In Syria, the Army's Loyalty to Assad Runs Deep

Assad is still able to rely on the army, the same one that his father took care to nurture over decades - an army whose senior ranks are an inseparable part of the economic elite.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The regime in Syria has not yet collapsed. Like Muammar Gadhafi in Libya, Bashar Assad has adopted the slogan, "The regime wants to topple the people." Assad is sure that even if the Syrian army cannot deal with an external enemy like Israel it can deal with the enemy at home. The Fourth Division and the Presidential Guards that are under the command of his brother, Maher Assad, are killing protesters in Dar'aa while other loyal battalions are taking action against the demonstrators in Homs and Ladakiya.

Assad is still able to rely on the army or at least most of it. It is the same army that his father, Hafez Assad, took care to nurture over decades - an army whose senior ranks are an inseparable part of the economic elite. Both father and son bent laws and regulations on behalf of the army to ensure that its loyalty to the family would be at least as deep as its loyalty to the fatherland.

Asma Assad and her husband, Syrian President Bashar Assad, right, during a welcoming ceremony in Bucharest, Romania last November.Credit: AP

For example, in the '90s Hafez Assad banned the import of tobacco to the country so that the commanders who smuggled tobacco into Syria could enjoy a total monopoly. Officers were also permitted to buy dollars at the official exchange rate and to sell them at a "civilian" rate which was a great deal higher. Had a regular citizen done that, it would have been considered a crime.

The system of monopolies for army officers was handed down as an inheritance to the younger Assad who, unlike his father, was already born into the rich and ruling elite. His cousin, Rami Makhlouf, holds a huge slice of the oil, gas and tourism industries. But not only family members and heads of the Alawite community enjoyed, and still enjoy, the proximity to the rulers. It is enough to mention the former defense minister, Moustafa Tlass, or the chief of staff, Hikmat Shihabi, both Sunni Muslims, whose families still enjoy franchises that bring in huge sums. One of Tlass' sons, for example, is Syria's "sugar tycoon." Another owns a chain of hotels, one of them in the town of Hama where Assad's troops killed thousands of civilians in 1982.

Assad's attractive wife, Asma, is also a Sunni and belongs to Syria's economic elite through the family of her father, Fuaz Ahras. Many friends of Bashar Assad also enjoy a generous standard of living as a result of import licenses granted to them by the president and his aides. Some of them are known as "the five percent people" on account of the cut they take for deals which they arrange for foreign investors with the regime.

It would therefore be inaccurate to state that the struggle in Syria is between the Alawites and the Sunnis, between the minority that represents 12 percent of the population of 21 million Syrian citizens, and the Sunni majority that is oppressed and poverty stricken. Among the Alawite tribes there are also many who wish to see Assad and his regime toppled. In March, even before the mass protests began, the heads of four large Alawite clans published a manifesto in which they disavowed themselves of the Assad regime and of "all connections that were forcibly imposed on us during the period of President Hafez and his son, Bashar." Heads of large Alawite clans made it clear to representatives of the government that they would not agree to another massacre of the kind that took place in Hama in 1982.

The chasm with the Sunni population is naturally even wider. Assad, the son, had to pull Tlass out of the storeroom and send him to his birthplace, Homs, in order to calm the citizens. Tlass went there last week with a group of senior Syrian security officers to hear the complaints of the citizens against the regime. In the good old days, these citizens would have been charged in court or would have disappeared in the dungeons of a prison, but Tlass was now seen making copious notes of their complaints and ensuring them that he would raise them with the president.

The disagreements within the ruling family have also surfaced again with the uncle, Rifat Assad, and especially his son, Ribal, who warn of a civil war and have published interesting new facts about the Hama massacre. Ribal is now taking pains to clear his father's name of involvement in the massacre and placing the blame entirely on the late president, Hafez Assad, and on Tlass who was his defense minister.

Are these differences likely to develop into an internal revolt against the regime? So far the army has shown complete loyalty to the regime. But the army ranks are also filled with soldiers from different ethnic groups, with junior and mid-ranking officers whose loyalty to their families and home towns is now being put to the test. In contrast to 1982, the revolt now is taking place all over the country and the security forces' gunfire does not distinguish between families and social classes. Blogs by Syrian opposition members talk of exchanges of letters and telephone calls with these commanders that are aimed at persuading them not to shoot if they are ordered to fire at civilians.

It is likely that the army's top brass will conclude that it no longer needs the Assad family to continue to manage the army or to get various benefits. In that case, Assad and his family, as well as the Baath party, are likely to become the army's scapegoats. Since there is no "alternative army", the opposition will be forced to conduct its affairs vis a vis the heads of the army and perhaps to make do with the not inconsiderable achievement of overthrowing the Assad family.

Meanwhile Iran is keeping mum and Iranian media have been prohibited from reporting on the events in Syria. Hezbullah too is keeping its mouth shut on the subject. While it is reporting the developments in Libya, Yemen and Egypt, it has "forgotten" Syria. The fall of Assad could constitute a significant change for these players, but it is not certain that Damascus would in fact change its policies toward them.



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