The uprising in Syria turned much more violent in the past week and the Bashar al-Assad government is tottering. Civilians have obtained weapons and begun an armed resistance. Syrian soldiers are deserting and forming a Free Syrian Army. While the Arab League on Sunday voted to impose punitive economic and political sanctions on Damascus, fighting is breaking out nationwide between the Sunni majority and Shi’ite minority.
A faltering regime and rising violence often leads to a military coup. They were commonplaces in much of the developing world back in the 1950s and 1960s and a convoluted and incomplete one began in Egypt last fall. Syria is ripe for one now. The Arab
League’s overwhelming approval of sanctions – the first in its 66-year history – increases pressure on Assad.
The Assad government faces violence from several quarters. Civilians in the opposition are arming themselves with weapons brought in from Lebanese markets and western Iraq by the Muslim Brotherhood and smuggling networks which have attached themselves to insurrectionary movements. Syrian security forces can no longer fire into crowds without fear of facing return fire from rooftops and windows. Nor can they move from town to town without fear of attack.
In recent weeks several thousand soldiers – a precise or even rough figure is not yet clear – have deserted the Syrian army and formed the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Better trained and equipped than the civilian fighting forces, the FSA are mounting attacks on government buildings in Damascus and pulling off deadly ambushes in between restive cities. The heretofore solid support of the armed forces can no longer be relied upon by the government.
Sectarian violence is breaking out in a few cities. The Alawite (Shi’ite) population, from which much of the Assad political, military, and business elite come, is subject to attacks and intimidations. These events will recall the early days of sectarian fighting after the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq in 2003, which of course devolved into murderous sectarian warfare.
There are still hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Sunnis in Syria who fled the warfare and the dismal prospects for their co-religionists in the now Shi’ite-dominated country. Many will eagerly side with Syrian Sunnis against the Shi’ites in and out of the regime. Their ties to the Sunni resistance in Baghdad and Anwar make for a good supply of arms and trained fighters, facilitated by Saudi intelligence.
Approximately 10% of Syria’s 23 million people are Kurds. They have long endured oppression and will likely seek to break away from Northeastern Syria and become part of the Kurdish region in Northern Iraq. Iraqi Kurds took advantage of Saddam’s ouster to break away from Iraq, forming a separate flag, constitution, and army. They are for all practical purposes an independent state and will welcome incorporating a portion of Syria. Northeastern Syria is the location of much of Syria’s oil resources and would make oil-rich Kurdistan all the more wealthy, powerful, and of interest to the West.
The military perspective
Armies are not always the steadfast servants of the government they claim to be. They at times act in their own institutional interests, usually commingling with nebulous ideas of honor and virtue and duty. Most of the Syrian army leadership is dedicated to, and part of, the Assad regime. Loyal officers are rewarded with promotions and upon retirement may expect sinecures in the regime’s business sector (as for example do their colleagues in the Egyptian and Pakistani armies).
Other officers may see their interests shifting away from Damascus as the regime is failing to serve the nation’s interest, particularly as the new sanctions impact on business. It can no longer maintain law and order; indeed, it is the chief cause of unrest. It can no longer guarantee the integrity of national boundaries, and if the oil-producing region were to break away, the nation’s economy would weaken badly. Further, Assad’s rule is leading to the gradual disintegration of the institution the military cares most for – itself.
For the Syrian officer corps, national considerations as well as institutional ones make a military coup desirable. Two scenarios are plausible: an elite group and a more broadly based one.
An elite coup would entail parts of the Assad regime’s military, political, and business notables deposing Assad and perhaps a few high-ranking figures, with or without their permission. Assad would be sent off into exile or confined to some sort of protective custody, although a more definitive removal is possible even by pragmatic loyalists.
Assad is not a strong-willed person or leader. An opthamologist by training, he was not slated to succeed his father to the presidency until his elder brother was killed in an automobile accident in 1994. He was then rapidly groomed for succession with perfunctory positions in the state and army and an attendant publicity campaign.
He worried parts of the regime after he ascended to the presidency in 2000 when he began to enact economic reforms, replacing party apparatchiks with more technically trained experts. Democratic reform in the undetermined future was alluded to. Many older parts of the regime saw him as a threat well before the uprisings last spring and may be ready to oust him.
Such a coup would be presented to the public as a substantive change and as a victory for the public opposition. The new leaders would then appeal for calm and support for the new government. It would appeal to the Alawite minority and others who have benefited from Assad rule over the decades, and perhaps also to others who see the opposition as leading to civil war, sectarian strife, and foreign invasion.
Iran and Hezbollah would welcome such a coup as the only way to retain a sympathetic government in Damascus. Russia and China would be supportive but skeptical as to its viability. The Syrian opposition is unlikely to find such a government as welcome, viable, or even new. In fact, such a move would be a sign of regime weakness. It would only strengthen opposition and accelerate military desertion.
A more plausible coup scenario, if only somewhat, is one based on a broader portion of the officer corps, including high-ranking but sub-elite colonels and generals. These officers see their advancements to the highest ranks blocked off by the regime’s preference for Ba’ath loyalty and Alawite piety. In this respect they could appeal to some in the opposition who also feel stifled by the regime and also to the Sunni majority.
A coup ousting the Alawite, pro-Iran government would be so advantageous to Saudi Arabia that the prospect is likely being diligently pursued by Saudi intelligence in conjunction with Salafist networks inside Syria (and Lebanon) that enjoy Saudi funding. Detaching Syria from longstanding ties to Iran would be a serious blow to Tehran, partially compensating Saudi Arabia for Tehran’s gain from the rise of the Shi’ites in post-Saddam Iraq. It would also join with a Sunni region in western Iraq in opposing Iran and Shi’ite Iraq.
A coup of either sort will be difficult to plan let alone successfully execute. Many dictatorships (Gamal Abdel Nasser, Muammar Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein and Hafez al-Assad) came to power through military coups and constructed safeguards to prevent another ambitious colonel from seizing power the same blunt way. Officers are screened for loyalty and placed under routine surveillance. In times of stress, the regime increases its watch over the officer corps.
Even a coup led by officers genuinely committed to reform and representative government would be regarded with suspicion. The Syrian public, like counterparts around the Arab world, is deeply suspicious of generals purporting to be on their side. They seem to be willing to toss aside a dictator and general or two in order to maintain their high positions if not expand them.
Brian M Downing is a political/military analyst and author of The Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: War and Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.