A famous Middle East expert, the late Amos Perlmutter, once referred to Syria as the Praetorian State. Rule number one of such a state is complete unity of the armed forces, which are the regime's main tool of oppression. No more in the case of Syria and the regime of Bashar Assad.
The unthinkable is turning into a reality, and one is just left to wonder how father Hafiz would have handled it differently than the unfortunate son. In recent days, there is a flood of reports from various and divergent sources clearly indicating mass defections of Sunni soldiers, both Arab and Kurdish, and much more ominously to the regime, actual exchanges of fire between certain units of the army, particularly in Homs, the third largest city in Syria which has a Sunni majority.
With that happening, let's describe the formation of the Syrian armed forces, as well as the meaning and implications of collapse. The Syrian armed forces have always been a strange body, whose internal composition was designed primarily to protect the survivability of an unpopular and sectarian regime. There is the regular army, with a strong component of reservists, which is composed mainly of Sunni soldiers, with mostly Alawite officer corps. The high command traditionally includes Sunni officers, such as the current Chief of Staff, General Rajiha, and in the past, General Hikmat Shihabi, but their ability to exert actual command on the troops is limited.
This is so because the second arm of the military establishment, the intricate web of intelligence agencies is almost entirely dominated by the Alawites. There are about ten different agencies which monitor the armed forces as well as the civilian population. For example, the Air force intelligence service makes sure that military aircraft will not be used against the regime and they are in actual command of the force.
Then there is the third and most fearsome arm of the oppression machinery, the Presidential Guard, a full-fledged division, well supplied with all the goodies that the regime can allocate. This is a formidable force, totally Alawite, and surprisingly enough is commanded by no other than the President's younger and brutal brother Maher Assad. This is the force used from the beginning of the crisis in order to defeat the Syrian people. However, the troubles got out of hand, the regime misread the unfolding situation and consequently needed more troops. Here is where the disintegration of the army has started and this is where the Praetorian State is confronted with a mortal danger to its very existence. This is what the Bashar Assad regime is dealing with now, battling the Syrian people, mostly the Sunni population, and trying to prevent the possibility of in-fighting among those who were considered its line of defense in the armed forces.
The continued Sunni uprising makes it inevitable that the internal fighting will increase rather than decrease. We have precedents from the past that can indicate the shape of things to come. It was in 1979, at the height of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood campaign of terror against the Hafiz Assad regime, when 83 Alawite cadets were slaughtered in their base in Aleppo, the second largest city in Syria. The murderers were assisted by Sunni cadets, supposed comrades of The killed Alawites. The attackers separated Sunni from Alawite and moved on to commit the horrendous massacre.
We are not to that point yet in the current crisis, but the clear signs indicate that the moment is fast approaching when the Aleppo events of 1979 will become the order of the day in Syria 2011. When that happens, all hell will break loose, and the collapse will be unavoidable and unstoppable. The regime is locked in a no-win situation. No oppression means that the popular resistance will escalate, more repression is leading and will continue to lead to the exact same result.
Amid all that, Syrian opposition circles offered a way out to the dictator, free, democratic elections within 6 months. Free elections in Syria? Well Syria had only one round of free elections, since its independence in 1946. It was in September 1954, and the Ba'ath party received only a negligible share of the popular vote.
Go and convince Bashar Assad to repeat the exercise. He and his Alawite henchmen know better.