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Miltary Defections, Civil Resistance, and Syria

By Taylor Marvin

Erica Chenoweth has an excellent piece at Waging Nonviolence on how military defections can hamper, not help, civil resistance movements. In Egypt, collaboration between the military and anti-Morsi organizers contributed to the country’s recent coup — and uncertain future of democracy. Military defections vary in intensity, Chenoweth writes, from “full defection” to “partial defection,” and reluctance to follow orders running from “shirking” to “outright disobedience.” The challenge is preventing defections from allowing military elites to co-opt civil resistance movements, as the Egyptian military has done to preserve its privileges. If civil resistance organizers cannot retain their leadership positions in the aftermath of military defections to their cause, movements run the risk of leading to civil war or military juntas. While military defections can be important contributions to the success of civil resistance movements, organizers should “see that security forces have their own interests, and they can easily manipulate the movement to suit their own purposes in ways that undermine the movement’s own agenda.”

In Syria, Chenoweth notes, military defectors brought their skills and equipment into a previously non-violent movement, contributing to its shift into a civil war:

“In the cases of Libya and Syria, nonviolent action led to defections among the armed forces early on in the conflicts. However, the defectors took their weapons with them, regrouped as armed challengers, and essentially undermined and supplanted nonviolent campaigns by initiating armed struggle.”

The sectarian aspects of the Syrian conflict have contributed to this dynamic. While firm supporters of the Assad regime dominated the pre-war Syrian military leadership, they were not its entirety, as high-level military defections have shown. However, by self-selecting out of the military defectors have left a unified force whose loyalty the regime can count on. As Chenoweth wrote last year, “although many conflict scholars view defections as a sign of regime weakness, Assad may see it as a process of voluntary purging.” According “senior official” in Damascus quoted in a May 2013 Crisis Group interview, defections have strengthened the military they leave behind:

“Defections among army ranks have been numerous. We estimate that tens of thousands switched sides. But that meant they left behind the more reliable and motivated troops. In my view, defections are the single most important factor in explaining subsequent army cohesion”

Sectarian divides contribute to this selection dynamic: those who remain in the regime’s military are constantly told that the war is a sectarian conflict pitting Alawites and Shiites against Syria’s Sunni majority, with no option other than victory — ‘Sunnis fight out of fear and Alawites out of conviction,’ in the words of one regime defector.

In addition to contributing to the Syrian protest movements transformation into a military conflict, had these defections no occurred Assad likely would have been constrained by the uncertain loyalty of the armed forces overall. But defections have left Assad with a smaller but more dedicated military whose existence is tied to that of the regime. This information has allowed Assad to avoid the fear that unrestrained violence would lead to further defections — indeed, defections have significantly fallen off since the second half of 2012 (though not halted), suggesting that either opposition sympathizers within the military are now rarer or that fence-sitters are no longer prepared to bargain on the conflict’s outcome. While the Syrian military was never a non-sectarian actor defections have shaped it into a body unlikely to survive the fall of the regime, and thus much more closely associated with it.

Anyway, a really interesting take. Read the whole thing.

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