The Syrian army: Part of the problem and solution

The beginning of Bashar’s leadership was a phase of confusion

Dr. Halla Diyab

Published: Updated:

This article is the second of a three-part series on Syria’s coups.

On June 10, 2000, Hafez al-Assad’s death was announced. The Syrian constitution was changed, lowering the minimum age of the presidency so his son Bashar could take power. Bashar did not have his father’s military mindset or his political skills, despite his military training and his rank as colonel. Bashar’s ophthalmology medical background, his brief life in the West, and his marriage to a British-born Sunni led Syrians to hope for a new civic era in their country.

The beginning of Bashar’s leadership was a phase of confusion. He was tossed into a police state with military frontage and severe limitations on freedoms. Given an urgent need for Syria to open up to the world’s technologies, Bashar had no choice but to introduce the internet, mobile phones and fax machines, which his father barred.

Bashar al-Assad also gradually loosened up the military features of the state

Dr. Halla Diyab

Bashar also gradually loosened up the military features of the state. The mandatory military school uniform was dropped, and the military as a subject was taken out of the educational curriculum. In Sept. 2000, Bashar closed the infamous Mezzeh prison, and more than 600 prisoners were released. However, Syria was still under emergency law, with arbitrary detentions and secret police activities that often violated human rights.

His wife Asma was a propaganda face for his promised civic plans for Syria, through her NGO and youth state-sponsored projects. Meanwhile, his administration had one of the vilest human-rights records in the Middle East. It was unclear in which direction Bashar was taking Syria.


Unlike his father, who was a man of initiatives, Bashar is a man of alliances. As president, Bashar has adopted the same tactic he used when he was in charge of Syrian involvement in Lebanon in 1998, pushing aside those who would oppose his interests, and creating new, loyal allies.

He followed Hafez in proposing a secular state, but unlike his father, he has maintained this secularism through alliances with religious forces such as Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

Allying with non-state military organizations, Bashar was sending conflicting signals about his faith in the national army, mainly because he was moving away from the state military complex. His empowerment of religious clerics encouraged an Islamic revival in Syria that gradually awakened its nationalistic identity.

The army was under the de-facto control of Maher al-Assad, Bashar’s brother and a member of the Baath Party’s second-highest body, the Central Committee. When the Syrian uprising erupted in March 2011, Maher ordered his infamous fourth armored division to crush the protests. His subtle rivalry with his brother-in-law Assef Shawkat, the former head of military intelligence, made them compete in ruthlessness by using the military to crack down on freedoms and rights.

The historical relationship between Syrian citizenry and the army collapsed. Bashar went through a period of denial and delusion, which further damaged the trust of citizens in the state. With Hamas abandoning him, he resorted to Hezbollah and Iran to train and support the Syrian army. With Russian weapons, the uprising resurrected the military state and the role of the army.

Inner circle

Two severe blows to the Syrian regime were the July 2012 assassination of Shawkat and the defection of Manaf Tlass, commander of an elite Republican Guard unit. Defections within the ruling elite became a real worry for Bashar who, unlike his father, started to rely on a shrinking inner circle.

However, the defection of officers to form the Free Syrian Army on July 29, 2011, was never a threat to the regime, mainly because it was not led by one of Bashar’s inner-circle officers. Other factors that weakened the threat posed by the FSA was its alliance with the political opposition in exile, its disunity, and the fact that it is one of numerous forces fighting Bashar.

Some of these forces are Islamist, over which the FSA has no military power. The FSA’s affiliations with Islamist groups such as Al-Nusra Front and the Islamic Front, and allegations of war crimes committed by rebels, have discredited the FSA.

A military coup can be the only solution to the Syrian crisis. The experiences of other Arab Spring countries has proven that the army is the only institution that can end political chaos. The only possibility for a feasible military coup is dissent within Bashar’s inner circle in liaison with an exiled former official.

It is possible that the U.S.-led coalition will soon finish with the military targets of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, and launch airstrikes against Bashar’s military installations. Given U.S. pressure on Russia over Ukraine, and current negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program, there is a slight possibility that Tehran and Moscow would intervene. The U.S.-led airstrikes will enable the advance of ground forces, potentially the Kurdish forces through the Turkish border.

The Syrian army is exhausted after almost four years of fighting, and there is a dominant feeling that it has been used by Bashar to keep him in power. If influential army officers cooperate, they can prevent ISIS or any other Islamists from taking power. This would serve as a golden opportunity for the resurrection of the historical relationship between the Syrian army and the people.


Dr. Halla Diyab is an award winning screen-writer, producer, broadcaster, a published author and an activist. She has a Ph.D. in English and American Studies from the University of Leicester. She carried out research in New Orleans, USA while working on her thesis “The Examination of Marginality and Minorities in the Drama and Film of Tennessee Wil-liams”. She holds an MA in Gender and Women Studies from the University of Warwick. She has written a number of scripts for TV dramas countering religious extremism and international terrorism resulting in her being awarded Best Syrian Drama Script Award 2010 and the Artists Achievement Award 2011. She is a regular commentator in the Brit-ish and international media and has recently appeared on Channel 4 News, BBC Newsnight, BBC This Week, CNN, Sky News, Channel 5 News, ITV Central, Al Jazeera English, and BBC Radio 4, to name a few. She is a public speaker who spoke at the House of Commons, the Spectator Debate, Uniting for Peace and London’s Frontline Club. She has worked in Libya, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Syria and is an expert on the Middle East and Islamic culture. As a highly successful drama writer, she has been dubbed ‘one of the most influential women in Syria’ in 2011. She also produces documentary films for UK and international channels. She is also the Founder & Director of Liberty Media Productions which focuses on cross-cultural issues between Britain and the Middle East. She can be found on Twitter: @drhalladiyab

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.