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Hama Rules: the resilience of the Syrian Army

Commentary, 1 August 2011
Middle East and North Africa
As tanks roll into the Syrian town of Hama to crush opposition to President Assad, the international community has voiced its outrage at the ensuing human rights violations. But unlike Libya, words will not be followed up by deeds.

As tanks roll into the Syrian town of Hama to crush opposition to President Assad, the international community has voiced its outrage at the ensuing human rights violations. But unlike Libya, words will not be followed up by deeds.

By Shashank Joshi for RUSI.org

Syria crackdown Daraa

When Syrian tanks stormed Hama on the morning of Sunday 30 July, they swept through like haunting echoes of the forces that comprehensively destroyed that city in 1982. On that occasion, several hundred times as many residents perished, and the city's resistance was extinguished.

Bashar al-Assad has not yet penetrated Hama's centre as his father did nearly thirty years ago, to such devastating effect. But his army's sectarian loyalty suggests that it has every chance of doing so, thereby preserving its weakened but still-firm grip on the country.

The Assad dynasty

The Assad dynasty's strength is rooted in colonial-era decisions taken long ago by the occupying French. They built up Syria's Alawite sect after the First World War as a counterweight to the Ottoman-backed Sunni majority.

Alawite officers dominated the military from the 1960s, seizing power in successive coups in the latter part of the decade. Hafez al-Assad took over in 1970 after the 'Corrective Revolution', an intra-party power grab. He built up a cohesive and sprawling military and intelligence apparatus built around Alawite-dominated institutions - these functioned pitifully against Israel in successive wars, but with lethal efficiency against Syrians, as with Hama in 1982 and, now, 2011.

Syria has therefore followed an entirely different trajectory than Libya or Egypt. This has something to do with the peculiar character of Syria's government, fiercely anti-Israeli and occasionally clothed in the garb of reform.

It also enjoys fortuitous geopolitical conditions, with support from Iran and a cagey stance from regional powers. Those countries, like many uncommitted citizens of Syria, are afraid of ethno-sectarian chaos unfolding at what Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser famously called the 'beating heart of Arabism'. But Syria's resilience, and the brutal fight-back from its army, is also rooted in the sectarian nature of its security forces.

Alawite armies

Its army is neither fractured (like Muammar Qaadhafi's) nor independent (like Hosni Mubarak's), and is therefore both able and willing to act with overwhelming force against compatriots. Just as Bahrain employed imported Pakistani and Arab Sunni soldiers against predominantly Shia protesters, Assad has established a security apparatus whose very identity binds them to the ruling classes. 

70 per cent of Syria's full-time soldiers, and 80 per cent of officers, are Alawite. The 4th Mechanised Division and Republican Guard, along with the influential air force intelligence, are drawn entirely from that sect. The Shabiha, an Alawite militia, has also been crucial over the last four months of repression. The consequence of this transformation of Syria's military into a de facto confessional militia is that its commanders and many of its rank-and-file see little viable future in a post-Assad Syria. And in fighting for their institutional and personal survival, they fight with all the more ruthlessness.

A coup is not inconceivable - Bashar Assad's uncle, Rifa'at al-Assad, attempted to seize power after leading the anti-Islamist crackdowns of the early 1980s. But those actors most empowered to swing the security services away from the regime are also least likely to be interested in anything approaching a meaningful reform process.

So far, elite units have remained almost entirely loyal. The 4th Division, led by Bashar Assad's brother Maher, was used to quell Deraa in the south. It was employed against the besieged town of Jisral-Shughour, pushing thousands of refugees into Turkey, and it is now punching through Damascus' suburbs to crush protests before Ramadan. It is operating with speed and efficiency.

The trust in this unit is unsurprising. Its institutional history is rooted in the Saraya al-Difaa (Defence Companies). That was an elite paramilitary force based on the outskirts of Damascus, and linked to the historically loyal air force. Its responsibility was to protect the regime, and conduct important covert missions in Lebanon and elsewhere. Even before the Hama massacre, in 1980 it was involved in putting down protests in Aleppo and slaughtering over a thousand Muslim Brotherhood prisoners at Tadmor Prison.

Units like this now face their most severe test in the forty-year history of the regime, but they are in a much stronger position than their Libyan counterparts.

Too few defections

Against this narrative of army loyalty, it is worth noting that the bulk of Syrian conscripts are Sunnis. Parts of the largely Sunni 5th Division defected early on in the south, even firing on their counterparts in the 4th Division. Other units, like the 9th Division, have also seen troops peel away, particularly where Sunni conscripts from poor agricultural regions have been ordered to fire on co-sectarians. On Saturday, a Colonel Riad al-Asaad claimed that he had defected near the Turkish borer with hundreds of soldiers.

The bloodshed at Hama may accelerate this process - no army could perpetrate an onslaught of this magnitude without shedding some of its manpower. Even in the 'successful' massacre at Tiananmen Square, a remarkable 3,500 Chinese officers disobeyed orders.

But unlike the mass defections that took place in eastern Libya, Syria's dispersed and sporadic mutineers have poor prospects of serving as the nucleus of any rebel army. Though small numbers of protesters do appear to have begun arming themselves, they will struggle to tip this patchwork insurrection into a civil war.

That will only succeed if Sunni units defect en masse and the rebellion acquires such geographic spread - particularly into Aleppo and central Damascus - that the military is stretched to breaking point. Currently, as the press attaché in the US embassy in Damascus succinctly noted, 'there is one big armed gang in Syria, and it's named the Syrian government'.

The foreign hand

Will Hama prove to be another Benghazi, prompting outraged observers to step in? Almost certainly not.

Turkey, anxious at refugee flows, might have broken the stalemate through intervention in the north. It is the country with the most leverage over Syria, with which it shares a long and partially porous border. But Turkey's army is mired in a domestic crisis, after the resignation of the country's entire military command. After winning an election, Prime Minister Erdogan briefly took a tough line against Syria, following months of wavering. Now, it seems, Erdogan has reduced the pressure, unwilling to risk wrecking ties with a pseudo-ally who might yet survive, and eager to shepherd his political capital for domestic battles.

The UN Security Council is highly unlikely to sanction foreign intervention in Syria. Russia has a Soviet-era naval base in the Syrian city of Tartus, and is anyway seething at NATO for taking the broadest possible interpretation on UN Resolution 1973 sanctioning intervention in Libya. Even if intervention were legally possible, it would be without the same regional sanction - the Arab League's secretary-general spoke against violence in Syria, but later condemned  'foreign interference' in the country, giving credence to the regime's entirely unsubstantiated allegations.

In short, the embattled activists of Hama are on their own. It is inevitable that an almost exclusively peaceful movement will eventually turn violent, particularly in those parts of the country, such as the northwest, into which the army will struggle to project power.

With the onset of Ramadan will come escalating protests, and new opportunities for the organisation of resistance. But in the meantime, as the echoes of Hama 1982 mingle with the bloodshed of Hama 2011, the Syrian armies are likely to continue their scorched earth campaign into the holy month.

Author

Shashank Joshi
Senior Research Fellow

Shashank Joshi is a Senior Research Fellow at RUSI. He specialises in international security in South Asia and the Middle East, with a... read more

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