Editorials 17 June, 2013

Why Most Syrian Officers Remain Loyal to Assad


Zoltan Barany

Zoltan Barany is the Frank C. Erwin, Jr. Centennial Professor of Government at the University of Texas.  His most recent books are The Soldier and the Changing State: Building Democratic Armies in Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas (Princeton University Press, 2012), Democratic Breakdown and the Decline of the Russian Military (Princeton University Press, 2007), and, as co-editor Is Democracy Exportable? (Cambridge University Press, 2009).

Since the uprising began in Syria more than two years ago, a reported 80,000 people have died, millions have been displaced, and much of the country now lies in ruins. Nevertheless, the vast majority of Bashar Assad's senior military officers remain loyal to him. The continued support of the regime by the majority of the officer corps was entirely predictable prior to the upheaval and should not have surprised anyone familiar with Syrian politics, society, and its military-security establishment. Why?

While we are not good at predicting when uprisings might break out, we do know one critically important thing about them: once they do begin, they cannot succeed without the support of the regime's coercive apparatus, in particular the regular army. The military's backing of or, at the very least, neutrality toward the revolution is a necessary condition for it to succeed. What, then, determines the generals' stance in a revolution and is it possible to predict their reaction to a revolution in a specific context? The multitude of variables that come into play cautions strongly against making an outright prediction. But, as I argued in an essay published in the April 2013 issue of the Journal of Democracy, it is possible to make a highly educated guess about the generals' response to a revolution if we know how they reach their decision.

The army draws on four distinct spheres of information as it formulates its response to a revolution. Most critically, generals assess the cohesiveness, conditions, and composition of the armed forces. For instance, are there divisions along ethno-religious lines, between elite and regular units, between branches of the armed forces; is it a volunteer or conscript army? Second, they consider the regime, its treatment of the armed forces, its record of governance, and its directions to the military during the revolution. The third sphere of information military leaders take into account is society, in particular relations between armed forces and society, the popularity of the uprising, and key characteristics of the protests such as their size and personnel composition. Finally, the army's reaction to a revolution is also influenced by the international context, issues such as revolutionary diffusion and the threat of foreign intervention.

Needless to say, these and other explanatory factors are not created equal: some go farther in explaining the armed forces' position on the revolution than others. Moreover, variables that may be extremely important in one case-say, sectarian divisions within the officer corps or the rebels' attempts to fraternize with the soldiers-may be of trivial significance in other cases or might not be a factor at all in others. Although there is no clever model that could tell us, once we "plug in" all the appropriate variables, what action will the military take, the evidence from past revolutions allows us to reach some useful generalizations such as that conscript armies are less likely to shoot at demonstrators than professional armies. At the end of the day, however, there is no way around the sobering reality that the weight of each variable is ultimately determined by the individual context. There is simply no short-cut, no substitute to knowing deeply the individual case we are interested in speculating about.

In some cases foreseeing the role of the military is not at all difficult. Looking at the recent Arab upheavals, for instance, no one with even a passing familiarity of Bahrain would have been surprised that the all-Sunni Muslim Bahraini security establishment sided with the Sunni ruling elites against the mostly-Shiite rebels. Predicting this outcome was easy because in Bahraini politics, society deep sectarian divisions trump all other factors that might otherwise need to be pondered. Anticipating that the Tunisian army would support the revolution was somewhat more difficult-but considering that a) it was a highly professional conscript army that was never involved in politics; b) the army was a marginalized component of Ben Ali's security establishment; c) the regime had little legitimacy in the eyes of its soldiers and the population; d) the uprising was extremely popular and the troops were open to fraternization-did not require prophetic powers.

So what about Syria? Why could those familiar with the country confidently prognosticate that the majority of the army's officer corps would stick with Assad's regime till the bitter end? In this case too, making an educated guess was not particularly challenging. The sectarian composition of the Syrian armed forces was the critical factor affecting the military leadership's decision to stand firm behind Bashar's regime and to inflict massive violence in its defense. Even though thousands of conscripted soldiers and mostly lower-level officers have deserted or joined the uprising, the top brass-with a very few exceptions-and most of the officer corps have continued to side with the regime. How to explain the army's response?

First, some background. The Syrian leadership, perhaps more than that of any other Arab republic, has been keenly aware of threats to topple it. Between 1949 and 1970 at least ten coups d'état were mounted in Damascus, often with various military factions fighting one another. Bashar's father, President Hafez Assad (1971-2000), a former air force general, was a participant in at least three of them (1962, 1966, and 1970) and realized the necessity of coup-proofing his regime. Once in power, he made the military his own, managed to unify the different factions of officers, and created a number of internal security organizations-subordinated directly to him-that spied on each other and on the regular armed forces in an attempt to guarantee the military's loyalty. In a very real sense the Assads have been preparing for a popular insurrection all their political lives.

Although ethnically the vast majority of Syrians are Arab with the exception of the Kurdish minority (7-8%), the country's 23 million citizens are deeply divided along sectarian lines (10-11% Alawis, 10-11% Christians, perhaps 5% other minorities the 60-65% Sunni Muslim majority). The Assad family, along with most of the country's ruling elites, hails from the Alawite community. Tensions between majority Sunnis and Alawites are long standing, nevertheless Hafez managed to co-opt a large proportion of the Sunni business elites granting them various opportunities to enrich themselves. To the extent that there was sectarian peace prior to 2011, it was uneasy, and the threat of coercion was never far from the surface. In February 1982, the Assad regime met the establishment of a Muslim Brotherhood stronghold among Sunnis in the city of Hama with an assault that is believed to have killed tens of thousands.

Why have Syrian officers sided with Bashar's regime? The officer corps has been dominated by the Alawites at least since 1955, when they began to control the military section of the Ba'ath Party. As the uprising began, the question of regime-loyalty essentially came down to sectarian affiliation. Roughly four-fifth of the officer corps as well as the commanders of the numerous intelligence agencies are Alawites. Although the Alawite sect does not staff the entire officer corps, Alawites hold virtually all sensitive and important positions in the armed forces. For instance, while most Syrian air force pilots were Sunni, the air defense force that controlled logistics and communication was mainly Alawite, preventing the pilots from making a play for power. There are nearly a dozen paramilitary forces in the country, all of them are led by Assad-family confidants and consist of highly-motivated fighters loyal to the regime. Bashar's brother, Maher, a brigadier general, is the commander of the Republican Guard as well as the army's elite Fourth Armored Division; these two special units along with Syria's secret police form the core of the country's security forces. His brother-in-law, Asaf Shawkat, was the head of Military Intelligence and later a deputy minister of defense. (He died, along with the defense minister and several top defense officials, in a bomb attack in July 2012.)

The Syrian military at the beginning of the civil war numbered approximately 300,000: perhaps two-thirds of these were draftees, a large proportion of whom was drawn from the majority Sunni community. With the onset of the civil war, Sunni conscripts-repelled by the level of violence their Alawite officers were willing to inflict on protesters-started to defect and were joined by some Sunni civilians. In fact, the vast majority of the Free Syrian Army is made up of these soldiers and their officers, few of whom are Alawites. Many divisions that consist mainly of drafted Sunni soldiers have not been deployed to quell the uprising; instead, the regime has increasingly turned to the army's Third and Fourth divisions, special forces, and irregulars, often called shabiha, which are heavily Alawi or belong to other minorities sympathetic to the regime.

Syrian officers are unlikely to turn against a regime that has treated them well. Notwithstanding the presence of numerous elite and paramilitary forces, regular armed forces officers did not have to accept second-place status behind other security formations as was the case in Libya or Tunisia. To help keep them loyal, the regime has permitted them a degree of economic involvement and granted them other perquisites. As is common among armies of authoritarian states, the Syrian military is heavily indoctrinated-Kenneth Pollack in his Arabs at War considered it the most politicized army in the Arab world-and loyalty to the regime often outweighs professional merit in determining who gets promoted. In addition, the Assads integrated numerous influential officers in the Ba'ath Party structures to cement their allegiance to the regime.

The top brass consider the rule of Assad and the Ba'ath Party to be entirely legitimate and they are well aware that they can expect the worst should the opposition come out on top eventually. Since the outbreak of the uprising, Assad and his ruling political elites have managed to convince the Alawites and some of the smaller religious minority communities that regime survival was synonymous with their physical survival. The army's involvement in past episodes of brutality such as the Hama massacre also counsels against trying to switch sides. Moreover, the army may be confident, as some commentators are, that the insurrection does not represent the popular will. According to an essay by Musa al-Gharbi in the spring 2013 issue of Middle East Policy, the overwhelming majority of Syrians is ambivalent or opposed to the rebellion. In other words, Alawites-and other supporters of Assad's rule-would have nothing to gain but everything to lose if the government was toppled. Consequently, they are in the fight for the bitter end, as they have declared repeatedly.

Although Syria has plenty of enemies in the region some of whom have helped the rebels, it is by no means a pariah state like Qaddafi's Libya was. Its close relationship with Hezbollah's military arm in Lebanon has yielded significant military assistance. Syria's alliance with Iran may be the most enduring in the Middle East. Iran's Revolutionary Guard and its elite Quds Force have not only trained Syrian soldiers but have fought with them. Both Hezbollah and the Revolutionary Guard have vowed to continue to fight against the rebels in Syria even if/after Assad is overthrown. The Assads' regime has had a decades-long friendship with the Soviet Union/Russia which, along with Iran, has continued to supply it with armaments including sophisticated new missile systems. Thus, unlike the rebels, whose permanent complaint is "not enough weapons and ammunition," the regime seems not to suffer from a lack of either.

In short, the Alawite-dominated officer corps has every reason to stick with Assad's regime. Given the treatment they could expect from their enemies if they were to switch sides after more than two years of brutal fighting, that option seems harder and harder to justify; in fact, according to al-Gharbi, "military defections have virtually ceased." Those who know Syria are hardly surprised by the officers' loyalty to the regime.