Not long ago, every defection from Syria’s armed forces was hailed as yet another sign that the country’s military was about to collapse—and with it, the regime as a whole. In a dramatic public countdown, Al Jazeera installed an animation on its website featuring every single defector, as if to show that it was only a matter of time until the army was depleted from desertion and low morale.
Today, the Syrian armed forces are not only still standing, they are progressively reconquering lost territory. How is it possible that a military organization plagued by defections, allegedly doomed by its pluralist character, and embattled in a civil war is still fighting?
For a start, desertions are not what breaks an armed force’s neck. True, the Syrian military has suffered abandonments—estimates vary between 20,000 and 100,000, or between 15 and 50 percent of the original force. But desertions during combat are quite frequent in any force. In Napoleon’s Grande Armée, in Prussia’s army, and on both sides of the American Civil War, some 20–30 percent of fighters decided they had had enough. In contemporary Iraq, even before the Islamic State came into the picture, the country’s army had peacetime desertion rates of 25 percent, which climbed to 50 percent in combat situations.
Even in highly professional forces, desertion remains a phenomenon: 6 percent of the U.S. military and 5 percent of the British Army deserted during the years they spent in Iraq. In a civil war, the number of soldiers going absent without leave always increases.
Desertions mainly show that the troops are not in sync with the institution’s task or the way it performs that task. But absconders do not necessarily jeopardize a force’s operational capacity. Even the desertion of high-ranking officers does not entail a breakdown, although it can hurt morale.
In Syria, high- and low-ranking officers, including the former defense minister and general Ali Habib Mahmud, have deserted as much as the rank and file. But the officers did not take their units with them, which would have had a major impact. More dangerous than desertion, which is the decision of an individual, is disintegration.
When whole units break away from the force, it is an indication that the military’s backbone, namely cohesion and the command-and-control structure, is no longer working. Instances of military disintegration occurred in Libya in 2011, in Lebanon in 1984, and more recently in Iraq. So far, such a trend has not been witnessed in Syria.
In an effective move to prevent disintegration, the Syrian military has disbanded several brigades that were low in strength and has locked down those units it deemed vulnerable. Desertion has left the armed forces with the most committed troops and, paradoxically, has therefore strengthened cohesion in the remaining ranks rather than weakened it. The Syrian armed forces might have lost men, but the structure is still standing.
What is more, the Syrian military is not using all of its units but relies only on those that were always geared for internal repression and regime protection: the Republican Guard, the Special Forces, and the 3rd and 4th Armored Divisions—the first two of which are de facto commanded by Maher al-Assad, the president’s brother. Presumably 50–80 percent staffed with members of Syria’s ruling Alawite sect, these units are said to comprise 50,000 troops, bolstered by volunteers from Hezbollah and Iran.
But the sectarian factor in the Syrian conflict should not be overemphasized. The goal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his father, who was president before him, has not been to promote Alawi beliefs but to protect their regime. Assad Sr. ousted Salah Jadid, another Alawi and the country’s de facto former leader, and did not hesitate to imprison, execute, or dismiss Alawi officers he deemed distrustful.
Instead, the regime has successfully played the military card to foster cohesion. Damascus has glossed over Alawi overrepresentation in the officer corps with the appointment of Sunni chiefs of staff and has bound officers in a highly personalized way, often directly to the president. Although the current civil war is dragging Syria further into sectarianism, the regime itself is surviving on the myth of the opposite—Syrian nationalism.
The fact that none of the units of the Syrian armed forces has responded to repeated calls for a coup shows not so much that there is no desire in the military to oust Assad but rather that the regime has successfully “coup-proofed” the armed forces and kept the relevant units close to its chest. To stage a successful coup, a mere 2 percent of troops or one brigade will suffice, provided they are the right units in the right place. As it happens, all such units are under regime control.
All things considered, the Syrian army has adjusted well to the challenge of an internal war, in both a tactical and a doctrinal sense. Although battered and injured, the military seems capable of crushing the rebel forces. Yet it will be numerically impossible to maintain peace in a country of Syria’s size with the remaining forces, as peace enforcement is a much more manpower-intensive business than war. The Syrian military might just win the war, but it cannot win the peace.
Florence Gaub is a senior analyst at the EU Institute for Security Studies.