General Failure in Syria

Without the Officers' Support, the Insurgents Can't Win

Free Syrian Army fighters take up positions prior to an offensive against Assad loyalists in Deir al-Zor, July 11, 2013. Khalil Ashawi / Courtesy Reuters

Since the uprising began in Syria more than two years ago, a reported 90,000 people have died, millions have been displaced, and much of the country now lies in ruins. Nevertheless, the vast majority of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad’s senior military officers remain loyal to him. Some observers initially believed that, upon seeing the regime’s uncompromising response to the demonstrations, many officers would follow the example of their Tunisian and Egyptian colleagues and defect. But that was never likely. In fact, the continued support of the regime by the majority of the officer corps was entirely predictable, as was, therefore, the high probability that the uprising would not succeed. Outside intervention will not now change their calculations -- except to make them, perhaps, even stauncher Assad supporters -- which means that Washington’s hopes for a speedy end to the war will likely be disappointed.

Although we are not good at predicting when uprisings might break out, we do know one critically important thing about them: once they do begin, they cannot succeed without the support of the regime’s coercive apparatus, most particularly the regular army. What, then, determines the generals’ stance in a revolution? As I argued in last April’s issue of the Journal of Democracy, it is possible to make a highly educated guess.

An army draws on four distinctive sources of information as it formulates its response to a revolution. Most critically, the generals assess the cohesiveness and composition of the armed forces that serve under them -- are there divisions along ethno-religious lines, between elite and regular units, between branches of the armed forces, between volunteer and drafted officials? Second, they consider the regime, its treatment of the armed forces, its record of governance, and its directions to the military during the revolution. The third piece of information that military leaders take into account is society, in particular relations between armed forces and society, the popularity of the uprising, and key characteristics of the protests, such as

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