The international community and the Syrian opposition are seriously concerned about a sectarian civil war emerging in Syria following the fall of Assad and are against the disbanding of the Syrian army in order to avoid a second Iraqi scenario emerging in Syria, which is a country more ethnically splintered than Iraq and has the highest regional stakes out of all the countries that have experienced the Arab Spring.
Recently, US officials have underlined that government forces in Syria should be held together when Assad is forced from power, a warning that the mistakes of the Iraq war must not be repeated.
The Bush administration’s decision to disband Iraqi security forces, made shortly after the US-led invasion in 2003, was an important catalyst for the bloody civil war that followed. Critics said that decision, made by senior Pentagon officials and announced by the head of the US occupation authority at the time, Paul Bremer, set loose tens of thousands of armed, disaffected young men.
Speaking to Sunday’s Zaman, Syrian opposition figures have agreed that the Syrian army remaining intact would help maintain stability in the post-Assad Syria and would lead to a smooth transitional period.
“The army will be needed as a bulwark against the possibility of a sectarian civil war -- a possible outcome which would be devastating not only for Syria, but for its neighboring countries, too,” Hamzeh Al-Moustafa, Syrian researcher at the Doha-based Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, commented in remarks to Sunday’s Zaman.
One of the main concerns is that the sectarian bloodshed in Syria could spill over to cause turmoil in neighboring countries, including Turkey and Lebanon, which is particularly vulnerable.
“With the above in mind, it becomes clear the preservation of the Syrian army as an entity is a necessity if any political transition of power is to succeed,” added Moustafa.
US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said maintaining stability in Syria would be important under any scenario that sees Assad leave power. “I think it’s important when Assad leaves, and he will leave, to try to preserve stability in that country,” Panetta said.
According to Panetta: “The best way to preserve that kind of stability is to maintain as much of the military and police as you can, along with security forces, and hope that they will transition to a democratic form of government. That’s the key.” The hope among US officials is to find a “soft landing” that keeps some degree of stability in Syria.
Agreeing with Panetta, Mohammad Al-Abdallah, executive director at the Syria Justice and Accountability Center, told Sunday’s Zaman that the worst thing in Syria would be to repeat the US government’s mistakes in Iraq. “The dissolution of the army was a terrible idea; the de-Baathification was a major wrong step that Syrians should avoid,” said Abdallah.
De-Baathification was a US policy of removing Baath party members from Iraqi government positions following the fall of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Critics argue that the policy was a significant factor in the deteriorating security situation throughout Iraq.
“After the Americans, under Bremer, dismantled the apparatus of the Iraqi military, it only led to total disarray in the country. The conditions created by the undoing of Iraq’s army command and control structure paved the way for the emergence of extremist groups who were able to militarily challenge the Americans, creating an obstacle to the progress of the US-charted political transformation in Iraq,” said Moustafa.
US officials say they believe jihadists and al-Qaeda-linked fighters make up only a small percentage of the resistance but are concerned that they could try to wield influence if a power vacuum develops in Syria.
According to Moustafa: “Besides wishing to avert a repetition of the Iraqi experience following the 2003 American invasion, the Pentagon’s military planners want to ensure that Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons is safe.”
As the chaos mounts, concerns over Syria’s long-suspected chemical weapons stockpiles have taken on a new urgency. The Syrian regime acknowledged for the first time last month that it possessed stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons and threatened to unleash its chemical and biological weapons if the country faces a foreign attack. In reply, the US said Assad would be held accountable if he made the “tragic mistake” of using his stockpile of chemical weapons.
Turkey is also concerned that the disintegration of the army in its entirety, as happened in Iraq, may led to a long period of time before stability is established in Syria.
“So the first reform in the new Syria is the return of the army to barracks and to its role in protecting the homeland and non-interference in politics,” Dr. Ammar Qurabi, president of the National Change Current (NCC), said in remarks to Sunday’s Zaman.
Turkey and the US are in favor of a transitional government with broad participation including representatives from the Baath regime who have not been involved in the bloodshed in Syria.
“The people who do not have blood on their hands can work with the opposition in the future. This revolution is for all Syrians. But the ones who are responsible for the killings will be held accountable,” Radwan Ziadeh, a member of Syrian National Council (SNC) as well as a former senior fellow at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, D.C., told Sunday’s Zaman.
Recent defections from the Syrian army have pushed the international community to think about an urgent plan for what happens when the Assad regime falls.
“The growing number of defections from the Assad army will make it possible to find the ones who are responsible for the blood of the people,” added Ziadeh.
Qurabi added that Syrian army had become the first enemy of the Syrians due to its lack of neutrality during the uprising compared to the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia.
Agreeing with Qurabi, Abdallah stated that the main concern was how Syrians would accept the army, which has suppressed the protestors brutally and carried out atrocities.
Syrian opposition figures agree that the first mission of any transitional government is to rebuild and unite the army again, adding it was not an easy task after 17 months of systematic killings by the Assad regime.
The international community and the Syrian opposition have understood the importance of keeping the army intact with only those not involved in the violence, acknowledging that the dangers of a possible sectarian civil war in a religiously divided society are all too apparent in the post-Assad Syria. Needless to say, it seems that the first day without Assad would be a difficult task for the international community, whose principles for a post-Assad Syria are security, sectarian harmony and zero tolerance for extremists.