Here I do not necessarily mean a traditional military coup, but could the Syrian army walk in the footsteps of its Tunisian counterpart which expelled Ben Ali, or the Egyptian army which refused to stand with Mubarak against the people? Which path will the Syrian army choose?
Of course there are other, completely different paths that the army could go down; like what the Libyan commander entrusted [by Gaddafi] with guarding Tripoli did, when he surrendered and opened the city gates the moment the Libyan rebels arrived. There are also other, more treacherous roads to go down, like what some of those who cooperated with Saddam Hussein’s men did, before the US occupation. Of course, to talk about the position of the Syrian army now is not mere speculation, especially after the Arab League formally addressed it, in a rare step as part of its recent statement towards Syria, the third clause of which “calls upon the Syrian Arab Army not to engage in acts of violence and murder against civilians”. This call in itself can be interpreted as an Arab indication to the Syrian army that the Arab League is counting on it to protect the Syrians from al-Assad’s regime. Here the Arabs are addressing the army in a way that suggests it is independent of the al-Assad regime. This also indicates that the Arabs have begun to prepare for the post al-Assad phase, and that they may welcome the army undertaking a coup against the regime. But the question here is: Will the Syrian army do it?
Of course, there are those who will doubt this, but the important point that must be noted here is that the al-Assad regime and the Syrian opposition have both settled, whether intentionally or not, upon finding a way out through the army. Throughout the Syrian revolution the focus has been on the fourth armored division of Maher al-Assad. This means that the Syrian mentality, in all its spectra, has not absolutely rejected the Syrian army, which today could play the role of the guarantor of the state, and its unity, along the lines of what the Tunisian or Egyptian army did. However, there is the conviction that the Syrian army will not do so, because there have not been any field developments on the ground, only political developments, in the sense that the Turks are actively seeking to impose a safe buffer zone on its border with Syria. [Following this] the prospects for the mobilization of the Syrian army would be far greater, and so there is genuine debate going on today about the proposed buffer zone area. The Turks are proposing a buffer zone five kilometers deep, while the Syrian opposition, and others, suggest a region spanning thirty kilometers, and this was confirmed yesterday by the President of the National Organization for Human Rights in Syria, Dr. Ammar Qurabi.
Thus, should the Turks begin the implementation of the buffer zone, and dissenting Syrian army officers and individuals find a safe haven there for them or their families, then the Syrian army will be shaken, and may go on to mobilize [with the people]. This would avoid what happened to Saddam Hussein’s army, a lesson which the Tunisian and Egyptian armies benefited from, where they managed to maintain their respective military institutions, and the fundamental structure of the state. In the case of Syria, there may be other aspects that are more important to protect, such as limiting the spread of sectarianism and Iranian interests, and this is something that both the Syrians and Arabs must take into account.
The writer is Editor-in-Chief of Asharq Al-Awsat, where this article was first published on Nov. 14, 2011.