Syria and Iraq: armies, politics, and the future

The shared experience of military repression and failure under Saddam Hussein's Iraq and the al-Assad dynasty in Syria is a challenge to the Arab world's political elites, says Hazem Saghieh.

In the period before Saddam Hussein was toppled, some voices in the then Iraqi opposition argued that in the post-Saddam era the Iraqi army should be dissolved. The United States executed this wish and made a reality out of it following the invasion of 2003.

As it turned out, the decision was wrong: not so much "in itself" but because a fragmented Iraqi society needed a "unifying" force. The implication of this revisionist logic is that the army must be accepted as sort of permanent fee paid by society as a whole in order to avoid the latter's own disintegration (even if that outcome can’t be avoided forever).

Nonetheless, the radical Iraqi demand to disband the army remains in principle quite understandable. The Iraqi army and its ancillary agencies, after all, have always acted as a burden on the Iraqi economy and lowered Iraqis' standard of living. The institution's public role dates from 1936, when Bakr Sidki launched the first military coup in the entire Arab world. The second coup, executed by nationalist (and pro-Nazi) officers took place in 1941. After 1958, coups became a national sport in Iraq. After Saddam Hussein consolidated his power at the head of the Ba'ath regime in 1968 (and especially after 1979), the army started to undertake bigger and more dangerous adventures: the war on Iran in 1980, and the invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

The paranoid rhetoric of Saddam notwithstanding, this sombre history contains not a single heroic story. The only "heroism" of which Saddamite propagandists could boast lay in suppressing the Iraqi Shia and Kurds after the humiliating defeat in Kuwait. Yet the Iraqi army did not split: its officer corps, and of course its terrified conscripts, obeyed orders.

The Syrian record

Today, many Syrians might usefully reflect on - and take guidance from - this sorry record. Their own "courageous" army, backed by regime-recruited thugs known as shabbiha, continues - despite "ceasefires", and amid diplomatic negotiation - its murderous operations against Syrians and their cities and towns. Yet despite all its atrocities, and in face of internal strains and some defections, the army has preserved its unity - and obeyed orders.

There are further broad parallels in the record of the two institutions. The Syrian army's first military coup occurred in 1949, a year of three such events. The Ba'athist regime was established in 1963. Until 1970, when Hafez al-Assad nationalised politics altogether, the army would boast of its "salvationist" role in confiscating and/or strangling modern Syria's fledgling democratic experiments.

Both before and after 1970, the confrontations between the Syrian army and the "Zionist enemy" proved a fiasco for Damascus. In the six-day war of 1967, Syria lost the Golan heights; in 1982, during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, Syrian forces fled Beirut, which had been under their protection; in the July-August war of 2006, they left Hizbollah, Damascus's staunch ally, alone in the battlefield. True, the war of October 1973 had a different course; but its outcome was to consolidate the cult of Hafez al-Assad rather than to liberate occupied Syrian lands.

The core political role of Syria's army of 500,000 is comparable to that in Saddam's Iraq: to act as an instrument in cementing the Bashar al-Assad regime. It does this by imposing brutal discipline on internal and external enemies, and by absorbing and channelling the energies of the unemployed.

It can be argued that another connection with Iraq is that fear keeps the Syrian army united behind its political command - for how else can conscripts and even officers be able to endure seeing, and participating, massacres of their own people? But the very fact that an army is driven by fear offers another good reason to recall the Iraqi example, and to contemplate living without such an institution.

The wider lens

There are precedents here. The militaries of Germany and Japan had inflicted huge destruction and suffering by exporting their militaristic hysteria. After their defeat in the second world war, reform changed their inner structure of thinking and deprived them of the capacity to repeat the pattern.

The progressive elites in both countries welcomed this development as a way to consolidate their new democratic institutions, protect their citizens' lives, reassure their neighbours, and enable them to divert huge resources towards economic advancement.

The revisionist logic vis-à-vis Iraq is a reminder of the complexity of post-conflict situations in societies such as Iraq and Syria, where authoritarian regimes have used religious and national variations to "divide and rule". But the constructive vision of post-war leaderships in Germany and Japan is a positive example of what can be done with a different approach to national armies. It would be a great step forward if the Arab world's "progressive" elites could look at the record of Iraq's and Syria's armies, and think anew.

About the author

Hazem Saghieh is political editor of the London-based Arab newspaper al-Hayat

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Hazem Saghieh is political editor of the London-based Arab newspaper al-Hayat