The Military Balance in a Shattered Levant

Conventional Forces, Asymmetric Warfare & the Struggle for Syria

The war against ISIL and the civil war in Syria have highlighted the importance of the military balance in the Levant and the extent to which it has an impact on Iraq and the Gulf, the flow of global energy exports and the world economy, and international terrorism. Aram Nerguizian has prepared a comprehensive analysis of the changing military balance in Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, and Jordan that updates our previous analysis and reflects extensive research in the region and work with security experts in the US and Europe.

This report is entitled The Military Balance in a Shattered Levant: Conventional Forces, Asymmetric Warfare & the Struggle for Syria. It provides extensive tables and trend analyses of the balance, and is available on the CSIS web site at

Key Areas of Focus

The study focuses on how regional military competition is affected by the political upheavals in the Middle East, economic and demographic pressures, sectarian struggles and extremism, ethnic and tribal conflicts, and how these tensions all combine to produce new complex patterns of competition.

The civil war in Syria has complicated relative stable long-term trends in both regional conventional and asymmetric forces. The conflict also challenges both the US and Iran to find new ways to compete in spite of regional unrest, albeit with the risk of further deepening both regional instability and the overall level of strategic competition.

The study examines key military dynamics and drivers of instability in Syria to better contextualize what has increasingly become a “shattered” military balance in the Levant:

  • The first section of this report introduces the analysis.
  • The second section addresses how the US and Iran compete by considering the conventional military balance in the Levant.
  • The third section goes beyond conventional forces and considers an area where Iran has been especially effective over time, namely in shaping the regional asymmetric balance.
  • The fourth section examines how Syria affects both US-Iran competition and broader trends tied to regional stability and the Levant military balance.
  • The final section derives key implications that are likely to shape future US policy towards the Levant.

The study also examines how the US and Iran compete in the Levant conventional and asymmetric military balance, where do they compete, and what are the forces and constraints that shaped this contest in the past, present, and possibly in the future?

Impact of Radical Changes in the Regional Military Balance

Egypt, Israel, Jordan, and Syria have all built up strong conventional forces, but their relative capacity for asymmetric warfare has become steadily more important as non-state actors have come to play a growing role in the region, and both state and non-state actors have come to rely on asymmetric warfare and threats. Moreover, the civil war in Syria, the overthrow of Mubarak, and increasing tensions in Jordan and Lebanon are all having a major impact on the conventional balance while internal struggles are empowering non-state actors.

US military aid to Israel has insured its preeminence in the regional conventional military balance. Neither Egypt nor Jordan now actively competes militarily with Israel. Syria was forced to abandon efforts to achieve strategic parity with Israel in favor of strategic deterrence in the 1980s, and is now caught up in a civil war that seems certain to leave it a far weaker military power at its end.

This, however, is only part of the story. The dynamics of civil conflicts and popular protests have all but shattered the regional conventional military balance. Nowhere is that more the case than in Syria. After years of protests, violence, and an increasingly sectarian civil war, the Syrian military is no condition to compete directly with any of the other regional militaries.

In contrast to the declining significance of the conventional regional balance, the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war provided the first major indication of the growing significance of regional competition in asymmetric forces. While countries such as Syria have focused on building up their strategic deterrence against Israel, non-state armed groups – such as Iranian and Syrian-backed Hezbollah and Hamas – have become key players in the regional asymmetric military balance.

This threat must be kept in proportion. Boasts by Hezbollah and Hamas about defeating Israel in a future conflict are propaganda fantasy, not reality. Israel, the US and key regional allies do not face anything approaching critical or existential threats from today’s armed groups. Such non-state actors do, however, pose a risk to US preferences on regional stability and the development of the Arab-Israeli peace track, which in turn informs US concerns about their future development and roles in regional security politics.

At the same time, the study concludes that that the military competition between the US and Iran in the Levant has long been shaped by their respective ties to different regional powers and non-state actors. Both the US and Iran have worked hard to nurture security partnerships and relationships with regional state and non-state actors to promote their regional interests, project power, and shape the broader regional balance of power.

The Critical Issue of Syria

While Syria has been a challenge for US policy-makers for decades, the current round of instability is unprecedented. The situation in Syria is not predictable enough for the US to be able to develop a sustainable strategy in the short term. The US and its key regional allies have steadily sought to increase pressure on the Assad regime and provide different levels of support to anti-Assad political and insurgent forces. Through these actions, the US and its regional allies are pursuing several aims, not the least of which is to weaken Iran’s role as Syria’s sole major state ally, while at the same time finding ways to halt the spread of military Jihadi grounds in Syria and beyond on favorable terms.

The US had used limited covert or overt arms sales and military aid to Syria to compete with Iran since at least July of 2013. Covert aid presents the problem that it could fall into extremist hands. Overt aid could only occur if Assad fell and a suitably favorable new regime emerged in Syria. In the meantime, both the Assad regime and its opponents are evolving and devising new strategies and tactics in the hope of shaping relative success in Syria’s civil war.

It would be easy to make the causal leap that Assad forces are certain to buckle, fail, or abandon the regime as a result of these pressures. The Syrian military can do little more than compensate for losses in the field, and has no real-world recourse to mass mobilization. There are also significant fiscal challenges, especially in the wake of the regime’s losses of rent-earning resources that include oil fields now under the control of ISIS, the Nusra Front and other militant groups. Such conclusions remained largely premature in mid-2015.

While Assad forces were whittled down after four years of fighting, they were now increasingly focused on frontier defense missions in what some increasingly described as Assad’s “vital Syria.” This in turn was reinforced by the fact that loyal Alawites largely had nowhere to go, and were more inclined to fight for their towns and villages than to engage in fruitless military adventures in eastern and northeastern Syria – far both from reliable supply lines and a strong enough reason to fight on.

The Assad regime may have lost some if not much of its ability to raise central government funds or amass foreign currency reserves. However, it could still depend on strategic rent-seeking from Russia and Iran in mid-2015. There is little doubt that both Russian and Iranian aid levels to Syria were driven by each country’s discreet set of national interests. Russia continued to see Syria as bulwark both against perceived interventionist policies in the West, and the loss of what remains of Russian influence in the Levant. Meanwhile, Iran’s priorities tied to Syria were largely dictated by the need to secure its long-term investment in Hezbollah – something it may not be able to do without a pliant Syria.

So long as the U.S. and its Arab allies, and Iran, pursue their respective foreign policy priorities -- and as long as no realistic political alternative is found -- Assad will have the opportunity to pursue a duel strategy that has remained largely unchanged since Syria confronted the West and its allies in Lebanon over the 2004 to 2008 period: continue to extract rents from your allies and buy enough time to take advantage of changes in international and regional policy.

All of these patterns make Syria a key prize for the US, its Arab, and other regional allies, as well as Iran:

  • Despite the continued militarization of the opposition and initial tactical successes against Assad’s forces in an increasingly sectarian civil war, there is no clear US response to this increasingly dangerous phase of instability in Syria. Regime forces and allies have shown the ability to learn on the battlefield, and the forces buttressing the regime will continue to close ranks around Assad. The window for US or Western covert and overt assistance may have come and gone, and could also further deepen tensions with Russia, China and other members of the UN Security Council who do not want to see a repeat of steps taken in Libya.
  • The US cannot ignore the regional spillover effects should Syria destabilize further and it needs to adopt a strategy based on containing Syrian instability. How events do and do not play out in Syria will have deep and unforeseen consequences on the precarious sectarian balance in Lebanon, the security of Israel along its northern and eastern flanks, the stability of Jordan at a time of increased internal unrest, and pressure along Turkey’s southern flank as Ankara tries to contain increasingly assertive Syrian and Iraqi Kurdish groups. A collapse in Syria – controlled or otherwise – may hold the promise of breaking Iran’s umbilical cord to Levant, but it also promises to expose both budding and strategic US allies to waves of uncertainty for years to come.
  • While the US may have had reasons to support and grant recognition to some opposition forces that were more moderate or more representative of popular forces in Syria, that will not translate into a more stable Syria at peace with its neighbors in either the short or long term. Based on the current internal Syrian balance, there is no real world basis on which to make the argument that a post-Assad Syria was imminent as of 2014 – let alone that it will make peace with Israel, renounce claims to the Golan Heights, or stop providing assistance to Palestinian elements operating in and outside the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
  • Despite growing pressure and rhetoric in 2013 and 2014, there was still only very limited support in the US, Europe, and the Arab world for direct intervention in Syria. Syria is not Libya. If a window to strike Assad existed, it was before the consolidation of radical Salafi Jihadi groups in Syria with an eye on Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon. Meanwhile, Assad’s Syria also enjoys strong political, financial and military support from Iran and Russia. These factors complicate any calculus on military intervention in Syria, whether in terms of the level of potential military opposition, or with regards to the risk of high civilian casualties.
  • There still are reasons why the US might directly (or indirectly) take the lead in such efforts. The withdrawal of US troops from Iraq has left many unanswered questions about the future prospects for a stable Iraq, let alone a stable Syria, and the US already finds itself conducting airstrikes against ISIS militants in Iraq that could just as easily be in Syria. Instability in Iraq and Syria presents Washington with the opportunity to undermine Iran’s regional posture, weaken or change the leadership of one or both of its key regional allies, and potentially downgrade the Islamic Republic’s role in the Arab-Israeli conflict through Hezbollah.
  • Some analysts have proposed trying to separate Syria’s security establishment and the Alawite community away from the Assad regime. While the approach is sound in principle, the US may need to accept that the chances of doing so are slim. The passage of time and the level of bloodshed have made it more difficult to conceive of a post-Assad Syria devoid of retaliatory measures against the Alawite community. While many Alawites may not like or support Assad, the potential loss of their political and economic autonomy is a key barrier to defections. Even in a scenario where a dominant opposition proved magnanimous in victory, there is little sign that Assad’s base – and the other minorities that support the regime – is betting on such a favorable outcome.
  • While events in Syria are challenging to Iran, the strategic choices of the Islamic Republic and its chief ally in the region, Hezbollah, are evolving in an effort to deal with events in Syria and potential shifts in the regional balance of power. While “Plan A” is to try and maintain Assad in power and fend of his local and regional opponents, “Plan B” in the event Assad falls seems to be the prevention of the emergence of a stable Syria under Sunni rule in Damascus. There is continued evidence in 2014 that the IRGC’s Quds Forces, aided by Hezbollah are actively training and equipping mainly Alawite and Shi’a tens of thousands of irregular forces into what appears to be a deeply ideological Jaysh al-Shaab or “People’s Army” meant to take pressure off Syrian regular and special operations forces and fight for the interests of the Alawite community and other allied factions in Syria.
  • As the corrosion and decay of Syria’s state and national security structures continues to grow, the militarization of the struggle for Syria all but ensures that militia economics and warlordism will a dominant feature in Syria for years to come. The Syrian military already underwent a process whereby it was stripped down to its most loyal –and predominantly Alawite – core. If the military does not survive institutionally in the long term, or if it does not regain some semblance of national legitimacy, the prospects for demobilizing Syria’s growing archipelago of militias and fighting groups will be extremely slim.
  • Syria’s insurgent groups – which are far more likely to have influence in Syria than either external or local political opposition forces – are poor vehicles to socialize, advance, and consolidate external (principally Western) efforts to secure pluralism and stable politics in Syria. Again, while many insurgent groups include Army defectors, many if not most insurgent groups in Syria still remain local militias in what has become a national struggle. Neither they nor the many more civilians-turned-guerilla-fighters are anywhere near ready to internalize and implement any form of lasting transition plan in Syria. This in turn will also further complicate a lasting cessation of hostilities, the creation of a stable and credible government in Damascus, or a Syria that will actively protect it minority groups.
  • The rise of jihadi and militant Islamist factions and fighting groups in Syria with ties to Al-Qaeda like ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra present another key challenge. While the Syrian armed opposition remains deeply fragmented despite its growing size, Islamist and jihadi units have better access to weapons, are attracting recruits frustrated by the uneven pace of the conflict, and are moving far quicker to consolidate their forces. The presence of ideological and radical forces in Syria’s civil war was always going to be a challenge so long as more moderate factions were unable to overcome their internal divisions and gain access to more military resources.
  • While groups like ISIS threaten regional opponents of the US and Saudi Arabia – like Assad’s Syria, Iran and Hezbollah – the adage that ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend” does not apply to intolerant extremist groups with transnational aspirations. The presence of these groups in the Levant is instead a case of “the enemy of my enemy is also my enemy.” Neither the Assad regime nor Iran are party to the September 11, 2014 “Jeddah Communique” which brings together an array of regional and Levant states with the intent of combating the spread of ISIS. However, separately, together, or by agreeing to disagree, the US and Iran – but also Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, the GCC states and Turkey – will all have to fight the threat from the expansion of groups like ISIS into ungoverned spaces in the Levant.
  • The impact of external actors will grow more critical as Syria’s civil war continues to evolve. Countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey have been active supporters of the armed insurgency against Assad, including indirectly supporting some of the more hard line elements fighting Assad. Meanwhile, the US and European states have been important sources of external pressure and coalition-building against the regime in Damascus. Meanwhile, Russia, Iran, and China continue to wield influence with Assad in a bid to maintain what remains of the regional status quo. There is significant daylight between the competing nations supporting either side of Syria’s civil war. However, as with other similar conflicts – such as Lebanon’s 15-year civil war – external support by competing external actors will be critical to any effort to legitimize a new political order in Syria.
  • At present, the best Assad’s regional and international opponents could hope for would be more representative Sunni-led leadership that takes into account the foreign policy priorities of the United States, the Gulf states led by Saudi Arabia, and Iran. At worst, Syria would remain unstable and could deteriorate into a deeper regional sectarian conflict – a conflict which could in turn draw its neighbors – especially Lebanon and Iraq – into a cycle of regional proxy warfare. What is certain, however, is that in any scenario, Syria’s regional role has been severely weakened by a three years of unrest.
  • Continued political upheaval and civil war mean that Syria’s economic outlook will only continue to decline. Even in a scenario where key players in the merchant class put their full weight against the Assad regime, there is still no clear sense of an end state in 2014 either on where Syria was going or which players could and would be at the helm. It is also difficult to measure the impact of external rents and aid provided to Assad from Russia, China, Iran and what other few allies the regime still had.

None of the dynamics shaping Syria’s future are simple, definitive or predictable. All illustrate how Syria’s internal battle for power is tied to broader regional Sunni-Shi’a fault lines that neither the Sunni Gulf states, Iran, nor the US can take for granted. The longer Syria lingers caught in civil war and political uncertainty, the more likely it seems the country will emerge as a continuing arena for proxy competition.

However, even with Arab, Turkish or Iranian support, any US-led intervention – political, military or otherwise – would have to take stock of the scale of Sunni-Shi’ite regional polarization and the level of acrimony between the Southern Gulf states and Iran to determine the benefits and potentials costs of deeper US involvement in the Levant.

Both the armed opposition and the regime and its supporters are undergoing a rapid process of political Darwinism and it is not possible to clearly determine who the key players in Syria will be months from now, let alone in 2014 and beyond. What is certain, however, is that regardless of if or when Assad falls or is replaced, Syria will struggle with the militarization of society and the expansion of Islamist and radical forces for years to come. The US would then face increasing difficulty in both staying out of and competing with Iran in Syria.

The Quest for Stability in a Region in Crisis

The study concludes that any apparent stability in the area between the 1973 War, the end of the Cold War, and the beginning of the uprising in Tunisia in 2011 is now clearly over and is likely to be over for well over a decade. The US needs to recognize that no amount of development assistance can correct or fix underlying socioeconomic and demographic forces that had become compounded over decades, and that it may take decades to find some form of stability.

The US cannot ignore the steep rise in sectarianism in a region spanning well beyond the Levant, from North Africa to Afghanistan. Iran has repeatedly turned to sectarian affiliations and its Shi’a clients in its efforts to balance against the US and its regional allies. However, key US allies – like Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia – have also resorted to leveraging Sunni-Shi’a divisions in their own bids to shape dynamics in Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq and in the broader balance of power with Iran.

Ungoverned and under-governed spaces have become fertile ground for increasingly radical Salafi-Jihadi groups like ISIS, Jabhat al-Nursa and Egypt’s Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis. Combined with the scale of regional Gulf competition, the Levant may yield even more space within which Salafi-Jihadi groups can try to consolidate their expansion in the Levant in the wake of regional protests in 2011.

The US, Arab states, and Iran cannot afford to ignore groups like ISIS, or to strategically compete to nowhere. Many of the key decisions made by Iran and its Gulf opponents between 2011 and 2014 are the definition of tactics and not strategies. Conflating the two puts both opponents like Iran, and allies like Saudi Arabia, in equal jeopardy and in ways that the US is unlikely to benefit from in either case. The US will have to work with the broadest possible mix of players to create the kind space that may eventually allow for some degree of stability across the Levant.

As the country-by-country analysis will show, however, this is only part of the challenge. US military assistance and aid efforts must be linked to political and economic efforts as well. The US must be prepared to deal with the full range of factors driving instability in each country in the Levant, and as serious as some potential military risks may be, the political, economic, religious, and social upheavals may ultimately prove to be more important.

Request for Comments and Corrections

This analysis will be revised in depth before becoming part of a CSIS e-book. Comments and corrections would be most helpful. Because of our travels schedules, they should be sent to both Anthony H. Cordesman at, and Aram Nerguizian at

Aram Nerguizian
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Burke Chair in Strategy