All the King’s Men: Authoritarianism, Loyalty and the Syrian Collapse
Brandon C. Patrick
While the true social and economic origins of the Syrian civil war stretch back decades, the longstanding culture of government corruption and purchased loyalties hastened the final spiral toward war. Like in pre-war Iraq under Saddam Hussein, loyalty and favor had been traded like currency among the upper echelons of Syrian society since the early days of Hafez al-Assad’s rule.[i] Positions of sensitivity, high responsibility and public trust in the Syrian government (and other authoritarian systems of its kind) are often doled out to co-religionists, friends and family members on the basis of (and in exchange for) personal loyalty.[ii] This is the “loyalty exchange,” where personal allegiance is purchased away from the state by the authoritarian. What results are rickety and mismanaged government institutions run not by experts or “career officers” in their respective fields, but by dilettantes focused more on leveraging their newfound prominence into personal gain.[iii] The same can be true in the military sphere[iv] where promotions are often awarded based on personal association with the authoritarian, rather than merit or skill.[v] In this way “loyalty exchange” which stems from Assad’s authoritarianism actually weakens both the authoritarian and the state rather than truly strengthening them.
The Syrian government grappled with the consequences of such nepotism in the opening stages of the civil war. In early 2011, discontented officers from units throughout the Syrian military, citing various motivations behind their decisions, began to defect. Competent and formally-trained battlefield commanders entered the ranks of the fledgling rebellion, from a young relative of former Syrian Defense Minister Mustafa Tlass[vi] to Hussein Harmoush, a career officer of the Syrian army and a Colonel in the 11th armored division of Syria’s Third Corps. Frustrated by the dysfunction of a military that now served Assad’s instead of the state,[vii] Col. Harmoush would go on to launch the Syrian Free Officers Movement, a progenitor of the Free Syrian Army.
The link between the Assad regime’s authoritarianism and Syrian state fragility is evident in situations like these: the loyalty-exchange drives resentment and discontent among the out-groups (in this case, officers loyal to the state, but not bought into the authoritarian’s loyalty exchange) while government systems stagnate under an increasingly amateurish leadership class. The government is often left with a mixed bag of sycophants, market barons and (some) competent professionals. The nascent rebellion, meanwhile, (the Free Syrian Army in this example) benefits from the recruitment of experienced military professionals ready to give training and direction to the fledgling rebellion. The military is therefore weakened and was weakening throughout the arc of this loyalty-exchange. The state is made more fragile and vulnerable as a direct result.
Abandoning the State: Military Loyalties and the loss of Apoliticism
Though absent from popular definitions[viii] for state stability, an apolitical and socially representative military would seem to be crucial to the stability of any state. In the models of many democratic and stable countries, militaries (like their states) stand distinct from other government structures because of their apolitical nature; their dedication to the national good and lack of political motivation leave them widely trusted by the public and regarded as a symbol for national unity and identity. Such was not the case in Syria[ix].
Contrary to the Syrian model (and others[x]), a military’s long-term functional cohesion is predicated on its shared interest in safeguarding the national wellbeing. Often overseen by political bodies and directed by political will, the non-authoritarian state’s military none the less maintains its apolitical character by performing its duty irrespective of who in power issues its direction. The forces of the loyalty-exchange and state-replacement in Syrian governance have preempted the possibility of military cohesion by compromising command unity, cultivating out-groups and fomenting distrust between the Syrian armed forces and its constituent population.
The deleterious effects of the loyalty-exchange and state replacement on the Syrian military’s apolitical character reach back to the early days of the first Assad regime;[xi] little has changed in these respects beyond the sophistication with which the methods are exercised.[xii] As was the practice under Hafez al-Assad, the loyalties and decision-making of Syrian military officers in Bashar’s military are driven by reward, promotion and benefit (and not, therefore, by the unifying concern for the nation or its people). Writing for the Carnegie Middle East Center in 2015, nonresident scholar Kheder Khaddour described a glaring example: Dahiet al-Assad (the suburb of al-Assad).
Dahiet al-Assad is noteworthy as an exemplar of the loyalty-exchange system in the Syrian military. Located immediately northwest of Damascus, Dahiet al-Assad is an isolated housing development provided by the government to military officers who are (and remain) loyal to President Assad. Khaddour describes residency in Dahiet al-Assad as a prestigious perk with a high price: in relocating to Dahiet al-Assad, the lifestyles and fortunes of Syrian officers and their families assume a direct relationship with Assad’s own fate. The self-interest of these officers comes into alignment with that of President Assad, thus cementing the officers’ loyalty once and for all. This arrangement was not implicit: Khaddour describes the presidential succession of 2000, following Hafez al-Assad’s death as a period of uncertainty for the suburb’s officers. Families throughout the development were sent back to their home villages to await the succession’s outcome and as Khaddour puts it, “Officers had understood that their life in Damascus was contingent on the Assad regime’s survival, rather than on their status as state employees or military personnel.” The loyalty exchange, defined.
Like all perks offered by the regime, not every officer earned a property in the suburb of al-Assad. Such rewards are reserved for true-believing Assadists and to Assad’s Alawite co-religionists whose loyalties, in many cases, were never seriously questioned. Being neither Alawite nor sufficiently proven, the outgroup of enlisted soldiers, career officers who had been passed over for reward and Syrian idealists continued to grow.[xiii] This outgroup was more concentrated in the lower ranks than in the officer ranks to be sure, but (as mentioned previously) its subsequent birth of the Free Syrian Army defined the very character of the civil war for years.
There is some strategic novelty to the regime’s effort at Dahiet al-Assad, however: by isolating these officers and tying their livelihoods to that of Assad, the Syrian officers came to look upon the people (active rebels or otherwise) as personal threats to their existence. Khaddour describes[xiv] the development of a feedback loop in Syrian society, in which this suspicion among the officer corps bred suspicion among the citizenry and vice-versa. This sort of divisionism is routine in the Assad regime[xv] (and others) and may serve Assad’s short-term interests in retaining Syria’s presidency. To give the Dahiet strategy (or any other example of the loyalty-exchange) long-term credit, however, would be to ignore the greater damage done to a government’s viability when the people distrust their armed forces, and the armed forces distrust their people. This mutual distrust will not simply evaporate when the dust in Syria finally settles; like the uprisings of the early 1980’s under Assad Sr. and Hussein, this dynamic will likely set the tone for decades of mistrust and dysfunction between the Syrian political leadership, its military and the people whom both would exist to serve.
The various means by which Assadi authoritarianism drained the military of expertise, sprit de corps and unity of purpose almost certainly contributed to the military’s failure to institute order in the early years of the war (as Johns Hopkins’ Dr. Mara Karlin notes in much of her work[xvi] on rebuilding partner militaries, these intangible items are crucial to the function and cohesion of military structures). This failure is a noteworthy example of authoritarian self-harm, but its effect is multiplied when considering what it led to: by turning to Iran, Hezbollah and Russia for military assistance against the rebellion (assistance which Assad credits[xvii] with turning the tide of the conflict), the Syrian President risks further complicating the State’s geopolitical status and subjecting it to exterior leveraging and pressures. As we can see, the serious problems which arise when a military’s unity and political independence have been compromised can lead to state-weakening dysfunction and instability. A clear line can be drawn between Assad’s authoritarian posture, the undermining of the Syrian military’s political independence and subsequently, its increased instability in the nation as a whole.
Although the outcome of the civil war in Syria would seem to be decided, Bashar al-Assad won’t escape the long-term consequences of the loyalty exchange system and the Syrian people will continue to suffer under it. Scholars can know very little about the character and shape of the Syrian Arab Republic as it drags itself away from the civil war which destroyed it, but one thing is clear: a higher price will be paid for the loyalty which endured it, and state institutions will continue to erode as a result. Bashar al-Assad has survived despite the system he helped build, but the state will continue crumbling long after the guns have gone quiet.
[i] In The Great War for Civilisation, Robert Fisk notes, “Assad’s ministers would outlast those of any other country…and their loyalty was rewarded by Assad’s Loyalty.”
[ii] Gelvin offers President Assad’s first cousin, Rami Makhlouf, as a prime example of such nepotism. According to Gelvin, Makhlouf is the majority-owner of Syria’s telecom behemoth Syriatel in addition to his significant holdings in several other major sectors of the Syrian economy.
[iii] Bengio notes the professional rise of Abd al-Amir Mu’alla, an aspiring novelist and one of the many writers whom Saddam Hussein employed to mythologize him both before and after he gained the presidency of Iraq. After Saddam assumed the presidency, Mu’alla was named director-general of the General Authority for the Cinema and the Theatre. He would go on to make a fortune in this position, selling his Saddam-centric tales as movies and television programs.
[iv] More on this below.
[v] In Iraq, Saddam Hussein (who never served in the Iraqi armed forces) awarded himself the rank of Field Marshal, a fact which aggravated longtime career officers below him. In Syria, the case of Bashar al-Assad himself (see footnotes 7 and 28) as well as General and future Vice-President Rifaat al-Assad who was then-President Hafez al-Assad’s brother.
[vi] As Rania Abouzeid explains, Lt. Abdel-Razzak Tlass was among the first Syrian military officers to publicly defect. Ironically, he did so after the regime launched attacks against his hometown of Rastan, an area known for its production of military officers. Also ironic is the Lieutenant’s status as a member of the Tlass family, which benefitted greatly under the loyalty-exchange system (his uncle was the Minister of defense and later, a sugar baron).
[vii] Abouzeid notes that Col. Harmoush’s initial defection was rooted in a lie; the false story of Harmoush having led a munity of soldiers while defending civilians in the town of Jisr al-Shughour against loyalist troops. The story was untrue, and Abouzeid happened to be on hand when the story was hatched.
[viii] Many definitions for state-stability exist and debate continues as to how the literature can best define stable, fragile and failed states. Gelvin notes one popular definition used in political science which lists a defined territory, a functioning government, a country-wide bureaucracy and a national identity as the essential components of stability. As discussed later, this limited a definition is problematic for several reasons.
[ix] As seen illustrated by the case of Dahiet al-Assad. See the work of Kheder Khaddour, referenced below.
[x] Iraq and Libya, as described earlier, are such examples. A key component to the longevity of authoritarian regimes is the autocrat’s control over military personnel and decision making. The military becomes a tool of the ruler, not the state.
[xi] Such as the example of General Rifaat al-Assad, footnote 5. The General’s actions in the Hama Massacre indicate the incredible extent to which beneficiaries of the loyalty-exchange may go in furtherance of their relationship with the authoritarian.
[xii] Entire divisional commands were restructured around Bashar al-Assad’s flight through the military rank structure, with Alawite loyalists being rewarded high-command positions in exchange for their ongoing support. See the work of Ma’oz, Ginat and Winckler (available in the bibliography) for more.
[xiii] Abouzeid’s book No Turning Back: Life, Loss and Hope in Wartime Syria gives a fine, narrative account of the rebellion’s evotution. See bibliography.
[xiv] To quote Khaddour: “Even though the initial opposition protests in 2011 were political in nature and were aimed specifically at altering regime policy, the isolation of Dahia residents led army officers and their families to believe that protesters posed a threat not only to the regime but also to them personally.”
[xv] According to a former regime security figure, Assad deliberately released hundreds of Islamist militants from Syrian prisons in order to subvert the growing protests and divide public opinion on the virtues of the movement. See Janine Di Giovanni’s excellent chronology of the Syrian Civil War at the end of her 2016 book, The Morning They Came for Us: Dispatches from Syria.
[xvi] See Why Military Assistance Programs Disappoint: Minor tools Can’t Solve Major Problems and Training and Equipping is not Transforming: An Assessment of U.S. Programs to Build Partner Militaries, both by Dr. Karlin.
[xvii] See footnote 21.
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