The Middle East Channel

Will the Syrian army join the dissent movement?

The strong motivations and deep grievances of the Egyptian people and the opportunities that were available to them to demonstrate in large numbers and great determination were the underlying causes of the success of the Egyptian revolution. But what made the critical difference on the ground was the fact that the Egyptian army refused to intervene and fire at the protestors. Had the Egyptian army reacted ...

The strong motivations and deep grievances of the Egyptian people and the opportunities that were available to them to demonstrate in large numbers and great determination were the underlying causes of the success of the Egyptian revolution. But what made the critical difference on the ground was the fact that the Egyptian army refused to intervene and fire at the protestors. Had the Egyptian army reacted to the demonstrations differently, it is not at all clear that the outcome would have been positive. As the bloody showdown between the Syrian protestors and the Assad regime escalates, the attitude and behavior of the Syrian army may prove equally pivotal. Will it? 

The Syrian army’s calculations will depend first and foremost on the endurance and growth of the Syrian dissent movement. Harsh repression and brutal killings by the regime so far have not deterred the courageous Syrian protestors. On the contrary, the dissent movement seems to be growing and it may only be a matter of time before it reaches the heart of the capital. So far, the Syrian army has intervened militarily in Daraa and other towns and villages where dissent is present. Yet it appears that most of the killings have been perpetrated by the regime’s private militias and internal security forces. If the Syrian dissent movement continues to spread, attracts a larger portion of Syrian society including Sunni members, and mobilizes and organizes more effectively, will the Syrian army kill thousands of civilians like it did in February, 1982 against the Muslim Brotherhood in Hamah? 

Analysts are divided on that crucial question. Some have argued that the Syrian army will not hesitate to commit mass atrocities, given its organic link to the Assad regime and the many privileges it enjoys from that relationship. What is more, by giving in to the dissent movement and allowing a more democratic order to emerge in Damascus, the army might lose money, power, and prestige. Others have maintained that while the Syrian generals do enjoy a favorable clientelistic relationship with President Bashar Assad and his cronies in the Ba’ath party, the foot soldiers do not. Therefore, the poor Syrian soldier is more likely to sympathize with the plight of the Syrian people, refuse to engage militarily, and potentially split with the army. Witnesses on the ground in Daraa have already seen signs of that happening, though it is difficult to confirm these developments given the lack of foreign media access to Syria.

The dissent movement has also tried to convey to foreign journalists through blogs, videos on YouTube, and interviews that there have been numerous defections in the Syrian army and that several assassinations of military officials said to be sympathetic to the protesters have been taking place. The minority Alawite sect forms the backbone of the Assad regime and controls the military and intelligence apparatus in Syria (including the notorious Air Force Intelligence Directorate which spearheaded the Hamah crackdown), but the army’s ranks are mainly composed of Sunnis. Therefore, any divisions within the Syrian military are likely to be along sectarian lines, with Sunnis siding with the dissenters and Alawites siding with the regime, though the Alawite community is not homogenous and could possibly witness cracks within its members as well.

As the United States anxiously monitors events in Syria, there is very little it can do to assist the Syrian protestors. It lacks the deep personal connections and financial sources of leverage which it enjoyed with the Egyptian military. But the Obama administration is not without options. The options usually proposed — such as withdrawing the U.S. ambassador in Damascus, freezing the assets of regime leaders, and denouncing human rights violations — are important. But what could make a more immediate difference and directly help the dissent movement is to focus on altering the cost-benefit calculations of the Syrian military. By making it more costly for the Syrian military to side with the regime and more rewarding to abandon it, Washington could be doing the biggest service to the dissent movement.

For Washington to effectively manipulate the Syrian military’s calculations it is essential that it know what the Syrian military values most and what are some of the reasonable and realistic concessions it may be willing to make. Like all modern national military organizations around the world, the Syrian military’s number one priority is the wellbeing and modernization of its forces, and specifically, their ability to guard against internal and external threats, protect the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the nation, and advance its foreign policy goals. Prestige, private benefits, sectarian politics, and political influence, while certainly important and relevant especially in the Syrian context, come after the crucial mission of defense and foreign policy.

The United States has the diplomatic capacity to positively or negatively influence the Syrian military’s ability to carry out its national mission. Let’s start with sticks: Washington can work both unilaterally and multilaterally on that front. Unilaterally, the U.S. Department of Treasury can apply harsh economic sanctions against the regime’s several paramilitary, intelligence, and internal security forces, like it did with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The United States can also work with its allies on a UN resolution that forbids arms sales to the Syrian army (the Europeans, led by the UK, France, and Germany are already working on that proposal). Obviously, this would be a far more challenging diplomatic approach to pursue given that Russia and China are likely to veto such a resolution and Iran and North Korea would continue to supply Syria with weapons. But by raising the issue at international forums and showing diplomatic unity and resolve, the United States and its allies can make it more politically costly for non-cooperative states to torpedo the initiative.

But the United States should also make it clear to the Syrian army, both publicly and privately, that there would be extensive rewards for joining the dissent movement and splitting with the regime. Public statements by senior U.S. officials, be it President Obama or Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, highlighting the role the Syrian army should play in this crisis can help clarify Washington’s intentions and policies. Washington should also send private messages to the Syrian generals, preferably through Turkish emissaries and diplomats, detailing what kind of U.S. financial and military assistance the Syrian military would receive in the event it cooperates. The Syrian military is likely to snub Washington’s proposal, but this is not inevitable. After all, Syria’s generals may calculate, out of their sense of national responsibility, that they have an opportunity to not only save the country from descending into total chaos or civil war but also modernize the military and turn it into a respectable and powerful force.

This begs the question what kind of role the Syrian military would possibly play in post-Assad Syria. Ideally, the Syrian military would oversee the transition from dictatorship to relative democracy and eventually step aside and play the role of the Turkish military, as a guardian of political stability and the democratic process. In reality, the Syrian military may be tempted to wage a coup against Assad and assume all powers in the country. Hence the critical need for that public and private channel of communication between Washington and the Syrian generals. Washington would have to make it very clear to the Syrian military leadership that substituting one dictatorship with another is out of the question. The United States and its allies may want to seriously consider offering credible guarantees to the Syrian military that they would protected from international prosecution, but only on the condition that bloodshed would stop now before casualties mount and it becomes too late.

Sanctioning Bashar Assad and his cronies is all good and well, but those who have a more immediate handle of the security situation on the ground are those who carry the guns. All U.S. diplomacy should focus now on finding ways to persuade the Syrian military to be on the right side of history. It won’t be easy to do and the chances of success may be minimal, but it is a high-impact, low-cost strategy that is well worth pursuing by Washington.

Bilal Y. Saab is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Maryland’s Department of Government & Politics, College Park.

Bilal Y. Saab is senior fellow and director of the Defense and Security Program at the Middle East Institute.

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