Shashank Joshi: A conflict haunted by echoes of the past

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The Independent Online

When Syrian tanks stormed Hama at dawn, they swept through like haunting echoes of the forces that destroyed the city in 1982.

On that occasion, several hundred times as many residents perished. Bashar al-Assad has not yet penetrated Hama’s centre, as his father did nearly thirty years ago, but his army’s loyalty suggests that it has every chance of doing so.

The Assad dynasty’s strength is rooted in decisions taken long ago by the occupying French, who built up Syria's Alawite sect after the First World War as a counterweight to the Ottoman-backed Sunni majority. Alawite officers dominated the military from the 1960s, seizing power in coups in the latter part of the decade. They built up a cohesive and sprawling military and intelligence apparatus – pitiful against Israel, but lethally efficient against Syrians. 

Syria has therefore followed an entirely different trajectory than Libya or Egypt. Its army is neither fractured (like Gaddfi’s) nor independent (like Mubarak’s), and is therefore both able and willing to act with overwhelming force against compatriots.70 percent of

Syria's full-time soldiers, and 80 percent of officers, are Alawite. The 4th Mechanized Division and Republican Guard, along with the influential air force intelligence, are drawn entirely from that sect. The

Shabiha, an Alawite militia, has also been a key repressive tool. The consequence of transforming Syria's military into a confessional militia is that its commanders see little future in a post-Assad Syria. And in fighting for their institutional survival, they fight hard. 

The 4th Division, led by Bashar Assad's brother Maher, was used to quell Deraa in the south. It was employed against the besieged town of Jisral-Shughour, pushing thousands of refugees into Turkey, and it is now punching through Damascus’ suburbs to crush protests before Ramadan. It is operating with speed and efficiency.

Nonetheless, the bulk of Syrian conscripts are Sunnis. Parts of the largely Sunni 5th Division defected early on in the south, even firing on their counterparts in the 4th Division. Other units, like the 9th Division, have also seen troops peel away, particularly where Sunni conscripts from poor agricultural regions have been ordered to fire on co-sectarians. The bloodshed at Hama will accelerate this process.

But unlike the mass defections that took place in eastern Libya, Syria's scattered mutineers have little prospect of serving as the nucleus of a rebel army. Though small numbers of protesters have begun arming themselves, they will struggle to tip this patchwork insurrection into a civil war. That will only succeed if Sunni units defect en masse and the rebellion acquires such geographic spread – particularly into Aleppo and central Damascus – that the military is stretched to breaking point.

Turkey, anxious at refugee flows, might have broken the stalemate through intervention in the north. But Turkey’s army is mired in a domestic crisis, after the resignation of the country’s entire military command. And so, even as the echoes of Hama reverberate, the Alawite armies are certain to continue their scorched earth campaign into the holy month.

The writer is an associate fellow of the Royal United Services Institute