Syria has always been one of the stronger Arab states. Its army faced off against Israel in the Golan heights – and despite losing, learned a lot of operational knowledge there. They are also experienced in operating in Lebanon via their Hezbollah proxies.
It has, therefore, become perplexing that such a strong, well equipped, (relatively) well trained army is being pushed back so hard by a decentralized, mostly poorly equipped and unprofessional insurgency. Despite the fact that foreign jihadists have appeared on the scene, and that neighboring Arab states are providing arms and material aid, it seems unlikely that these can make that much difference if manned by poor quality troops.
This question was raised recently in a professional forum populated by professional Services officers and enlisted, as well as other persons from the Intelligence, Defense and Security as well as Diplomatic communities. The insights below are my summary of the discussion and is reproduced here with permission. This provides an incredible insight into the Arab mind and Arab militaries.
Arab armies are never as strong as they seem to be. There are several systemic, mostly cultural problems why this is so:
1. Baghdad Bob Syndrome: Few (if any) Arab armies are meritocracies. The best do not get promoted to high rank, individual initiative is crushed from an early age, competent folks are viewed as threats, and the entire organization follows an “Emperor’s New Clothes” philosophy. Bearers of bad news are professionally hobbled (and banished to the hinterlands), therefore no one brings top leaders anything other than good news. All reports are positive. All readiness evaluations are fabricated. All objectives in combat are reported as achieved in accordance with the planned timeline…even if the reporting element has yet to even move down the road.
In 2003, Americans incorrectly derided the Iraqi Info Minister (AKA “Baghdad Bob”) as a rare buffoon. He was not. Rather, he was a perfect example of the the stereotype. It’s a good survival mechanism when you live in a lethal political environment that is not forgiving of mistakes.
2. Stove-Piped Hierarchy: Knowledge is power and not to be shared or passed on by mentors. Most peers and subordinate/superior staffs are viewed as job competitors. Control of assets, money, troops, bases, or equipment is power. Cooperation for the common good is anathema. This is institutionally inculcated in many Arab officers from the time they are junior leaders, leading to an inability to make bold or timely decisions in times of crisis…as well as a reluctance to share valuable tactical or operational knowledge with anyone but the guy at the very top. Effective Inter-Unit and Inter-Service cooperation is rare. Cooperation is more often based on personal gain/advantage than allegiance to the national good. Centralized control is the method of the day in almost every endeavor. Centralized control is also an invitation for decapitation and battlefield paralysis. Agile opponents (Israel, U.S., et al) are able to stay inside the Arab OODA loop on today’s battlefields. Decimated Arab formations have been the result since 1947.
3. Non-Professional or Non-Existent NCO Corps. Less so today, but in a previous era, many Arab forces followed the Soviet organizational model…where multitudes of junior officers performed the functions that Western armies use NCOs for. Even armies long exposed to western partnership (Jordan & Egypt) still suffer from this. The silver-backs who run some Arab forces have been in service for upwards of 40 years. You can advise and run all the NCO academies you want; nothing will change until the Old Guard changes. Illiteracy or poor education among the enlisted troops is also a factor. Because that hands-on officer leadership is invariably young, no matter the enthusiasm, the masses of troops are supervised by relatively inexperienced leaders. In western formations, the same troops are handled day to day by long-service Centurions (E-6 through E-9).
4. Caste System for Officer Leadership: In many respects, a feudal model of soldiery where class, family connections, and political favoritism decides who commands. Assigned to command based upon your perceived political reliability, tribal/family background, or party membership. Not your standing at a military academy.
5. Culture of Personal Honor: Arabs officers do not like to admit to lack of technical knowledge, admit mistakes, or be put in situations where they can be personally embarrassed by failure at a task. They tend to observe rather than participate in training. Thus, many formations are led by folks who have little actual training or currency in their assigned duty. Conservative by nature, they prefer to execute set-piece exercises (where little can go wrong) rather than conduct innovative or effective training. They tend to override novel suggestions by juniors and resent being placed in any situation where they might be professionally embarrassed or have to admit lack of knowledge. This becomes a particularly thorny issue when working with goal-oriented western advisors. Westerners tend to thank others for helping them with a problem they can’t solve. Arabs tend to view an outsider’s assistance as an affront or insult to their competence.
This also translates over to a habit of the boss doing anything important, including planning, and relegating the staff to flunky duties. Decisions are made inside a cabal of the commander and one or two close advisors…to the detriment of effective staff work. Any guidance they fail to give will most likely not be executed or even brought to their attention as an oversight. Little things like POL (Petrol, Oil and Lubricants -red), ammunition, or water resupply.
6. Tradition of Janissaries and Mamelukes: Although once masters of Coalition Warfare (during the Crusader & Caliphate Eras), the last century has seen a heavy reliance on foreign manned or officered formations in many Arab armies…often as a result of foreign occupation. Once upon a time, the Caliphates of Damascus, Cairo, Baghdad, etc. fielded loyal forces of extremely professional, politically vested, and foreign born career soldiers. Today, they simply hire or are gifted foreign advisors, schooling, and equipment. Most Arab governments have entered into protective relationships with larger powers…and therefore neglected the readiness of organic military forces as anything other than internal security or border enforcers.
7. In many Arab armies, career military service is seen as a primarily entrepreneurial occupation… a means to accumulate power, wealth, and a comfortable lifestyle. Fighting? To be avoided at all costs (unless against easy opponents). Follow the $$$$.
Arabs are not inherently bad Soldiers. I’ve met those who are supremely competent, crazy brave, and selfless in their service to their nation. Some of their formations are the equal of anyone’s. But, institutionally, traditional Arab leadership culture has failed to embrace information-age warfare and professional leadership concepts.
Without fixing those problems, mere possession of billions of dollars worth of weaponry and vehicles does not an effective force make.
These insights came from people with years, and even decades, of working closely with Allied Arab forces or fighting against Arab opponents – mostly NATO and Israeli officers and enlisted men.