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August 03, 2012, Friday

Turkey to shape Syrian army in post-Assad era

Considering that the only effective force keeping Syria together is the armed forces, Turks, Arabs and Americans have agreed on keeping the Syrian army pretty much intact to prevent major disarray in Syrian governance in the post-revolution era after the fall of embattled president Bashar al-Assad -- which looks more imminent.

The agreement will keep Turkey’s southern neighbor from plunging into a civil war along ethnic and sectarian lines while providing the necessary tools for the transitional government to restore stability and maintain public order during the elections and constitution-making process.

There is no doubt that lessons learned from Iraq have played a key role in this decision, but successful experiments in Egypt and Tunisia with regard to the army’s role during the transition and aftermath have contributed to this process. There is also a historical and cultural precedent to support this policy in Syria, whose military played a crucial role in bringing Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father, to power in 1966 and securing presidency for his inexperienced son, Bashar, to replace him in 2000 after his death.

Of course there will be some adjustments required for purging Baathist elements from the military as well as holding those commanders who bloodied their hands with civilian deaths accountable to the rule of law. Since Nusayris in general and Assad’s clan in particular hold key positions to control the overwhelmingly Sunni Syrian army, most of these officers will be replaced with others to prevent possible coups and the formation of renegade and independent groups aimed to wreak havoc during the transition. The allegiance of Nusayris and other ethnic/religious groups will be established by recruiting moderate non-Sunni commanders to the officer corps in the future.

Turkey and its Arab/Western allies also plan to incorporate the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the largest armed opposition group operating throughout Syria, into the Syrian military after the departure of Assad. The FSA is composed of mostly defectors from the Syrian military and equips itself with arms it seized from Syrian military munitions depots and stockpiles. Some of the arms also come from black market dealings with the support of Turkey, the Gulf countries and the US. The FSA is led by Col. Riad al-Asaad, who is situated in Turkey and coordinates attacks on regime loyalists from there. I spoke on Sunday over a dinner to Ahmet Davutoğlu, who gave me the tally of total defectors so far: 26 generals, 47 colonels and 130 officers of various ranks have fled to Turkey. Not all of them are Sunnis, Davutoğlu said, disclosing that even some Nusayri officers have also taken refuge in Turkey.

To keep the backbone of the Syrian military intact for the post-Assad era, the FSA is operating under the assumption that military contingencies in different parts of the country will simply surrender without a fight when they realize that Assad’s fate is sealed. There have been numerous incidents that show this policy works successfully. For example, in many towns around Aleppo, FSA troops are under orders not to engage with the Syrian army unless they are attacked directly but rather wait patiently for them to yield to the opposition or switch sides. That is why Assad has increasingly been relying on paid assassins called Shabiha, who draw support from Assad and clandestine Iranian intelligence operatives scavenging Syria. Iran is working on turning Shabiha into the Syrian equivalent of Hezbollah in order to continue to play a destabilizing role in the post-revolution era. That is why it is important for the FSA to keep fighting with the hard-core loyalists including Shabiha to take them out of the picture now.

Turkey is planning to utilize the existing bilateral agreements with Syria on military cooperation as a legal base to assist in the overhaul of the Syrian military once the transitional government is in place. As part of the Turkey-Syria High-Level Military Dialogue during the good old days when both countries were on friendlier terms, Damascus signed a couple of military agreements with Turkey on training and assistance. The first agreement was inked on June 19, 2002, in Ankara for cooperation in military training. This was later strengthened with another agreement on June 2, 2009, in the Turkish capital. Though the agreements envisage an exchange of generals and officers for training and other purposes, they may need to be expanded to accommodate plans for a complete overhaul of the Syrian military from a Soviet Union-style organization to a more modern Western style.

The US also sees its NATO ally Turkey’s role in reforming the Syrian army as a lynchpin to preserve the secular nature of the army against the encroachment of radical tendencies of which we have already seen some early signs. Though news of foreign jihadists and even al-Qaeda elements joining the opposition to fight against Assad is widespread, most of it is exaggerated and has no basis in reality. Their numbers are few and they are not expected to have much impact on the future of Syria. Some of these news stories are intentionally planted and spread by the Assad propaganda machine to scare supporters of the opposition abroad and at home.

The real threat comes not from these groups but from the Salafis, who rushed this week to announce the formation of a new political coalition outside Syria that plans to establish a transitional government. Haitham Al Maleh, a lawyer and human rights activist, said on Tuesday that he had been tasked with forming a government-in-exile based in Cairo, an announcement the main opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) and the FSA have denounced. Though the representation of Maleh in the overall opposition in Syria is very limited, the risks the Salafis pose in the future of Syria should nevertheless not be discounted. Since they get their financing from Salafi businessmen in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, Ankara should warn Riyadh and Cairo that adding the Salafi element into the Syrian mix will make matters more complicated for everybody in the Middle East. Both Saudis and Egyptians need to clamp down on these activities.

Last but not the least important task is the replacement of notorious Syrian intelligence services heavily dominated by loyalists and Baathists both in military and civilian fields. Turkey and Jordan may be the best candidates to work together with the US on building a new Syrian intelligence community from the ground up to support the Syrian army and police operations to shore up stability and security in Syria in the future.

The time to put all this planning into action may come earlier than expected as Assad is quickly losing the support of the Syrian people with every atrocity his loyalists perpetrate against the people.

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