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Around the World, Across the Political Spectrum

Not (Only) Assad’s Fault: The Military Effect in Syria

By Ore Koren*

Civil war, as its name suggests, is usually toughest on civilians. The recent calls for intervention in Syria have reemphasized this point, as the UN estimates that over 60,000 civilians have been killed since the eruption of the armed conflict in March 2011. The blame has largely been focused on the leader of the Syrian Government, President Bashar al-Assad. Both the international community and the Syrian opposition have called for the removal of the Syrian dictator, the implicit logic being that Assad’s removal will provide Syrian civilians with some modicum of respite and will allow for a political transition in favor of the opposition forces. The targeting of Syrian civilians, however, is more suggestive of a military-gone-rogue than an organized decision-making process intended to target civilians. In Syria, as in other contexts, once the military is deployed, the political leadership’s initiative is severely curtailed, and the tendency to violence is influenced by factors related to the military’s organization and structure rather than to a centralized decision-making process originating with the political leadership. Hence, the removal of Assad from power may provide a pleasant catharsis for the Western world, and a symbolic victory for the Syrian opposition, but it will not end civilian suffering. The only way to do that is to neutralize the Syrian army, a task that currently no state is willing to take.

The Syrian military is inherently dangerous to civilians for several reasons. First, the authority of the military over other civilian organizations is almost absolute and its influence over the government in matters of security is supreme. The Syrian officer corps enjoys and elite status in Syria, and because Assad’s military background is limited, especially in comparison to his deceased father’s and older brother’s, he is more inclined to rely on his generals for advice. A military organization that has fewer people to whom it must answer (if any, as in the case of a military junta) is more likely to carry out solutions of its own design. These solutions, which rarely contain a diplomatic component, involve treating the protesters like an invading army and produce more casualties. Two ongoing examples are the treatment of the Ogoni campaign by the military government of Nigeria and the violent repression of any political or ethnic protest by the military junta in Myanmar.

Second, in Syria certain groups hold a monopoly on power within the military itself. Militaries that recruit only or mostly from one ethnic, political, or religious group are more likely to use violence, or follow orders to use violence, against protesters from other groups. The growing representation of Serbs in the Yugoslav military in the late 1980s and early 1990s was one example for this, as was the Israeli reaction of the 1987 Intifada. There is a specific mix of political and ethnic power relations in the Syrian military, where the elite commando units and the majority of the officer corps are reserved for the Ala’wi minority (Assad’s own ethnic group), while the general staff, although it does include senior officers of Sunni descent, is strongly affiliated with the ruling Ba’ath party. Sunni and opposition protesters are hence viewed as a foreign element (a fifth column) and as a danger that must be thwarted violently. Although most regular units do contain Sunni soldiers, the initiative to use violence and the ability to impose their will on the troops lies in the hands of the dominant ethnic and political groups and their supporters (mostly the members of other minority groups such as Druze and Christians).

Third, the Syrian conflict involves paramilitary forces, which are used either directly (as a subsidiary of the military) or indirectly (as a subsidiary of the government). Paramilitaries are frequently used to handle the Sisyphean aspects of the conflict, which the military would deem as below its duties: removing civilians from their homes and, in some cases, executing them. A few recent examples for the role of paramilitaries during conflict are those of the Janjaweed in Sudan, the Interahamhe in Rwanda, and the various paramilitary groups employed by all combatants during the Yugoslav Wars. In many cases paramilitary volunteers are more politically indoctrinated or ethnically chauvinistic than members of the military, which means they independently initiate violence against civilians. In Syria the role of an ethnically chauvinistic paramilitary is played by the Shabbiha, an Ala’wi organization that seems to operate under both government and military auspices, and specifically targets Sunni civilians.

The main question that should be raised regarding current possible solutions is whether the military would lay down its arms if it is ordered to do so. When Assad deployed his army to Dara’a the Syrian campaign escalated in more ways than one. It accentuated the conflict between Ala’wis and Sunnis, Ba’athists and the political opposition. It placed a high-risk military organization in collision with groups of armed and unarmed persons it considers to be an existential threat. Assad may be responsible for the conflict’s eruption and escalation, but he is only indirectly responsible for the high number of civilian casualties produced by military and paramilitary violence. If he were removed, the next incumbent in line would most likely not be a member of the opposition, but a senior member of the military (or another member of the Assad family), which would give the military even more autonomy in pursuing its own strategy. In addition, the fall of the Ala’wi minority from power will exert a stronger existential threat on the Shabbiha, making it much more violent to Sunni civilians. Hence, the effect of removing Assad without dismantling the military and the Shabbiha is unlikely to bring a change in the plight of the Syrian population. It may even make things worse.

* Special thanks go to Lee-Or Ankori-Karlinsky for reading this paper and providing illuminating comments.

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Tue, May 14, 2013 12:56 AM (about 98102 hours ago)
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