After the Israeli Raid: Our Armed Forces Need to be Reformed

October 10th, 2007 - by admin

Malik Al-Abdeh / The Movement for Justice & Democracy – 2007-10-10 23:07:42

There was a sense of dejá vu as reports emerged of an Israeli air raid against Syria. Half a dozen jets carrying laser-guided munitions carried out a deep?penetration raid and returned safely to base without serious challenge.

Although the raid appears to be more audacious than before, for Syrians the fundamental issue raised by this gross failure in national defence is the same as it has always been.

As per usual, words of condemnation and comically impotent threats were uttered by government officials in Damascus. The reaction on the street however, was utterly apathetic.

There were no reports of fervent crowds calling for revenge, or men queuing round the block to enlist in air?defence brigades. In fact, life went on as normal even as a certain corner of Raqqah Province lay smouldering. The Israelis may as well have bombed a site of great strategic importance in the Dominican Republic. What does this tell us about ordinary Syrians? For a start, they have

There was a sense of déjà vu as reports emerged of an Israeli air raid against Syria. Half a dozen jets carrying laser?guided munitions carried out little affinity with their own armed forces. Granted, the Syrian military is not the most advanced in the world. The vast majority of its hardware is considered obsolete and its Soviet military doctrine is badly outdated. Financial and political pressures have meant that Syria has not always had access to the latest technology or training.

Syria, like many an aspiring Third World military power, has had to make do with the poor man’s arsenal of SCUDs and Katyushas. No one, least of all Syrians themselves, expected Israeli jets to be dropping out of the sky as soon as they violated Syrian air space. The Syrian man?on?the?street does not hold any illusions about his country’s military capability.

But surely a “normal” reaction to an attack upon one’s country would be a surge in demands for accountability and greater effectiveness in the armed forces. At moments of military humiliation some people go further by reacting against their rulers; loss in the Falklands War led to the collapse of the Argentine junta and the Kargil War debacle led directly to the overthrow of the Pakistani prime minister. Nothing of this sort seems to be happening in Syria.

This point to a deeper malaise afflicting the Syrian armed forces, something which stops them connecting with the people they claim to be defending. Clues to this lie in the precursor to the Syrian Arab Army, the Troupes Speciales du Levant. It was created and led by Frenchmen, but composed almost entirely of Druze, Christian, Circassian and Alawite minorities.

The decision by the then-colonial power to exclude Sunni Arabs who had supported the claim of King Faisal to the Syrian throne was a classic piece of divide?and?rule strategy. It led to a relatively stable 20 years of French “mandate” over the Levant, but it also led to a long legacy of sectarianism in the Syrian military. Rather than reverting to a truly nationalist institution, 50 years of independence saw the continuation of the policy of sectarian discrimination.

First it was the well?meaning but weak civilian politicians of the 1940s and 50s who were reluctant to reform the army for fear of the coup d’état. Later, more sinister powers were at work, which actively sought to promote and exploit the bonds of sectarian loyalty against a perceived common enemy. That common enemy was none other than the Sunni Arab majority, who were painted as harbouring evil intents to strip away what little promotion and prospects minority groups enjoyed through service in the armed forces.

This largely imagined threat was employed skilfully by certain Ba’th Party military officers in the 1960s to establish a sectarian power base in order to seize power. One of those officers was Hafiz Assad, who for 30 years continued the colonial practise of recruiting from the minorities.

Today, all the critical units of the Syrian army and much of the air force is made up of minority group members. In the absence of democracy, the role of the armed forces has become that of guarantor of the regime’s survival.

The armed forces’ loyalty lies exclusively with the regime rather than with the general population, a democratic system or “the nation”. When the Syrian army parades its tanks on Independence Day, they are as much a threat to the Syrian people as they areto the “enemy”. Which Hama resident would dare argue otherwise? The chasm between the ruling military and society as whole engendered by the exclusion of at least 70 per cent of the population of Syria is no coincidence.

It is the deliberate policy of the regime to keep at arms’ length any force which may “dilute” the sectarian cohesiveness of the armed forces. That is why military personnel and their families live in purpose?built compounds on the outskirts of major towns, and why military officers only send their children to schools attended by children of fellow military officers. Every year, the number of professional soldiers is augmented by fresh recruits from the coastal mountains. It is a system not unlike that of the Memluk military caste, who ruled Syria for over 300 years but who forever remained foreigners to it.

It is little wonder that the “Syrian street” is more concerned with breaking the Ramadan fast with a hearty meal and watching a soap opera about old Damascene life, than worrying about the state of the country’s defences. This is not a healthy state for any society, but as long as the policy of sectarian discrimination continues, it is unlikely that Syrians will ever engage positively with their own armed forces.

The fundamental issue here is one of ownership: Who owns the right to work in the military? Who owns the right to use the military? In whose name does the military exist?

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