Assad and His Army

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Syrian Army MI 18 helicopters with national flags fly over the demonstrators during a rally to support President Bashar al-Assad on the first anniversary of the anti-regime revolt in Damascus on 15 March 2012. (Photo: AFP - Louai Beshara)

By: Nicolas Nassif

Published Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Syria’s Western and Arab adversaries were hoping the Syrian army would split or mount a coup. Instead it has been spearheading the campaign against rebel strongholds.

The role of the Syrian army in the crisis besetting the Syrian regime that began last year seems simple enough to describe. It is the army that has prevented the regime from collapsing and its president from being toppled or forced to step down. Yet this role has raised some perplexing questions too.

The army did not get involved in the crisis until recently. In the first months, President Bashar Assad used the police to confront the mounting protest movement. But when the police fired at demonstrators this exacerbated the problem, inflaming public resentment at the killing of innocent people, and drawing negative Arab and international reactions.

Assad then withdrew the police and deployed security forces to maintain order, some units of which had quickly been given special training, with instructions not to fire except in self-defense.

In the months that followed, however, a section of the opposition – notably the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi groups – increasingly took up arms. They engaged in an armed conflict with the regime and succeeded in bringing villages, towns, and neighborhoods under their complete control.

This prompted Assad to resort to the army. Last month he ordered the army to take decisive military action and dislodge armed groups from the firm footholds they had established in Homs (especially the Baba Amr district), Idlib, Hama, and Zabadani. The first stage of this operation was completed some days ago, with the regime reclaiming control of the latter three cities. It estimated that there were 3,000 gunmen in Baba Amr and more than 5,000 in Idlib.

The success of the Syrian army in inflicting severe losses on the armed opposition enabled the Syrian president to reclaim the initiative. Residents of these areas paid a heavy price too, though the army tried to evacuate Homs and Idlib before moving in, so as to carry out what would amount to a mass execution of fighters affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, Salafi groups, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), and other militias.

Over the past few months, Western and Arab governments had counted on the army to play a different role while they considered possible scenarios for Syria – all of which subsequently fell through. These included the establishment of safe areas near the borders with Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq, military exclusion zones in cities such as Homs and Hama, direct Western military intervention, or the deployment of an Arab or combined Arab and international force to Syria.

They also counted on the FSA, but its commander, Colonel Riyadh Asaad, turned out to be a sham, leading a ramshackle force that is unable to encourage significant defections from the army. The FSA is now vastly outnumbered by other militias that are better organized, armed and funded.

A final scenario was the possibility of a military coup against Assad, but that failed to materialize either.

In the final analysis, Assad resorted to the army and won an important round via his latest decisive military action. But he has not yet succeeded – and may not for a long time – in achieving a decisive resolution to the security confrontation with the armed opposition.

Arab and Western governments had hoped for one of two things from the Syrian army. They believed large-scale defections from the army’s ranks could tip the balance in favor of the opposition, both armed and non-violent. Also it was believed that a coup could oust Assad and end Syria’s Arab and international isolation, halt the deterioration of the security situation, and salvage what can be saved of the Syrian state.

Syria’s adversaries looked for inspiration to the Egyptian model – whereby the army abandoned Hosni Mubarak and was able to force him to step down.

However, the Egyptian army’s ousting of Mubarak was due to its key position in the Egyptian power-structure. Egypt has never had a president with a civilian background. The head of state has been drawn from the ranks of the military and appointed with its support. The army acts as a parallel political authority, capable of determining the outcome of power-struggles within the regime, and of imposing its conditions on the president.

Anwar Sadat, for example, only won out in his power-struggle with the intelligence service in 1971 because of the help of the army. Mubarak would not have succeeded to power in 1981 if it were not for the army that abandoned him three decades later.

The experience of Libya, where the army was quick to split, also deceived Arab and Western governments into thinking that the Syrian president could be easily toppled.

But there are many reasons why the Egyptian and Libyan models do not apply in the case of Syrian army:

1 – The Syrian army is an ideological army, the army of the Baath Party. Since Hafez Assad came to power in 1971 it has been subject to strict ideological education, making it the regime’s army first and foremost. This had been the case since the Baath came to power in 1963.

But the army was not immune to the political, factional, and personal rivalries within the party which led to a succession of coups until 1969. Only after Hafez Assad took over did he bring the army and the party under his complete control, purging them of his opponents.

2 – Assad controlled the army with an iron fist. He reserved the upper echelons for Alawi officers or Baathist Christians and Sunnis. Non-Alawi and non-Baathists stand little chance of promotion, and, of course, opposition sympathizers are not admitted into the military academy. Connections play a limited role in nominating officers with uncertain loyalties who are close to the ruling party. Assad also exercised complete control over the entire intelligence and security establishments.

The same goes for Bashar Assad. No armored units leave their bases or come near Damascus without prior permission from army intelligence. The regime has learned from the old days, when the appearance of tanks and personnel carriers on the streets was often a prelude to the president finding himself in prison or in a grave.

3 – With the introduction of a new constitution in 1973, the army became the central force tasked with upholding the Baath party’s status as leader of the state and society. The army, as opposed to constitutional and national institutions, was deemed best able to apply this in practice.

4 – Recent events have made the Baath Party seem weak and in retreat. It is under pressure from protesters demanding an end to its rule which has stifled political life in Syria for nearly half a century. But the extent of the party’s penetration of the army, security forces, youth organizations, universities, and unions gives a different impression.

The Baath Party appeared be a paper tiger when it came to street demonstrations. Rumors abounded about the reasons for its failure to organize rallies similar to those led by the peaceful opposition. It was said that local branches urged party bosses to refrain from organizing such events to avoid revealing splits between Assad’s Baathists and non-Baathist supporters.

As a result, loyalist demonstrations have appeared as though they represent the president’s party rather than the regime’s. Regardless, the army, security forces, and Baath Party have, of course, been involved in organizing these rallies and securing the participation of regime loyalists in the public and private sectors, universities, schools, and military.

The largest such event was in February, when the regime called for a show of support that brought hundreds of thousands onto the streets to welcome Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. One of the most effective means of mobilizing support for the regime and army is via slogans that play on public fears of the militarization of the opposition and suicide bombings.

5 – It was clear to Assad from the early days of the protests that major problems were caused by the lack of serious coordination between the various security agencies and between them and the army. In addition, the regime had never been tested in a conflict of this nature that is on the verge of being a civil war.

Many accusations were traded concerning the failure to tackle the situation while blame was assigned to some for mistakes that had been made. The regime has since restored cohesion between the security agencies and the army, organizing and strengthening coordination between them, while keeping decision-making in the hands of the president alone.

The army and security forces exchange information and share roles, depending on the task at hand. Security agencies may borrow troops from brigades to carry out an attack, or entrust the regular army to undertake it. Often they work in tandem, with the army bombarding militant strongholds before before security agencies move in to “clean” the area and carry out raids and arrests.

Nicolas Nassif is a political analyst at Al-Akhbar.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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