As President Bashar al-Assad’s regime tries to cope with growing unrest and protests throughout much of Syria, he will almost inevitably have to rely on his army to take a wider role in attempts to restore order. But we should not make the mistake of thinking that Syria is about to follow the path of Egypt. Unlike Egypt, few Syrians look at the army as a benign institution. Rather, it is as a palace guard, meant to keep the ruling Alawite sect in power.
The Alawites, an offshoot of Shia Islam, represent about 11 per cent of the population. It is only thanks to their control of the army (and intelligence services) that they keep their grip on Syria. So no matter how bad things become, Syrians would never trust them to oversee any reform, let alone democratisation.
When I was working in Syria in the 1980s, a Syrian officer offered me an insight into the reality of the country’s army. One night not long after the 1973 war, the officer was up late into the night keeping previous president Hafiz al-Assad company. Around three, he watched Assad as he picked up the phone from the side table and asked his operator to put him through to a frontline post on the Israeli border. A lieutenant came on the phone, sleepy and irritated that he had been woken up.
Assad asked him his name. Rather than answering, the lieutenant asked who his caller was. When Assad told him, the lieutenant naturally enough lost his composure and could only stammer his name. He became even more confused when Assad started to ask the lieutenant about his family and village, knowing all the names of his brothers. “Assad had no idea who would be on duty that night,” the Syrian officer told me. “But it is the very reason Assad has so tightly held on to power all these years. It was his army.”
Assad made it a habit to read every officer’s file, committing their personal details to memory. He also personally approved transfers and promotions. But more importantly, Assad instituted an unwritten rule that every large combat unit would be under the command of an Alawite officer. There would still be Sunni commanders, but in name only. They would have no real power over their units and were not permitted to put a single aircraft into the air or drive a tank out of cantonment – without the authority of the ranking Alawite. The Alawite officers were related either by blood or bonds of loyalty that could never be broken.
Assad’s son, having become his successor, has shown few of his father’s sharp political instincts but he has had the good sense to leave his father’s military system in place. Like every other Alawite, he understood that this is a matter of survival for his sect and his hold on power these last 10 years has depended on it.
Over the weekend an Alawite with ties to the Assad family messaged me in frustration about how little the west understands about Syria, what is at stake and how far the Alawites will go to hold on to power. He said the police in Dara’a – the town where the first demonstration started – had fired on the crowd in order to protect the lives of Alawites. At the same time he was worried that things might go too far. The hardliners around Mr Assad say that the Alawites cannot afford to make concessions to the street. If they do so they risk being forced from power. Only decisive and unanswerable force will work, as history has shown.
In February 1982, the Muslim Brotherhood seized Hama, Syria’s fourth largest city. For several days Mr Assad’s father hesitated on how to respond. But when he heard that dozens of Alawites had been massacred, without a second thought, he ordered the army to shell the town. His commanders were told to spare no one in putting down the revolt.
I visited Hama one year later, seeing for myself how Assad’s artillery had all but removed the town from the earth. The Alawites I talked to were not happy, but they believed that the Sunni rebellion was snuffed out only thanks to the regime’s violent reprisal. Then, just as today, the Alawites recognised it was the Alawite-led army that safeguarded their survival.
There is no way to predict whether Mr Assad has the stomach for another Hama, or for that matter, whether things will get bad enough for him to consider it. But the one certainty is that if he and the Alawites are forced from power, Syria will not have an army to fill the vacuum. And then the question becomes whether or not the west intervenes to stop a civil war.
Only a fool would predict what is coming next in the Middle East. But if Hama is any guide, the potential for violence in Syria makes Libya and Yemen look mild. Moreover, chances are good that chaos in Syria risks spilling into neighbouring countries – notably Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq, and maybe even the Arab side of the Gulf, which is already riven by sectarian divisions. This is a worst-case scenario, but the point is if it comes about, there will be no way the west could just stand by and hope for the best. [no, this is not a "worst-case scenario." It is a "best-case scenario" and there is no need for the West to "hope for the best." That would be the best.]]
The writer is a former CIA operative in the Middle East