Defense Companies (Syria)

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Defense Companies/Defense Brigades
سرايا الدفاع
Defense Companies SSI.svg
Defense Companies shoulder sleeve insignia
Country Syria
AllegianceSyrian Armed Forces
BranchAirborne Forces
Armoured Corps
TypePraetorian Guard
Special Forces
Shock Troops
RoleAirborne Operations
Tank Warfare
Size55,000 (peak in 1982)
Part ofDivision Command HQ
5 Brigades
26 Battalions
Garrison/HQDamascus Mezzeh Military Airport
EquipmentT-72 tanks
BM-21 Grad
Mil Mi-24D Attack helicopters
122 mm howitzer 2A18 (D-30)
2S4 Tyulpan heavy mortars
Ilyushin Il-76 transport aircraft
EngagementsSix-Day War

Lebanese Civil War
October War

Islamic uprising in Syria
Ceremonial chiefRifaat 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 the 55,000 strong Defense Companies was broken up and merged into the Syrian Arab Army as the Republican Guard, and the 14th Special Forces Division, comprising 5 Special Forces regiments. The rump force then became the 569th Armored Division, which years later became the 4th Armoured division[1][2]

History and deployment[edit]

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[3] 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[edit]

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 female parachutist corps. All or most of these were organized into 12 brigades [4]

BM-21-1 launch vehicle during a military parade in Yekaterinburg, 9 May 2009. This rocket artillery system was heavily deployed by the Defense Companies during the Hama Massacre.

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 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.[5]

Training, Doctrine and Uniform[edit]

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 vertical lizard-pattern or US woodland pattern camouflage fatigues along with Soviet combat boots, helmets and bulletproof vests. Headgear consisted of orange berets.[6]

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.

Women special military forces from the Defense Companies ate live snakes as part of their training while children being trained in paramilitary activities were trained to stab live puppies to death.[7][8][9][10][11][12][13][14][15][16][17][18][19][20][21] Syrian special forces also ate live scorpions and snakes, and live puppies during training.[22]

See also[edit]


 This article incorporates public domain material from the Library of Congress Country Studies website http://lcweb2.loc.gov/frd/cs/.

  1. ^ The Syrian Army: Doctrinal Order of Battle, Joseph Holliday, February 2013
  2. ^ 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.
  3. ^ Real date is 1966, prior to Six-Day War, based on a former member information. Primary mission was the protection of the capital Damascus in case of imminent war with Israel. In fact the Defense Companies Headquarter was the Mezzeh Military Airport, on which the first Israeli strike occurred on 5 June 1967 at sunrise. See "Israeli Air Force attacks the Syrian airfields".
  4. ^ The Syrian Army: Doctrinal Order of Battle, p.6, Joseph Holliday, February 2013
  5. ^ http://lcweb2.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?frd/cstdy:@field%28DOCID+sy0128%29
  6. ^ Arab Amies of the Middle East Wars (2), Osprey Men at Arms series #194 p43 by Samuel Katz
  7. ^ "Rumsfeld's bizarre gift from Saddam: Video of Syrian 'atrocities' - Daily Mail Online". Mail Online. 9 March 2011. Retrieved 20 May 2016.
  8. ^ "LiveLeak.com - Syrian Snake-Eating Girls and Puppy Stranglers". Retrieved 20 May 2016.
  9. ^ Syrian Dictator Hafez al-Assad's army biting snakes killing animals. 10 March 2011. Retrieved 20 May 2016 – via YouTube.
  10. ^ Syrian TV from 1984 - Female Soldiers Eating Live Snakes, President Assad in Audience, April 3, 2012. 4 April 2012. Retrieved 20 May 2016 – via YouTube.
  11. ^ Syrian Girls eating snakes alive (Rifaat's commandos). 25 December 2007. Retrieved 20 May 2016 – via YouTube.
  12. ^ "LiveLeak.com - Syrian military girls biting snakes showing Hafez Assad their courage". Retrieved 20 May 2016.
  13. ^ "GRAPHIC: Snake-Eating Soldier Girls". Military.com. Retrieved 20 May 2016.
  14. ^ "LiveLeak.com - Syrian military girls biting snakes showing Hafez Assad their courage (comments)". Retrieved 20 May 2016.
  15. ^ "LiveLeak.com - Syrian soldiers biting the heads off snakes, killing puppies". Retrieved 20 May 2016.
  16. ^ "LiveLeak.com - Syrian soldiers biting the heads off snakes, killing puppies (comments)". Retrieved 20 May 2016.
  17. ^ سرايا الدفاع سورية - YouTube. 16 May 2011. Retrieved 20 May 2016 – via YouTube.
  18. ^ سرايا الدفاع السورية سلاح السفاح رفعت - YouTube. 9 March 2011. Retrieved 20 May 2016 – via YouTube.
  19. ^ YouTube. Retrieved 20 May 2016.
  20. ^ Syrian Dictator Hafez al-Assad Bizarre Army Parade. 8 March 2011. Retrieved 20 May 2016 – via YouTube.
  21. ^ Syrian Girls eating snakes alive (Rifaat's commandos). 25 December 2007. Retrieved 20 May 2016 – via YouTube.
  22. ^ syrian special force eating snake scorpion الجيش السوري القوات الخاصة. 4 May 2009. Retrieved 20 May 2016 – via YouTube.


  • 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

External links[edit]