The Syrian air force is one of the largest in the Middle East, with 30,000 members and composed of aircraft provided first by the Soviet Union and, later, by Russia.
They include MiG-21 interceptors, MiG-23 ground assault aircraft and the more modern MiG-29 combat aircraft. They also have a fleet of Sukhoi fighter jets.
Pieter Wezeman, arms transfer expert with the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, says that last December - while the Syrian government was fighting an insurgency - Damascus ordered from Moscow 36 additional planes known as the Yak-130.
“It’s a training plane," said Wezeman. "It’s a light plane, a lighter plane which can be used for training but also has a very clear combat function. It can be armed with bombs and missiles and is typically the kind of aircraft which would be, let’s say, very suitable for the Syrian regime in the current conflict,” he said.
The Russian government has consistently denied providing weaponry to Syria that could be used to fight the rebels. What the Russians have provided the Syrian air force for many years - in addition to aircraft - is maintenance for its planes and training for its pilots.
Aram Nerguizian, a Syria expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says that training was useful during the wars with Israel in the 1970s and 1980s.
“That being said, you have very little real-world combat experience in the last two to three decades, in large part because, despite all the rhetoric of combating Israel, the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad has been a fairly consistent - I don’t want to say ally - but a fairly consistent player in terms of honoring some kind of a Cold War or Cold Peace with Israel,” Nerguizian said.
Experts, including Pieter Wezeman, say Syria has dramatically improved its military posture in the last few years by investing in modern Russian air defense systems.
“Which was very necessary because in 2007, Israel had attacked a Syrian site [suspected nuclear reactor] without basically any effort from the Syrian side to stop it," Wezeman points out. "It just didn’t have the equipment in place to stop an attack by modern aircraft such as Israel did in that year. And after that, we see that Syria is modernizing its air defense systems.”
Analysts say if Western nations decide to intervene militarily in the conflict in Syria, its air defenses will be far more challenging than those of Libya.
While the Syrian air force is a substantial body, its navy is modest. With about 5,000 personnel, the navy consists mainly of several frigates, gunboats, missile attack craft and patrol boats.
But many experts, including Aram Nerguizian, say the important factor is the presence of a Russian port in Tartus, on Syria’s Mediterranean coast.
“In the 1980s and 1990s, there was talk about the Russians trying to build up Tartus - very little happened in terms of really trying to capitalize [modernize] the naval facility," he said. "But there is every indication that if you are going to have a Russian naval presence in the Mediterranean, it is going to have to be in a friendly port. And right now, the only one that is viable, given you don’t have options in Libya any more, would be Tartus. So you have a [Russian] military presence there, you have technical advisers, and that’s one of the core interests of Russian foreign policy in the Middle East and the Mediterranean.”
Russian news reports have indicated that Moscow is planning to modernize the facility in the next few years to accommodate large warships, including missile cruisers and even aircraft carriers.