The rise of the military establishment in Syria:

In his book ‘The Army and Political Power in the Arab Context’[1], Dr. Azmi Bishara suggests that in the period that followed the independence of Third World countries after WWI, the military establishment appeared to be the most organized institution and the most capable of carrying out the tasks of modernization. It seemed capable of playing the progressive role required to modernize our backward agricultural societies. This view allowed military men to feel independent and see themselves as a special group or a force independent of society, crystallizing its own interests and acting as an isolated bloc from society. Dr. Bishara sees “the army as a social class with specific features[2],” whose members form an “alternative middle class, in the event the middle class is weak[3].” Bishara said, “In the absence of a strong and organized middle class with an ideology of its own, military men’s role rises to fill up this place and change social dynamics as they present themselves as representatives to unite and protect the nation— a melting pot of national unity.”

The defeat of Arab armies in the 1948 Palestine war and the establishment of the state of Israel played a significant role in encouraging the military coups in the Middle East, as they created widespread anger against the traditional ruling elites. This coincided with nationalist and socialist revolutionary ideas being on the rise globally, with political organizational influence reaching various Syrian factions who promoted ideas such as “revolutionary change” and “revolutionary legitimacy” that made military coups more acceptable or at least avoided social confrontations.

The military was able to rise in Syria due to the weakness of the political institutions, established by the old ruling elites after France’s exit, and the absence of a new middle class to establish ties between the working class and farmers on the one hand, and the city, upper classes and the ruling elites on the other hand. So, the existing system remained, controlling small urban trade sectors, whilst the military establishment was the most organized institution, in addition to possessing weapons. The role of rural inhabitants grew in the military as wealthy, middle class and even poor city inhabitants showed reluctance to join the military, preferring dedicating themselves to education or scientific professions such as medicine, law and engineering. Rural inhabitants, however, especially poor minorities, saw volunteering in the army as a source of income. This was helped by the flexible policies of urban Sunni leaders towards minorities, whose involvement they did not view as an imminent threat.

Syria, a victim of military coups

The military’s rise in Syria kickstarted the era of military coups in the Arab world as the establishment made a record in how many coups it led and how much power it forcibly seized. 1949 alone witnessed three successive coups: Husni al-Za’im’s coup in March, Sami al-Hinnawi’s in August and Adib Shishakli I in December. Then in December 1951, Adib Shishakli II’s coup took place followed by another coup in February 1954 where power was transferred to political parties and democracy was restored in Syria as officers’ interest in politics and power continued. Then something resembling a military coup took place after a secret visit between a military delegation consisting of a group of military council officers and former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Led by Major General Afifi al-Birzri, the delegation, who hadn’t obtained authorization from the government or parliament, agreed with Egypt on January 1958 to establish an integrative Syrian-Egyptian unit based on conditions laid out by Abdel Nasser. The conditions were later imposed on the government and parliament as a new era of intelligence rule rolled out in Syria. In September 1961, a coup to separate Syria from Egypt, led by Abd al-Karim al-Nahlawi, took place, ending the unity era between the two countries. Then on March 8, 1963, another coup took place that brought about what became known as the Baath authority. Led by Salah Jadid, an internal coup in the Baath authority overthrew the historical leadership of the party on February 23, 1966. This was followed by another internal coup on November 16, 1970, led by Hafez al-Assad, in which he defeated Salah Jadid in what was seen as the last successful military coup in Syria. So, over two decades (between 1949 and 1970), Syria witnessed 10 military coups, in addition to a number of failed attempts.

Syria’s struggle with military rule was twofold— in addition to the general features that resulted from being ruled by a military tyranny, Syria also suffered the sectarianization of its military and security establishments. This sectarianization had an impact on the process of defining the state’s administrative role in formulating policies, managing the state’s resources and economy, and the formation of the capitalist elite communities that grew under Assad and later his son.

According to Bishara, the process of sabotaging and sectarianizing the Syrian military establishment passed through five basis stages that he reviews in some detail (page 111 to 126) in his above mentioned book “Military and Politics.” We can summarize these stages as follows:

The first stage was the period of the French mandate over Syria until 1946 during which Sunnis formed the majority of the “Army of the East” (a French-given name). The French also formed their own special units that enjoyed a sectarian or ethnic nature that was passed onto the independence phase that lasted between 1946 and 1954.

The second stage was between 1954 and 1963 and saw officers more involved in politics than military affairs. This period saw the formation of five competing blocs and ended with the officers’ announcement of the unity with Abdel Nasser in February 1958.

The third stage, which was the first stage for the ideological army, was between 1963 and 1970, and saw conflict take place on sectarian basis between the different factions of the March 8, 1963, coup. This period also saw an expansion in the recruitment of Alawites in the army and security apparatus and the elimination of the influence of Sunni, Druze and Ismaili officers, a move that led to Alawites taking control of both institution. A conflict then emerged between the ruling Alawite elite, Salah Jadid and Hafez al-Assad, followed by the latter defeating the former in November 1970.

The fourth stage, which was the second stage for the ideological army, was itself divided into two phases. The first phase was between 1970 and 1973, and saw the rebuilding of the army to prepare for war with Israel, while the second was between 1973 and 1983, and saw the establishment of an ideological army controlled by Alawites and the struggle with the Muslim Brotherhood.

The fifth stage, the post-1983 phase, saw the consecration of Hafez al-Assad, the rise of the slogan “our leader to infinity … the protecter Hafez al-Assad,” and the distribution of shares in military, security and civil duties among Alawite clans. The distribution of civil duties took place in accordance with sects and regions in ministries, parliament, local councils and party leaderships and its branches. This phase also saw the size of the army grow to half a million soldiers in a country of no more than 13 million people, as the political system completed its clientelistic structure.

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