But such optimism overlooks the vast differences between today’s Syria and last year’s Libya. From a superior military to a larger and more entrenched base of support, the Syrian regime possesses many advantages Qaddafi lacked. Those set on intervening would do well to heed the differences.
Many who allude to the Libyan model today overlook the difficulties encountered there. Even after a bombing campaign by NATO pushed loyalist forces back, the rebels were unable to advance very far. As the battle turned into a stalemate, Western nations were forced to raise their commitment. Trainers were sent in and NATO personnel shared space in the rebels’ operations room in Benghazi. Qatar had to ship in approximately 30 consignments of Milan anti-tank cannons and Belgian FN rifles. During the final assault on Qaddafi’s compound, Qatari forces even found themselves leading the charge.
All of these struggles came amid an effort to depose a regime that had no standing army. Longstanding international sanctions against Tripoli had made the purchase of new weapons impossible. But more to the point, Qaddafi had decisively turned on his armed forces after a series of military coup attempts in the 1980s and 1990s. In the place of a professional military, Qaddafi increasingly relied on the Revolutionary Committees, an organization he created in 1977 to politically mobilize the population.
In Syria, by contrast, the regime never resorted to neutering the army. Quite the opposite: Bashar’s father, the late Hafez Assad, transformed the military into his regime’s central pillar, not least because it had already proven a useful sectarian cudgel. Today, 90 percent of military commanders are Alawis as is 90 percent of the elite Republican Guard, despite the fact that they only make up 12 percent of the population.
This largely explains why Syria has not been racked by military defections. Whereas long-term Qaddafi allies such as Generals Suleiman Mahmud al-Obeidi and Abd al-Fattah Yunis abandoned him within days of the uprising, none of Hafez Assad’s allies have deserted his son. Indeed, only a handful of officers above the mid-level rank of major have done so.
Assad knew he could trust his Alawi co-religionists to build a loyal military that would keep the sect in power.
Moreover, unlike Libya, Syria has made the cultivation and training of strong and professional armed forces a central strategic concern of the state. Hafez Assad’s paramount strategic goal was to pursue a doctrine of “strategic balance” with Israel, which necessitated expanding the country’s armed forces. Bashar continued his father's focus on building the military, increasing funding and stepping up training. Where Libya’s military expenditures were about $728 million in 2007, Syria’s were almost triple that at approximately $2.1 billion. And unlike the Iraqi military under Saddam Hussein, the Syrian armed forces never experienced waves of purges initiated by a paranoid leader fearful of potential rivals. As a result, Syria today has a professional military that is the second strongest Arab army after Egypt.
Barak Barfi is a research fellow with the New America Foundation.
The above article is part of a TNR Symposium on “What should the United States do about Syria?”