Throughout the past nine years of conflict, the Syrian military has been instrumental in ensuring the survival of the Bashar al-Assad regime not because of its performance on the battlefield, but rather due to its consistent loyalty, and this according to an analysis of the American Atlantic Council.
Unlike other state militaries that faced regime challenges by the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, the Syrian armed forces maintained institutional loyalty.
It made clear: "Since the Assad family took power in the 1970s, the military underwent a structural transformation through control mechanisms and the Alawite minority’s hegemonic position, ensured force loyalty and upheld the military’s central role in the durability of Syria’s authoritarian regime.
However, the current conflict has truly impacted the configuration of the Assad regime as well as the structure and orientation of its military institution, putting the latter’s loyalty in question."
According to the Atlantic Council: "Today, the Syrian armed forces are fragmented, decision-making is contested and increasingly decentralized, and the circle of loyalty has widened in an unprecedented manner. Furthermore, a multiplication of security actors and entrenched foreign involvement have only complicated the Syrian security and defense sector’s precarious condition, rendering civil-military relations less predictable and more vulnerable to regime challenges."
The pre-2011 Syrian military""
About the situation of the Assad government forces before 2011, the Council said: "Before discussing the changes, one ought to understand the Assad regime’s pre-2011 military force. When Hafez al-Assad took power in 1970, Syria’s civil-military relations were already at an acute degree of imbalance, where the military had a strong political orientation and a magnitude of authority.
When building his regime, al-Assad was able to end the military’s notorious business in instigating regime change via a coup d’état, but he did so not by ending its political role, rather by institutionalizing it so that it formed the backbone of the regime’s power structure. Thus, the armed forces underwent a drastic transformation under Hafez al-Assad, changing its character from a historically regime-challenging force into a pillar of regime security. The military’s role germinated to support Assad’s Baathist rule and secure his family’s tight control over the state’s power structures.
To rearrange the military to befit his regime’s objectives, Hafez al-Assa significantly expanded its size. The total number of active armed personnel grew by around 162 percent in the first ten years of his rule and by around 264 percent upon his death in 2000, according to estimates compiled by the International Institute of Strategic Studies.
Al-Assad also infused a parallel chain of command and imposed overlapping mandates and institutional redundancy on key military formations. In this way, the various organs of the regime’s coercive apparatus were designed with several layers of allegiance to compete and conjoin for regime survival.
Additionally, and arguably most importantly, al-Assad took advantage of the deeply divided condition of Syrian society. He elevated the number and role of the Alawites—the minority community to which the Assad family’s social and religious roots belong. Hafez—and later Bashar al-Assad—recognized the impact ethnic inclusion in the military could have on the loyalty among its ranks. As a result, the Alawites were disproportionately represented in the armed forces and the wider security sector. While this produced an institutionalized cycle of fear and distrust in Syrian society that not only provided the Assad regime with a loyal and hegemonized group in the military whose chief mission became clear: securing regime continuity above all national defense and security considerations."
Today’s Syrian military: Fragmentation and foreign penetration""
About the current situation, the Atlantic Council said: "Prior to 2011, the Assad regime faced formidable domestic challenges—such as the Muslim Brotherhood rebellion in Hama in 1982 and Rifat Assad’s failed coup attempt in 1984—in which the military played a central role in repelling it. However, none were like the ongoing challenge that started in 2011 which forced Bashar al-Assad to rearrange and surrender some sovereignty over key power structures to maintain regime survival.
The consequent battlefield ineffectiveness of Assad’s military prompted the Syrian regime president to form local militias and import of foreign actors and mercenaries with the support of Russia and Iran.
This has caused loyalty dilemmas within the army and its militias due to diversification in funding sources, regional and ideological segmentation, parallel decision-making processes, and dependence on foreign patrons.
While some militias, such as the Local Defense Forces, were institutionalized, many pro-regime militias remain in a grey legal and operational area pending what the post-war structure will look like.
Some militias reportedly receive funding from shady pro-regime businessmen, while others are funded exclusively by foreign actors, such as Iran and Russia.
As some of these militias took domestic security roles, their recruitment patterns became segmented along regional, religious, and ideological lines, which can indicate growing localized autonomies and a widened circle of loyalty, as well as security and defense incoherence.
This hybrid structure of the Syrian army and its security apparatus and de-centralization on military decision-making led to the increase of pro-regime militias' influence to affect military and field decisions, including resource distribution, mobilization, and deployment.
Thus, if the Syrian army has played a major role in ensuring the survival of the Assad regime, the structures previously insisted to maintain the loyalty of its forces have been gradually destroyed in the past nine years.
Although forced decentralization, the multiplicity of security agencies, and foreign interference have saved the Syrian regime from military defeat, Bashar al-Assad measures the quality of his forces through their continued loyalty to him and their willingness to use force to defend his regime, not through their performance in wars and battles.
While a military coup against the regime of Bashar al-Assad or the collapse of his rule is unlikely, he no longer enjoys the confidence that existed in the past fifty years among the armed forces regarding his family’s rule."