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Syria's army is loyal, but not fail-safe: analysts

by Staff Writers
Washington (AFP) May 27, 2011
The Assad family's decades-long rule in Syria has been built partly on a loyal and stalwart army, but the institution is not fail-safe against an unprecedented pro-democracy movement, analysts said.

Though it is commanded by officers from the same minority Alawite religious community from which the Assads hail, it has a large Sunni rank-and-file who could mutiny and turn, in the long run, into an anti-regime force, one said.

Under another scenario seen by other analysts, the commanders could eventually be induced to switch sides if many of their own soldiers mutiny and the international community takes a much clearer stand against the Assads.

Andrew Terrill, research professor at the US Army War College, told AFP the army is "very much structured to be loyal to the regime" of President Bashar al-Assad, who in 2000 took over from his late father Hafez al-Assad.

The elite Fourth Armored Division and the Republican Guard are run by Assad's brother Maher and are almost entirely Alawite, an offshoot of Islam, he said. The non-elite army units still have Alawite officers in key positions.

The army is also "very much under surveillance of the Syrian security forces," which are run by the Assad family and which "are very, very efficient at what they do," he said.

"This is going to be nothing like Egypt where you had the army start to show an independent voice and start to tell the regime what to do," Terrill said.

"The army and the Alawite leadership of the army is going to stand behind the Assad regime because they're scared to death of what's going to happen if Alawite control ends in Syria," he said.

However, the army is not all-powerful, he said.

This week's protests are being promoted under the slogan "Friday of the guardians of the homeland", a reference to the army and a play on the words used in the first verse of Syria's national anthem.

Terrill said the protesters seem to be trying to win over the many Sunni soldiers in the army in the hope they will mutiny and join the pro-democracy movement, he said.

However, he said, a "ragtag group of rebels" would face "an awfully difficult force" in the elite Fourth Armored and Republican Guard Divisions, which are the best trained and have the best equipment.

"Maybe at some point after a prolonged struggle, they might be able to defeat the Alawites. They've certainly got the numbers, but it's not something that's going to happen overnight and it's not going to happen pretty," Terrill said.

In short, it could be a long, bloody civil war, he said.

Ammar Abdulhamid, a Syrian dissident and democracy activist who heads the Washington-based Tharwa Foundation, agreed the army's command fears a revolution because they do not know how the majority Sunni will react to the Alawites.

However, he believes the "army generals will begin to review their calculations and reconsider their connection to the Assad regime" if the United States and other powers decisively side with the protesters.

Until now, Washington and other capitals have urged Assad to reform the system or step down, which puts the emphasis on reform, he said.

"This is not a Sunni revolution against the Alawites," he said.

"This is a Syrian revolution against the corruption of the Assad family, and we want the army to play a role in the transitional process... and in protecting the interests of the minority basically in the transition," he said.

Ahed al-Hendi, the Arabic program coordinator of the US-based human rights group, said the "army may be the regime element most likely to join the uprising," despite the popular belief it is loyal to Assad.

"Although many high-ranking military officers are Alawite, the majority of their divisions are not," Hendi wrote in Foreign Affairs.

"Should the soldiers in those divisions begin to mutiny, they could compel their commanders to rebel against Assad. The Alawite army leaders may also fear a backlash and revenge attacks against Alawite sects due to Assad's policies."

Apart from the Republican Guard and the Fourth Armored Division, the army has not been involved in the crackdown, Hendi said in the May 3 article.

However, "to convince the army to switch sides, the dissidents require international assistance," said the rights activist.

Hendi said the world community should impose "severe sanctions on targeted elements of Assad's regime," which has happened, and also try to "widen the cleavages" between the army and the elite divisions run by Maher al-Assad.

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