An article published in the New York Times newspaper claims that the Syrian army has reached very dangerous levels of sectarianism. It reveals that in every batch of graduates from the Syrian military academy there are 1,000 affiliates of the Alawite sect (which Bashar al-Assad’s family belongs to), compared to just 100 from the Sunni sect and 100 others representing all the remaining diverse mix of sects and minorities.
It is no secret that positions in the Syrian army, especially leadership posts, have always and still are allocated to members of the Alawite sect, and if a Sunni is in a position of leadership then the post has no real meaning or executive powers.
Hafez al-Assad, who came to power from the environment of a non-sectarian army, realized that he had to “dilute” the identity of the army to maintain his power. Thus he began to promote the idea that the country’s nationalist, pan-Arabist army should by definition serve to defend the Baath party, and during that period many important families began to guide their children towards trade and business, and away from a military career.
Hafez al-Assad exploited this issue well and began to lure dozens, then hundreds, then thousands of his own sect to enroll in the military.
But let us consider the numbers: Amidst the violence and force of the Syrian revolution, which has lasted for over 17 months and claimed the lives of more than 17,000 people, the Syrian army – which is estimated to consist of around 400,000 recruits – has become weary of its war against the people, with signs of division emerging amongst its components. There is also another issue of growing importance, namely that 80,000 young people, mostly from the Sunni sect, have refused to participate in compulsory military service, and there are also increasing numbers of those refusing to execute the orders of their superior officers, telling them to carry out specific operations against the residents of besieged cities.
The Syrian army, which used to promote the idea that it was a secular and nationalist entity, and did not distinguish between the sons of one country, is full of layers of distinction and preference. The army’s Fourth Armoured Division includes an elite selection of the Alawite sect, assigned to protect the regime and its close inner circle. The same goes for the Republican Guard, with estimates suggesting it has 60,000 elements, and the intelligence services, where those enrolled amount to 150,000. There is a widespread conviction that this army was organized in such a complex and competing hierarchy in order to consecrate its primary role of protecting the regime from the people.
Hafez al-Assad was always aware that in order to seize power and dominate, he must have a long term plan to ensure the loyalty of the most important institution in the country, the army. We also saw this clearly during the gradual transfer of power to Bashar al-Assad, who adopted various military positions until he inherited the presidency after his father’s death.
The news of the defection of Manaf Tlass, a military figure close to the president and responsible for one of the most vital divisions in the Syrian army, came as a very shocking surprise to Bashar al-Assad’s supporters, because Manaf Tlass had a longstanding friendship with the Syrian president, and was considered one of the most important elements of the regime.
However, the comments issued by the al-Assad regime’s media were far from realistic. They suggested that Manaf Tlass had no value in the Syrian army’s military system, and that he had no real weight. The bitter truth that we should all be aware of by now is that this regime is nothing but a sectarianism breeding machine. It has channeled all its resources towards this endeavor ever since it was able to establish the very idea in the first place. The regime’s governance and interests are all strongly linked to sectarianism, and its loyalties and priorities also adhere to this.
The scenes that we are witnessing in the chapters of the Syrian revolution are the natural product of injustice, discrimination, racism and sectarianism, and the outraged Syrians have paid the price for this for many years.