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.
Before the opening of any hostilities against Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad's regime, we would likely see the United Nations 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 Iraq, Turkey, and the Mediterranean Sea -- 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 such as the International Institute for Strategic Studies, or 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 these preconflict 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.
A Syrian T-72 tank in northwestern Syria, not far from the border with Turkey, back in May. Photo: Reuters
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, or RPGs, but they likely have not made a significant dent overall. Most Syrian tanks are 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 tanks.
The army has 71 attack helicopters. The air force has about 550 combat-capable aircraft, again the largest in the region, and 150 of these include the comparatively modern MiG-23, 25, and 29 jet fighters, all made in Russia.
The MiG-29 is the most advanced fighter jet in Syria's arsenal. The former Soviet Union originally developed the plane to counter U.S. fighters. Syria only has about 40 of the advanced planes, unlikely to be flown by pilots as well trained as American or allied pilots. Photo: Federation of American Scientists
In addition, there are about 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 dating back to the Cold War. The country also has 84 tactical ballistic missiles. The U.S. government and various nongovernmental organizations suspect the Assad regime has an active chemical-weapons program. It could potentially deploy those weapons using its long-range missiles, bomber jets, or helicopters.
The anti-Assad Free Syrian Army claimed to have some 70,000 members under its flag in March, 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 / guerrilla / nontraditional tactics.
Syria currently has only 33 of these Mi-24/25 Hind attack helicopters, assuming three of them are still in Russian hands. Photo: Wikipedia Commons
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 the 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 four amphibious-assault ships, which can each carry another 20 strike aircraft. Those ships would be operated under the 5th Fleet and 6th Fleets, which are respectively located in the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean Sea. 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, totaling 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 civilian population -- and that also has been angered by the Syrian downing of a Turkish jet on June 22. Thousands of Syrian refugees have fled into southern Turkey since the conflict began in March of last year. Ankara is also suspected of providing limited assistance to the Free Syrian Army.
Turkey has about 666,600 troops under arms (with 378,700 in reserves and another 152,200 in militias). Unlike Syria, which uses more or less outdated Soviet-era arms, Turkish equipment is generally modern and predominantly comes from the West. The Turkish military has 3,759 tanks, 436 combat aircraft, and 30 attack helicopters.
The USS Florida, an Ohio-class converted ballistic missile submarine, was used in strikes against Libya in March of last year. A conflict with Syria could see the submarine being used as a platform for cruise-missile launches again. It carries 154 Tomahawk missiles. Photo: Wikipedia Commons
If an actual invasion of Syrian territory ever occurred, the U.S. and its European allies themselves could probably contribute about 200,000 soldiers -- based on figures associated with the 2003 invasion of Iraq, since Saddam Hussein's army was a comparable size at the time -- including a landing force numbering between 10,000 and 20,000 U.S. and allied marines.
These statistics, 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 populations have the stomach and financial resources to launch another major Middle Eastern conflict so soon after the withdrawal from Iraq, especially when they are burdened by a souring mission in Afghanistan. If the last decade has proven anything, then it is that the endeavor of occupying the country, creating a new government, facing a lingering 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 longtime backer and political ally of Assad, would react in the face of foreign intervention could be indicative of whether the conflict is 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 Strait of Hormuz in support of its ally, blocking a critical oil-supply route for the West.
Iran could also call on the Lebanon-based political-military-terrorist organization Hezbollah, a Shiite Muslim ally of the Islamic regime in Tehran, to support Assad through activities in Syria's neighboring country. 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.