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As international observers land in Syria, the UN-brokered truce between President Bashar al-Assad's regime and the opposition remains tenuous. Daily reports of clashes spill out of the country daily. In total, the unrest has left more than 11,000 dead. For a military perspective, Foreign Affairs’ Jordan Hirsch spoke with former Syrian Brigadier General Akil Hashem about the overall state of the rebellion, the capabilities of the military and the opposition, and what it will take to oust Assad. Excerpts:
Over a year after the uprising in Syria began, what is the state of the revolution?
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime is rapidly escalating its military campaign and will continue killing no matter what. But at the same time, the revolution will continue no matter what. This stalemate will not end unless the international community intervenes militarily.
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One of the main reasons given by Western powers for their reluctance to intervene in Syria is the power of Syria’s military and air defenses. As a former brigadier general, what is your assessment?
I cannot believe that the United States, Britain, and France, with all of their intelligence capabilities, do not realize that the Syrian military is weak, largely thanks to rampant corruption. It’s one thing to have equipment and weapons, but it’s another thing to have the leadership to deploy them. And the leadership of the Syrian military is particularly decrepit. It starts with junior officers who ask soldiers to buy them cigarettes and then refuse to pay them back and goes all the way up to division commanders who divert army matériel to build their castles, villas, and mansions, ordering soldiers to construct them without compensation.
What about matériel?
The Syrian military is relatively well equipped, but the weapons that it does have are severely outdated. The T-72 tank, the top-of-the-line tank in Syria now, entered service in 1979. The air defense missiles, except for some new ones from Iran, were purchased in that era as well. The same goes for armed vehicles. So this notion that Syria has a sophisticated air defense system or army is ridiculous.
If the situation within the Syrian military is so bad, why haven’t there been mass defections?
There is no place for deserters to go within Syria; most have gone to Turkey, which is difficult given the circumstances. The rest of the officers remain because they are largely Alawites, who have functioned as a sort of Swiss Guard for Assad. Alawites make up about ten percent of the Syrian population, and according to my estimation, there are more than 150,000 Alawites in the elite units of the intelligence agencies and of the armed forces. Although the Assad regime cannot rely on Alawites alone, it has packed the intelligence agencies and the military officer core with them -- the Alawite community is poor, with little educational or professional opportunity, and recruiters promise power and money. Families then rely on their sons for their financial livelihood, so you have to triple the number of Alawites directly invested in the regime. Given their investment in Assad, they have largely avoided defecting.
Another reason for the lack of defections is that Assad carefully watches his own forces. The Syrian army has 12 divisions. Of those, the Fourth Division, a particularly loyal outfit, is distributed among them to control them and prevent defection. They literally stand behind the regular forces and among them, a kind of police for the military. Whenever they detect the potential for defection, execution is the only punishment -- right away, without trial.
Where do you see the uprising heading over the next several months?
Assad cannot put down the rebellion. More than 10,000 people have been killed, but there are millions of Syrians participating directly or indirectly in the revolt, so the revolution will continue. That said, the rebels cannot win on their own. If the international community does not intervene, the conflict will persist indefinitely unless there is a military coup, an assassination of Assad or of top members of his regime, or a mass defection among the Alawite sect itself. The battle could continue like this for at least a year, if not longer.
If Western countries were to intervene, what should an intervention look like?
There are four options. The simplest would be airstrikes, similar to the NATO operation against Slobodan Milosevic in 1999. Such a campaign would target the security headquarters of the four major Syrian intelligence agencies: State Security, Air Force Intelligence, Military Intelligence, and the Ministry of Interior. It would also seek to destroy vital military outposts, government infrastructure, and communications systems. The United States and other Western powers could conduct this operation without any casualties, using cruise missiles and drones alone.
The second option is the establishment of a safe zone within Syria. This would require Western air forces to create a no-fly, no-drive zone within a small area in Syria, likely on the Turkish border. This zone would provide safe haven for the Free Syrian Army to regroup, for defectors to seek shelter (particularly those with heavier weapons, such as tanks), and for aid organizations to enter. That alone would turn the political and military situation upside down.
The third option would be the creation of a full no-fly zone over all of Syria. And the fourth option would be a campaign almost exactly like that in Libya, with a no-fly, no-drive zone extending across the entire country and constant airstrikes to contain the movements of the Syrian military.
The likelihood of these last two options is very low, given the political climate in the West. But given the weakness of the Syrian military, any of these four plans would unseat the Assad regime.
What would it take for the West to intervene?
Western countries will only intervene if the Assad regime escalates its killing, or there is a massacre on the scale of Srebrenica. According to my sources, the regime actually regulates how many should be killed per day. At the beginning of the armed uprising, the number was about 50; after the assault on the Baba Amr neighborhood of Homs, the number increased to 100. Assad knows that if he commits a large-scale massacre, he will trigger intervention. So if the numbers climb to 30,000 or 40,000 dead, or many thousands are killed at once, then you may see the international community act. Syria may also provoke its neighbors -- similar to what happened last week, when Syrian troops fired across the border into a Turkish refugee camp.
If Assad were to fall, what would Syria look like?
There will be chaos. It will be like Iraq -- a totalitarian regime that controlled everything suddenly collapsing, opening the door for all kinds of problems, even sectarian violence. But anything that comes after the regime would be a million times better than what we currently have. The doomsday scenarios of the Muslim Brotherhood or al Qaeda taking over Syria are ridiculous. Eventually, the opposition forces in the diaspora and within the country will find a way to unite to establish a free, democratic country.
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