This is a contribution to ‘What Should the United States Do About Syria?: A TNR Symposium.’
With the civilian death toll in Syria climbing ever upwards, commentators are increasingly suggesting that Washington and its European allies cobble together a military alliance to depose President Bashar Assad, using as a model the mission against the regime of Muammar Qaddafi. But such optimism overlooks the vast differences between today’s Syria and last year’s Libya. From a superior military to a larger and more entrenched base of support, the Syrian regime possesses many advantages Qaddafi lacked. Those set on intervening would do well to heed the differences.
Many who allude to the Libyan model today overlook the difficulties encountered there. Even after a bombing campaign by NATO pushed loyalist forces back, the rebels were unable to advance very far. As the battle turned into a stalemate, Western nations were forced to raise their commitment. Trainers were sent in and NATO personnel shared space in the rebels’ operations room in Benghazi. Qatar had to ship in approximately 30 consignments of Milan anti-tank cannons and Belgian FN rifles. During the final assault on Qaddafi’s compound, Qatari forces even found themselves leading the charge.
All of these struggles came amid an effort to depose a regime that had no standing army. Longstanding international sanctions against Tripoli had made the purchase of new weapons impossible. But more to the point, Qaddafi had decisively turned on his armed forces after a series of military coup attempts in the 1980s and 1990s. In the place of a professional military, Qaddafi increasingly relied on the Revolutionary Committees, an organization he created in 1977 to politically mobilize the population.
In Syria, by contrast, the regime never resorted to neutering the army. Quite the opposite: Bashar’s father, the late Hafez Assad, transformed the military into his regime’s central pillar, not least because it had already proven a useful sectarian cudgel. Today, 90 percent of military commanders are Alawis as is 90 percent of the elite Republican Guard, despite the fact that they only make up 12 percent of the population.
This largely explains why Syria has not been racked by military defections. Whereas long-term Qaddafi allies such as Generals Suleiman Mahmud al-Obeidi and Abd al-Fattah Yunis abandoned him within days of the uprising, none of Hafez Assad’s allies have deserted his son. Indeed, only a handful of officers above the mid-level rank of major have done so. Assad knew he could trust his Alawi co-religionists to build a loyal military that would keep the sect in power.
Moreover, unlike Libya, Syria has made the cultivation and training of strong and professional armed forces a central strategic concern of the state. Hafez Assad’s paramount strategic goal was to pursue a doctrine of “strategic balance” with Israel, which necessitated expanding the country’s armed forces. Bashar continued his father's focus on building the military, increasing funding and stepping up training. Where Libya’s military expenditures were about $728 million in 2007, Syria’s were almost triple that at approximately $2.1 billion. And unlike the Iraqi military under Saddam Hussein, the Syrian armed forces never experienced waves of purges initiated by a paranoid leader fearful of potential rivals. As a result, Syria today has a professional military that is the second strongest Arab army after Egypt.
It would be a mistake, however, to view Syria as a praetorian state ruled by a small Alawi clique. Instead, it is the support of the silent Sunni majority that has allowed the Assad regime to stay in power. During his thirty year reign, Hafez forged a pax Assad with them based on three pillars—providing the country a level of security from outside threats, creating an inclusionary regime where Sunnis were given a stake in the government, and fostering a stable and open business environment. Before Hafez Assad came to power in 1970, there were eight coups in seventeen years. But he didn't only stabilize Syria by removing tanks from the streets: He liberalized the economy in order to win over the Sunni urban notables ostracized by Assad’s Ba’ath predecessors, earning in the process a broader base of support than Qaddafi had ever enjoyed in Libya.
In that way, the aspect of the Syrian regime that is most vulnerable to intervention—and most liable to lead to an efficient toppling of the regime—is not its military, but its economy. While the economy has already shrunk significantly as a result of the crisis, urban Sunnis from the capital of Damascus and the second largest city of Aleppo have so far failed to join the opposition’s ranks. To erode their support, Washington and its allies need to step up financial sanctions against leading Sunni businessmen and their enterprises. Doing so will send a signal that these men will be held accountable for their tacit backing of the regime. As Bashar’s silent Sunni backers see the wealth of communal barons targeted, they will likely gradually abandon him.
The sun is slowly setting on the Assad era. But in an environment far more intricate than Libya, serious pitfalls lurk. Before Washington ponders a military solution, it needs to exhaust all its other options. Fortunately, there are plenty of them to choose from.
Barak Barfi is a research fellow with the New America Foundation.