In 2010 the Arab Spring and subsequent armed rebellions destabilised authoritarian regimes in the Middle-East and North Africa, causing the downfall of many long-standing dictators and oligarchs. Although Syria was engulfed by the movement and the Civil War that followed, unlike his counterparts, President Bashar al-Assad survived the onslaught and has since regained control of most of the nation. In this article Jack Sargent revisits Cold War Syria and argues that it was not just foreign support but the erstwhile President Hafez al-Assad’s military legacy that allowed the Ba’athist Syrian Arab Republic to weather the storm.
Coverage following the outbreak of protests in Syria in 2011 painted a uniformly bleak fate for Bashar al-Assad. Fresh from the fall of dictatorial regimes in Tunisia (Ben Ali), Egypt (Hosni Mubarak), and Libya (Muammar Qaddafi), some predicted collapse for the Baathist regime while others argued for Western intervention. US-led NATO and allied forces intervened comprehensively in Libya, with a United Nations Security Council Resolution permitting them ‘…to take all necessary measures…to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack’. The resulting no-fly zone and air strikes guaranteed Muammar Qaddafi’s defeat. Yet no such intervention ever came for Syria. This is because further military intervention in the Middle East was deeply unpopular in the US and UK where there was a desire not to replicate the chaos that followed the fall of Qaddafi.
Nine years after the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War, Bashar al-Assad has won. He controls most of the country, and key Western allies have reopened diplomatic ties and abandoned calls for his removal. Strong support from Iran and Russia in the early years of the Syrian Civil War was undoubtedly critical to Assad’s success. Since 2013, Iran has provided thousands of militiamen, and in 2015, Russia deployed a significant contingent of fighter jets and military forces. Prior to 2013, Russia and Iran gave much-needed financial and material aid. Russian and Iranian military intervention were key in guaranteeing victory in the face of refusal to uphold redlines, match policy with rhetoric, and apply appropriate pressure to Syria’s backers. However, the Syrian military was surprisingly durable and able to stave off immediate defeat until direct military intervention by Iran and Russia.
Outside support alone did not guarantee victory or ensure the durability of Bashar al-Assad’s regime. In seeking to understand Bashar al-Assad’s durability, scholars and pundits continually overlook the impact of Hafez al-Assad’s military policies in the 1970s and 1980s. The late Syrian dictator ensured his son, Bashar, inherited a military that was institutionally loyal, large, and home to multiple elite units that the Assad dynasty relies on for their survival.
Prior to Hafez al-Assad’s three-decade rule, Syria had been wracked by sixteen military coups; nine of which were successful. Despite this, there was never an attempt by the military to depose Hafez; he inculcated the military with intense loyalty. It was that same institutional loyalty which saved Bashar al-Assad during the Syrian Civil War. Despite some defections, the military as an institution remained largely loyal. Hafez al-Assad fostered this loyalty through genuine reform, lucrative incentives, and dictatorial surveillance.
As Kamal Alam notes, until 2011 the Syrian military was a popular institution, especially as a means of escaping economic vulnerability. Unlike the religious homogeneity of armed forces in the Middle East, the Syrian military is secular because Hafez al-Assad, himself a product of the military, recognised its importance and sought to maintain its secular nature, eliminating military interference in domestic politics. Hafez removed the risk of military coup through Ba’athist involvement in officer education and ensuring careful representation of socio-economic, religious, and ethnic groups. Ba’athist education indoctrinated the officer corps, and a careful social balance co-opted any would-be dissident groups.
In addition, Eyal Zisser shows how three policies made the military ‘a loyal and obedient watchdog’. Firstly, Hafez ensured his ethnic background (Alawaite) and tribe (Kalabiyya) were well represented – but not overwhelmingly so – in the officer corps. This gave him a network of trustworthy individuals linked by family and kinship. Secondly, he allowed senior officers to ‘turn their units into political and economic fiefdoms’ and generate large amounts of illicit revenue in return for loyalty. Lastly, Hafez established a labyrinth of brutal intelligence agencies to police the Syrian state and military. Within this system, ‘commanders…reported directly to Assad,’ and the services operate ‘in near total secrecy’ with ‘overlapping functions,’ to provide immediate information on possible dissent, allowing direct action by Assad.
The measures Hafez took to ensure military loyalty were effective in cementing genuine institutional loyalty. The following two examples demonstrate this. When Hafez’s brother Rifat attempted to seize control in 1984, Rifat’s offers of increased power were flatly rejected by the ‘all-Sunni [military] cast’ to whom Hafez had entrusted ‘day to day affairs’. Likewise, when Assad massacred an estimated 25,000 of Hama’s largely Sunni civilians in the 1982 Hama uprising, his carefully coordinated measures for complete military loyalty ensured the compliance of the mostly Sunni Syrian military.
Whether through loyalty or fear of non-compliance, Bashar al-Assad inherited a military institution that was loyal. He enjoyed the guaranteed support of the officer corps, the nervous system of any military. While defections still occurred, and occasionally in large numbers, they were mostly confined to low ranking enlisted personnel. Thus, facing an uncertain future in a post-Assad Syria and the increasingly sectarian nature of the conflict (a deliberate policy of Bashar al-Assad), the military had no incentive to abandon the Assad family. Moreover, the military had already proven under Hafez that it would be loyal to the Assad family even past the point of massacring its own citizens. This allowed Bashar al-Assad to brazenly pursue a policy which involved the commission of heinous war crimes without fear of losing military support. The military were well versed in ‘Hama rules’.
Upon his ascension to power, Hafez al-Assad oversaw an increase in military size from 87,000 thousand in 1970, to 316,000 total active military personnel in 2000, replete with thousands of vehicles and artillery pieces, as well as several hundred military aircraft. Thus, the pre-Civil War army under Bashar al-Assad had roughly 200,000 active duty soldiers and a large, aging air force. The SAA’s increase in size was an underacknowledged and incredibly impactful of Hafez’s nearly three-decade rule, which arguably prevented the total collapse of the regime in the Civil War. Syria’s intense rivalry with Israel was the catalyst for this build-up. Syria felt pressure to maintain ‘strategic parity,’ believing they would have to ‘go [at] it alone’ on account of Egyptian and Jordanian acceptance of Israel. The aim of this build up was to balance Israel with a ‘military parity in force numbers.’
While matching Israel was obviously important, this strategy was only made possible by massive shipments of Soviet arms on very favourable terms. The Soviet Union even provided Syria’s military with equipment superior to that shared with their Eastern Bloc allies. This newer, sophisticated military equipment required the deployment of over 1500 Soviet military advisors to Syria to provide technical instruction. Bashar did not question the need to maintain such a large force, likely owing to Syria’s inability to finance a dramatic reshaping of its military and the need to maintain his father’s intimate relationship with the armed forces for his own survival.
The military’s size was decisive in enabling the regime to absorb losses of roughly 150,000 personnel due to ‘desertion, defection, and combat attrition.’ Had Hafez al-Assad only sought to maintain a military similar in size to that which fought the 1973 War (which was roughly 112,000 active military personnel), the military Bashar inherited would’ve quickly collapsed. Likewise, (depending on estimates of opposition size) the manpower of the military allowed it to, at worst, match the size of opposition forces and, at best, enjoy a 2.5 to 1 soldier-to-insurgent force ratio. While still less than the ‘3:1 superiority [necessary] for victory’, it allowed the regime to stave off immediate defeat.
Furthermore, the Syrian Arab Air Force (SyAAF) maintained significant numbers of aircraft, despite its obsolescence and the minimal training of pilots. In total, the SyAAF operated 500 combat planes and helicopters at the outset of the war, almost all of which were procured under Hafez’s rule. When coupled with the West’s refusal to implement a no-fly zone and the limited air defences of Syrian opposition forces, this obsolete and poorly equipped force was able to, at times, conduct 50 to 100 missions a day, a capability unmatched by any opposition force.
Not only did Hafez create a military that was loyal and large, he ensured that it was home to well-trained and well-equipped units designed to act as a praetorian guard for the Assad regime. The first incarnation of these forces was the Defence Companies, commanded by Hafez’s brother Rifat al-Assad which, at their peak, allegedly constituted as much as ‘a full third of Syrian land forces’. Patrick Seale explains that Rifat acted as ‘…the shield of his brother’s regime’ and ‘built up his Defence Companies…into the best armed, best trained, and best paid units in the Syrian Army’ whose personnel were largely chosen for their ‘close tribal links to Hafez al-Assad’.
Following Rifat’s failed 1984 coup, the forces he commanded were integrated into existing Army Special Forces units or demobilised, leaving the Defence Companies with a single division (which can comprise 5-15,000 men), which became Syria’s now infamous 4th Armoured Division. Large numbers of special forces were a key feature of Hafez al-Assad’s army, providing a surprisingly effective fighting force extensively deployed to Lebanon and around Damascus. As Hafez relied on them for personal and regime protection he had to ensure they were competent. This entailed extensive training with Soviet and Russian special forces thus making it the most effective force in the army. The trust Hafez placed in the special forces allowed them to operate proactively and avoid the ‘unwillingness…to show initiative or react independently [of]…the usual chain of command’ that plagued the SAA. As a result, Syrian special forces enjoyed daunting successes. In the 1973 War, they captured a sensitive Israeli observation post in the Golan Heights. Niche elements of the Russian trained Syrian special forces have also frequently operated covertly in Lebanon, Jordan, the West Bank, and on ‘very few occasions’ in Israel.
Hafez’s policies provided the blueprint for how Bashar uses the special forces in the Syrian Civil War – a fact overlooked in contemporary analysis of the Syrian military performance. Bashar al-Assad controlled roughly 65-75,000 Special Forces soldiers in 2011. The Syrian Arab Army has been heavily reliant on special forces as both a spearhead and quick reaction force. Testimony from a special forces commander outlined multiple deployments involving ‘ a year-and-a-half in Idlib, Khan el Asal and Aleppo for seven months, and the suburbs of Damascus for…16 months’. Identical to his father’s handling of Hama in 1982, Bashar al-Assad used (and continues to use) the special forces to deal with sensitive and direct challenges to his rule. Idlib and Aleppo were strongholds of resistance in the Civil War to which Bashar applied intense brutality starkly reminiscent of Hama. Additionally, Bashar preserved his father’s reliance on special forces to defend Damascus – the seat of his regime – where the units were heavily involved in fighting.
The Syrian military proved markedly durable between the outbreak of the Civil War and outright Iranian and Russian military intervention. While contemporary discourse tends to point to Iranian and Russian support as the main cause of regime survival, it overlooks the fact that Hafez al-Assad’s military legacy allowed the regime to survive the early years of the Syrian Civil War. This strong military legacy was unchanged by Bashar al-Assad, who inherited a vast military capable of sustaining considerable loss, that was resolutely loyal, and home to a significant number of elite, trustworthy units. Faced with the seemingly unstoppable tide of the Arab Spring, Bashar used the Syrian Arab Armed Forces to brutalise his way to pyrrhic victory.
Jack Sargent is a recent graduate of LSE’s History of International Relations MSc Programme. His research focuses on Middle Eastern regional security issues and nuclear proliferation. His dissertation examined the nuclear ambitions of the Shah of Iran.
Cover Image: Hafez al-Assad standing on the wing of a Fiat G.46-4B with fellow cadets at the Syrian Air Force Academy outside Aleppo. Between 1953-1954. Wikimedia Commons