August 15, 2012

Egypt and Syria - a tale of two armies

Egyptian army on the left - Syrian army on the right

The popular uprisings in Egypt and Syria began within days of each other in what many have called the "Arab Spring." The outcome of the situation in the two countries could not be more different. Much of that difference has to do with the actions of the Egyptian and Syrian armed forces.

In Egypt, as the protesters took to the streets and demanded the end of the government headed by President Husni Mubarak, the Egyptian army was deployed into the streets and ordered to quell the unrest. They deployed as ordered, but after a few nonviolent confrontations with the protesters, refused to use he overwhelming firepower at their disposal. There were a few exceptions when small units loyal to Mubarak attacked the protesters, but for the most part, the Egyptian army refused to fire on its own citizens.

The senior Egyptian military leadership, including personal friends and long-time supporters of Husni Mubarak (himself a former air force general), refused to employ the armed forces to suppress the obvious will of the people. In the end, it was the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) that took power from Husni Mubarak and governed the country until the elections of earlier this year.

Following the election of Muhammad Mursi as the new president, Mursi removed most of the officers of the SCAF and replaced them with his own choices. Unlike in many countries in this part of the world, this was a peaceful transition and the Egyptian army remains loyal to the elected civilian leadership of the country.

That said, as like in most countries in this part of the world, the armed forces remain the final arbiter of power. It was the Egyptian military that oversaw the elections and the establishment of a new democratic order in the country. They alone have the power to remove that government should they deem it necessary.

The situation in Egypt is not completely resolved - issues remain. One of the most important is the relationship between the Islamists in Cairo and the Israelis. Should the new Egyptian government adhere to some of the more reckless rhetoric emanating from the Muslim Brotherhood - specifically that the government must abrogate the 1979 peace treaty with Tel Aviv - the military may feel inclined to intervene. No serious Egyptian general wants to return to a war footing with the qualitatively superior Israel Defense Forces.

Time will tell.

The situation in Syria is almost the complete opposite of what happened in Egypt. As soon as the initial Syrian protests began in the southern border city of Dara', Syrian troops were sent to disperse the protesters, which they did with overwhelming force. Unarmed protesters were fired on with automatic weapons, resulting in many deaths.

As the protests spread to cities across Syria, especially in the central of northern part of the country, the protesters began arming themselves and fighting back. Although their weaponry was far inferior to that of a standing organized army, they did inflict some casualties on the Syrian army.

The Syrian government then ordered more of its regime-protection units - primarily the Republican Guard and 4th Armor Division - into the fight. These units, equipped with the best armament in the Syrian armed force, are fully vetted and mostly officered by loyal members of President Bashar al-Asad's 'Alawite sect.

In contrast to the actions of the Egyptian army, the Syrian armed forces attacked their own people. Granted, the 'Alawites may not consider the majority Sunni and other minorities - Christian, Druze, Kurds, etc. - their own people, but they are all Syrians.

When the Syrian military moved against its own population in the cities of Homs, Hamah, Palmyra, Dayr al-Zawr, Dara', Duma, Harasta, Aleppo, Idlib, Talbisah, 'Az'az - the list goes on and on - it did so with a vengeance.

Syrian Air Force L-39ZA trainer/counterinsurgency attack aircraft #2136 (Reuters)

The Syrian regime used, and is using, its best weapons: T-72 main battle tanks, self-propelled artillery of various calibers (including 2S1 130mm and 2S3 152mm systems), 120mm mortars and armored infantry fighting vehicles, all supported by air power in the form of L-39 trainer/light attack aircraft, MiG-23 fighter-bombers, Mi-17 assault helicopters and the heavily armed Mi-25 helicopter gunships. (See my earlier article, Syrian air force attacks - effective use of aircraft.)

Bashar al-Asad did not build the Syrian armed forces as they exist today. He has had an impact over the last 12 years since he was ushered in to power upon his father's death in 2000 (See my description of this, Syria - Bashar al-Asad: Election of a Prince?), but the leadership of the military was honed by Hafiz al-Asad from 1970 to 2000.

The key elements of the Syrian armed forces, or at least the units that count, have all been thoroughly vetted over the last forty plus years. The commanders are mostly not only of the 'Alawite sect, but are either related to or business partners of the al-Asad family. They have gained status and wealth because of their relationship to the al-Asads. They are beholden to the current regime - if it falls, their livelihoods are in jeopardy. After the first shots were fired, at their orders, their very lives are now in jeopardy.

I was taken aback by the words of Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. He seems to believe that a good outcome is the removal of President Bashar al-Asad with the retention of the Syrian military, ostensibly to maintain order in the country and facilitate the transition of power.

What is he thinking? These are the armed forces that are slaughtering their own people, the forces trying to maintain a "ruthless dictator"* in power. Do we really want the Syrian military - the armed forces with a mutual defense treaty with the Islamic Republic of Iran - to survive?

The Syrian military needs to be disbanded and replaced. There are many units of the Syrian military made up of loyal Syrians, just not loyal to this regime. They should be tapped to create a new military force dedicated to a new Syria, integrated with the Free Syrian Army. This will take some real diplomacy to make happen - I wonder if Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is up to the task.

Two militaries, two different paths. We'll see which model works.

* I am not convinced that Bashar is acting solely on his own. Since he assumed power in 2000, he has consolidated his power base, but I believe it is more of an al-Asad family power base than that of this relatively junior president who really wanted to be an ophthalmologist in London.