Alawi Control of the Syrian Military Key to Regime’s Survival

Andrew McGregor

June 9, 2011

With its central doctrines carefully guarded as religious secrets, the true essence of Alawism has proved elusive to many who have tried to define it. Alawism is primarily a syncretistic belief system that incorporates large doses of Middle Eastern Christianity with significant influence from Isma’ili Islam, Shi’a “Twelver” Islam and traditional pre-Islamic beliefs. French colonial administrators attempted to classify Syrian Alawism as a separate religion despite resistance from Alawi leaders who were more interested in identifying with Islam, a trend that has been resisted by many orthodox Sunni Muslims.

Syrian Troops on Operation in Northern Syria

The takeover of predominantly Sunni Syria by a group of Alawi military officers in 1966 and their ability to preserve Alawite rule for over four decades is truly one of the oddest political developments in the modern Middle East. Alawis represent, at best, only ten per cent of the Syrian population, yet their control of the levers of power in Damascus is almost total, including the military, internal security forces and intelligence units. Sunnis and other religious minorities participate in Syrian government institutions in large numbers, but there is no question as to which group holds ultimate power.

The political ascendency of the Syrian Alawis has not resulted in efforts to establish Alawi religious supremacy – on the contrary, it has spurred an effort to bring Alawism into the mainstream of Shi’a Islam (at least superficially) in order to minimize sectarian grievances over the rule of a distinct religious minority. Nonetheless, such efforts have had little impact on the views of the Sunni orthodox Muslim Brotherhood, who appear to have emerged in recent days from years of political repression to lead the armed resistance against the Alawi-dominated military.

The Brotherhood is reported to be smuggling arms from Turkey to northwestern Syrian province of Idlib (NOW Lebanon, June 7). Fighting between insurgents and army loyalists appears to be concentrated on the town of Jisr al-Shughur, where government reports describe “a real massacre” of over 120 members of the security forces (al-Watan [Damascus], June 5; NOW Lebanon, June 6).  There are also reports of a mutiny by local members of the security forces that began after some policemen were executed for refusing to shoot on demonstrators.

The repeated failure of conventional Syrian forces in clashes with Israeli forces led to a change in strategic direction in Damascus and a greater emphasis on unconventional warfare, including the development of ballistic missile capability, Special Forces units, chemical weapons and apparently unsuccessful forays into the development of a nuclear capability, the latter being largely deterred by direct military intervention by the Israeli Air Force. Much like Libya, the bulk of the Syrian Army consists of poorly trained and equipped conscripts, with most of the military budget being devoted to training and equipping the few divisions and other units believed most loyal to the regime and under the firm control of Alawi officers.

Much of the state violence seen so far in Syria has been carried out by Interior Ministry forces and units of the heavily-Alawite secret police. There may have been some hesitance so far in deploying the most loyal divisions of the army against protestors, as these divisions are largely Alawi in composition and their deployment might turn a political confrontation into a sectarian struggle that the Alawi minority might be able to win in the short term, but would be hard pressed in sustaining their dominance in the long-term.

Though there has been some speculation that the Alawi officer corps might abandon the Assad regime, this would be more in the style of the Egyptian military jettisoning an inconvenient ruler rather than running the risk of a comprehensive political transition that would definitely not conclude with the Alawi officer corps maintaining their ranks and privileges. Potentially, even their lives could be in danger in such circumstances. At the moment, there is no international encouragement – as in Libya – for commanders to defect, and no tribal incentive, as in Yemen.

The regular Syrian Army consists of 11 divisions, of which only two can be firmly said to be reliable supporters of the regime. The Republican Guard (an armored division) and the Fourth Armored Division are under the direct command of Maher Assad, brother of Syrian president Bashar Assad. Special Forces units of roughly 15,000 men are also considered reliable and are based close to Damascus. Unlike the bulk of the army, the rank-and-file of these units is largely Alawi. Most of the Syrian officer corps is Alawi; though some Sunni officers have succeeded in rising to senior positions, their appointments rarely place significant numbers of troops under their direct command (Reuters, April 6). The Republican Guards are the only Syrian military unit allowed to deploy within Damascus, reducing the risk of mutiny by non-Alawi troops in the most politically sensitive areas.

To reduce the risk of instability within the military, the regime is making intense efforts to portray the ongoing protests as armed insurrections by Salafist extremists or as attacks by externally inspired and funded terrorist groups (Reuters, April 18; see also Terrorism Monitor Brief, April 22). Even if demonstrators were to succeed in winning over the Sunni rank-and-file in the military, there is every chance that we would see, as in Libya, the same reluctance of such defectors to apply their arms against loyal units they know to be superior in almost every way.

This article first appeared in the June 9, 2011 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor