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August 7, 2018 2:34 pm

Israel Sees Syrian Army Growing Beyond Pre-Civil War Size

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An Israeli soldier rides an armored vehicle during an army drill after the visit of Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman in the Golan Heights, Aug. 7, 2018. Photo: Reuters / Amir Cohen.

Israel‘s defense minister said on Tuesday that Syria was building up its ground forces beyond their pre-civil war size, an assessment that suggests President Bashar al-Assad’s army has recovered from a critical manpower shortage earlier in the war.

The Syrian military was hit by major defections in the first years of the conflict, which began in 2011, and by 2015 Assad acknowledged that “a shortfall in human capacity” meant the army could not fight everywhere for fear of losing vital ground.

Russia intervened militarily soon afterwards to turn the tide of war and has been helping arm and train the Syrian army. Iran has also backed Assad, sending military advisers and allied Shi’ite militia from across the region to support his troops.

Pro-government forces in the Syrian conflict have also included local militias raised by the Lebanese Hezbollah with Iranian support, including the National Defense Forces.

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“Across the way we see the Syrian military, which is not satisfied with just taking over all of Syrian territory but is expressly building a broad-based, new ground army that will return to its previous proportions and beyond,” Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman told reporters during a tour of the Golan Heights.

Israel closely monitors the military capacity of Syria, an adversary against which it has fought three wars. It captured the western 2/3 of the Golan Heights from Syria in 1967 and later annexed this area in a move not recognized internationally.

With Assad now regaining control, Israel has voiced worry that he might defy a 44-year-old Golan demilitarization deal that had stabilized their standoff.

In a Twitter statement, Lieberman said that Israel‘s tanks, deployed on parts of the strategic plateau, were “our crushing strike force and will know how to defend the border in any eventuality”.

In a May interview, Assad also said Syria had improved its air defenses with Russian help.

The Golan saw large tank battles in 1967 and the subsequent Israel-Syria war in 1973.

In a July 19 briefing, the chief of Israel‘s armored corps told reporters that while the number of Israeli tanks fielded was unlikely to grow, a new, improved tank model would be introduced in 2021.

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