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Syria: Civil-military relations during civil war

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Syria: Civil-military relations during civil war 

The more than 1,000-days-long and very violent civil war in Syria has left the country and its people in an absolute state of dissolution. A strong patrimonial and sectarian separate regime, unable, by its own capabilities, to end the conflict, both politically and militarily, has been forced to utilise alternative security policy measures to retain power.

Syria 2013, Photo: Colourbox

Due to the violent reactions from the al-Assad regime towards the massive primarily peaceful demonstrations, marking the Syrian version of the Arab spring in 2011, the country suddenly found itself in the focus of the world opinion. This infamous position continued from the very start of the conflict in the spring of 2011 up to today. During the now almost three-year-long civil war more than 100,000 people have been killed and the same amount heavily wounded. More than five million refugees and displaced persons are victims of the war – inside or outside of Syria. Syria, normally positioned low on the international agenda, now plays a considerable role in the current Great Power game, and will continue to do so in many years ahead. A country in the centre of a rapidly changing Middle East is about to be doomed as a failed state.

This article reflects the findings of a research paper, which will be published at the Royal Danish Defence College in the beginning of 2014. It is an analysis of the development in Syria during the first years of the violent uprising, with specific emphasis on the impact on civil-military relations.

Civil war in Syria
Currently Syria is a war-torn country experiencing what must be characterised as an actual civil war. On the one side we see an uprising based on sectarian and political extremist groupings, which, however, are subject to internal conflicts and even fighting, and on the other side is a regime based on a political-economic-societal core, which has clear sectarian connotations. Furthermore, the civil war has also evolved into a state of so-called proxy war, with heavy interference from various state and non-state actors. Regardless of the external involvement and any spillover effect the situation may have on neighbouring countries, the conflict may in an international law context be labelled as a Non-International Armed Conflict confined within the borders of the Syrian Arab Republic.

An analysis of Syria must rely on rapid changes and moving targets as a result of constant new balances on the battlefields, differing political actions from units outside Syria and not least the reaction from the international society.

Nonetheless we have three assertions which are considered as important points of departure for an analysis of Syria:

  • War is a changer. Violent conflict, between states as well as between groupings inside a state, is the ultimate demonstration of instability, which implies that the units are entering into a new type of political realm. Add to this that instability constantly grows due to uncertainties fostered by the state of ‘the fog of war’, as described by German-Prussian military thinker Carl von Clausewitz. 
  • War is the ultimate manifestation of the foundation of civil-military relations. The core of the structure of civil-military relations is displayed during times of war and conflict. It addresses two fundamental questions: Who guards the guards, and what is the role of the military authorities functioning as the tool for the political authorities in relation to the general population?
  • Civil war reigns in Syria. Every war and conflict must have an end. Syria after the civil war will be different from the Bashar al-Assad Syria prior to the civil war. What will post-war Syria look like? A failed state could be a suggestion. But the idea that the new Syria will rely more or less on capabilities not totally different from the current ones is certainly a possibility. The same thing goes for the civil-military relations. Although the Syrian army in many ways has suffered from total breakdown, implying the disappearance of internal coherence, there is still the possibility that an army loyal to a new leadership will emerge as a phoenix at the conclusion of the civil war.

Syria as a unit in the international system
Syria is characterised as a constructed nation state, not unlike many other countries. Where Syria differs is in the rather unique mixture of different kinds of nationalities, ethnic groupings, religious affiliations and cultural entities which appear more significant than in similar countries. Regardless of the array of cultures and ethnicities, the powerbase in Syria has remained in the hands of a sectarian minority: the prominent, mysterious Alawite Syrian clan – a Shia Muslim branch, which initially during the reign of Hafez al-Assad and later his son Bashar al-Assad maintained a repressive authoritarian patrimonial regime founded and established on a strong and loyal power system.  

Syria has historically been seen as a pariah in the predominantly Western-established international system. It has been a country that basically remained in opposition to imperialism, Western values and especially democratic governance, which effectively meant that the country was left in isolation, had it not been for many years of close bonds and relations to the Soviet Union - later Russia, and especially Iran. The story obviously becomes more nuanced the more you delve into the matter, but a main conclusion may be that Syria actually - and perhaps deliberately - kept its distance from cooperating in the international system, and only maintained relationships with countries that saw geostrategic advantages in cooperating with Syria, or countries which shared the Syrian ideology of fighting against Zionism and Israel.

The military dimension
If we look closer at the dynamics behind the military dimension of the conflict in Syria, it links previous Syrian security policy under the reign of President Hafez al-Assad with that of President Bashar al-Assad. The minority Alawite elite in Syria historically had to define and follow a national security policy which entailed a layer of internal security measures and strategies to ensure that national power remained under the control of the Alawite minority and in addition suppressed the Sunni majority population from any significant influence.  Furthermore, there was a regime change in strategy in the latter part of 2012, from an actual counter-insurgency (COIN) campaign to civil war with a twist of state terrorism. This shift opened up a new dimension of the conflict where the most loyal parts of the conventional national forces transformed themselves into hybrid and powerful militias, which under continued external state-sponsored support could sustain themselves for months, years and beyond.

It is in this respect further relevant and useful to take a closer look at the actors which have constituted the uprising trying to oust the regime, both the organised and structured Free Syrian Army (FSA), the more dispersed and initially loosely organised rebellion brigades and the radical Islamic groupings. They have remained fragmented and unable to unite under one single organisational structure, enabling them to effectively engage in cooperation with the international society, and not least maintain a credible alternative to the repressive existing regime and power system of Bashar al-Assad.

A remaining and outstanding question based on the events which have unfolded on the ground in Syria is then: What are the perspectives of the remaining majority Alawite security apparatus on the one side, and the fragmented and dis-organised uprising on the other in a post-conflict Syria? The answer is: very uncertain.   

Diplomacy versus a strong army
In order to conclude on the impact of the international society on the general civil-military relations we must return to the overarching analytical claim introduced in the beginning of the article that war is a game changer. The point of departure is the claim that the civil-military relations in Syria are characterised by a governing-ruling symbiosis between the civil leadership and the military forces. The relationship is clearly patrimonial and the overarching state formation and organisation deserve the notion of a bunker state, indicating a strong position for the army.

What happens after the violent uprising is, however, that the role of the army in the longer run is reduced. Thus, the civil-military leadership equation is affected considerably. War changes the basic relationship. The army is weakened due to defecting, due to the fact that only a smaller part of the armed forces are considered loyal and not least due to the fact that it lost its monopoly. Therefore, the regime is choosing other means to secure its survival. The solution is to rely on diplomatic initiatives. To the al-Assad regime this conflict resolution is not new. The regime has on several occasions chosen to adapt to pressure from the international society or the powerful part of it. New is the scope of the diplomatic adaptation and the way it affects the armed forces in general. The handling of the chemical weapons case displays a strong political ability by the regime to stay in power.

The main conclusion, therefore, points to the notion of war as a game changer and that the developments in Syria are constrained by the current world order. Syria is high on the public opinion agenda, but in international politics it is clearly subordinated to other conflicting regional and global forces.

Further reading

  • Cramer-Larsen, L. and Heurlin, B. (Forthcoming, 2014) Syria: Civil-Military Relations in Syria after 2011. Brief.  Royal Danish Defence College Publishing House.
  • Bruneau, T. C. and Matei, F. C. (eds.) (2011) Routledge Handbook of Civil-Military Relations. Routledge.

About the author

Military researcher

Lars Cramer-Larsen