“Why is the Syrian Army, against all predictions, winning the war in Syria?” In June 2014, a little known British military analyst posed this question in a controversial, yet prescient article published on openDemocracy.net entitled, Pax Syriana: neither vanquished, nor all-conquering.
The analyst, Kamal Alam, explained why the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) had not and would not easily fragment, leading to the collapse of the Syrian state. Alam’s prediction that Syria’s “unified non-sectarian army” would endure as a national institution enjoying the support of a large segment of the Syrian population flew in the face of nearly every assumption of the Washington pundit class. Such contrarian positions tend to be dismissed as ‘pro-regime’ and are therefore rarely represented in establishment media.
But what is perhaps now proving to be the more conservative and ‘realist’ approach reflected in Alam’s unpopular analysis, however, was affirmed in a now declassified 2012 US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) information report (IIR), which stated flatly: “The regime will survive and have control over Syrian territory.”
Despite such military realism the public has been consistently fed a singular narrative of Assad’s “imminent demise” for years. As late as 2015, even after Russia’s overt entry into the war, President Obama echoed the prevailing wisdom of the mainstream pundits and declared, “the Assad regime will fall.”
Closer to the start of the Syrian uprising, The Washington Post cited anonymous sources to report on an increasingly paranoid Bashar al-Assad hiding from public view and only speaking to family members while relying on a “shrinking circle” of Alawite aides as he awaited his inevitable death by revolutionaries. Assad would soon meet the same fate as Gaddafi, we were assured. The Syrian president was all but slowly crawling into a storm drain fearfully awaiting the swelling tide of freedom and democracy to show up at his palace door.
The private intelligence firm Stratfor also confidently and breathlessly announced in 2012 that, “we have entered the endgame in Syria.” George Friedman, Stratfor’s founder and CEO (until 2015), assumed that Assad was in hiding and that Russia was turning its back on the embattled dictator, ready to cut Assad loose. Friedman described an “unravelling” of state institutions and assessed that there was no “reasonable chance of the al Assad regime surviving completely.”
The Arab Spring narrative was the ideological lens through which experts pit the oppressive “Alawite regime” against a popular uprising of Syria’s majority Sunnis. As Sunnis make up about 70% of Syria’s population, it was simply a matter of numbers, and of time. But this view proved overly simplistic, and according to one West Point study, utterly false. It was commonly assumed that the Syrian Army was a hollowed out Alawite institution with its Sunni conscripts apprehensively waiting for the right moment to defect to the rebel side. This was the fundamental supposition behind the repetitious predictions of the Assad regime’s impending collapse, and predicated upon a view of the Syrian military as a fundamentally weak and sectarian institution.
But a 2015 study entitled Syria’s Sunnis and the Regime’s Resilience, by West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center concluded, “Sunnis and, more specifically, Sunni Arabs, continue to make up the majority of the regular army’s rank-and- file membership.”
I caught up with Kamal Alam for an impromptu interview in a busy hotel lobby at the recent British Syrian Society conference held in early November in Damascus. We spoke about the significance of the battle for Aleppo, the prospect of US-Russian military confrontation, why experts in the West keep getting Syria so wrong, and the contrarian nature of his views as a military analyst within the British establishment.
Alam is the Syria Fellow at The Institute for Statecraft, and has served as advisor on Syrian affairs to the UK’s Chief of Defence Staff and to the European Union. He is a visiting lecturer at several military staff colleges across the Middle East and UK. In November 2014, Alam testified before the UK Parliament’s Defence Committee over ISIS and national security, a written form of which can be viewed here. His articles can be found in Nikkei Asian Review, Foreign Policy, Middle East Eye, The National Interest, and other publications.