MEROM GOLAN, Golan Heights (Reuters) - Israel's defence minister said on Tuesday that Syria was building up its ground forces beyond their pre-civil war size, an assessment that suggests President Bashar al-Assad's army has recovered from a critical manpower shortage earlier in the war.
The Syrian military was hit by major defections in the first years of the conflict, which began in 2011, and by 2015 Assad acknowledged that "a shortfall in human capacity" meant the army could not fight everywhere for fear of losing vital ground.
Russia intervened militarily soon afterwards to turn the tide of war and has been helping arm and train the Syrian army. Iran has also backed Assad, sending military advisers and allied Shi'ite militia from across the region to support his troops.
Pro-government forces in the Syrian conflict have also included local militias raised by the Lebanese Hezbollah with Iranian support, including the National Defence Forces. [8N1NS4H5]
"Across the way we see the Syrian military, which is not satisfied with just taking over all of Syrian territory but is expressly building a broad-based, new ground army that will return to its previous proportions and beyond," Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman told reporters during a tour of the Golan Heights.
Israel closely monitors the military capacity of Syria, an adversary against which it has fought three wars. It captured part of the Golan Heights from Syria in 1967 and has occupied it since.
With Assad now regaining control, Israel has voiced worry that he might defy a 44-year-old Golan demilitarisation deal that had stabilised their standoff.
In a Twitter statement, Lieberman said that Israel's tanks, deployed on parts of the strategic plateau that it captured from Syria in a 1967 war, were "our crushing strike force and will know how to defend the border in any eventuality".
In a May interview, Assad also said Syria had improved its air defences with Russian help.
The Golan saw large tank battles in 1967 and the subsequent Israel-Syria war in 1973. Israel annexed its side of the Golan in 1981, in a move not recognised internationally.
In a July 19 briefing, the chief of Israel's armoured corps told reporters that while the number of Israeli tanks fielded was unlikely to grow, a new, improved tank model would be introduced in 2021.
(Writing by Dan Williams and Angus McDowall, Editing by William Maclean)