Arab countries, wake up and reform your armies for the revolutions' sake!
As part of the Meedan Translation Series on the Arab Spring, Fayez Sara, a Syrian writer and opposition member, argues that the Arab revolutions will only be fully realized when states reform their armies. This article was translated by Anas Qtiesh.
The events of the Arab uprisings brought into the spotlight the military and its function in Arab countries. This function was almost forgotten by the public as Arab armies have been absent from any significant events; the military fought a few wars only, and most of the time their involvement corresponded with external interests, be they regional or international, such as the Iraqi war on Iran. Rarely did the military go into war as part of the national defense program. In fact, Arab armies have often engaged in wars with other Arab countries such as the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, and Egypt’s wars with Libya and Sudan.
Most Arab armies rarely defended their countries in the past decades. When the occasion came, those armies quickly became absent, their generals and officers abandoned their weapons and uniforms, and fled just like the Iraqi army did in the 2003 war. This happened after the army’s leadership of Iraqi Ba’athists led by Saddam Hussein had incessantly gloated to other Arabs about the capabilities of the Iraqi army and its might in defending the Arab nation. That’s one example and there are plenty others.
However, the Arab armies in that state of affairs had always received excessive attention from the authorities; the numbers of officers and soldiers rose, their specialties expanded and varied, their arsenal grew, and their training continues on every level. As a result, the annual costs of maintaining such armies consumes large chunks of the budgets of Arab countries amounting up to hundreds of billions of dollars. This doesn’t exclude countries facing difficulties securing the funds for basic needs of the citizens such as nutrition, healthcare, and education.
The reason for the focus on Arab armies, despite their failures to perform their core duties, is because those armies were transformed into a reserve force that defends the ruling regime. In other words, the military no longer performed its national defense function, and it was tasked with serving the regime and defending it. This is the case in many Arab countries including Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, and Algeria. In all those countries, the military establishment was politicized, and subdued by the security apparatus, and it answered directly to the head of the political system.
These transformations turned Arab armies into a force at the disposal of the ruling regime and often directly answering to the head of the regime. This frequently forced the army’s involvement in the domestic political developments, such as what happened in the Democratic Republic of Yemen in the 80s where the army was involved in a struggle for power amongst the leaders of that small and weak state. The same situation plays out again due to President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s control of a crucial division of the Yemeni army. Former Iraqi president, Saddam Hussein, pulled the army into the regime’s struggle with its Shia and Kurd opposition. Libyan president and his sons took advantage of their control of the army and used it to counter the current revolution, that led to substantial casualties and material losses. The Syrian army which is described as being and "army of doctrine" was shoved in as part of the security-military approach to handling the current political, economic, and social crisis. That crisis led to the protest movement that Syria is witnessing. The army was deployed side by side with the security forces to counter the protests and their strongholds in cities and villages. Those cities and villages were besieged and invaded and many people were killed or injured, and excessive material damage was caused.
Clearly, the Syrian Army is no stranger to power struggles in Syria. The Army has been used in domestic political struggles since the late 40s of the Twentieth Century. Consecutive power grabs through coups d’etat, including the coup d’etat of 8 March 1963, which brought the Ba’ath party to power. Afterwards the army was used in internal struggles and to end rebellions in several Syrian cities in 1964, 1965, and 1972. The army also crushed the Muslim Brotherhood and armed factions in the late 70s and early 80s which ended in the invasion of Hama in 1982.
Although, despite the transformation that most Arab armies witnessed, some of those armies were less responsive to the authorities’ transformation demands for two main factors: First, the authorities dependency on highly specialized security forces that have high numbers of personnel and receive exorbitant funding and training which means there’s less of a need to turn the army into a security force. Second, keeping the army away from direct political influence and decision making, and making it into a professional army with defense tasks in states that are facing external threats.