Washington: By deploying its massive armoury against the hapless population during the past eight months, Damascus affirmed that the Syrian army, which was chiefly staffed by conscripts, was designed to uphold the Baathist regime, not to fight Israel or any real foe.
In the aftermath of the latest political clashes between the Syrian government and the Arab League, will tensions now escalate, and will the country witness a full-fledged militarisation on the ground?
What will the consequences of such steps be for the Syrian Army? Will it split, or will Damascus rely on its raw capabilities to muzzle opposition forces? Will the regime rely on the army to play the Kurdish card against Turkey, perhaps by launching a Kurdish counteroffensive along the borders, even at the risk of retaliation?
Despite massive deployments to tame Sunni-dominated strongholds like Hama, Homs, Daraa, Jisr Al Shughur and other cities that witness daily demonstrators against the regime, Syrian forces have failed to suppress protesters across the country. To be sure, and without external support, fractured opposition movements were no match for a well oiled and ideologically cleansed military that, and this must be acknowledged openly, delayed any hope for a real and permanent solution for political reforms.
Nevertheless, the largely peaceful protests have turned increasingly violent, because an estimated 25,000 defectors fought back against loyal government troops. This was the heart of the dilemma that confronted Damascus, given that 25,000 deserters, if confirmed, represented approximately 15 per cent of all active personnel. Although the state is in a position to mobilise about 280,000 reservists, such a scenario is unlikely for the time-being, because many who would presumably be recalled, are among the protesters. As additional troops choose to join the so-called Free Syrian Army, Damascus may well face a dramatic collapse of its military, encouraging senior officers, including Alawites, to organise a coup d'état.
What has literally saved the Baath Government for the time-being is the fractured opposition's inability to recruit these army defectors, seek international legitimacy for them in their Turkish safe havens, and solicit equipment from friendly governments to truly create an effective Free Syrian Army. Still, Damascus cannot hope that the haemorrhaging of its military will cease abruptly, and must find ways to stop additional desertions, although this is probably impossible. For, despite their Soviet-style indoctrination, an increasing number of Syrian soldiers refuse to fire on civilians, at the risk of court-martials and unspeakable torture.
An equally troubling aspect of this putative split is the potential beginning of a sectarian civil war, given that most army recruits are Sunnis, whereas the Officer Corps is largely staffed by Alawites. One of the reasons why Daraa, Hama, Homs and Deir Al Zor are proving impossible to tame is precisely because Sunni soldiers refused to fire on protesters in these largely Sunni towns, sometimes protecting demonstrators by placing themselves directly in the line of fire. Moreover, although President Bashar Al Assad made up his mind to use force to save the regime, his strategic error was to rely on a vulnerable institution, one whose history was replete with coups. Damascus hoped that the army would continue to hold together though it was important to ask why the use of force during these past months has achieved so little for the state.
Indeed, because the Syrian Government has failed to successfully crush daily protests — though it managed to prevent the internal opposition from consolidating with external opposition leaders — it literally faces a Gordian Knot: how to end defections and prevent a split within the armed forces even if it manages to recruit proxies from Iran and Lebanon to fill gaping holes in key sensitive areas where the potential for sectarian warfare is non-negligible.
The Kurdish Dilemma
For Syria, which was the only country in the world that shared borders with both Israel and Turkey, a geographical reality that endowed Damascus with unique political prospects, Ankara's decision to get off the fence and openly support anti-regime forces, was perceived by Al Assad as a personal betrayal.
Early on Al Assad concluded that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan decided to realign Turkey with the Sunni world against the putative rise of Shiites. The Turkish shift bothered Syria and it was not long before Al Assad decided to retaliate.
Indeed, because Ankara was determined to extend support to Sunni freedom fighters in Syria, Damascus activated its dormant backing to the "outlawed" Kurdistan Workers' Party [Parti Karkerani Kurdistan or PKK], a nationalist organisation active in Eastern Anatolia that has been a sore on the state's side.
Amazingly, PKK units launched an impressive military operation against several Turkish bases, as scores of militants infiltrated Eastern Turkey in mid-October, and in a concerted attack killed almost 30 Turkish soldiers. Though most allegedly slipped back into Northern Iraq, Ankara believed that the PKK was receiving Syrian military assistance and, consequently, authorised those officers and soldiers of the Syrian Free Army who made it to Turkey to establish bases on its territory.
It was important to bear in mind that the small Free Syrian Army was incapable, at least for now, to act as an authentic militia. Even if the total numbers grew faster over the next weeks and months, Turkey was not ready to host a true opposition "army," one that would be allowed to engage the Syrian military in what could well spread into a regional conflict that may also involve Iran, Iraq and, perhaps, Lebanon and Israel. Still, Ankara's military capabilities were far more significant than many assumed in Damascus, and it behooved officials in the Syrian capital to avoid a direct confrontation.
Notwithstanding its sympathy for the suffering Syrian Sunni population, however, Turkey was also concerned with the territorial integrity of Syria, especially if that option prevented the spread of sectarian tensions. Towards that end, and for egocentric reasons, it rejected Syrian calls to grant self-rule to the millions of its Kurdish citizens (who finally became full-fledged citizens in 2011). Presumably, it was in Turkey's interests to see Syria's Kurds stay put, but were Syria to implode, the fate of its Kurdish minority — to carve for itself an autonomous zone along the border region — literally threatened Turkish integrity too. Ankara was amply aware that a large autonomous Kurdish enclave in Iraq would be complemented with the one in Syria, both of which might increase irredentist Kurdish aspirations in Turkey, with dire consequences. It was this permutation that was at the heart of the Syrian-Turkish dilemma and that delayed the inevitable overthrow of the Baath regime in Damascus.
Whatever assistance Turkey decided to provide to the Free Syrian Army units must therefore be carefully balanced. Ankara literally held Syria's military future in its hands as it pondered what strategic steps to take: sacrifice Kurdistan — and recognise its eventual independent status — or lead the Sunni world. Likewise, how Damascus decided to play the Kurdish card against Turkey, perhaps by launching a Kurdish counteroffensive along the borders and risk retaliations, ensured what happened to its security apparatus — in other words, what happened to the regime itself.
A cat and mouse game was underway between Damascus and Ankara, one that was likely to cost them both, though the risks to the regular Syrian military were exponentially higher.
Joseph Kechichian, author of several books, is an expert on the Gulf and Middle East affairs