
The Soviet Union has set up two SAM-5 positions. Diplomats here estimate that somewhere between 450 to 800 Soviets man each site. This is the first time the missiles have been deployed outside the Soviet Union.
They have a long range of at least 150 miles. The United States and Israel have complained that Syria now has the ability to hit planes over the Sixth Fleet (supporting the US Marines in Lebanon), as well as over the northern part of Israel. Military analysts say that the missiles are intended for use against AWACS or Hawkeye surveillance planes rather than attacking aircraft.
''What these [SAM-5] missiles do is put a whole new dimension on NATO and Sixth Fleet planning,'' commented one military man.
Most sources believe the Soviets control the firing button on the missiles and see that as a plus. ''If the Soviets control them, there is much less danger of them being misfired,'' the military intelligence source said, adding that the Israelis were less likely to attack them as well with the risk of high Soviet casualties.
One senior diplomat said the Syrians see the American outcry against the missiles as a ''trumped-up pro-Israeli stunt to justify whacking the Syrians.'' But several diplomats agreed the outcry was probably meant to be taken only as a warning to the Soviets that they were making a qualitative change in the world chessboard of superpower deployment.
The missiles aside, Syria has also received about 1,000 vehicles - such as trucks, ambulances, and vans - from the Soviets, as well as about 400 tanks, including the most sophisticated Soviet model, the T-72. The Syrian Air Force boasts about 100 new planes, mostly MIG-23s.
However, none of the military intelligence sources could say if the electronic equipment on the planes had been upgraded. Israel successfully jammed the electronics aboard Syrian fighter jets last summer each time they took off, leaving the pilots flying without orders or vital information supplied by ground forces.
In addition, to take advantage of those new planes, the military analysts said, the Syrians would need to improve pilot training. Such training takes an average of three years. Similarly, with 40,000 troops on alert in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley and just inside the Syrian border, Army training schedules have been seriously impaired.
''They can't even practice firing without moving their tanks forward in the Bekaa - something they are not likely to do and risk provoking the Israelis. They have to settle for firing their rifles against buildings,'' one analyst commented.
There are no signs that Syria has been able to right the wrongs of last summer's war, these analysts said. The Syrians' tactics don't suit their equipment. Their camouflage is poor. Their communications are easily jammed.
Moreover, most decisions must be taken by the Ministry of Defense. And the time wasted by not allowing senior officers on the spot to make decisions based on their perception of the battle proved disastrous in Lebanon, the analysts added.
Syria sees the Soviet arms as a start toward redressing the strategic balance in the region and as a morale booster for its troops after the Lebanon debacle. However, they are not enough to make Syria want to fight Israel again without at least a few more years' preparation, the sources concluded.