Hicham Bou Nassif

Everyday discrimination

Being Sunni in the Syrian Officer Corps

Abu Mariam, the leader of the "Ibn Walid" brigade announces the launch of the brigade in the city of Marea, in northern Syria, on August 22, 2012. The group comprises of defected Syrian army soldiers and young volunteers for the Free Syrian Army, who are undergoing training before being sent to fight in the northern city of Aleppo

“Once, Bashar al-Assad paid a surprise visit to our unit,” Mohammad Jabar recounted. “The officer in charge introduced him to us by saying, ‘Here comes the messenger of God.’ I am Sunni: we only use the epithet ‘messenger of God’ to talk about the Prophet. Yet I had to listen to Bashar being introduced this way and smile. Being a Sunni officer in the Syrian armed forces required that I put a mask on my face 24 hours a day.”


Sitting at a café in Antakya, an ancient Turkish town on the Syrian border, the Syrian officer recalled his experiences in the military. Jaber had joined the armed forces in 1996, serving as an officer in the signal corps until May 2012. He defected to Turkey when troops loyal to Bashar al-Assad bombarded his own village in the countryside of Hama, marking a breaking point beyond which service in the military became intolerable. Like many other Sunnis in the Syrian officer corps, Jaber is not a fan of the Muslim Brothers, nor of Islamist militants in general: his brand of Islam is traditional and rural, and his knowledge of the sunna and the hadith is poor. Instead, Jaber’s opposition to the Assad regime is less driven by religious zeal than by frustration over discriminatory practices against Sunnis, both in Syria’s armed forces and in society at large.


Sunnis as permanent suspects


Very few Sunni officers reach prominent positions in the Alawite-dominated Syrian military. In order to preserve their chances at rising in the hierarchy, but also to avoid raising the suspicion of the much-feared intelligence agencies, Sunni officers are frequently forced to spy on their colleagues, drink alcohol openly, and do whatever they can to project an irreligious image of themselves. According to Jaber, “If a Sunni officer does not hit on women when he is walking in the streets with his colleagues, he could be accused of being a Salafist or some kind of extremist. If an officer’s friends in the officer corps happen to be Sunni, and if he spends some time with them, whether inside or outside the barracks, he must be plotting against the regime.”


“In other armed forces, you are promoted if you are competent,” he said. “In the Syrian military, you rise if you drink whiskey, and brag about it.”


Antakya is crawling with defectors from Assad’s armed forces. The officers either live in a camp guarded by Turkish intelligence or manage to rent apartments in the city, the latter giving them greater leeway for meeting journalists and scholars working on Syria. After years of silence and dissimulation, the officers are in the mood to talk, and access to them is relatively easy. Each has his own story to tell about sectarian tension and prejudice in the military. Beyond friction stemming from the aggressive anti-religious ethos of the Syrian armed forces – which Sunnis perceive to be a thin secularist veneer hiding Alawite bias – the officers I interviewed all expressed frustration with the politics of sectarian preferentialism that blocked the advancement of their military careers.


A tale of two officer corps


The most well-known facet of anti-Sunni discrimination in the Syrian armed forces is sectarian stacking: Alawite cadets form 80-85% of each new cohort entering the military academy, which ensures overwhelming numerical dominance in the officer corps. Meanwhile, other discriminatory practices have received less publicity, though they form the crux of Sunni officers’ complains.


The officers’ lack of freedom in choosing their field of study is a case in point. The Syrian military academy is divided into 11 departments, the most important of which are the schools of infantry, artillery, and armored brigades. These schools are sought after because they provide the Syrian military with its upper elite: senior officers who secure appointments as commanders of Syrian regiments hail overwhelmingly from these divisions. Every year, up to 90% of officers who join the privileged schools are Alawites. Non-Alawite officers, including Sunnis, are then distributed among other schools irrespective of their educational accomplishments prior to enrolling in the military. This practice ensures future Alawite domination of high-ranking positions and relegates non-Alawites to a permanent inferior status in the armed forces.


Just as cadets cannot choose their field of study, they also lack leeway in terms of post-graduation assignments. In general, officers typically prefer to serve either in non-combat divisions such as the intelligence agencies and administrative departments, or in special combat units such as the Republican Guard, the Fourth Armored Brigade, the Special Forces, and the Airborne Special Forces.


These divisions are preferred for three reasons. First, service in the aforementioned companies offers financial advantages that are not available in other sectors of the military. This is especially true for officers serving in intelligence agencies, which are particularly influential in Syria. Politicians and businessmen alike seek the protection of intelligence officers; the latter secure generous rewards in exchange for granting it. Furthermore, officers assigned to positions in the privileged units get access to new cars and free housing. This is a tremendous advantage over their colleagues, making these jobs particularly prized. In addition to financial advantages, serving in the intelligence community or administrative departments keeps officers away from the hardships of actual military life. While the same is not true about special combat units, the Republican Guard and the Fourth Armored Brigade serve in Damascus, which officers prefer to being stationed in the provinces, on the frontiers, or in the desert. Finally, it is simply more prestigious to be an officer in intelligence agencies or special combat units than to serve in regular troops.


In the race to join these privileged sectors of the Syrian military, Sunnis and other non-Alawite officers are permanent losers. Sectarian stacking in Syria spans the different subdivisions of the armed forces: Alawite officers are in the majority everywhere. But intelligence agencies and special combat units, and to a lesser extent administrative departments, are almost entirely Alawite. This is particularly true of the Republican Guard, the Fourth Armored Brigade, Air Force Intelligence, and Military Security.


That these units are privileged is unsurprising considering how critical they are for regime survival. However, their sectarian character inevitably generates resent among non-Alawites. Virtually all Sunni officers I met in Antakya say they are only allowed to fill subaltern positions which Alawites are not interested in. According to these resentful officers, there are effectively two separate officer corps inside the same armed forces, and sectarian affiliation predetermines whether an officer belongs to the first class or not.


Hardened identities


The unavoidable consequence of a professional environment in which sectarian identity is crucial for favoring – or curtailing – one’s professional advancement is the exacerbation of sectarian consciousness among Syrian officers. While the Baath party pays lip service to a secular brand of Arab nationalism, banking on Alawite sectarian solidarity to keep the regime afloat for the last four decades did little other than harden identity-driven cleavages in the armed forces and Syrian society.


The officers I met in Antakya consistently referred to the military as a crucible for sectarian hatred and bigotry. In the words of Captain Nizar Sabbagh from Aleppo, “In the military academy, groups of friends coalesce around sectarian lines. There are Sunni groups, Alawite groups, and Druze groups; Ismailis and Christians are too few to form their own groups. Once I got into an argument with an Alawite cadet. All Alawite cadets took his side. One of them yelled at me: ‘Why do you people from Aleppo join the armed forces anyway?’ In other words, he was telling me that the military is no place for Sunnis. It is true that Alawites behave in the armed forces with a sense of private ownership. I know many Sunnis who did not care much about their sectarian identity originally, and became sectarian inside the military.”  


Several officers I interviewed have indeed maintained that they were less mindful of their sectarian identification prior to joining the armed forces. The resent stemming from their relegation to a second-class status in an Alawite-dominated military, and the ensuing bitterness accumulated throughout the years of military service, coalesced into a deep suspicion of Alawites, and by extension, Shiites. Whereas some officers can still make the distinction between the Assad regime and Alawites as such, many fail to do so.


This, of course, is a problem that goes beyond the officer corps and structures inter-sectarian relations in Syria at large. However, because officers control the means of violence, their ideas, self-perceptions, and perceptions of others are always of particular political importance in multiethnic societies. Whether Syria will emerge from the current turmoil as a unified entity or not remains to be seen. But should Syria avoid both fragmentation and authoritarian consolidation, future security sector reform will have to begin by tackling the divisive legacy of the Assad regime in the Syrian officer corps. 


Hicham Bou Nassif is finishing his PhD in political science at Indiana University this year. He will join Carleton College, Minnesota, as Assistant Profesor in the political science department in August 2014.  

The defected. (AFP Photo/Phil Moore)

“In other armed forces, you are promoted if you are competent. In the Syrian military, you rise if you drink whiskey, and brag about it.”