Syrian Arab Navy
DB Encyclopedia overview 2010
The Syrian navy is amongst the smallest of the Arab navies, despite the large size of the Syrian military overall.
Although most of the Arab nations place a low value on naval forces compared to army and air force, the situation is especially blatant in Syria. The entire navy is a part of the Syrian army, assigned to the Latakia Military District. The various high offices (Naval Operations Director, Chief of Staff) in Damascus are political appointments while admirals are all army generals with naval titles.
Due to the fleet’s small size, there is no “organization” as thought of in the American or Soviet sense; ie squadrons, flotillas, etc. Each ship is simply an independent unit.
Although led by an army general, Syria’s military intelligence arm (Shu’bat al-Mukhabarat al-Askariyya) is independent of any of the military branches. Relating to naval intelligence, it’s effectiveness is very low to non-existent as it spends the vast bulk of it’s energy monitoring political groups inside Syria and Lebanon.
Syria became nominally independent from France in September 1936 however it did not form a navy. In 1940 the Vichy French government reasserted control over Syria which lasted until a combined British-Free French force took control in 1941. In April 1946 the final French sailors left Syria.
A coast guard was established in 1946. In 1950 a more formal naval organization was introduced. For the first three or four years of Syrian independence, the nation was peacefully neutral and the first Syrian sailors were sent abroad to France for training, and the nation hosted western warship visits, including the cruiser USS Providence. This changed of course after the Arab defeat in the Israeli war for independence and the shift to the Soviet bloc.
(below: The “P-4” class torpedo boat formed the nucleus of the early Syrian navy; this is a still from a Syrian propaganda film.)
On 1 February 1958, Syria and Egypt announced that they would be merging into the United Arab Republic. (Both nations adopted the two-star flag, which Egypt later abandoned but which Syria continues to use). The UAR was supposed to have a unified navy but other than a few token officer exchanges, this never happened. The UAR was dissolved on 28 September 1963.
Growth of the Syrian navy
The initial warships were three subchasers left behind by the departing French, they served until the mid-1970s.
During the late 1950s, about a dozen “P-4” torpedo boats were delivered by the USSR of which one was sunk in 1973, three discarded in the late 1970s, and the rest in the early 1980s.
During the 1960s, eight “Osa-I” missile boats, 2 “T-43” minesweepers, and nine “Komar” missile boats were delivered; during the 1973 war units of each were lost. The sole “Poluchat” diver’s boat was delivered in September 1967.
(below: a Syrian “Komar” on patrol in 1980)
In the 1970s, two “Petya-III” class frigates were transferred, SKR-95 (which was renamed al-Hirasa, pennant number 14) and SKR-80 (which was not named but given pennant number 12). The ten “Osa-II” missile boats were delivered in batches between 1978-1984., along with the five “Yevgenya” minesweepers.
(below: the frigate al-Hirasa with some mothballed “Osa-I” missile boats)
During the 1980s, the Soviet navy took a keen interest in Syria. This was primarily due to the political loss of it’s facilities in Egypt and Somalia and heightened interest in the Mediterranean in Soviet war planning. To Syria, eight “Zhuk” class patrol boats, three “Polochny-B” LSMs, one “Natya” minesweeper (delivered less the sweeps, which in the end were never installed), and one “Sonya” class minesweeper were all delivered from the USSR. The Soviets also performed upkeep on some of the older ships. Several non-Soviet types were also acquired, including three Arcor survey craft from France, plus eight Raidco RHIBs and seven Sea Truck harbor workboats. The training ship al-Assad was commissioned in 1988.
The major event of the 1990s was the collapse of the Soviet Union; the dramatic drop in foreign aid meant the end of the modernization plans, and like many former satellite navies, the Syrian navy struggled just to keep it’s few aging assets seaworthy. The entire “Osa-I”, “Komar”, and “P-6” classes were all discarded, and two of the “Yevgenya” and two of the “Osa-II” units decommissioned. The 1990s were a “lost decade” with no new acquisitions or modernizations other than the transfer of a “Vikhr” salvage boat and the informal acquisition of a “Sekstan” degausser which was abandoned by the USSR at Tartus. Few exercises were undertaken.
During the 2000s the navy stabilized somewhat, with enough funding to keep the remaining combatants at least marginally operational. The training ship al-Assad made several foreign cruises, and some modest inshore wargames were conducted. A 90-ton patrol boat Palmyra was bought from France and armed after delivery. The biggest event was the transfer of six Tir class FAC(M) from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard in late 2006/early 2007, these were the first new combatants in 22 years.
Submarines in the Syrian navy
After the Yom Kippur war, the Syrian navy requested submarines from the USSR; both as an asset against Israel and also to “save face” with the Arab public and stay on par with the Algerian and Egyptian navies. In November 1985, two “Romeo” class submarines of the Soviet Black Sea Fleet (S-43 and S-4) sailed to Tartus and after a training period, were commissioned into the Syrian navy in July 1986. A third “Romeo” (Soviet identity unknown) arrived in December 1986. The third unit was never manned but rather used as a battery charging barge for the other two. Type 53-56/57 and Type 53-65 torpedoes were sold along with the submarines.
The subs were old and obsolete even before the transfer; S-43 had been in Soviet service since December 1960, and S-4 since September 1961.
Syrian use of the “Romeo” submarines was poor. Exercises were unrealistic; for example the submarine would be told exactly where the simulated target was; depart Tartus and proceed on the surface to the area, dive to periscope depth and immediately simulate a torpedo shot, then immediately surface and return to port on the surface. ASW training was non-existent.
The “Romeo” submarines ceased diving exercises in 1991. By the end of 1993 they did not even go to sea anymore. By 2000 they had deteriorated past realistic repair. By 2006 they were no longer visible in satellite imagery and are assumed to have been scrapped. In 1990 a request was placed for two “Kilo” class units to replace the “Romeo” class. The end of the Soviet Union put an end to this plan as there was no way Syria could afford the “Kilo” on it’s own.
Current forces (as of 2010)
(below: The “Osa-II” units are still active)
Both “Petya-III” units remain in service; they received refits from a visiting Russian Federation tender in 2000. In 2001, the both made a joint open-ocean exercise, a rarity since the end of Soviet aid.
The Tir class FAC(M)s are all fully operational and maintained in the highest order. The eight remaining “Osa-II” units were renumbered 33-40 in the 2000s, usually one or two is at sea with another two in port at moderate readiness, and the other four in low readiness.
Except for the sole “Natya” ship which has been converted into an oceanography vessel, the minesweepers are all still active. A visiting Russian delegation noted that the Neva-1 underwater CCTV system was surprisingly still operational aboard the three remaining “Yevgenya” class ships.
The three “Polochny-B” amphibious ships (renumbered 1-3) are operational but viewed as white elephants. They are typically used as point-to-point transports for the state economy or as pierside barracks barges. As they wear out, they will almost certainly not be replaced.
Most of the smallcraft are fully operational although the new Palmyra typically is used for SAR. One “Zhuk” decommissioned in 2004, the others undertake regular patrols.
About 350 to 500 troops of the Syrian army’s Latakia military district are designated as “naval infantry”, they apparently do not receive any special equipment and little if any amphibious warfare training. Basically they are just regular troops. Their organization includes AT-3 “Sagger” ATGM teams and SA-7 “Grail” MANPADS. During the Cold War, the Syrian naval infantry also guarded the Soviet facilities at Latakia.
The USSR conducted part of it’s “Zapad-81” exercise in Syria; this 1981 exercise was the largest amphibious landing of the USSR since WWII. Despite this, the Syrian marines took no part in the exercise which could have otherwise been excellent training.
Syrian marines have never attempted an actual operational amphibious assault during any of the wars Syria has fought. However they were used as “shock” infantry during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and were rotated through Lebanon during the 1980s.
As part of it’s 17,000-troop contribution to Desert Storm, Syria sent the entire naval infantry force which may indicate the Syrian leadership views them as highly combat-capable. The Syrian troops were held in reserve the entire war; officially it was to avoid friendly-fire incidents as Syria and Iraq used identical weapons and vehicles, and very similar uniforms. Unofficially, it was said that the US Army viewed them as incompetent.
(below: a Syrian marine participates in a NBC warfare exercise with US Army troops during Operation Desert Shield in 1990. Equipment is a L-1 NBC warfare suit, GP-5 gas mask, and AK-47 rifle, all of Soviet origin.)
The army allocates some 130mm and 100mm artillery to the coastal defense role; how effective they would be in that role is debatable. Some ZU-23-2 and ZPU-4 towed AA guns are allocated to port defense, and the marines have SA-7 “Grail“ MANPADS.
Twelve battalions of SSX-1B “Shaddock” missiles were transferred in the 1960s; these were replaced in the 1970s by a smaller number of SSC-3 “Styx” of which most remain in service. There are 5-6 launch units with 15 missiles per battalion. “Sheet Bend” radars support them.
Eleven Mi-14P “Haze” (of the twenty delivered during the 1980s) and two Ka-28 “Helix” (of the three delivered in February 1990) helicopters remain in use. The few Ka-25 “Hormone” helicopters were discarded in the early 1990s. They helicopters are typically used for SAR and senior officer transport and almost never engage in ASW exercises. There is no organic fixed-wing air arm; in theory the Syrian AF can carry out anti-shipping missions but rarely drills in this field.
Syrian navy in combat
The Syrian navy played no real role in this conflict. On land, the result of the war was disastrous. The Syrian AF was annihilated and the army suffered severe losses of tanks and artillery. The Golan Heights were occupied by Israel.
Yom Kippur War
On 7 October 1973, an Israeli task group of five Sa’ar missile boats (INS Hanit, INS Miznak, INS Ga’ash, INS Mitvach, and INS Reshef) was assigned to patrol inside Syrian territorial waters. INS Hanit acquired a surface contact, tentatively identified as hostile. It turned out to be a Syrian P-4 class torpedo boat, K-123, which had been assigned to act as a scout for Syria‘s main flotilla. Hanit engaged K-123 with 76mm gunfire and sunk it immediately, however Cpt. Michael Barkai, commanding the Israeli task group, feared that K-123 had radioed a warning to Latakia and turned onto a southeasterly heading, to shorten the distance any air support from Israel would have to fly.
Several minutes later, Hanit acquired another contact at 12NM distance. Hanit fired a Gabriel missile in bearing-only mode, which missed. However INS Reshef acquired the contact and fired a Gabriel of it’s own, which struck the target (the Syrian T-43 class minesweeper Hittine) directly, leaving it dead in the water.
Meanwhile Syrian ships had scrambled from Latakia; a single “Osa-I” and two “Komar” missile boats. The “Komar”s fired all four of their SS-N-2 “Styx” missiles at maximum range (outside that of the Gabriel). However a combination of heavy jamming and chaff by the Israeli ships meant all four missed. The “Komar”s immediately broke off and fled back towards Latakia. Meanwhile the distance had closed enough that Reshef was in range and fired a volley of Gabriels, at the same time the “Osa” counterfired two SS-N-2s, which both missed. However one or more of the Gabriels hit the “Osa” and it sank. Finally the flotilla caught up with the two “Komar”s and sank them as well. With their missile supply nearly exhausted, the Israeli ships returned to Haifa. This marked the end of the first missile-vs.-missile battle in naval history.
One more “Osa-I” and an additional “Komar” were sunk by Israeli airstrikes later that week.
(below: Syrian Project 183R“Komar” missile boats in the early 1970s)
The engagement off Latakia greatly demoralized the Syrian navy and for the rest of the war, it dispersed itself in anchorages to avoid air attacks and avoided offensive operations of any type. In retrospect, the effect either way on the war’s outcome was negligible as most of the “Operation Nickel Grass” American resupply of Israel was by air, so a blockade of Haifa would have been meaningless anyways. Meanwhile Israeli air strikes hit several Syrian ports hard, the photo below shows the Japanese-flagged merchant S.S. Yomashira Maru sinking in Latakia harbour after an Israeli air strike.
Obviously the Arab-Israeli dispute is ongoing. Israel and Syria do not recognize each other and Syria remains in a basic state of war with Israel.
The navy played little part in the quasi-occupation of Lebanon in the 1980s-2000s. Syrian warships rarely visited Beirut due to the risk of Israeli air attack.
At one time, Turkey and Syria were hostile due to the presence of USAF in Turkey, Turkey’s recognition of Israel, and a Syrian claim on Turkey’s Hatay province. Since 2000, relations between the two countries have improved immensely and today there is little friction. In 2010, the Syrian navy received two harbour patrol launches built in Turkey.
Per Combat Fleets Of The World, the initial establishment was 1100 enlisted and 100 officers.
In 2010, there are approximately 7600 officers and sailors, plus about 4000 reservists and the naval infantry force. About a quarter of the personnel belong to the bloated ashore bureaucracy. Of the 7600 personnel, about 2400 are reservists.
The enlisted ranks are almost all 18-month draftees. There is a huge gap between the lower enlisted and junior officer ranks, as few draftees choose to voluntarily re-enlist to become petty officers. In common with other Arab navies, there is a disproportionately high number of officers.
Damascus: The C-in-C and other parts of the bloated ashore naval bureaucracy are inland at Syria’s capital.
Latakia: A major navy base and important commercial seaport. The Syrian naval academy is also located here, as is a heliport.
Baniyas: A minor navy base.
Minat al-Bayda: A minor navy base. The scuba diver school is also located here, and the “Osa-II“s often rotate here.
Tartus: The main naval base. This is one of the oldest naval bases in the world; originally the Roman navy’s Antaradus naval base and later a military seaport in the Byzantine, Caliphate, Crusader, Umayyad, Ottoman, and French periods.
The Syrian facilities are two quays with barracks, offices, ammunition storage, and a fuel depot ashore. There are several quays, ashore workshops, and facilities for loading the “Polochny-B” LSMs. The former submarine school was also located here.
Under a 1971 agreement, the USSR was allowed to establish a military base here. The base was critical to the Soviet presence in the Mediterranean, all the more so after Egypt left the Soviet sphere. There was usually an oiler and/or repair ship docked there, along with a small submarine tender. Port facilities included three pontoon piers (as of 2010, only one remains) and fuel storage. Ashore there was a radio relay post, SIGINT facility, and barracks for naval infantry. When the USSR collapsed in 1991, the Russian Federation lost interest in the base and closed it in 1991, the facility was abandoned completely the following year.
In 2008, the Russian RIA news agency reported that the Russian Federation intended to restore the former Soviet naval station at Tartus, enlarging and modernizing the facility. The announcement was made after a port visit by the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov. However since the Soviet departure in 1991, the city of Tartus has grown to completely surround the current Syrian base; it is unclear how the old Soviet base could be expanded without uprooting hundreds of families from their homes. None the less, Russian warships continually visit the port and there is usually at least one docked there and a small number of personnel from the Russian Black Sea fleet’s 5th Squadron are now semi-permanently based here, and an Amur class repair ship (including PM-56, which was not able to restart her engines for the return voyage and was towed back to Sevastopol) is usually moored to service visiting Russian ships. A Kashtan class mooring tender (recently KIL-158) has also been homeported there recently. In July 2009, RIA announced that a specialist anti-piracy element of the Russian navy would be moved there to support international efforts off Somalia. It was also noted that the current floating pier is too small to accommodate a Kirov class BCGN, Petyr Velikiy had to anchor offshore.
The spacing of the stars varies. Sometimes the national flag (same but without the anchors) is just used instead. The national flag is also the jack.
Current Status and Tactics / Future
The realistic effectiveness is very low. The few remaining ships are all old. ASW and AAW ability is completely absent. Syrian naval strategy is intertwined with political strategy; namely, in establishing a “bubble” around the coastline in which Israeli surface ships can not operate. Syria reasons politically that Israel will not attack merchant shipping in the open Mediterranean and will not use unrestricted submarine warfare against merchant traffic. There is no realistic hope of using the navy offensively against Israel.
The Syrian military was very impressed with the 14 July 2006 Hezboallah C-802 coastal missile attack against INS Hanit, and is planning a major overhaul and enhancement of the coastal defense forces. Several truck-mounted Noor missiles were delivered from Iran in early 2010. In July 2009, Jane’s Sentinel reported that Syria had begun negotiations for the Russian “Stooge” supersonic coastal defense missile, this contract was signed in September 2010. The deal has created a good amount of diplomatic protest in Israel and the USA and it’s unknown when (if ever) the “Stooge” will be delivered.
An early 2000’s request for second-hand “Nanuchka” missile corvettes from Russia led nowhere. In September 2008, the Syrian navy requested Russian financial credits to purchase two Project 950 “Amur” class submarines. The estimated cost of the deal would be about a quarter-billion dollars, including training and an initial torpedo loadout. As of September 2010 nothing has happened regarding this proposed transfer. Reestablishing a submarine force will be difficult as any NCO or officer that had served aboard the “Romeo”s is near or at retirement age now, so it would be effectively starting over from scratch.
The navy’s budget is estimated at $138 million annually, which allows for little new ship acquisitions without foreign aid. Block obsolescence is an issue, especially with ammunition (the RBU-2500 and SS-N-2 “Styx” ammo stockpiles are at or past their expiration dates). Less the Tir FAC(M)s and some smallcraft, the youngest ship in the fleet is now a quarter-century old.