Defense Companies (Syria)
|Defense Companies/Defense Brigades
Defense Companies shoulder sleeve insignia
|Allegiance||Syrian Armed Forces|
|Size||55,000 (peak in 1982)|
|Part of||Division Command HQ
Mil Mi-24D Attack helicopters
122 mm howitzer 2A18 (D-30)
2S4 Tyulpan heavy mortars
Ilyushin Il-76 transport aircraft
|Ceremonial chief||Rifaat al-Assad|
The Defense Companies (Arabic: سرايا الدفاع; Saraya ad-Difa) were a paramilitary force in Syria that were commanded by Rifaat al-Assad. Their task was to defend the Assad government, and Damascus, from internal and external attack. In 1984 they were merged into the Syrian Arab Army as the 4th Armoured division and the Republican Guard as well as the 14th Airborne Division comprising 5 Special Forces regiments.
History and deployment
The lessons of the Six-Day War of 1967 pointed to the fact of the weak airborne and heavy armor capabilities of the Syrian Military. There was a perceptible lack of expertise in combined arms operations involving a combined deployment of armoured, artillery and airborne infantry units. Top Syrian military commanders and Hafez al Assad recognized the need to create a powerful and operationally self-sufficient Divisional command that would incorporate all the elements of modern combined arms. Also the political instability of the preceding decade in Syria pointed to the necessity of having a large and well-equipped body of highly loyal soldiers with strategic responsibilities of dealing with threats to the Ba'athist government. From 1968 onwards many Alawite officers and soldiers from the regular Army were sent for advanced training to the Soviet Union in order to build up such a unit.
The Defense Companies were founded in 1971 under this plan and were organizationally and operationally independent of the regular armed forces. They were under the command of Rifaat al-Assad, the president's brother. The Defense Companies were garrisoned outside Damascus, with the primary mission of countering attempted coups and challenges to the Assad government. These special forces, however, also had military missions beyond the role of a praetorian guard.
The Defense Companies were initially trained by Soviet Spetsnaz special forces, VDV airborne forces, and the Soviet Army Tank Corps. They had regular Soviet advisors and conducted frequent war games and field exercises with the Soviet Army. Their expertise lay in Soviet-style combined arms operations involving armour, mechanized, artillery, and airborne forces. Defense Companies commanders were known to be personally close to several high-ranking Soviet military officials, like Vassily Margelov and Dmitri Sukhorukov, commanders of the VDF Airborne forces.
The Defence Companies served in Syria's first armed intervention in the Lebanese Civil War in 1976, especially the initial offensive operations against PLO and PSP positions in Sidon and the Chouf, and were involved in internal security operations during the nationwide strikes and demonstrations in Aleppo in March 1980 and in June 1980. Lt. Col. Nassif ran a revenge operation after an attempted assassination of the President in 1980, in which a Battalion of Defense Company soldiers killed up to 1,000 Tadmor Prison inmates suspected of belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood. In Spring 1982, 2 brigades of the Defence Companies and other elite armoured formations were deployed in Hama to quell an Islamist uprising, in what became known as the Hama Massacre. Members of the Defense Companies are alleged to have been involved in a February 1981 assassination attempt against the Prime Minister of Jordan Mudar Badran. In Lebanon, Defense Companies units supported pro-Syrian Lebanese militias, and cooperated closely with the Tripoli-based Arab Knights of the Arab Democratic Party (founded in 1981 by Rifaat al Assad and composed largely of Lebanese Alawis), and the Lebanese Baath Party and its militia, the Assad Battalion.
Structure and equipment
Members of the approximately 55,000 strong Defense Companies were organised into companies of 120 to 200 men, which in turn were organized into Battalions of about 600 to 800 men, under a Lt. Col. Battalion Commanders were directly under the command of the Division Commander, Rifaat al-Assad, who actually held the rank of Brigadier throughout this period. There were separate Aviation squadrons and Artillery battalions within the Defense Companies. Most Defense Company soldiers, including Tank crewmen and Artillery personnel, received advanced commando and parachute training, as well as basic training in Tank warfare. The unit included a small but symbolically visible female parachutist corps.
The Defense Companies were equipped with some of the most modern weapons available to the Syrian Army, including T-72 tanks, BM-21 Grad rocket artillery units, 2S4 Tyulpan heavy mortar vehicles, 122 mm howitzer 2A18 (D-30) field artillery howitzers, and Mil Mi-24D and Mil Mi-8 attack helicopters, and could demand logistical help and support from the regular military. The Defense Company paratroop units were usually deployed from the AN-22 or IL-76 aircraft.
At their peak in 1983-84, the force had about 1200 T-72 Tanks, 120 Mil Mi-8 and 75 Mil Mi-24D attack helicopters, and three battalions (around 50 launch trucks) of BM-21 Grad systems. During this period (1973-1984), the whole Syrian Military only had 7 Grad battalions, and 3 of them were with the Defense Companies, illustrating the unit's importance in the Syrian Military hierarchy. They were also equipped with 4 units of the very powerful 2S4 Tyulpan 240-mm self-propelled heavy mortar vehicles. The 3rd and 10th Armoured Divisions were the only other Syrian division having access to this weapons system.
The soldiers were predominantly Alawites, the sectarian community of the Assad family. The Defense Companies recruited independently from the regular Army, and held separate recruitment campaigns mainly concentrated in a few Provinces . Ideological training and propaganda were intense, and focused on revolutionary Baathism, secular nationalism, Alawite pride, and a cult of "the Leader", Rifaat al-Assad.
The Defense Companies have also been deployed against Jordan. In late February 1981, some of their senior commanders, including Colonel Adnan Barakat, were alleged to have been involved in an abortive assassination attempt against Jordanian Prime Minister Mudir Badran. Members of the Defense Companies also reportedly have been sent abroad to monitor Syrian political exiles and to impede their activities. In Lebanon, Defense Companies units have supported pro-Syrian Lebanese militias, such as the Tripoli-based Arab Knights of the Arab Democratic Party (founded in 1981 by Rifaat al Assad and composed largely of Lebanese Alawis of Syrian origin), and the Lebanese Baath Party and its militia, the Assad Battalion. Following a power struggle between Rifaat al Assad and his rivals in the armed forces in early 1984, the Defense Companies were renamed Unit 569 and reorganized as a standard armored division with four armored and three mechanized brigades.
Training, Doctrine and Uniform
Training consisted primarily of infantry training combined with Special Forces commando training modelled on the Soviet system. Recruits who passed this initial stage were given parachute training as well as advanced training either in airborne operations, artillery, Armour or Mechanized forces. Training for recruits usually was for 1 year whereas for officers it was for 2 years including a 4 month course at Soviet military academies. Howerever, almost all Defense Companies personnel were qualified paratroopers as well as had to pass a basic course on familiarization with Tanks and Tank warfare. Tank training and doctrine was focused on using Tanks and Armoured formations in urban warfare environments, close-quarters combat, and deployment of Tank units alongside Airborne special forces used as shock troops. According to several Defense Company commanders, they developed their own military theories and doctrines, especially a new armoured doctrine in which the Tank itself was to substitute as a Commando soldier in close-quarters urban combat. The Tank was to be considered as an individual commando in an urban combat situation, and thus Tank training was very intensive and focused on attaining unimaginable feats with the Tank. This included engaging targets at less than 20 metres range, firing the main gun from within a building, and so on. These tactics were developed by Saraya officers during the Muslim brotherhood insurgency in Hama and Aleppo, and in Lebanon. This strategy was used extensively by successor units of the Saraya in the Syrian Civil War.
The Saraya al-Difa wore combat uniforms quite distinct from the regular Syrian military, their uniform consisted of lizard-patterned camouflage fatigues along with Soviet combat boots, helmets and bulletproof vests. Headgear consisted of a red or orange beret.
After basic training, the Saraya conducted their advanced courses at secret locations in the Damascus Countryside, Tartous mountains, and in Syrian-controlled parts of Lebanon. Much of the initial generations of Saraya soldiers had been trained in the Soviet Union.
- Campell, Kirk (2009). Civil-Military Relations And Political Liberalization: A Comparative Study Of The Military's Corporateness And Political Values In Egypt, Syria, Turkey, and Pakistan (PDF). UMI Microform. p. 228.
- Arab Amies of the Middle East Wars (2), Osprey Men at Arms series #194 p43 by Samuel Katz
- Arabs at War: Military Effectiveness 1948-91, Kenneth M. Pollack, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln and London, 2002, and Pollack's book reviewed in International Security, Vol. 28, No. 2
- Arab Armies of the Middle East Wars (Men-at-Arms, 194) by Samuel Katz, Osprey Publishing 1988, ISBN 978-0-85045-800-8
- Armies in Lebanon 1982 to 1984 (Men at Arms Series, 165) by Samuel Katz and Ronald Volstad, Osprey Publishing 1985, ISBN 978-0-85045-602-8
- Struggle Companies (Syria) - a similar but much smaller force
- Shabiha - an all Alawite al-Assad family run militia