North Africa, West Asia

The Syrian army and its power pyramid

To continue our examination of the Syrian army, a contesting view to that of Kamal Alam in an excerpt from Gilbert Achcar's 'The People Want: A Radical Exploration of the Arab Uprising', identifying a complex manipulation of sect and clan in the maintenance of the Syrian regime and its apparatuses of violence.

Gilbert Achcar
18 July 2014

Portrait of Hafez al-Assad presiding over a pyramid of bananas. Wikimedia commons. Public domain.The preponderance of Alawites among army officers, from non-commissioned officers to the highest levels of the military hierarchy, came about gradually in the course of the 1960s: it was not the result of a premeditated, organised operation, but stemmed from social and political factors that Hanna Batatu has studied in great detail in an excellent book. Thus it precedes the 16 November 1970 reformist coup d’état, known as the “Corrective Movement” (al-Haraka al-Tas’hihiyya), in which Hafez al-Assad, then defence minister, seized power, purging the army and Baath party of the radical left faction to which Assad himself had once belonged. His putsch was, moreover, viewed much more positively by Sunnis, especially the Sunni urban bourgeoisie, than by his co-religionists.

The elder Assad was a shrewd Bonaparte – the most machiavellian leader in contemporary Arab history, in both the positive and pejorative sense of the reference to the author of The Prince. He consistently saw to it that he was surrounded by well-placed Sunnis who had a direct interest in maintaining the government’s stability for the sake of the material privileges that they derived from it. However, he kept them under his thumb or watched them closely to stifle any intentions they might have to take power for themselves. Among the Sunnis in his entourage were men such as his collaborator and old friend General Mustafa Tlass, army chief of staff at the time of the “Corrective Movement”, who contributed to the coup and became Assad’s defence minister; Abdel-Halim Khaddam, another old friend, who was Assad’s foreign minister until 1984 and vice-president thereafter; and Hikmat al-Shihabi, director of military intelligence until 1974, then army chief of staff until 1998.

When, for health reasons, Hafez al-Assad had to give up the active exercise of power for a few months in 1983–84, he created a six-man presidium, all of whose members were sunnis, to run the country until his return. This was because he knew that these men could never envisage turning against him, since they did not control the armed forces, unlike the ruling group’s Alawite members, including Assad’s own brother Rifaat. Rifaat fell into disgrace precisely because he had tried to transgress this presidential decision.

It was in 1976–82, the most turbulent period of Assad’s reign – both on the regional level and also domestically, since Assad was confronted by a sunni armed rebellion led by the Muslim Brothers – that, according to Batatu, “Assad’s dependence on his kinsmen and the ‘alawite brass and soldiery intensified and became the indispensable safeguard of his paramount power.” This development was very clearly reflected in the appointments made while Assad was president:

Out of the thirty-one officers whom Assad singled out between 1970 and 1997 for prominent or key posts in the armed forces, the elite military units, and the intelligence and security networks, no fewer than nineteen were drawn from his 'Alawite sect, including eight from his own tribe and four others from his wife’s tribe; and of the latter twelve, as many as seven from kinsmen closely linked to him by ties of blood or marriage.…


Apart from the special regime-shielding military formations, over which they had all along exclusive control, ‘Alawite generals commanded in 1973 only two out of the five regular army divisions but in 1985 no fewer than six – and in 1992 as many as seven – out of the nine divisions now constituting Syria’s regular army.

The result of the thorough transformation of the Syrian armed forces undertaken by Hafez al-Assad has been described in a report on their current situation drawn up by the private intelligence agency Stratfor. The report paints an edifying picture:

Syrian Alawites are stacked in the military from both the top and the bottom, keeping the army’s mostly Sunni 2nd Division commanders in check. Of the 200,000 career soldiers in the Syrian army, roughly 70 percent are alawites. Some 80 percent of officers in the army are also believed to be Alawites. The military’s most elite division, the Republican Guard, led by the president’s younger brother Maher al Assad, is an all-Alawite force. Syria’s ground forces are organized in three corps (consisting of combined artillery, armor and mechanized infantry units). Two corps are led by Alawites....


Most of Syria’s 300,000 conscripts are Sunnis who complete their two- to three-year compulsory military service and leave the military, though the decline of Syrian agriculture has been forcing more rural Sunnis to remain beyond the compulsory period (a process the regime is tightly monitoring). Even though most of Syria’s air force pilots are Sunnis, most ground support crews are Alawites who control logistics, telecommunications and maintenance, thereby preventing potential Sunni air force dissenters from acting unilaterally. Syria’s air force intelligence, dominated by Alawites, is one of the strongest intelligence agencies within the security apparatus and has a core function of ensuring that Sunni pilots do not rebel against the regime.

Following Batatu, we may distinguish three echelons of the power pyramid in Syria beneath the all-powerful summit represented by the president himself, the level to which all others are directly subordinate. There is, first, an echelon made up of the heads of the four intelligence and security services: Military Intelligence, Air Force Intelligence, General Security, and Political Security. These are separate, rival institutions, as is usual under paranoid governments. Also part of this echelon are the heads of the regime’s praetorian guard, the only troops authorised to set foot in the capital – the Republican Guard (led, in turn, by Assad’s three sons, Bassel, Bashar and, finally, Maher); the Fourth Armoured Division (the former Defence Companies, now under Maher’s command); and the Special Forces, such as the army’s Fifteenth Division. The Baath party leadership comprises the next echelon of power. The third echelon is made up of members of the government and the high-ranking bureaucrats of the national and provincial administrations.

[ This text is excerpted from Gilbert Achcar’s book The People Want: A Radical Exploration of the Arab Uprising (UK edition: London: Saqi, 2013, pp. 210-2). The endnotes have not been reproduced.]

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