Syria: the army is the key

By JONATHAN SPYER
14/06/2011

In the aftermath of the taking of Jisr al-Shughour by the Syrian army, it has become clear that the direction of events in Syria depends largely on the cohesiveness of Bashar Assad’s security forces.

If the army remains largely united behind the leadership of the dictator, then the brutal repression of the protests looks set to continue.

If, on the other hand, significant fragmentation of the military occurs, then the prospect is for possible civil war. Since large-scale international intervention into Syria looks unlikely, the army has become the key.

The events in Jisr al-Shughour followed the claim, almost certainly false, by the regime that it had discovered the corpses of 120 policemen. These men had, according to Syrian official media, been massacred by the phantom “terrorist” forces who the Syrian authorities claim have been responsible for the uprising since its onset. Local activists said that the bodies were those of members of the security forces who had refused to fire on protesters and who had been executed by their own side.

But while the “terrorists” remain the likely product of the official Syrian media’s Soviet-style imagination, there is evidence that elements of the security forces have gone over to the opposition. So far, this has happened only sporadically, and has involved individuals of low and middling rank.

The regime’s savage response to all signs of hesitancy in the security forces shows that it is well aware of the cardinal importance of this issue.

In the early stages of the uprising, in Deraa, elements of the largely conscript and mainly Sunni 5th Division sought to prevent the largely Alawite 4th Division from firing on demonstrators.

The result was exchanges of fire between the two units. Opposition sources say that a number of soldiers of the 5th Division were executed in the aftermath of these events.

In Jisr al-Shughour, it appears a larger-scale mutiny took place. An Associated Press report quoted eyewitnesses who described “thousands” of army defectors, who sought to slow the advance of the Syrian army into the town, to allow refugees to escape toward the Turkish border.

Assad is no longer ruling with even the pretence of his people’s consent.

Rather, the Syrian regime appears to have declared war on a large section of its own people. The 220,000- strong regular Syrian armed forces and the 64,000 full-time members of the state security services are almost certainly sufficient, if they remain loyal, and absent international intervention, to keep the regime in place. But will they remain loyal?

The problem for the regime has long been its narrow, sectarian base of support, centered on the Alawite community, to which the Assad family belongs. In the armed forces and the security services, the regime has sought to counter this by ensuring Alawite domination of the officer corps and of certain units.

The Syrian Arab Army, as it is officially called, has 11 divisions, of which two, the Presidential Guard and the 4th Armored Division, are largely Alawite and are considered reliably loyal to the regime. The regime also has a number of special forces units on which it can rely. The other nine regular units are mainly Sunni, and are worse trained and equipped. It is from units of this type, such as the 11th Division, that the defections to the uprising have come. The officers of these units are preponderantly Alawite, with a number of regime-supporting Sunnis also represented.

The command of the security services shows the way that the regime has sought to co-opt Sunnis, while retaining overall Alawite domination. Of the four security services, two (Military Intelligence and Air Force Intelligence) are under the control of Alawites, while two (Political Security and State Security) are headed by pro-regime Sunnis.

Defections from the army have so far been sporadic and limited. Assad has sought to deploy a combination of the Alawite units loyal to him, the security forces and irregular, mainly Alawite fighters (the “Shabiha”) as his main instruments of repression.

He has tried, with good reason, to keep the less reliable, mainly Sunni units out of the fray, as much as possible.

The opposition well understands the now pivotal role of the military.

Leading dissident Radwan Ziadeh, interviewed this week by Asharq al-Awsat, noted that “our principal goal at this stage and all our focus is on the Syrian army.” He mentioned that the opposition has sought to organize demonstrations honoring the army’s role in national defense. The opposition’s “National Initiative for Change” document also envisages a continued role for defense officials in the transitional stage.

Whether any of this will be sufficient to cause real fissures in the Syrian army is not yet known. But it is clear to both sides, as Ziadeh noted, that a determined international response capable of bringing down the regime does not look forthcoming. The US administration has yet to even call on the Syrian dictator to step down. So if Bashar can hold his army together, he stands a good chance of surviving – to rule over a shaken, sectarian regime lacking any domestic legitimacy.

If the opposition can split the military, the two parts will then fight each other.

The prize will be rule over Syria. The result – impossible to predict.

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