Syria: Regime Unity Amid Defections

4 MINS READJun 29, 2012 | 10:30 GMT
Syria: Regime Unity Amid Defections
A Turkish coast guard boat leaves Samandagi harbor June 24 to search for Turkey's downed fighter jet

Turkey deployed anti-aircraft guns June 27 along the border with Syria in response to Syria's June 22 downing of a Turkish reconnaissance plane. Largely intended to compensate for what is perceived as a non-response, the deployment came after Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Brussels in an attempt to convince the United States and Europe that the Syria conflict was a multilateral problem that also concerned them. In return, he received little more than a stern statement condemning Syria.

Given the complexities and constraints that Turkey must confront in dealing with the Syria crisis, the Turkish response made sense — but it came at the cost of making the Syrian regime look relatively strong. It also showed the disunity of the covert supporters of the Syrian rebels — the United States, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and others. The support of these countries will continue to fuel the insurgency and give the Syrian rebels hope that the regime will eventually fracture, creating an opportunity for them to take over. However, without a foreign military intervention, it will take more than a protracted rebellion to bring down the al Assad regime.

Turkey knew it was not prepared to absorb the fallout of a unilateral intervention in Syria. It also knew that it would not receive NATO support to respond militarily to the downing and potentially accelerate the downfall of the al Assad regime. Instead, Erdogan went to Europe intending to frame the matter as a multilateral problem.

Ankara's response was reasonable, but it came at a cost. Syria twice demonstrated that it has a capable air defense network. This was a reminder that the suppression of Syria's air defenses, the first step in any military campaign, would not be easy. Syria thus came out of the incident looking relatively strong.

The rebellion is certainly preoccupying the Syrian regime and deeply stressing the country's economy. But Iranian and Russian support is keeping Syria's military armed and its economy afloat through sophisticated sanctions-evading techniques. This support has been critical to maintaining Alawite unity against the largely Sunni opposition.

The cohesion of the Alawite-controlled military is critical for preserving the regime. On the surface, the constant reports of defections in the Syrian military appear to indicate the armed forces' cohesion is already in doubt. However, although there have been scores of defections, none so far has threatened the Alawite core of the Syrian armed forces.

Most of the reported defectors have been mid- to low-ranking Sunni service members, with the exception of one Alawite army captain. The Sunnis are naturally the most prone to defection, but there are still a significant number of Sunni figures who remain tied to the regime through the Baath Party's patronage network.

Three air force pilots have allegedly defected, but they were also Sunnis. Notably, the majority of Syria's fighter aircraft pilots are Sunnis, while the majority of its pilots of attack helicopters — which are now being used more frequently in the opposition crackdowns — are Alawites. Syrian Air Force Intelligence is the most elite intelligence unit of the military and is also exclusively Alawite.

Cohesion and Disunity

The cohesion of the military bears close watching in the weeks and months ahead. In Syria, sectarian affiliation generally outweighs rank when it comes to military decisions, and the Alawites are still in charge. But if other defections among minorities occurred in addition to large-scale Sunni defections, the military's core could also be threatened. At that point, key figures within the regime, especially senior Sunni figures and Alawites outside the al Assad clan, would need to be monitored for signs that they were ready to turn on the al Assad family. There are not yet signs that this is occurring, and the Alawites and other minorities so far appear to be holding together.

Where there is a significant degree of disunity is among those backing the Syrian insurgency. The primary backers of the insurgency — the United States, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar — seem to have very different ideas on how to carry out their covert support. Turkey, for example, is mostly pushing the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, encouraging it to follow the example of Ankara's own modern Islamist party in a post-al Assad Syria. Saudi Arabia is believed to be funneling Salafist fighters into Syria and wants to limit the Muslim Brotherhood's rise. Meanwhile, the United States is struggling in broader negotiations with Iran and does not appear to be putting much effort into building a credible military threat against either Syria or Iran. The United States is also uncomfortable with the Saudis' preference for Salafists and the growing Islamist presence in the rebel insurgency.

A June 30 meeting hosted by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon in Geneva to discuss the Syria crisis displays this lack of consensus. The list of invitees includes foreign ministers from the U.N. Security Council permanent members: the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, China and France. It also includes emissaries from Turkey, Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar and the European Union. Notably absent from this list are Saudi Arabia and Iran, two regional players with possibly the deepest interest in Syria's fate.

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