The Revolution in Syria, the Syrian Army and the Model of the Arab Revolutions

The Revolution in Syria, the Syrian Army and the Model of the Arab Revolutions

Despite the absence of any prospects for reform in Syria, and the Syrian regime’s resort to a policy of brutal repression, the pace of the mass movement has escalated in an unprecedented manner during the past two weeks.

Tens of thousands of Syrians are valiantly coming out throughout the streets and squares in different Syrian cities every Friday afternoon, from Bu-Kamal, Deir Al-Zour to Latakia, and from Ma’arrat al-Numan to Deraa.

Deraa City, in particular, deserves a special note; last Friday, there was no room for doubt regarding whose will has prevailed in this southern Syrian city, which was the first among all cities in Syria to revolt and the first one subjected to the security and military barbarian invasion of the regime’s forces.
The City of Deraa rose up from its wounds, and got up quickly again on its feet so as to tell the ruling fascist oppressive regime that the policy of the security and military oppression will only serve to inflame the spirit of rejection and the determination of the Syrian people to uphold the demands for change.

Yet in Syria, as was in the case of Libya and Yemen, the Syrian revolution raises more questions than provides answers. After quick win by the popular masses in Tunisia and Egypt, and having the army siding with the people in the two countries, the army’s refusal to respond to the demonstrations and the opposition to the former regimes by force came to build a new belief that there is a "model" for the Arab revolution arising; and that model entails a certain form of relationship between "the military" and "the people". It became widely believed that this model must be repeated as a prerequisite for the success of every revolution. Yet, of course, this hypothesis proved to be fundamentally wrong.

At the end of a university seminar more than twenty years, the British political philosopher, George Stratton, spoke about the revolutions of Eastern Europe and the transition to democracy. On his part, Professor Peter Woodward commented and said that the revolution "is an extraordinarily matter". What Woodward meant was that the revolutions are not likely to be controlled into a certain course, or organized according to plan prepared in advance; it is even impossible to predict the results that the revolution could come up with.

Indeed, the revolutions in its urban roots, which the world began to see since the French Revolution, do not always work or necessarily succeed; and that success requires a number of factors and forces that are not related to the domestic level only, but also regionally and even internationally related. In the wave of popular revolutions in Europe in the mid-nineteenth century, not a single one of them achieved a decisive victory. The revolution in Paris was crushed, and the leaders of the Polish revolution ended up resorting to the Ottoman state, while the Italian and German authorities succeeded in containing the popular revolution in these two countries after giving some limited legislative concessions. Certainly, however, there is not a single popular revolution in the modern era that ended without a trace or inducing a degree of change; some of their impact was in the form of a direct and rapid political change – though deep or shallow in various cases, while others left an impact on the long run. The developments seen in the movement of the Arab revolution is a miracle by all standards; as whatever the difficulties faced by Tunisia and Egypt, it is certain that the clock will not go backwards at all. Whatever the involvement of some Libyan opposition leaders with Western powers, Libya is moving quickly towards the triumph for the will of the people and asserting the country’s independence and unity. There have been many important regional and international interventions in Yemen, and still, the wise and legendary determination of the Yemeni people is now taking the Yemeni revolution to the brink of victory. The revolution in Syria is certainly more complex, and probably will be expensive in terms of bloodshed for freedom.

The most pressing question in Syria today, after almost seven weeks of heavy-handed military deployment against the Syrian cities and the public, is the question of the army. Will the Syrian army continue to obey the orders of the leaders of the regime in oppressing the people and curb them? Is there any hope that the Syrian army exhibits the behavior of the Tunisian and Egyptian armies? Is it possible to win the revolution without the Syrian army standing by the revolution and the people?

Controlling the army is a tool of the modern state; the latter is the strongest wall protecting the State. In fact, it is the element that guarantees the State’s existence and continuation. Also, the army for all modern nations – whether rational or less rational, democratic or fascist alike – is a reason d’être for the State. Yet, the organic link between the State and its Army becomes more organic and more solid in case of authoritarian states. The British state when facing the national unrest in the province of Northern Ireland in the mid-sixties, and the French state when facing the student and labor protests in 1968, both did not hesitate to resort to the army. Also, in the regimes such as the Shah’s regime in Iran, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Mubarak in Egypt, Ben Ali in Tunisia and Al-Assad in Syria, they were all resorting to the military’s loyalty and its willingness to defend the borders and the regime as this remains a matter of life or death, i.e. it is a question of the State justification and its mere existence raised when talking about its army.

It was not strange – therefore – to see these regimes – and others similar to them – using the army when their security forces fail to contain the mobility of the revolutionary mass; usually, the decision comes soon after the outbreak of the mobility of the mass, as it succeeds more often in defeating the security device and pushing them back. The army is another different matter, not only because its tools of violence that cannot be owned by any equivalent body or any popular sectors, but also due to the spirit of the team, the sense of programming and obedience, the sustained systematic desire to achieve the goals and the training on the use of ultra-violence maintained by the army apparatus. Thus, the armies in the broader sense are the closet social institutions to the features of a "modern machine".

And because the armies are objects that are difficult to predict generally, and because there is no army like another on the other hand, the demographic composition of the army and its association with the institution of government and the culture and consciousness it holds remain, in turn, a matter that calls for analysis.

And because the objective reality that surrounds an "army" is significantly different from one army to another, there is hardly any unified model regarding the conditions that would determine the military’s response to the popular opposition movement. The choice of Tunisian and Egyptian armies to align with the people is almost an exception in this response and not the rule that applies to all cases. In Northern Ireland, given the stability of the state institution and the national and religious divisions that led to the establishment of the movement of Irish Catholics, the British army played a key role in containing the Irish nationalist movement, even in defeating its armed wing, and then setting up the conditions for a negotiated solution in the end. The French military forces and the American National Guards have played a key role in facing the popular protests at the end of the sixties of the twentieth century, without being subjected to massive upheavals that would crack or destroy the concrete structures of these armies.

In Libya, as we know, most of the army sided with the traditional roots of the revolution (the people), while the Special Forces and Gaddafi battalions remained loyal to the regime, and still are. In Yemen, the situation required enormous popular mobility and continuing the protests for several weeks before the one division of the army defected and took the side of the masses of the revolution; but cracks in the ranks of the army and Republican Guard continued in the form of a steady and gradual shifting of loyalty after that.

In Syria, the regime resorted first to the fourth platoon and the Republican Guard, as it knew that there is little doubt regarding their loyalty. But the regime made grave mistake when it thought that imposing heavy punishment against the city of Deraa will give the city, its people and the Syrians a lesson and will get them to say "enough" to revolting, and thus, the popular movement would be contained. In fact, this tactic by the regime led to broadening the scope of the popular movement and the escalation of the pace of the revolution, and consequently, the Syrian regime was forced to introduce more troops to the arena of confrontation.

Due to the structure of the Syrian army and the security grip imposed by the strict rules of the military branches and units, it was difficult, perhaps impossible, that the Syrian army exhibits the behavior of the Tunisian and Egyptian armies in response to the popular revolt. But the estimates and the viewpoints that predict that "the Syrian army will continue to show loyalty to the regime and take the responsibility of vowing to suppress the people and their movement" is by far a miscalculation. It is more likely that the Syrian army will witness great cracks in the weeks and months ahead, and it is also possible that reports about the growing defection of some of the officers and soldiers, or refusing to obey orders, is just the beginning.

There is no army, no matter how the traditions of discipline and obedience are, that can maintain its cohesion for a long time against popular mass on a wide scale; the mobility of a peaceful demonstration, carrying clear and fair demands could crack any army no matter the time it takes to do so. Maybe we should recall the relationship of the Iranian army of the Shah, which was the closest to a relationship between a God and its worshippers, and still, the Iranian popular revolution, which lasted for ten months before the start of the first split in the army, prevailed at the end. The Iranian army broke down in the end, however, and concrete segments of it sided with the people.

Each of the Arab revolutions will be demonstrating a form of its own; crawling from the countryside to the capital as in Tunisia, pouring and piling up in Tahrir Square in the heart of Cairo as in Egypt, occupying the Squares of Change in Yemen, resistance marching to the cities and the fighting fronts as in Libya, and the Fridays of the crowd and public demonstrations as in Syria. The nature of the Tunisian and Egyptian communities, the surprise raid by the revolutions on the regimes and the position of the military to side with the people in the two countries, have achieved the victory with minimum losses in a relatively short time. But the Yemeni and the Libyan regimes, which cannot be compared regarding their power and their authority and traditions of stability with the Egyptian regime, have not reached breathing their last yet, despite the fact that four months passed since the beginning of the Libyan revolution. No one, regardless of his experience or expertise regarding the Syria case and its affairs, can predict the path that the Syrian revolution will take, the time required to attain the victory of the people, or the amount of the sacrifices that will be necessary to provide in order to achieve that victory. What unites the Arab revolutions, what makes the model unique, is the solemn mass that came out so bravely; they went out unarmed to face a state that adopts violence and brutality as corner-stones for their ruling, the firm and tireless determination of the people to win and achieve the goal of change, no matter the sacrifices to be made. These millions are re-building the Arab life, uniting the nations, restoring the lost dignity and relocating their people and their nations on the world stage. Those people and these movements in Safaques and Tunisia, in Benghazi and Misurata, in Cairo and Suez, in Sana’a and Taiz, and in Deraa, Homs, Hama, Latakia, Idlib, Deir Al-Zour and Ma’arrat al-Numan, are the model that will prevail.

* An Arab writer and researcher on modern history