In the past two years, Israel has extended its military edge over Syria in many fields. The danger of an incursion by Syrian armored divisions, a very real menace for the 30 years from 1973-2003, has been sharply reduced. This has been achieved by the Hill Line deployment on the Golan – which bristles now with highly sophisticated anti-tank weapons – and the vast improvement since the Second Lebanon War of 2006 of Israel's aerial and ground resources for knocking out armored combat vehicles including tanks.
Much enhanced too are Israel's air and naval superiority, whereas the Syrian Air Force's technical and operational fitness has declined.
To make up for these shortcomings, the Assad regime is investing heavily in updating its air defenses – always a strong point of the Syrian military alignment, even though it never kept pace with the Israeli Air force's improved responses. Damascus has taken up the Russian offer to speed up deliveries of the latest versions of its anti-aircraft Pantsir-S1 systems, which were only assigned to the Russian army as recently as May of this year.
Each of the vehicles which carry a 90-kg (198 pound) Pantsir-S1 has radar with a 30-kilometer range, two 30mm cannons and 12 Tunguska missiles. The Russian-made missiles have a twenty kilometer flat range and up to 8,400 meters (26,000 feet) against flying targets.
Sharing with Hizballah expands Syrian might and reach
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources note that Syria deployed these very missiles in late 2007 when Israeli warplanes bombed its plutonium reactor near the northern town of Dar az-Zwar, after commandos seized the North Korean nuclear materials it contained.
Believing their clandestine nuclear facility was well protected, the Syrians were stunned to discover that their Pantsir-S1 radar instruments had missed tracking the incoming Israeli jets. They were forced to conclude that Israel's electronic warfare systems are capable of disabling Syria's air defenses and have since set about clipping Israel's edge in three areas:
Six commando divisions (the seventh division is still being put together) have been established and trained for "close combat." They are made up of mobile infantry units transported by helicopter, rather than armored combat vehicles, and armed with the most up-to-the-minute weaponry and gear, including huge quantities of sophisticated anti-tank missiles and night-vision devices.
The Lebanese Hizballah, using only some of these resources (supplied by the Syrian army), were able to hold Israeli tanks back from breaching the central sector of southern Lebanon and the Beqaa Valley during the 2006 war.
Syria has gone all out for surface-to-surface missiles. It has acquired in addition to ballistic missiles which can hit any point in Israel from almost anywhere in Syria, a large collection of missiles and rockets with shorter ranges – from dozens of kilometers up to approximately 200.
Tens of thousands of these weapons have been transferred to Hizballah in Lebanon, so incorporating the Shiite militia's armory into the Syrian missile array.
(See DEBKA-Net-Weekly 447 of May 28: An Unheard-of Number of 800 Scud Missiles Ready to Fire).
Damascus has built up a formidable arsenal of deadly chemical weapons which can be launched by missiles, chemical artillery shells or air force planes.
In a war, Israeli tanks have five days to reach Damascus
By these measures, Syria has substantially ratcheted up its military might.
In the last three years, furthermore, Syria has added Hizballah's military resources to its own. This process of integration was boosted still further five months ago by the military pact signed in Damascus by President Bashar Assad, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah.
Israel rearranged its Golan forces opposite Syria and units facing Hizballah across the Lebanese border in accordance with the new reality, taking into account that an outbreak of hostilities with Syria would automatically bring its ally Hizballah – and possibly Iran too – into the conflict.
The priorities set by the Israel Defense Forces commanders in any conflict are, first, to defeat Syria before going for Hizballah. From this point of view, Israel's line of defense on the Golan is a perfect fit because it can be manned by a small number of troops, requires little air cover and can easily be switched over to offensive battle array. The improved Hill Line would leave the Israeli Air Force free to attain command of the skies and bombard Syrian and Hizballah missiles.
Israel's military planners regard the attainment of air superiority at the onset of combat to be the prerequisite for subsequent effectiveness – both in dealing with Syrian surface-to-surface missile forces and for targeting Syrian infrastructure. Their war mission would be the rapid destruction of Syria's entire sea, land and air forces for the ultimate objective of bringing Israeli troops and tanks to the gates of Damascus in short order, no more than five days from the start of combat.
Israeli armed forces' confrontations with Syria and Hizballah would focus on disallowing Syria to use its chemical weapons and blocking Syrian or Hizballah troop incursions into Israel, thereby frustrating their cherished dream of ending a war with the acquisition of chunks of Israeli territory.
(See DEBKA-Net-Weekly 430 of January 22, 2010: Iran-Hizballah Mark out Patches of Northern Israel for Capture).