In the final days of the American civil war, the forces of General Ulysses S. Grant, commander of the Northern Union army (and later President of the United States), surrounded the forces of his counterpart, General Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate army, at the Battle of Petersburg. The battle was unequal from the outset; the Confederate army was outnumbered three to one, in addition to its collapsing morale and lack of equipment. General Grant decided to give his opponent an opportunity to stop the bloodshed, with a pledge to release Confederate soldiers and officers without any legal prosecution provided that they handed over their weapons and signed documents releasing them from their army.
General Lee accepted Grant’s conditions, and was permitted to keep his sword and his horse as a symbolic sign of respect for an agreement that ended a civil war that had lasted for 4 years. At the time Grant was criticized for allowing some Confederate leaders to return home without trial, but history tells us that Grant’s decision encouraged the remaining Confederate forces to surrender and aided reconciliation.
It is difficult to find an example like this in contemporary Arab history. We can mention hardly any Arab military commanders who dissuaded their troops from excessive revenge and violence, and opted for the surrender option when necessary.
Muammar Gaddafi failed in his military ventures in Chad, and instead of resorting to reconciliation the regime sought to erase all accounts of the war.
Iran and Iraq fought an absurd conflict for more than eight years, during which neither side was able to achieve anything. Despite signing an agreement to end the war, both sides considered the outcome to be a victory for their radical discourse.
Saddam Hussein was defeated in the 1990-91 Gulf War, and was forced to surrender in front of the international coalition forces. However, he considered this outcome to be a victory in what he called “the mother of all battles,” and his people were exposed to harsh sanctions for more than a decade as a result.
The Iraqi army collapsed during the American invasion in 2003 and a valuable opportunity was missed for surrender, which could have prevented the notorious de-Baathification policy that followed. Thousands of Baathist officers were left with the choice of migrating or going underground to ally with terrorist groups.
What Syria faces today, namely a civil war between the Syrian Arab Army and the Free Syrian Army, is another example of the futility of war. The Bashar al-Assad regime has used its army against its own people, and managed to ignite a civil and sectarian war without its leaders stopping for a moment and asking themselves: Is the regime worth all these sacrifices?
One potential scenario is the departure of the regime, but there is no evidence that Assad is ready to leave, and no signs of military defections at leadership level within the Syrian Arab Army. But after all this bloodshed, can the Syrian Arab Army institution be maintained?
There are international actors trying to promote a scenario whereby Assad leaves and the military institutions remain in place to protect the state from collapse, fearing an escalating sectarian war between the Sunnis and the Alawites, and also between Kurdish divisions.
The defection of Brigadier General Manaf Tlass – a figure close to the President – represents an opportunity for some Arab and international parties to perhaps provide the Syrian army with a temporary and acceptable alternative to continuing to fight in favor of President al-Assad. Tlass has attempted to offer an alternative discourse by calling on the Syrian Arab Army to stop fighting, and to consider the members of the Free Syrian Army to be its honorable extension, but there are those who think that such a call has come too late. The rebel fighters who have been able to destabilize the regime’s forces and get closer to the moment of victory – although it still seems some way off – will not be able to return to the ranks of an army that is still fighting alongside the regime. There are even indicators suggesting that the number of defectors in the coming months may surpass the remaining recruits in the army itself, which means that the regular army would no longer represent all segments of Syrian society, but rather it would be limited to part of the Alawite community, and those remaining Sunni and Christian generals loyal to Assad.
There are those who believe that the crisis has passed the point of reconciliation, owing to the regular army’s involvement in war crimes. There are those who argue that the opportunity still exists, but it would require a firm decision from leaders of the regular army to join the popular uprising against the regime. There are also those who warn that that dissolving the army, or engaging in a process of de-Baathification after the collapse of the regime, may result in an endless civil and sectarian war, along the lines of what happened in Iraq. Hence they believe it is necessary for the transitional process to be led by acceptable figures from both sides: The Syrian Arab Army and the revolutionaries. US officials revealed that the Obama administration has warned the Syrian opposition of the consequences of completely demobilizing the security forces and government agencies of Bashar al-Assad in the event that the President is killed or forced to leave power, in order to avoid chaos and a power vacuum. One US official stated: “You can’t have a complete dissolution of that [system] because those institutions will be needed in a political transition”. With regards to President Assad’s ruling Arab nationalist movement, the official said: “What you need to prevent is the de-Baathification of the country” (White House cautions Syria rebels not to repeat mistakes of Iraq, Washington Post, July 29th 2012).
Here it seems that the Syrian uprising is facing a crucial question: Do you choose the path of reconciliation and forgiveness, or do you choose the path of wholesale eradication and revenge? No one has the answer because the Syrian opposition, despite the presence of the Syrian National Council and the Free Syrian Army, is still divided and does not have a clear transitional program.
In my opinion, the solution is in the hands of the Syrian Arab Army. If it decides to get rid of Assad, it can join the uprising and participate in the transition process, but with every passing day there will be further defections, which means its chances as an institution are diminishing. The regular army may find itself without leadership in the event of Assad fleeing or being killed, and in that case it must remain intact and officially declare its surrender to the uprising. In this case the military could symbolically abandon the brunt of responsibility for what has happened, and survive in the coming transitional phase. It could even play a role in restoring cohesion to the nation.
Ulysses S. Grant once said: “If men make war in slavish obedience to rules, they will fail”.