The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Syrian military has thousands of deserters. New research tells us why they left.

Syrian civilians who volunteered to join local Self Protection Units to protect their neighborhoods alongside the Syrian army attend training near a picture of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his father, the late former president Hafez al-Assad, near Damascus on Dec. 5. (Omar Sanadiki/Reuters)

The recent series of attacks by the Islamic State in the Sinai, Beirut and Paris could well be a game changer in how the international community deals with the Syrian conflict. And yet, the Islamic State and other extremist groups are only one side of a more complex conflict pattern in the Syrian civil war. The regime of Bashar al-Assad is blamed not only for indiscriminate repression of an initially Arab-Spring-like popular uprising, but also for the vast majority of casualties, both among civilian and opposition fighters. That the regime could rely on loyal security security forces to confront the uprising and continues to do so in the context of the ongoing civil war thus significantly shaped the course of the crisis. Yet  loyalty and disloyalty in the Syrian military remain poorly understood.

To learn more about the regime’s coercive strength and vulnerabilities, we talked to Syrian military deserters who are now based in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey using both questionnaires and in-depth interviews. Our research with these former military personnel brings to light fascinating details on who these deserters are, where and when they left military service, how they viewed sectarianism, and their economic circumstances both during the civil war and following their insubordination.

Who are the deserters?

The vast majority of our interviewees were Sunni Arabs, with only one deserter identifying as Druze and another as Kurdish. Despite this fact, there was substantial variation in their demographic, socioeconomic and military backgrounds.

Interviewees ranged between 26 and 66 years of age, and about a third were married with children. They came from a variety of social backgrounds, with most reporting a monthly income of 10,000 to 25,000 SYP (200-530 USD). Almost half began or finished university studies, and nearly another third finished secondary school.

There was also variation in the deserters’ military backgrounds. Approximately half were conscripts and the other half volunteers. Their rank varied from private (almost a third of respondents) to noncommissioned and commissioned officer; the highest-ranking officer we spoke with was a major general. Respondents also came from and served in different parts of the country, and the length of military service varied from 1 to 44 years. Finally, two-thirds of those surveyed were directly deployed to repress the uprising.

Most deserters we spoke with left their military service between late 2011 and early 2013, a finding that is compatible with other sources of evidence on Syrian military deserters. At the same time, the increase in desertions roughly correlates with the transition to a full-blown military solution on the part of the Syrian military. Desertions are thus part of a larger dynamic of the militia-ization of the regime and the militarization of the opposition.

Sectarianism did not drive desertion

Our interviews reveal that sectarianism was not a main driver of desertion. Many respondents were keen to emphasize that they did not feel sectarian animosity within the armed forces before the uprising. They described the military as a professional force in which religion did not interfere in relationships with comrades and superiors. Almost all respondents reported collegial relations with members of all sects and reported regularly interacting with one another at military colleges, in the barracks  and socially.

As the uprising broke out, however, soldiers described how the inflammation of sectarian divides created an atmosphere of mistrust within the military. Sunni respondents felt constricted by the presence of Alawi soldiers and officers in their units, and feared communicating their perspectives on the uprisings with fellow soldiers in these mixed-sect units. More important than sectarian divides within military units, however, was the erosion of trust in the military hierarchy. When asked to respond to the comment “in March 2011, I trusted my immediate superior in my military unit,” almost 80 percent of our respondents disagreed or strongly disagreed.

While money can’t buy deserters, it might well buy rebels

Half of the deserters we interviewed had been in the military on voluntary service and hence depended economically on their military jobs. Deserters described the Assad regime’s efforts to materially reward loyalty once the conflict began. One soldier described receiving kickbacks for providing information on those collaborating with “terrorists,” for instance, and some 15 percent of our respondents reported having been offered a cash bonus to stay in the army prior to their desertion.

Interviewees also discussed how rampant corruption in the Syrian army sometimes came to their aid, and was sometimes to their disadvantage. Soldiers reported paying bribes to avoid joining night patrols, get out of jail, be stationed in a particular area, go on vacation or extend medical leave.

Still, lower-ranking personnel described barely getting by on their military benefits. One noncommissioned officer stated that he had secretly picked up a second job due to his low  military salary. In contrast, interviews with officers exposed the substantial material benefits their positions conferred. High-ranking officers described generous salaries, multiple cars, vacations abroad  and real estate as privileges lost when they deserted.

Not a single respondent reported being offered money to desert his unit or defect to an opposition group. Yet   many expressed that financial considerations following desertion played a role in their decision to join a rebel group, and subsequent decisions regarding whether or not to stay with that group.

Still, these individuals described great variation in the financial benefits gained by joining the rebellion. One low-ranking officer who served under the Free Syrian Army (FSA) umbrella for more than a year explained that, at a time, FSA recruits made a salary of 50 USD/month, which he did not find enough to live on. Other interviewees related that some higher-level officers had a greater incentive to join well-funded rebel groups if they have an opportunity to command, and that there were greater incentives generally to join the better-funded rebel groups.

What can be done?

Insubordination has been rampant within the Syrian military. An estimated 100,000 Syrian soldiers and officers have left their positions since the beginning of the crisis in 2011. While many have deserted to flee the conflict and take refuge abroad, a smaller number of military personnel have defected to the opposition. However, despite massive insubordination — especially throughout 2012 — desertions have failed to significantly weaken the military’s command structure.

International strategies have so far aimed at strengthening belligerents through financial support or direct military intervention. This has contributed to a vicious cycle of violence rather than to conflict settlement. Moreover, dire economic circumstances among Syrian refugee communities have made these groups susceptible to recruitment efforts. Better funded than other rebel groups, jihadist militias and particularly the Islamic State have an edge in such efforts.

In contrast, encouraging desertions without bolstering recruitment could weaken the regime without strengthening actors such as the Islamic State. Given what we know about the dynamics of desertion from the regime army and recruitment into the rebellion, improving the fate of the large Syrian refugee communities in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and elsewhere could go a long way toward  addressing both issues.

Holger Albrecht is an associate in the Middle East Initiative at Harvard and a professor in the Department of Political Science at the American University in Cairo. Kevin Koehler is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at the American University in Cairo. Dorothy Ohl is a PhD candidate in political science at the George Washington University.