Decisive Military Defections in Syria: A Case of Wishful Thinking
Since March 2011, observers of the Syrian conflict watched with anticipation the behavior of Syria’s security forces, hoping that they would eventually follow the examples of the Tunisian, Egyptian, or Libyan security forces during the heady days of the Arab spring. Yet after five years, the Syrian security forces remain largely loyal to the Assad regime, with no shift in sight. Indeed, the Assad regime’s endurance is explained by the steadfast loyalty of the top brass of the Syrian Arab Army and the myriad security and intelligence agencies. Their refusal to abandon the regime’s pursuit of a security solution — despite pleas by peaceful protestors from the early days of the uprising for the army to stand with them — can now be seen as one of the main reasons that ensured this civil war would be a long one.
As the regime escalated its violent response to protests, defections did accelerate. But aside from occasional cases of high-ranking defectors who were already outside the trusted security circles, the majority of defections were non-commissioned officers or conscripts. Those mainly joined the Free Syrian Army (FSA) or fled the country with their families to escape retaliation. The few cases of high-ranking defections in the first two years of the war had an insignificant impact on the calculations of the regime, its decision-making process, and the morale of security forces, which were largely able to maintain cohesion and resilience.
The regime has shielded itself against the risk of coups, key defections and fragmentation through a decades-long process of integrating and embedding into the security establishment both clan members and loyalist Alawites, followers of the esoteric offshoot of Shia Islam that the Assad family belongs to. The composition of security forces and the concentration of leadership into a very narrow cohort of individuals and families — most of which are now under E.U. and U.S. sanctions — has served the ultimate purpose of protecting the ruling family from a perennial threat of a Sunni-led revolt. Given this sectarian structure and its dynamics, it is not surprising that noticeable high-ranking military defections from core leadership have not occurred. The seemingly paradoxical ability of a “minoritarian” regime to withstand more than five years of onslaught in what has largely become a sectarian proxy-war owes itself to the politics of sectarian stacking in the military, which exacerbated Sunni officers’ grievances and alienation.
As Emile Hokayem illustrated in his response to Cyrus Malik’s articles, since the Syran Arab Army “is one of conscription and Syria is overwhelmingly Sunni, it would of course be disproportionately populated by Sunnis. Its best-performing, best-equipped, and most dependable units are markedly Alawite-heavy.” The regime was rarely characterized as sectarian, especially in its administrative functions. But the late president Hafez al-Assad, who ruled the country between 1970 until his death in 2000, did recognize the significance of maintaining the loyalty of the security forces for his survival, given his military background. Hafez understood the double-edged sword of overreliance on the security establishment and built safeguards to prevent coups, fragmentation, and mass defections. His son inherited this legacy and reinforced these tactics.
The Role of Alawites in the Security Establishment
Early on, Hafez realized that the army and intelligence services were indispensable to his survival, considering the never-ending coups and counter-coups since the country’s independence in 1946. Hence, he embarked on a shrewd policy of allocating Alawites largely from his own clan to elite units, as they would eventually occupy command positions. These units — especially the Republican Guards, 4th Division, and 11th Division — enjoy generous funding, special training, advanced weaponry, privileged status, and access to top leadership. Even lower-ranking officers in these elite units possess a de facto higher status and leverage over higher-ranking officers in ordinary units. Yet the population — particularly Sunnis — perceived the backbone of the regime as minoritarian, which would have ultimately posed serious obstacles to ensuring the loyalty and cohesion of this establishment in times of crisis. At the same time, the regime was also conscious of the country’s demography and the disproportionate inflow of rural Sunni conscripts and soldiers into the armed forces. To exude the appearance of an inclusive recruitment policy even as it kept a tight grip on these institutions, the regime deployed and transferred conscripts to away from their hometowns and far from its seat of power in Damascus to safeguard against any potential coups.
Paradoxically, Sunni merchants and elites — mainly from Damascus and Aleppo — indirectly participated in bolstering the “Alawitization” policy of the army and intelligence services. Since the French occupation of Syria between 1920 and 1946, they have harbored antagonistic views of the army, perceiving it as an instrument of the colonialists to divide and rule the country by recruiting minorities to suppress the Sunni majority. These institutions became the lifeline for minorities and (at a later stage) rural Sunnis as a form of integration, improved social status, and financial benefits. Long abhorred by the Sunni elite, they grew to look at these security institutions and their members with contempt for their lower economic status and desire to rise in social ranks. This trend continued following the rise of the socialist and military-oriented Baath Party to power in 1963, affording the sons of these elite the opportunity to avoid the compulsory and professional career in military service thanks to their better socioeconomic conditions, a path that Alawites and rural Sunnis did not have the luxury to pursue. Four decades of systematic recruitment of Alawites coupled with the voluntary and deliberate exclusion of the Sunnis from higher ranks led to Alawite hegemony of these institutions. Before 2011, Alawites occupied 80 percent of the commissioned officer positions, while elite units are drawn entirely from Alawite ranks. These elite commanders and units became the backbone of the Syrian regime and gained more importance since the start of the civil unrest in the country, the outcome of which is now tied to the loyalty of these Alawites and long-time loyalists.
Lower-ranking Sunni defectors who were dispatched to quell their co-religionists possess no sectarian attachment to the regime, the lack of which encouraged them to undertake the risks of defecting to join rebel groups or flee the country altogether. As a result, the regime has started closing its ranks by removing potential defectors and opposition-sympathizers and replacing them with reliable members. The Alawite officers remain steadfast in their support for the regime, serving as its special guard against Sunni defectors and the protestors at large. The regime also sought the assistance of the “old guard,” to prevent them from defecting and to seek their advice on security measures, which had helped the regime weather the Islamist-led rebellion three decades prior. The elite units have been instrumental in shielding the regime from internal dissent, both through the disproportionate power they acquired through and infiltration of ordinary units to monitor Sunni soldiers, which substantially increased the difficulty and risks associated with defecting. Since the beginning of the civil unrest, these elite units acted as a buffer and enforcer for frontline units during military operations, summarily executing potential defectors and sympathizers who hesitate or refuse to target protestors. Their unwavering support stems from the conviction that their own survival and that of other minorities in Syria is tied to the Assad regime. Additionally, the regime itself has been exceptionally successful at persuading its core constituencies that any attempt to question its authority is an imported foreign plot to undermine the sovereignty of the country, break the power of the “resistance camp” led by Iran, and empower the interests of Zionist-imperialist agenda.
Meanwhile, the promotion system lacks any meritocratic measures, based instead on loyalties and family connections. Intelligence agencies play a fundamental role in providing the back-office functions of recruitment, promotions, and even the purging of suspected dissenters. This arrangement kept the army under the purview of the intelligence services, which solidified the monopolistic power of the regime by monitoring military units and senior officers to ensure their loyalty and minimize the risk of conspiracy in what became a “coup-proof” praetorian guard. The current conflict demonstrates the strategic importance of this plan, which preserves the cohesion of the military even as it applies disproportionate force to the majority Sunni population without causing major cracks inside largely Sunni units. This policy proved essential in preserving the core of the regime in the face of increased Sunni defections, whose marginal role in the military structure had nothing but a limited impact on its modus operandi. Hence, expectations of an internal coup against the al-Assad family to save the regime or a concerted campaign of high-ranking defections remain wishful thinking.
The Regime and the Alawite Community: Two Sides of the Same Coin?
Early on in the uprising, Alawite communities (especially in the coastal region, where the regime enjoys unwavering support) criticized what they considered a “lenient” response by Assad against protestors. Many demanded an escalation of repression to put an end to what the regime had convinced them was a foreign conspiracy, instead of advocating for reconciliatory measures to reach a political compromise. A slogan quickly gained popularity amongst these communities, who are infatuated with the mystical cult of the president’s brother Maher: “Bashar to the clinic and Maher to the leadership.” This was a stark reminder that the regime’s brutality was not just condoned by its support base but even seen as insufficient to subdue the uprising, which was largely peaceful in the first year.
Contrary to prevailing stereotypes, the Alawite community remains largely poor, underprivileged, and marginalized. The power structure of the regime relies on a combination of family, clan, and patronage networks to build and maintain its legitimacy not from Alawites exclusively, but also from other minority groups such as Christians and Druze, as well as key Sunni business elites and officers. This also actually served it well for decades by giving credence to its long celebrated policy of “Arab nationalism” and avoid it any perception — or accusation — of pursuing sectarian policies. The regime capitalized on the Alawites’ general lack of educational and professional opportunities (something shared among all Syrians) combined with the manufactured fear of a Sunni-led rebellion to recruit them into the security apparatus in return for power and protection. This systematic recruitment produced a multiplier effect in terms of community loyalty and interdependency, which left the security forces entirely imprisoned to the policies of the regime.
Alawites were strongly reminded to rally behind the Assad family after the failed uprising in the late 1970s, which culminated in the death of at least 30,000 people following the army’s invasion of Hama in 1982 and the designation of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization. In 2011, the regime instrumentalized those fears by forcing Alawites to fight for it and preventing them from considering independent options, including mass defections or reaching out to the opposition. Additionally, influenced by the belief that the prospects of a Sunni-led government poses an existential threat to them after decades of disenfranchisement and persecution — starting during the Ottoman empire — Alawites have not shown any potential shifts in their unwavering support for the regime. The escalation of the conflict, growing sectarian undertones, and predominance of religious conservatism among rebel ranks combined to further polarize the Alawites and increase their intransigent allegiance to the regime. Today, Alawites are indistinguishable from the regime.
The inability of the regime to deploy all of its army units for worries of major defections gave renewed prominence to the notorious Alawite-dominated Shabbiha from the coastal region, which are now largely part of several militias including the National Defence Forces (NDF), Al-Baath Brigades, Desert Hawks, and Al-Bostan (funded by the president’s maternal cousin Rami Makhlouf). They were very active and formidable during the Syrian Arab Amy’s presence in Lebanon since 1976, mainly involved in smuggling activities and drug trafficking. The regime had to curb their outlawed activities and influence in the 1990s by sending in military units to the coast, resulting in a fierce confrontation and their ultimate submission to the regime.
Since the uprising, as discussed by Tobias Schneider, these groups’ confessional structure, opportunistic nature, and loose connection to the regime have served as a surrogate for unreliable Sunni units and an auxiliary for the overstretched Syrian Arab Army. Those militias, especially the NDF, have now acquired a more professional command and control, thanks to the financial support and training from regime businessmen, Iran, and Lebanese Hezbollah. As a result, their links to the military and security forces have strengthened stemming from ongoing strategic and logistical coordination throughout the country, but the regime refuses to share culpability for their actions. The continuity of this conflict coupled with the increasing despair by the regime to remain in power at any cost have offered these unruly militias an increased importance and autonomy. Equally, the massacres and abuse they have administered have incurred them wrath and hatred by the Sunni population. This has been advantageous to the regime’s sectarian approach to the conflict, as it further alienates the Alawite community from the wider population by reinforcing its fears of a Sunni-led insurgency and irrevocably linking its destiny to the survival of the Assad family.
Sink the Ship or Abandon the Skipper?
Even before 2011, the lengthy compulsory military service was one of the main causes for emigration, especially to the Gulf region. Today, the destination is Europe, as evidenced by the thousands of young Syrian men dodging the draft. Those unable to leave the country resort to finding loopholes by claiming a physical disability or bribing security officials. The majority of conscripts who finished mandatory service have been forced to remain in the army as it became overstretched to fight in every corner. Syrians from rural areas (mainly Sunni) continue to make up the large bulk of conscripts, and they experience systematic humiliation and marginalization by their superiors, which leaves them with inevitable resentment toward the army in general and Alawites in particular. In the early years of the conflict, some relocated to opposition areas in the country to seek refuge and protection, trying to avoid regime checkpoints and patrols in the meantime, while others decided to flee the country illegally. This situation now also includes young Alawite men, who are no longer willing to fight for the regime despite their unwavering support. This issue has added additional strain on the military and posed serious challenges to its operations, forcing the regime to rely further on the sprawling militias, which have consequently exacerbated the increasingly sectarian conflict.
One predictable outcome of the potential downfall of the regime is the entrenched existential fear of the Alawite-dominated security establishment and various pro-regime militias at a time of their restored privileges. The survival of the regime largely depends on their steadfast loyalty in exchange for higher status and wealth. Consequently, the convergence of these interests has produced an inward-looking, over-protectionist security apparatus with the sole purpose of preserving the regime at any cost. The rapid disintegration of the country and the nihilistic nature of the violence certainly prompted some commanders to consider leaving the battlefield. The deep infiltration by elite units and the intelligence services has long impeded communication among military units, intensifying the coordination challenges to organize mass defections. The regime considers dissent in all its forms a cardinal sin, especially in the military, and it carries out atrocious retaliatory measures against the perpetrators. This has been particularly true for Alawites and other minority groups, whose dissent is considered treacherous and ungrateful to the al-Assad family itself. These measures have instilled tremendous fear into senior ranks of the military and reduced the possibility for defection for fear of reprisals against them and their families.
The persistent lack of incentives and protection measures has deemed defection calls by the opposition ineffective and ultimately counterproductive. Also, the absence of a clear policy by opposition groups regarding the future role of high-ranking defectors has increased the cost for abandoning the regime. As the conflict has become more protracted, the ability of the opposition to pose a serious threat to the regime’s strategic areas hinges on the decision by key commanders to jump ship, as they have been increasingly involved in a frontline decision-making. The regime will likely continue and intensify its “coup-proof” strategy to neutralize the impact of these defections through replacements, removal, and assassinations of key commanders at critical junctures.
Rashad al-Kattan is a political and security risk analyst, and a fellow with the Centre for Syrian Studies (CSS) at the University of St. Andrews.