Bashar al-Assad’s personal army

To understand what is happened last year in Syria, we have to go back to the 1960’s, when the current political and intelligence structure was created during four different coups.

The Alawite minority, which Bashar al-Assad’s family is part, came to the political power, handing the army to the Ba’ath Party after the last coup in the 1970, when Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father, seized the power, finalizing his authoritarian system, and creating a strong network between the army, the party, the security services and the administration. Nowadays, Alawites are 10% of the population (as the Kurds), but an estimated number of 100,000 of them work in the security service and in the presidential guard, completely composed by Alawites.

The numbers of the security apparatus are fundamental to understand actually this kind of revolt in Syria: 700,000 men are in the army, including 305,000 in the regular army [Source:, 2011], 100,000 in the police and intelligence, and ten thousands employed sometimes as plainclothes security men; these last form the battalions of the Shabbiha, which is a kind of militia made up of people from the countryside, probably criminals and mercenaries.

All the decisions of the army and security services are taken by Alawites, while Sunnis have no kind of influence – with Sunnis, however, the Syrians indicate all those who are not Alawites, and therefore are also Druze, Christians,  Copts, etc.

The Syrian revolution started in mid-March and has so far witnessed horrendous war crimes and a myriad of human rights violations.

With the army using heavy artillery against the unarmed protesters, the death toll in the turmoil-plagued country has risen up to thousands of deaths, according to sources, even though every day brings more or less detailed reports on the massacres and summary executions of deserters or soldiers who refuse to fire on the crowd. The Syrian army is the executive wing of the security service, and not vice versa: the army is made up of seven division, which the most important is the fourth, commanded by Maher al-Assad, Bashar’s brother, who also runs the presidential guard, composed by 40/50,000 men, and with the most sophisticated military equimpent.

As Eva Bellin argues in her “The Robustness of Authoritatianism in the Middle East”, 2004, “In Saudi Arabia and Syria entire branches of the military and security forces are family affairs”, and for this specific reason is not easy to predict what should be the development of an extremely delicate situation like the present one, where the army is engaged in containing the demonstrations, in mass killings and repression.

It is also possible to criticize her theory on the Middle East, and expecially on this specific case, because when she wrote her work in 2004, she argued that “..civil society is weak and thus is an ineffective champion of democracy..”, but, if the labor unions are “empty shells”, and the associations within the population have lack of credibility is also because of the total control of the regime.

By some new keystones, in fact, as the social networks, for example, or the new media as the blogs, the population is able to create a demonstration without the existence of a real political opposition, even if these systems are completely “anarchists” and it is not in their favour. Analysts are divided on the subject today, because on one hand the role of social networks is enhanced to such an extent as to say that without them there would not be riots, while on the other side their role has been exaggerated.

The Syrian military may be tempted to wage a coup against Assad and assume all powers in the country, and it means that not everything seems to be well calculated by he regime, also by his fraglity on the western side of alliances, althought Syrian soldiers are almost a personal guard of Bashar al-Assad and his family, and it makes much more difficult both the desertion and possible fractures in the hierarchical system, as was the case in Libya, for example.

But the problem of an external intervention in Syria, as had been in Lybia, is that Damascus represents the “red button” not to be pushed, by its links with Iran and Russia and Hezbollah in Lebanon, that means Israel at least, and that it could be a huge problem to manage for all the international actors, such as the United Nations, the European Union and all the Mediterranean countries.

The decision of the council, in a 37-4 vote, passed a resolution at the UN, at the beginning of December 2011, that “strongly condemns the continued widespread, systematic and gross violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms by the Syrian authorities, such as arbitrary executions, excessive use of force and the killing and persecution of protesters, human rights defenders and journalists, arbitrary detention, enforced disappearances, torture and ill-treatment, including against children.” Jordan, Kuwait, Libya, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Mauritania and Djibouti were among the nations who voted in favor of the resolution.

It is hard not to make comparisons to 1982, considering the brutality of the Assad’s regime over the current revolt of this year: the city of Hama was under siege for weeks, and the army, not so far from today’s behaviour, pounded the town with artillery, killing obviously also women and children.

The real number of deads during the Hama’s massacre will be never known, but it doesn’t matter comparing these two confrontable situations: the number of deads, in fact, is not the only one variable to be focused, because it seems that Hafez al-Assad’s son is following the example set by his father, not just in Homs but wherever protests arise.

But we have to criticize Bellin’s vision about another point, when she argues that an ipothetical democratic transition can be carried out successfully just when the security system and apparatus lacks the will or the capacity: probably this theory has been right in the past for the Middle East region, but nowadays it is possible to recognize a different circumstance; the Egyptian Army, for example, has remained the same of before, even if some heads have been changed, and they don’t lacks any kind of will or capacity, but, vice versa, they seem to be stronger than before, and not just because they’re driving the country into the “democracy”.

Despite the presence of observers of the Arab League on Syrian territory, the violence against civilians continued, as reported by the observers, and then by the U.N. monitoring team.

At the beginning of the revolt, during March 2011, in response to the population’s demand, the Syrian government made several concessions, including the lifting of the emergency law that had been in force for nearly five decades that had allowed the suspension of the constitution.

More than one year after the protests started, daily accounts out of Syria detail armed clashes and attacks, including reported Free Syrian Army strikes this week with rocket-propelled grenades on an Air Force intelligence facility outside Damascus, the Syrian capital.


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