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"The Assad suburb": How Syria ghettoized the military to keep it loyal

Posters of Bashar al-Assad hang in Damascus.
Posters of Bashar al-Assad hang in Damascus.

In early 2011, when Syrians rose up in protest and Bashar al-Assad attempted to put them down with murderous force, one of the reasons he failed was that a number of soldiers, disgusted with their orders to fire on civilians, instead joined the uprising themselves. These defected soldiers, along with local volunteers, formed the Free Syrian Army, and Assad's crackdowns became a civil war.

But in many ways, just as important was the thing that didn't happen: Relatively few officers defected. Had more senior or midlevel officers defected to the opposition, and perhaps taken their troops with them, the Assad regime very well might have collapsed in those first few months.

Why didn't Assad's officers defect to the opposition, as had happened in Libya's civil war? One big reason, oft-cited, is sectarianism: Assad, who belongs to a religious minority known as Alawites, cultivated fellow Alawites in senior military positions, believing they would be more loyal. He also encouraged sectarianism and extremism among the predominantly Sunni rebels, scaring Alawites into sticking with the regime.

There may have been another, little-known factor as well: Many of Syria's military officers live in a special quasi-military housing complex known as Dahiet al-Assad, or the suburb of Assad. According to a fascinating new report by Kheder Khaddour of the Carnegie Middle East Center, the housing complex serves as both an incentive and inducement for officers to remain loyal, granting them financial and social rewards they wouldn't want to give up while also isolating them from the rest of society in a way that made it harder and scarier for them to defect.

Khaddour calls this "the ghettoization of the officer corps," and, he writes, it "has played out in the regime’s favor and prompted many officers to regard the revolution as a personal threat to their assets and livelihood."

Dahiet al-Assad, also known as the Dahia, located just outside of Damascus, is enormous. It housed more than 100,000 residents as of the uprising's outbreak in early 2011. The complex eventually, though perhaps not at first deliberately, became a mechanism by which Assad ensured the loyalty of so many thousands of officers — even when he began issuing them orders that might have otherwise led them to defect.

Khaddour details how the Assad regime distorted the Dahia from a military housing program into something much more nefarious — and much more effective:

For decades, one of the Assad regime's strongest instruments for retaining control of the army and other state institutions has been to corrupt officers by providing them benefits on a personal, rather than institutional, basis. By awarding housing as a matter of discretion and not as an entitlement, the regime has ensured officers and their families have had little choice but to stay in the ranks and remain loyal. And because officers have acquired status and benefits as individuals, not as a corporate group, this has encouraged rivalry among them, discouraging the kind of networking and trust that would be necessary were any officers to try to lead whole units to defect.

Khaddour estimates that, also as of 2011, "roughly 60 percent of the suburb’s residents were officers — including active and retired officers, secret service members, and other security personnel — and 40 percent were civilians."

This mix of civilians and officers, he writes, was crucial for the Dahia's development as a "ghetto" for officers. Because the predominantly midlevel officers don't make much money and often come from poor backgrounds, services in the complex were initially quite poor.

As more civilians moved in, development increased, and the land became worth more. Officers found they had homes worth several times what they could afford on their own. It amounted to an enormous pay raise — but a payment in real estate that, unlike cash, cannot be moved. Any officer who defected would be abandoning most, if not all, of his and his family's wealth.

But living in Dahia also isolated the officers and their families from the rest of society. Khaddour describes how the perks of military life alienated them from their often-rural home communities, while their association with the poorer and working-class Dahia alienated them from urban communities:

The army benefits and the officers’ socialization in Dahia give them an incentive to stay where they feel welcome. The colloquial and derogatory term for Dahia residents is the "army of sandal-wearers" (jaysh abu shehata), because they are regarded as being from uneducated, rural, and lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Aware of this perception, officers tend to see few viable options for themselves outside the military in Damascus cultural life, where they expect to be treated poorly.

Once the uprising began in 2011, living in the Dahia brought another negative association that isolated its residents from the rest of the population: that of being Assad regime lackeys. It is certainly true that the Dahia's military and security service residents were living in government housing provided as part of their government jobs.

But in other Arab Spring uprisings, citizens often looked to the military as distinct from the regime. In Egypt, for example, protesters against dictator Hosni Mubarak greeted the Egyptian military as an ally. Regular citizens believed that an Egyptian officer's first loyalty was to Egypt and its people, not to Mubarak — even though Mubarak, a former military leader himself, ran the country in no small part as a military-backed dictatorship. In Syria, however, officers were perceived to be loyal to Assad — in part because of their association with the Dahia, where they lived apart from the rest of Syrian society.

Khaddour explains how this played out in the first weeks and months of Syria's uprising:

Even though the initial opposition protests in 2011 were political in nature and were aimed specifically at altering regime policy, the isolation of Dahia residents led army officers and their families to believe that protesters posed a threat not only to the regime but also to them personally. As the uprising unfolded, officers shared the same belief—regardless of sect or political ideology—that defending themselves and their interests from wider society was a priority.

Because many Syrians assumed Dahia residents must be absolutely loyal to the regime, they treated them as such, thus driving them ever deeper into Assad's arms:

The uprising made Dahia residents more suspicious of neighboring areas. Officers would routinely tell their children not to let taxi drivers know they were from Dahiet al-Assad or that it was their final destination. Rumors were common, including one unconfirmed story about the daughter of an officer from Dahia being kidnapped and later killed by criminals from Douma. Another unconfirmed account in Dahia describes a taxi driver kidnapping, killing, and decapitating a young man from the suburb. The officers’ separation from the rest of society allowed these rumors to spread.

The upshot of all this, Khaddour believes, was that Syria's many midlevel military and intelligence officers had strong incentives to stay loyal to Assad, but it was more than that — their isolation made them immediately fear the uprising as personally threatening to them and their families.

Unlike in Egypt or Libya or even in some ways Tunisia, where midlevel military officers had a much easier time allying themselves with the public against the regime, Assad's officers may have been too physically and socially isolated for many of them to see defecting as viable early on in the conflict — even if they'd wanted to.

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