Moving Towards Civil War in Syria

What will the Syrian civil war look like?

I have been recently ruminating over the possibility that the continued protests in Syria mixed with the unabated violence of the governmental forces could possibly lead to country down the path to civil war. Reports of weapons entering Syria from Turkey and the accusations of armed opposition forces killing 120 Syrian soldiers over the weekend are certainly indications of a troublesome trend. Even if the Syrian opposition is receiving weapons from across Turkey’s borders, it is unlikely that a full-scale military operation would evolve; rather, it is more likely that the potential Syrian civil war is one that pitches the government against a guerilla-style armed insurrection.

The quick and easy comparison for a Syrian armed insurrection is, of course, Libya where the protest movement quickly dropped the nonviolent struggle and took up arms, dividing the country and leading to international intervention. The potential armed rebellion in Syria, though, would look vastly different from the organized ad hoc military established by the Libya rebels. Libya was plagued by many of the same social ills as Syria (unemployment, political disenfranchisement, poverty, etc.), but the fundamental characteristics of the country and the opposition reflect a completely different reality. I have spoken about the differences between Syria and other revolutions of the Arab Spring extensively elsewhere and will concentrate on a few major points that will make a Libya-style civil war impossible and which point, rather, to guerrilla insurrection.

In Libya, one of the largest advantages for the opposition was in lack of loyalty in the military. Qaddafi had nearly unconditional support from only a handful of tribes from across the country, meaning that the cohesion of the army was based on the stability of the country and devotion to Qaddafi’s odd breed of permanent revolution. The direct challenge to Qaddafi from across tribal lines meant that devotion to Qaddafi and the army often required killing members of one’s own tribe or family. Consequently, the motivation for defection was increased due to the strength of tribal loyalties.

The Syrian military on the other hand is primarily commanded and manned by Alawites: although Alawites make up only around 7% of the Syrian population, this sect makes up nearly 70% of the soldiers and 80% of the officers. Moreover, the military institution has close personal ties with the Assad family in addition to being part of the Alawite sect. Indeed, many of the top military commanders are from the Assad family:

The army’s loyalty to the regime stems partly from its close links to the ruling family. Senior commanders and security agents hail from Mr Assad’s family and their Alawite Shia sect.

The ties between the ruling family, business and the military make the Syrian army different to others in the region. Those in Egypt, Pakistan and Turkey are run by career officers. It was the Egyptian army’s intervention that was crucial in ousting President Hosni Mubarak.

The top commanders of Syria’s army include Maher al-Assad, the president’s brother, who is in charge of the Fourth Armoured Division, the backbone of the army. Mr Assad’s brother-in-law, Asef Shawkat, is deputy chief of staff, and his cousins Hafiz Makhlouf and Atif Najib are also senior military figures.

The family and clan bond has helped maintain cohesion in the military and is one reason why there has been no big split in the army, observers say. “The army command remains rigid, unified and strong,” says Timur Gksel, a security analyst.

In Libya, the opposition was able to acquire a significant amount of advanced weaponry, including one battleship and several fighter jets, through defecting soldiers and commanders. Perhaps more importantly, however, is the military expertise that was gained with each defecting commander. The Libyan opposition was able to organize into effective fighting battalions using the military experience of those who were previously high-ranking officials under Qaddafi. With such strict cohesion in the Syrian military, it is highly unlikely that Syrian opposition can count on similar disintegration of the armed forces.

There have been reports of defections, notably this video of a Lieutenant and this story of a soldier in Tel Kalakh – though neither can be confirmed. Thus far, the army has been able to avoid the type of mass defections that plagued the Libyan military and allowed the Libyan opposition to adopt a more professional approach to armed rebellion. As Josh Landis notes, increased violence will inevitably lead to more defections from the Syrian army, yet it is highly unlikely that the Syrian military will experience a vast loss of manpower, equipment and knowledge as happened in Libya. The cohesiveness of the Syrian army will force any armed insurrection in Syria to rely on the amateur fighting knowledge of civilians as well as basic weaponry that can be smuggled into the country.

Moreover, the Libyan rebels quickly were able to establish Benghazi as a rebel base and temporary center of leadership in the country. Control of the city provided the opposition with a logistical center and safe area, but also demonstrated the demographic unity of the opposition. Benghazi and the surrounding areas were more or less completely controlled by the opposition early in the uprising, allowing for a significant area of the country to be considered ‘liberated.’ This in turn offered certain guarantees of security to defecting soldiers and politicians, thus encouraging the further disintegration of the regime.

Benghazi is also the second largest city in Libya, behind Tripoli. The loss of such a major city provided a certain strategic and tactical advantage for the rebel army while also representing the hope and unity of the rebel movement. The opposition in Syria, on the other hand, does not have control of any cities or areas of the country and remain in a state of general geographic disunity. The two largest cities in Syria, Aleppo and Damascus, have experienced nearly no unrest, demonstrating the disconnect from the predominantly rural and poor protesters and the content urban upper class that has benefitted from the Assad rule.

While various large cities, including Homs and Hama’a, have experienced large amounts of unrest, the Syrian opposition has been unable to wrestle a geographical center of control from the government. Consequently, Syrians in the country have been unable to form a united alternative to Assad’s rule. in Benghazi, Libyans were able to create the National Transitional Council which gave an organizational backbone to the growing military insurrection. Control over Benghazi was a necessary condition for the creation of an organized rebel army in Libya (also see Ivory Coast, Colombia and the Congo). With the government unlikely to concede a similar geographical base to the Syria opposition, the creation of an opposition army will be nearly impossible.

The reports of clashes between government troops and Syrian activists as well as the alleged flow of small weaponry from across the Turkish border raises major concerns that Syria is quickly moving towards civil war. The demographic characteristics of the Syrian army and the geographical disunity of the protest movement suggests that rather than facing an organized – if inexperience – army such as the one that was created in Libya, the Syrian government will be looking at an escalation of guerrilla tactics using small arms. While it is unclear whether such an armed revolt would be successful in Syria, other examples (see above) point to a long prolongation of the conflict that could potentially tear the country apart and, many fear, lead to a repeat of the tactics used to crush the last armed revolt in 1982.

Photo from The West

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